The Numan Principle
Article in Sonics magazine, Oct - Dec 1980 issue.
The taped music fades - ironically, the strains of "I Want to be a Machine", by one of Numan's seminal influences, Ultravox. The announcement is made: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Gary Numan", and as the lights dim, the audience stares at the blank eye of curtain covering the mouth of the stage. A deep, mechanical drone meets them, rumbling behind the curtain. The machine is throbbing into life. Smoke begins to drift across the stage front, collecting and rising in the centre to blanket us in a soft, white cloud. And we become aware that the curtain is rising. Everything is still black.
Suddenly, the stage explodes into strips of black and white, chasing each other up and down two six metre towers. Halfway up each, bathed by green light in what look ominously like control rooms, the two keyboard-players are held, dressed in black, high over us. Between them, in blood red light, is the drummer, buried behind an enormous kit. Before each tower are silhouetted the guitarist and bass player, both again in black. Unseen, skulking beneath the drum-rise behind his own battery of synthesizers, we can vaguely make out the man himself, Gary Numan. Welcome to the Touring Principle, as "Airlane" from "The Pleasure Principle" ushers us in.
He has been called the "Electronic Thief", never denying his debt to the many predecessors to him in the field of electronic music. But yet, he is like none of them. The light towers roll and pulsate at the crucial moments, and he steps forward for us to see.
Dressed in black leather jacket, black shirt and trousers, and that tie, he struts around the front of the stage, attracting and repelling in the same motions. Yes, the arrogance is there, but 'live', there is much more. There is the desperately lonely Nosferatu character, coldly reaching out for someone; the Alien, to be prayed to and looking deadly; the reptile, moving with an eerie sensuality, slithering yet jerky at once, almost a puppet with an out-sized head. But it is his eyes that chill; cold, black and intense, never seeming to look at you, but everywhere watching, observing, and catching you unawares. He is distant but he is watching. He IS the Machman.
"I was writing a book called 'Replicas', which I never finished, and when it became too complicated and I got bored, I turned it into songs and the album." In his hotel room, Numan is human again. He is soft-spoken, polite and almost too open and honest about himself and his work. I remembered at the obligatory press reception he said "Honesty is very important to me. I find it very hard to lie - I keep forgetting!"
He explained the Machman idea, and what lay behind the album 'Replicas'. "The character naturally came from my book. My heroes always used to look like him, like I do now. Only they were always taller, but they always wore black, had very white skin, and they were always very strong, very powerful, arrogant and completely ruthless. In 'Replicas' they became actual machines with a human skin, very clean. When we made it and had to go on stage, I just became that. I was writing about that since I was sixteen off and on, always that character. He would always wear black, and sometimes a black crash helmet."
The story behind 'Replicas' is of a time when the Government controls everything - standard sci-fi practice - but further, they are systematically getting rid of the people and replacing them with machines. Nobody has friends any more. You can't trust them. They may be 'electric', reflecting Numan's fear of close personal contact and, as he describes it, his childish fascination with science fiction and machines. Numan reads a lot, taking many of his ideas for songs and lyrics from his favourites, Phillip K. Dick and especially William Burroughs, to whom he was introduced by his musical idol, Bowie. He quite openly admits to pinching ideas from his influences, hence the "Electronic Thief" tag.
"I borrow things, or at least I did. At the moment there's not an awful lot about to borrow from. I started listening to a lot of old guitar albums looking for ideas, and ended up using whatever was in my head instead, just extending what I'd done. I couldn't find anything to get ideas from! John Foxx (an avowed influence) - I did last year what he's doing, even though he's supposed to be the originator. What I did in the beginning was to take ideas from everywhere - from the stars and up-and-comers, the electronics people and ideas from TV, Burroughs, and rearrange them to suit what I wanted to say, and put it all together."
Just as the Machman character Numan uses on stage came from his unfinished book, so too the light show, via an idea used by Bowie in one of his concerts. "In the 'Replicas' book, there were no street lights, no dark corners. All the buildings had lights in the walls, glowing depending on what time of day it was. As it got darker, they would glow brighter and brighter. Constant light, and everything was white. No humans, all machines, so it was clean; no dust, no pollution, nothing. The set was meant to be that originally - two big skyscrapers which lit up, and we kept sticking effects into it. Then I had the pyramids. I made them bigger and turned them into robots and now they dance around the stage. With all the white lights, it's very stark."
The pyramids come alive towards the end of the show, first glowing red, then blue and slowly spinning around and moving in towards him. There have been times when the pyramids have almost become independent, menacingly crowding Numan, pushing him around the stage. Probably the road crew having fun, but the effect is chilling. It was Numan's idea to use radio-controlled models to make the pyramids move, and his original concept with the light was for fluorescent lights everywhere, but Nick Fisher and Alan Wild, the lighting technicians he worked with for two months to create the show, pointed out the problems of interference caused by extensive use of them.
Scotsman Alan Wild came on the road with Numan, and during the sound check he ran through the system with me, obviously proud of the work he had done on it. "The desk is a British-made Auberon 602 lighting panel, made by the Showlights company of London. There are only a couple of other groups who use them, including The Who. The actual light panels themselves, there are ten of them, have eight strips in each. In each strip there are eight ordinary 60W tungsten light bulbs. 64 in each panel, with ten panels totals 640 light bulbs. These can be used in conjunction with the desk to make each strip individual, allowing you to use a chaser effect to emulate movement. There are four basic patterns you can make with the desk. The best thing about the panels is that they are made of white perspex covering. Any light colour that shines on them is absorbed so they take on that colour, and any strip that splits stays white, so you can have a bank of colour with strips of white across it."
All the lighting panels are raised on scaffolding that takes between five and seven hours to raise, and it has all been scientifically tested to learn the exact weight capacities involved. As Wild pointed out, there are three men's lives depending on the strength and stability of the structure.
"I could perform without them but it wouldn't be half so good to look at. People say I'm hiding behind it and I say bollocks. It's just something more for the people to look at, and if they don't appreciate that I spent a fucking fortune - 50,000 pounds - on it....and all I get is slagged for 'hiding' behind it, that really gets on my nerves."
As far as Numan is concerned, if he is going to pay upwards of $10 to see a performer, he likes to SEE something, and so he has created the set, which will never be used again after the last concert in Sydney back in May for the 'Touring Principle' world tour. People want to see a show, and that includes sound, which is why he bought every single piece of equipment and every effect he has ever used in the recording studio. He owns 18 of the synthesizers and all the rack-mounted effects, plus odds and ends like a Roland Compu-Rhythm, which is used to augment the drums.
Gary has been playing guitar since he was eleven, only taking up keyboards about two years ago. He went to musical college for two months, but promptly left when he found out there were rules. "We had to write these parts, so I wrote things I thought sounded really nice. The tutor said for some reason or another that I couldn't do it, it was against musical 'whatever', so I gave up. It seemed silly to put limitations on it like that. It's like augmented fourths. You're not supposed to use them because they are not a nice change. I use them all the time. They've made me a fortune!"
Not so long ago, even as 'Are Friends Electric' was climbing the English charts, the 'Beggars Banquet' label were pushing him around England with his eight (then) synthesizers, roadieing for himself. He even did his own P.A. and lights for a while. Then the band started making money and things started to change. Now he owns virtually all the equipment on stage. High up in their respective light towers is where the two keyboard-players control their massive keyboard stacks. Chris Payne has been with Gary since the 'Pleasure Principle' album, and helped Gary find the sound on which that album was based.
"Gary at the time was looking for something very sparse to give the impression of something very cold, and the simplest way to do that was to get a succession of very simple, bare sounds incorporated in the music. I was in Rod Argent's music shop in London trying out different keyboards, and playing the Polymoog, I found this vox humana sound on it and thought it was great. I also played this Crumar string machine which I thought was good too, so a couple of weeks later me and Gary were in London and I took him there. I showed him the Crumar which was crap! I thought it was good 'cos it was cheap, but when I showed him the vox humana sound on the Polymoog he loved it. I'm very surprised that a lot more people don't use it.
"Both the Minimoog and voc humana sounds are very attractive as independent sounds, so we just worked them out like that. A lot of the melodies on 'The Pleasure Principle' were derived from that first pre-set, with the minimoog just there as a force to back it up, an extra bass line to grate away and really hit you. They are completely apart in range, top and bottom, for maximum separation of sound. The only other sound we used was the third pre-set, which is a string sound with a lot of attack like in 'Cars', on which Gary put a slow MXR phase on the vox humana to give the music an interesting flurry. I defy anyone to get a sound like the vox humana on a Prophet! It's just so rich."
Chris tends to turn up to sound checks looking like a rejected Eric Idle clone in straw hat and Ug boots, but is as quietly intelligent as Gary, for whom he, and everyone else in the band for that matter, has an enormous amount of respect. Classically trained on the viola, he has brought that instrument to the band, adding a new dimension to the sound. His viola work is heavily featured on the new album 'Telekon'. Though Chris puts in his own ideas and is capable of refining sounds, Gary programs his synths for him. All the keyboards and effects are Gary's.
Stage left, in his own tower control room, is Denis Haines, the newest member of the band. Like Chris, he is music college taught, and is a qualified tutor, having been classically trained in piano since the age of six. He joined the band in October last year, and has recorded with them on 'Telekon'. He didn't even audition, "I just wafted into the band. He must have liked my face or something."
To 'Telekon' and the band he brought the sound of the ARP Pro-Soloist, the one keyboard he plays on stage that he owns. "Gary found one particular sound on it which was very moody, more an emotional sound as opposed to electronic. It was very weepy, a sugary sweet sound, and he decided he wanted to put a bit more emotion into the music so he used it in quite a few different ways on the album."
Denis is basically self-taught on synthesizers, having a sound knowledge of their capabilities. His classical training has helped his playing of synthesizers to the extent where he can "do all the fast runs", but he hates soloing, preferring to add ideas within the structure of a piece.
Between the towers, the human part of the drum-beat that pulses through this computer-sharp sound is Ced Sharpley. South African born, and music college trained also, he has been with Gary since 'The Pleasure Principle', replacing Gary's uncle, Jess Lidyard, who drummed on the first two albums, 'Tubeway Army' and 'Replicas'. A more complex drummer than Lidyard, Sharpley has had to learn very quickly to discipline himself within the structure of Gary's music to laying as solid and basic a beat as possible. His timing must be impeccably precise, as he must often play along with the drum machine operated by Chris. This ability he has picked up very quickly, though there are the odd difficulties in the studio with overtones from the Compu-Rhythm, and the bigger problem of getting a decent mix of self, band and drum machine.
To Gary's right, silhouetted against the light tower, Paul Gardiner pounds out the throbbing, simplistic bass lines. Towards the end of the show Gary, guitar in hand, slips back to where Paul is standing and, for a moment, seems almost to be making contact with another member of the band, striking poses with him before finally wandering over to his amplifier stack and thrusting his guitar into the speakers for a bit of feed-back. Paul has only ever recorded with Numan, only ever played with him.
On the first two albums he used to lay the rhythm section down with Jess live, but these days he often waits until almost all the other tracks are down before recording his line, listening to the track and sussing out the best possible notes to play. On stage he rarely moves, but always keeps an eye on Ced's distant bass drum pedal foot. He hears himself and Ced through his monitor; in Australia a Jands Concord full-range bin.
Russell Bell is the tall, handsome lead guitarist to Gary's left. He joined the band recently and so only features on the new 'Telekon' album. With him, besides a slightly funkier guitar approach he has utilised in a number of the newer songs, Russell brought the violin, on which he has been classically trained since he was nine. He played in a youth orchestra along with a young unknown called Brian Eno, though they never met. Adding his violin to Chris' viola has opened up a whole new melodic and rhythmic range for the band, giving it a natural double string section, though Russell didn't utilise it on this tour. He did his audition on the Roland GR-500 guitar synthesizer, which he bought when the unit was first released, and which he used quite heavily on the Australian tour.
"I suppose that the violin playing is what swayed him to take me on. He was looking for a guitarist-stroke-synthesizer player, so I took the guitar synth. We get on very well together as well, which I think is very important to Gary. As a band we get on so well together it's unbelievable. I've never known a band that's so happy working together - I don't think we've ever had an argument, which is almost embarassingly odd."
Gary reiterated this closeness at the press conference: "The band are friends now. It took a long time, but I like touring for that reason. I'm around them and the roadcrew then. We're very close. It's like a family. I mean, they're the only people outside my own family that I'm really close to and it's nice to be around them."
Numan's father and mother tour with him too, but for practical reasons as well as close familial ones: his father manages him, his mother looks after the clothes and originally did the band's make-up. His father gave up a job driving for British Airways to look after his son's career, and has mastered the purportedly serious task of management as quickly as his son has picked production, keyboards and design. All this effort on Gary's part to reproduce his studio sound on stage would be pointless if let down by the front-of-house sound engineer. He brought eight crew with him to Australia; Alan Wild on lights, Alan Morrison on sound, and a roadie for each member of the band. In addition, he had four Australian roadcrew. Morrison gave me the breakdown of the P.A. at a very noisy soundcheck.
"All the out-front gear in Jands, and rates very highly with what we used in America and Japan. The bins are Jands-designed Concord full-range bins with two I5s, two I2s and JBL 2440 drivers on top, plus three 2402 bullets. They seem to cope very well with the bottom end which is very important when you consider that often we have three guys playing the same deep Moog note together, so that the bottom end can be stretched to the limit. We're using four a side plus two coupled together with four extra horns on top and bottom in the air.
"We're also using the Concord bins as monitors for the bass, guitarist and drums, and double wedges hidden in the towers for the keyboard players, two JBL I5s and a lens in each. In Japan, we used a really nice bin with eight JBL IOs in them. Gave a really warm sound. Everything is D.I'd except for drums and guitar, and there's a channel for echo return on each side of the Jands 32 by 8 Series I desk we're using."
Through the soundcheck, both were quietly efficient, sorting out problems as they arose while Gary, watching and checking, though often looking lost and vacant, paced before the banks of lights and equipment, waiting. This is the one part of the process where he must place all his trust in other people.
"I've always done my own production, apart from the second single, 'Bombers'. We did our own demo to get the recording contract and they released it as my production. I just recorded it, I didn't know anything about production at all. I just did a pile of overdubbed guitars. Doing the first album, I just started getting into whatever was available in the studio, so I've only been doing it for about two years now. As long as I've been playing keyboards. I just picked it up as I went along, asking questions, fiddling with the gadgets, twiddling things and watching. I've always accepted the first sounds that came along really, I've never spent hours looking for that perfect sound apart from the snare drum on the new LP,'Telekon', which took a long time."
I asked him about that vox humana sound Chris had described and whether he had a concept worked out before he found the sound. Of course, there was the Replicas book:
"I think I must have had the idea there and when I found that synthesizer sound, that was the ultimate for that particular atmosphere I wanted to create. The album certainly revolves around that preset. It's the best string sound I've ever heard". The use of such completely separate sounds is the basis of his production approach. "I listen to frequencies and make a jigsaw puzzle with each sound, and, as I'm doing it, I listen for holes, for where there's a break. I break everything down to bass, middle and top, and work on it from those three frequencies. It's very simple, probably the most simplistic way of producing there could be I would imagine.
"I will always put down a rhythm machine track right away, along with a piano track that I will get Chris or Denis to play properly for me, and that'll be the basic structure from which I work, adding things on top."
Denis informed me that Gary usually gets him or Chris in, playing to them the melody and bass line and asking them to put it together; "Gary can't quite play piano with two hands and keep it up for the three and a half minutes the song requires without drastic mistakes, because he's not trained as a piano player."
More than that, Gary has an old upright at home on which he writes everything and, in Russell's words, it's an utter wreck; "The sustain pedal's gone so it only half sustains and it's a tone flat, completely! And when he comes into the studio he tries to get a similar sound to that, which he succeeds admirably at doing, whether the studio has a brilliant Steinway or a Beckstein. They all end up sounding honky-tonk! In a couple of new tracks, we've snuck in some nicer sounding 'pretty' piano.
"There's a fairly set way we work in the studio at the moment. Gary'll come in with a song for which he'll have a stack of ideas and put them down with the Compu-Rhythm. At that point, no one knows what the vocal line will sound like unless we've demoed it already. Then we'll put down another keyboard track and possibly Ced, on top of the synthesized drums. Then probably another keyboard, guitar, viola and drop the bass in somewhere. It's all built up, with each of us almost always doing it one at a time, while the others are in the control room working out the sounds. It's a very stark way of recording, but it works and gives very good separation. The rhythm section is often at completely different ends of the day. That's probably why it sounds unique.
There are parts that are luck of course. You can often put down a track on drum machine and then when Ced puts his part down you find that there's an accent there that you wouldn't have thought of; the drum doing a snare beat syncopated with your guitar part which might not have happened if you'd been aware what the drummer would do. One of the most refreshing parts of Gary's technique is the happy accidents.
Of course, that doesn't always happen, as Gary explains. "On 'Telekon', we did a track and I hated everything except a viola solo, so we got rid of the lot and just kept the viola track and the percussion and, of course, it was all in perfect time for us to build on another way, which is why I like using a drum machine. We did that Wednesday night on James' song (James Frued and the Radio Stars were the support for Australia and Gary produced his next single for him at Sydney's EMI 301 studio complex). I do things backwards, often leaving the drums till last."
This layered method of production, creating a jigsaw out of sounds, applies pretty well to Gary's song-writing technique too. He will get loads of phrases, some ten seconds, some a minute, and remember them - he never records until he has a piece complete, which shows an excellent memory - and then he'll play them, linking together pieces that are complimentary.
As to his lyrical technique, he showed me a scrap of paper with about a dozen lines on it, all disconnected. "Notes. And there I find a title, and when I have a piece of music, I look through lists like this that I've made on tour, and take out lines that relate to the mood of the music and the title, adjusting them accordingly as I go on. And it isn't a cut-up technique. Everything I take out would mean something to me. Everything I listen to which I think will make a good line I write down and then I take out what actually DOES mean something and fit it together so that it says what I want it to say." Numan's single-minded determination was no small part of his success. he claims to have it all planned, that the pattern he designed is running to schedule almost to the day. His confidence shows in the respect he commands from his band, who all find him an amazing producer, quick and always prepared when he enters the studio ('Telekon' was done in eleven days start to finish, including mixing). Yet he is always open to suggestions. If he rejects an idea, he will quietly discuss the reasons why he feels it will not work, and is invariably right. For a man just turned 22, Numan has picked up everything important to know about the business, as well as learning very quickly what makes a good, commercial pop sound, without any youthful excesses. He writes the songs, produces them, plays a lot of it himself, creates the covers, designs the stage sets and even had a hand in the videos that sell his songs by television.
He also used to do the press releases. And he intends to quit in two years. Numan will then concentrate on video, making ten four-minute films where now he makes ten four-minute songs. When he's 30 he wants to be married with two kids and running an airline, preferably with enough money to never have to work again, except at what he feels like. And he'll most probably do it.
For all his confidence, he still hides behind words in his music, behind walls at home, behind windows in his car. He'll drive round the block rather than get out of the car if he is waiting for someone. There is still a child's shyness in him too, almost silly, but deadly serious.
"I've rarely ever sung the songs the way they're going to be before I go into the studio to do them. I've never sung them at home. I normally write the vocal line on the piano, playing the notes, 'cos I don't like singing. Where I write is back at the family's house where no-one can hear me getting it wrong as I'm writing it. So I do it very quietly and tend to play it on the piano 'cos I don't like them to hear. It's funny but it's true. I've always been embarassed about it."
Back on stage there is no embarassment. There he can do as he pleases. The band plays 'The Park' and the old, grotesquely kitch, rococco Capital Theatre, Sydney, erupts. The pyramids spin silently before the still, yellow towers; then leave the stage. The audience stamps and shouts, some rushing to the front, a few, inevitably dressed in Tubeway Army uniforms - Australia always a little behind. Numan has won. "Thank you - goodbye - thank you". But they return and play 'Tracks' and Gary breaks his own rule. "Anybody who wants to take pictures can". He is happy to let the Machman run this day.
He has had a great gig, a great tour, 'We Are Glass' has gone to No. 5 in its second week of release in England. His dreams are realities and he is surrounded by 'friends' - at least the musicians are real. There is a second encore - 'We Are Glass'. The audience is ecstatic. Gary puts down his microphone and smiles. In two days, it will be the 50th show and then it'll be over. The end of 'The Touring principle'. The end of a love affair. The band will drift apart for a while till the next recording, getting into projects of their own. But tonight is his. They are together. He turns to the audience, "Thanks, thanks".