GARY Numan was one of the biggest stars of the post-punk era, fashioning an innovative synth-driven sound complemented by his aloof onstage persona.
But the popular image had been prompted by a crippling stage fright which would once make him physically sick at the prospect of appearing before an audience.
After a late 80s career slump, Numan thought he was ‘finished’ but, as he told Mail reporter TIM FLETCHER, bounced back and is relishing his newly-regained credibility and 80s ‘icon’ status.
WHEN Gary Numan set foot on the well-trodden stage of the famed US television show Saturday Night Live it turned him, literally, into an overnight success.
“I got off the plane as a complete unknown, went on this TV show and the nextmorning we were stopping at truck stops and everyone knew who I was— it was the weirdest thing,” he recalls.
“In America, being famous was a really pleasant experience whereas over here there was a lot of hostility.” That hostility was partly borne of a— to 21st centuryminds— shocking ignorance of the still novel genre of electronicmusic, at which Numan was at the forefront.
“A lot of people just didn’t get it and thought it was just a case of pushing a button and you’d got a song, which is quite ignorant,” he says.
“TheMusicians’ Union tried pretty hard to haveme banned because they said I was putting ‘real’musicians out of work! “It was on the back of the whole punk ‘anti-hero’ thing and wanting to knock all that down, although in truth they did nothing of the sort and all became massive stars.
“I was the first big thing to come along in the post-punk period and I was very vocal about wanting to be famous, so it was like a red rag to a bull.” When Numan first went into a ‘cheap studio in Cambridge’ to record his first album(which would eventually become 1978’s Tubeaway Army), it was with the intention of creating a punk rock album, before an encounter with aMinimoog created amoment of epiphany which would lead to what became his trademark synth-driven sound.
“I asked theman if I could have a go and I didn’t know how to set it up so I just pressed a key and it blewme away,” he recalls.
“It was the hugest sound I’d ever heard and the whole roomshook. In that moment I was totally converted and decided that was what I wanted to do.
“I didn’t realise that bands like Ultravox and the Human League were also doing it and thought I was the only one who’d found it.”
The album would reach number 14 in the album chart while Numan would hit number one with the three albums which followed and with 1979 single Cars— still his best-known hit.
Chart success didn’t always equate to critical approval, however, and with the benefit of 30 years’ hindsight, Numan admits that the negative reaction he met with was partly provoked by his own perceived arrogance, although the Asperger’s Syndrome with which he suffers meant he was misinterpreted.
“I tend to be brutally honest to the point of offending people,” he says. “I think I said a lot of things which may have been inappropriate and brutal honesty is not always the best thing.
“I could have been a lotmore sensitive but the Asperger’smeans I’mnot too good at that stuff.”
Some people’s dislike of himwas taken to extremes, such as the concert-goer attending his Wembley Arena gig who sent hima live bullet with a note attached reading: ‘I’m going to shoot you — I was going to do it atWembley but I was having such a good time I decided to do it later.’
The fact he could play to such big crowds is in itself remarkable given the crippling stage fright he suffered with in his earliest days of performing, an affliction which led to the aloof, androidesque image which complemented his cold, futuristic synth sound.
“When I was still in the punk band I used to get so frightened before a gig I was physically sick— and that was just playing in front of about 20 people,” says Numan.
“One daymy dad said tome: ‘If you don’t find a way of getting to grips with this, how are you ever going to have a career? You’re going to have to find a way of dealing with it otherwise you’re going to be permanentlymiserable for the rest of your life’ “I’d been a David Bowie fan as a kid so I was aware of the use of image and thoughtmaybe that was the thing to do.
“It’s like when you play cowboys and Indians as a kid. You dress up as a cowboy and you start to feel like one.
“You can act the partmore convincingly if you dress up and forme it was a childish way of dressing up as what I thought a pop star should look like.
“That’s what helpedme get through it. I took on the persona of someone who didn’t care. Eventually that all went away and I no longer felt the need of the image, but by then it had become entrenched.”
Fame is a fickle beast, and as the 1980s drew to a close, Numan found himself out of time and out of fashion.
“To put it simply, it’s rubbish,” he says.
“There’s a huge stigma attached to having been famous and not being famous anymore. People can be very cruel and love to see you crumble and write snidey comments about you.
“About 1992 I thought I was finished. I was massively in debt, had no record contract and couldn’t give albums away.”
After making one album, 1992’s Machine And Soul, which he admits to ‘still being ashamed of’, Numan stopped seeking hits and wrote songs ‘for the love of it’, with the resultant, self-released LP, 1994’s Sacrifice, proving to be the first step on the path to creative and commercial rebirth—and ‘icon’ status among a generation ofmusic fans too young to remember himfromthe first time around.
“It was only when I gave up on having a career and just started doing it for the love of it again that it actually savedme,” he says. “That’s where the second half of my career began.
“I’mverymuch a family dad and get up at 6amto give the kids breakfast, but away fromthat it’s really pleasant to go out sometimes to gigs or awards things and get to ‘be Gary Numan’.
“The credibility I have now is fantastic and it helps such a lot. Every year now is a bit better than the one before.”
So what would the young Gary Numan — at the height of his fame— think of themellower, 2012 vintage? “I genuinely think he’d love it but if the one now could go back, I’d tell himto calmdown a bit and relax— don’t take it so seriously,” he says.
“I’d point out tomy young self that there’s an awful lot to enjoy fromthis experience and I don’t need to get bogged down by the negative stuff aroundme. That’s how I almost ruined it because I was so screwed up.
“If the young person could seeme now he’d realise I’mhaving a lotmore fun now than I did back then. It’s brilliant, and I’m loving everyminute of it.”
Gary Numan’s new DVD,Machine Music, featuring previously unseen archive footage, promotional videos and TV appearances, will be released on June 11.
Meanwhile, Numan’s hit-packed tour to promote the DVD calls at Leicester O2 Academy on Tuesday,May 22 and BirminghamHMV Institute on Thursday, May 31. Tickets are available online at www.seetickets.com