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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.
"Ridiculous!" Numan crows. "I had stupid little white shoes on and white socks." Yet Numan's fans remained loyal: They showed up at concerts dressed exactly like him, and they bought enough copies of The Fury to put it at No. 24 in the U.K. album charts. Even Machine + Soul (1992), which Numan considers his absolute worst album, debuted in the U.K. Top 50. "I'm amazed that people stuck with me as long as they did," he notes.
But even his fans, who wanted the "old" Numan back, began to lose patience. In the '90s his career became a case of diminishing returns. He'd been dropped from Beggar's Banquet and was releasing albums on his own label, Numa Records. As his popularity dwindled, he found himself unable to afford the advertising and publicity needed to broaden his audience. Forced to finance his albums through other means, he fell back on his old hobby, flying planes, and earned money as a display pilot and a flight instructor. He toured only occasionally and was limited financially to playing in Britain. He took out a large loan, but a series of subpar, poorly selling albums sank him even further into debt. By 1995 he had lost his studio, his record label, and his girlfriend of nine years.
"It was pretty grim for a while," he says. "And it's kind of demoralizing, because you're getting older and you can see it slipping away from you. And you just begin to think that it's never going to come back."
In 1995, however, Numan received the ultimate tribute: Other people began to play his songs. During their concerts that year, the Foo Fighters revamped "Down in the Park" (and later recorded it), Hole did a version of "Cars," and Smashing Pumpkins chose the obscure "M.E." Marilyn Manson weighed in with his version of "Down in the Park" as well. In March 1996, "Cars" landed in the U.K. Top 20 again, due largely to its use in a TV commercial for Carling Premier lager. In 1997 came the release of Random, a two-disc tribute album featuring covers by Republica, Damon Albarn (of Blur), Dubstar, Jesus Jones, the Magnetic Fields, and the Orb.
Numan, meanwhile, continued to record. Thanks to his soon-to-be wife, Gemma -- a woman ten years his junior who used to ask for autographs at his shows -- he regained some of his confidence and creativity and began work on Exile. The result is an album with all the trademarks of his best work: dramatic melodies, sci-fi lyrics ("Thought I was asleep/Lost to darkness/I was dying in a big machine"), and a dense, heavy sound. Best of all, his strange, fluid voice is up front in the mix. Still, it wasn't easy for Numan to attract a record label.
"I wrote to about 25 labels in Britain and just got turned down or ignored by every single one of them," he says. "Again, [it was] pretty demoralizing, because there was a lot of good things going on." Finally, late last year, he signed with Cleopatra, an American label that specializes in electronica, goth-rock, and industrial music. The label agreed to finance Numan's tour through Europe, America, and possibly Australia and Japan.
Soon after he signed, "Dark," a track on Exile, was chosen for the soundtrack of the film Dark City. Numan will make his acting debut as a drug dealer in the British film Kinsman later this year, and his autobiography is due in bookstores in October.
Numan realizes that his recent successes may amount to just another hump in his up-and-down career. "I don't have any great ambitions inside," he told VH1 last year. "I'm just coasting."
But perhaps he's picking up speed. "It's that second chance that I was beginning to think I would never get," says Numan. "And it's about fifteen years later than I ever thought it would be, as well. But the thing is, you just hang in, you keep working, you keep doing what you do. And hopefully, a situation will come along where luck falls your way a little bit, and you get another chance. And this, to me, is it."
Gary Numan performs with Switchblade Symphony at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 27 at the Carefree Theater, 2000 S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $17.50. Call 561-833-7305.