Irving Plaza, NYC • 5.2.98
In the late 1970’s, a British man named Gary Webb had a waking nightmare. Webb envisioned a bleak future world where mankind assumed a role subordinate to that of the machine. Benign, mechanized companions known as Friends replaced flesh and blood mates, while the more sadistic robot annihilators roamed the Earth with no other purpose than to torture and destroy the men who created them. He then incorporated himself into this fantasy as a narrator and set it to a haunting electronic soundtrack. Creating the one-man band, Tubeway Army, that would serve as a vehicle to introduce his vision to the world, Webb gave himself an alter identity fitting of a brave “New Man.” Gary Numan released his first Tubeway Army record in 1979.
For the purpose of the rich, historical perspective from which Numan’s music deserves to be considered, it is crucial to note that when the first Tubeway Army single, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” was released, it sounded like nothing else. Numan took the sterile, synthesizer music of Kraftwerk and developed a new wave of music that could expand on the “No Future” rhetoric of the punk movement. Within the context of what was happening in the underground at that time (British Punk, New York’s No Wave, West Coast Hardcore), the dark, stark beauty of Tubeway Army’s electronic soundscapes was about as avant-garde as you could get.
Twenty years later, Numan has remained a prominent fixture on the dark end of the electronic/industrial fringe, spawning various encomiums (Random, a Tribute to Gary Numan was released by Beggars Banquet last summer) and endless remixes of his work. Inspired by Joseph Michael Linsner’s futuristic, goth-vixen adventure comic, Dawn, he even composed and recorded a collection of songs meant to be an accompaniment to the Dawn comic: quite literally “Music to Read Dawn By.” But here in the States, Numan’s pop musical career was dwelling in the valley of “Where Are They Now?” until Cleopatra records dusted him off and relaunched his career with the February release of Exile, Numan’s best record, well, ever.
Now officially out of exile, so to speak, Numan surfaced in New York in early May, where he performed his music for the first time in a decade to a capacity crowd at Irving Plaza. In anticipation of this show, I figured Numan’s performance could easily go either way: abysmal and pathetic or inspired and vital. Fortunately, it was the latter. In my experience, only Marilyn Manson, KMFDM, and Pig have provided emotionally cathartic, visceral musical performances of the caliber achieved by Numan.
Flanked by a four-piece band, and dressed to the nines in a long coat fashioned from an iridescent black fabric, Numan was immediate and commanding in his presence from the moment he took the stage. With a guitar strapped across his chest, Numan presented an engaging vision as he and his cohorts performed syncopated head banging in time to the thunderous dark rhythms of the opening song. Through the intensity of the music, coupled with the sheer physical spectacle and unrestrained passion of the musicians onstage, there was something akin to real danger in the air — all key ingredients that make for a great rock show. As a work, Exile most resembles a dark mirror image of Roxy Music’s Avalon. Numan’s new songs embrace the passion and purity of his early work, offering romantic meditations on love and loss, Heaven and Hell, hope and hopelessness. The prophetic “Dominion Day” (a dead ringer for Siouxsie’s “Cities in Dust”) was the second song of the evening, propelling the set into other strong selections from Exile such as the soporific lullaby, “Dead Heaven” and the touching “Absolution,” one of Numan’s few true love songs.
All of the commercial favorites were present and accounted for as well. “Cars,” his humorous take on our overwhelming reliance on the motor vehicle got a huge response, as did “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” still managing to sound fresh after so many years on the shelf. “Down in the Park,” probably Numan’s best-loved and certainly his most covered song, continues the story line begun in “Friends,” yet stands on its own as a post-apocalyptic scenario. Throughout the evening, Numan spoke with heartfelt gratitude to the audience who had come with such a ravenous hunger for his music. “I just never expected to make this kind of a come back,” he announced, authentically astonished that his fans had not cast him off during his long absence.
A gracious 20-minute encore tagged onto the one hour and thirty minute set seemed somewhat thematic. “We are so Fragile,” “Me, I Disconnect from You” and “We are Glass” gently emphasized Numan’s obsession with the emotional ramifications of isolation and his concerns that humanity find a way to come together. By staying true to himself at a point when the temptation to sell out must surely be at an all time high, Gary Numan provided New York City fans with one of the most dramatic and beautiful nights of real rock and roll so far this year.