Three nights of Gary Numan? Yes please. Three nights of Gary Numan performing first ‘Replicas’, then ‘The Pleasure Principle’, then Telekon’? Yes please with great big knobs on
“Kentish Town Welcomes Gary Numan” reads the sign displayed above the public toilets near the tube station, spelled out in the sort of lettering you often see outside cinemas. It’s a nice touch. Who knows, maybe there’s a Numanoid or two working for Camden Council. Stepping out of the station, it’s only a matter of seconds before I spy the first hoodie with a Tubeway Army face on the back. Then another. And another. A whole procession of disembodied alien heads making their way up Highgate Road.
First, the facts. Fresh off the plane from his adopted home of Los Angeles, electronic music kingpin Gary Numan is in London for a three-night residency at The Forum. He’s performing three of his classic albums – ‘Replicas’ (1979), ‘The Pleasure Principle’ (1979) and ‘Telekon’ (1980) – in full on consecutive nights. Each gig takes a similar format, the album played in its entirety (but the tracks not necessarily in order), followed by a short hits section and an encore of early Tubeway Army material.
Numan’s influence has been considerable, to say the least. Trent Reznor credits him as the originator of industrial music. He gets namechecked by pop auteurs such as Prince and Kanye West. He’s lauded by rock bands like Foo Fighters and Queens Of The Stone Age. He’s been sampled by hip hop producers of the calibre of RZA, J Dilla and Marley Marl. ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’ even lent a hand to the Sugababes’ worldwide smasheroo ‘Freak Like Me’ in 2002.
The period covered by ‘Replicas’, ‘The Pleasure Principle’ and ‘Telekon’ was a rich and productive time for Numan. All three were Number One albums in the UK. At one point, all three records were in the UK Top 20 at the same time. No mean feat. Yet despite this, or maybe because of it, the critics were quick to decry Numan as Bowie-lite.
These days, Gary Numan is in a position where he no longer has to ponder his relevance. The success of his ‘Splinter’ album in 2013 removed the albatross that his early successes had become and has helped pave the way for this look back at his machine phase with a fondness for the material that catapulted him into the limelight in the first place.
Wednesday 21 October – ‘Replicas’
The Forum in Kentish Town – previously the Town & Country Club and before that an Irish dance hall – had its first incarnation as an art deco cinema in the 1930s. Stepping inside, the most striking feature is the decorative ceiling, rivalled only by the energy of the punters. It almost feels like a stadium crowd. Terrace chants of “Nuuu-maaaan” ring out across the theatre long before the show actually begins.
The roar when Numan actually appears is deafening. Having come to grips with his fear of performing many years ago, his stage presence is rather different to what it was when he started out. Opening with an industrial take on the title track of ‘Replicas’, complete with a searing guitar solo, he’s already gyrating across the boards like a spinning top, more glam rocker than sad robot.
‘The Machman’ is an early highlight, its crunchy T.Rex guitar riff flagging up that ‘Replicas’ was something of a transitional album before the full-blown synthpop of ‘The Pleasure Principle’. Mind you, a little later on, surrounded by a mesh of dancing white lights, Numan gets one of the biggest responses of the night when he steps behind his synth for ‘Praying To The Aliens’.
Perhaps wisely, the set list bears no resemblance to the running order of the original record. The problem with these album-in-full shows is that it’s often difficult to build suspense when the audience knows exactly what’s coming next, but Numan keeps us on our toes, in genuine anticipation. It also means he’s able to save the best until last. ‘Down In The Park’ (memorably described by writer Simon Reynolds as “a sort of dystopian power ballad”) is just as elegant as the recorded version. I’m reminded of why both Marilyn Manson and Foo Fighters saw fit to cover it. An absolutely storming rendition of ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’ concludes the main set with the entire crowd chanting the synth riff back at the stage.
Thursday 22 October – ‘The Pleasure Principle’
‘The Pleasure Principle’ is probably the best-known Numan album, but that doesn’t mean it’s shunned by the hardcore fans. Far from it. There are some impressive tattoos on display tonight, including a woman with the Tubeway Army face across her right shoulder. The face also takes pride of place on an amazingly decorated white scooter parked at the front of the venue.
I get chatting to a charming guy in a tweed hat who’s come down from Coventry. “I’ve met Gary many, many times,” he tells me. “Not personally, you understand,” he adds. Uh, I don’t actually, could you explain? But he’s off again, talking about how he was in an early incarnation of The Specials. There’s no time for that now, though. The lights come down as the band walks out to the ominous tones of ‘Asylum’, the B-side of ‘Cars’, playing over the speakers.
Tonight, Numan sticks much closer to the running order of the original album, playing it straight through save for a couple of tracks that are held back for the end. ‘Airlane’ is a great opener, of course, all bouncy bass and soaring synth leads. ‘Metal’ and ‘Films’ follow immediately after, the latter’s gorgeous gliding melody turning into a surprisingly heavy final section. ‘Engineers’ once again sees Numan return to wigging out on his synth, accompanied by huge cheers from the audience.
The first song held back for the end is ‘Complex’, a space-age lullaby that soothes us before a chorus of sirens announces the entrance of ‘Cars’. The hit single undergoes the biggest transformation of any song played tonight and is steered much closer towards Numan’s industrial style, but to his credit the man seems to still love playing it after all these years. It’s with ‘Cars’ that the energy in the room reaches its peak.
Numan isn’t one for inane stage banter. In fact, I don’t recall him saying anything at all the previous evening. Tonight, at the end of the hits section, we get a brief but earnest “Thank you” after a very warmly received rendition of ‘Me! I Disconnect From You’. As with the other two sets, the encore is a pair of Tubeway Army songs. ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’, with Numan on guitar, feels like the ultimate pub rock song, to the point where the light show is almost incongruous. The same goes for ‘My Shadow In Vain’, which answers the question of what ‘My Sharona’ would have sounded like with a synth line. For a brief moment, his new wave beginnings are very evident.
Friday 23 October – ‘Telekon’
If pushed, I guess it’s the ‘Telekon’-era aesthetic that I associate most closely with Numan. This is reflected in the merch and the stage design. And the crowd, come to that. There’s an impressive number of lookalikes in tonight – black hair, black uniforms, red ties, red laces. As on the previous evenings, it’s a struggle to spot any non-Numan band T-shirts. There are a few dotted around – Death In June, Metallica, The Sisters Of Mercy – but Numan fans largely display a somewhat singular devotion.
Surprisingly enough – and especially as the both of the other gigs seemed pretty packed to me – I’m told that this is the only sold-out show. Over the years, Numan’s live sets have often been built around ‘Replicas’ and ‘The Pleasure Principle’, as well as tracks from wherever album he’s touring at the time, which makes tonight a special chance to hear some of the songs he doesn’t play so often.
‘Sleep By Windows’ is dreamy and sprawling, while ‘Please Push No More’ has one of the loveliest intros in the whole Numan catalogue. Together, the pair make a convincing case for ‘Telekon’ as his most romantic album. But then you’ve got songs such as ‘The Aircrash Bureau’, which starts off all paranoid and twitchy before it gets going when the beat kicks in halfway through.
Again, this set list broadly follows the record’s actual running order, with a small degree of shuffling around. ‘This Wreckage’ is an obvious opener, while other highlights include the metallic crunch of ‘Remind Me To Smile’ and a surprisingly funky take on ‘I’m An Agent’. The biggest singalong of the night is reserved for ‘Remember I Was Vapour’, before a final run through the hits – ‘Cars’, ‘Down In The Park’ and ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’.
In a sense, this residency has been an exercise in nostalgia. But you’d have to agree that Gary Numan has earned the right to wallow. He’s never been one for resting on his laurels and this has hardly been a lazy shuffle through the hits anyway. His energy has been seriously impressive on all three nights and there’s no denying the demand for these shows. While I’m sure that Numan has an excellent follow-up to ‘Splinter’ somewhere on the horizon, on this week’s evidence I hope he’s not finished reminiscing either.