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When Gary Numan first appeared in 1979, singing the chilly synth-pop song "Cars," he didn't look like a 21-year-old rock star. He looked like a flesh-covered robot. In the song's video, Numan wore a black shirt and red tie, his dark hair combed perfectly to one side, menacing black eyes set in a boyish, corpse-white face. In his weird, warbling voice (made weirder by his viscous English accent), he sang of a sterile, hermetic future: "Here in my car/I feel safest of all/I can lock all my doors/It's the only way to live/In cars."
Numan's live shows were equally robotic. Dressed like cosmonauts in rubberized uniforms, he and his band stood motionless throughout performances as fog swirled around them. Adding to the sense of lifelessness were Numan's creepy lyrics: "We went to sleep by dialing 'O'/We drove to work by proxy/I plugged my wife in just for show." During one tour he steered himself around the stage in a motorized coffin with headlights.
"The way we perform now is so far away from what I was doing in the late '70s and early '80s," Numan says from his country home outside London a few weeks before embarking on his U.S. tour, his first since 1982. He will play revamped versions of "Friends," "Down in the Park," and "Are 'Friends' Electric?," but he'll also be armed with a new band, new material from his latest album, Exile, and a new attitude. "I'm all over the place, I don't stand still for a second," he says. "It's not all robotlike and enigmatic. I'm up there sweatin' like a pig, guitar thrown up in the air, the whole thing. But I think it suits the way the music has grown over the years."
Numan, age 40, is no longer an android. Like a cyber-age Pinocchio, he has finally become human. The pancake makeup is gone, revealing a friendly-looking fellow with a youthful smile. He dresses stylishly but not theatrically, favoring black T-shirts and the occasional leather car coat. In recent TV appearances in the U.K., he laughed readily and took in stride all jabs at his past follies. He even allowed himself to be handcuffed on the Adam & Joe Show while two "policemen" raided his record collection for embarrassing purchases. Coming across the soundtrack for The Breakfast Club, they danced around with Numan in his living room to "Don't You Forget About Me."
What many don't realize is that Numan was one of the pioneers of electronic pop. In the United States, he was nothing more than a one-hit wonder. "Cars," his only claim to fame, peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard charts in 1979. Shortly thereafter he was erased from memory by more upbeat synth-groups such as New Order, A Flock of Seagulls, and Depeche Mode. But Numan helped open the door for these groups. His albums Replicas (1979) and The Pleasure Principle (1980) represented a fairly new concept in pop music at the time: brooding songs performed almost entirely with Moogs, Rolands, and other keyboards that later became the standard instruments of new-wave music.
Changing his outfit from space suit to double-breasted suit, Numan spearheaded the New Romantic movement along with other flamboyant bands such as Ultravox, Japan, and Soft Cell. His 1981 album Dance still stands as the quintessential "New Ro" statement, a modest masterpiece built around ice-cold synthesizers, fretless bass, and Casio-style rhythms. His later forays into white-boy funk presaged the popularity of bands such as Heaven 17 and Yaz. Numan had perhaps a dozen songs that never made it to America ("We Are Glass," "I Die: You Die," "We Take Mystery to Bed") but reached the Top 20 in Britain.
But despite his success, Numan was privately malfunctioning. "I was having such a hard time with the coping with the change of lifestyle and the pressure that comes with it all," he explains. "I just needed to get out of it for a bit. I wanted to back out of the limelight." In 1981 he told the press that he wasn't going to tour anytime soon. The announcement infuriated the executives at his record label, Beggar's Banquet, which had been planning a big publicity push to get Numan back into the American market. But Numan stood firm. Later he realized it was the worst decision he'd ever made.
"I've kind of suffered from it ever since," he admits. "Pretty much after that, my career started diving downhill fairly rapidly." He laughs heartily. "And it never stopped. It sort of dived for the next fifteen years, dinnit?"
Numan wasn't laughing at the time. As the '80s progressed, his records became monotonous and uninspired. "I lost my way a little bit," he says. Always ashamed of his voice and his rudimentary guitar skills, he hired session musicians and background singers to beef up his sound, mixing his own vocals so low that he could barely be heard. "The record company was forever telling me to go back and remix it and put the vocals up," he recalls. "I'd say, 'No, that's where I want it.'"
With each new album came a radically different image. On the cover of Warriors (1983), Numan wears a leather-and-spikes outfit and wields an aluminum baseball bat. For Berserker (1984), he dyed his hair blue, wore kabuki-style makeup, and wrapped himself in a gi. By the time he released The Fury (1985), he seemed out of ideas: The cover shows him dressed in a prissy white tuxedo with a red bow tie.