Our Friend Electric
PUBLISHED: 00:35 24 March 2012 | UPDATED: 21:13 20 February 2013
Sussex musician Gary Numan, best known for his massive hit Cars, is widely considered the godfather of the British electronic music scene. But, as Angela Wintle discovers, his career has been far from plain-sailing
Gary Numans Machine Music UK tour runs from May 22 until June 3. It will feature a one-off set based around his singles over the last 33 years, plus material from his last album. To book tickets for his concert at the Brighton Dome on June 3, where he will be supported by Officers, visit brightondome.org.
Machine Music: The Best of Gary Numan, a limited edition DVD bringing together promos and TV appearances from across Numans career, will be released on June 11.
Six months ago, pop star Gary Numan made headlines when it was announced he was quitting drunken, violent Britain for a fresh start in the United Stated after a troubling incident involving his wife and daughters in rural East Sussex.
According to newspaper reports, his wife Gemma, and their three young girls, Raven, Persia, and Echo, had been strolling along Heathfield High Street when they were surrounded by boys aged between 12 and 14, shouting obscenities. The incident had allegedly left them scared and upset, and Newman was said to be so incensed that he had pledged to up sticks for California, claiming the fact this had happened in a sleepy Sussex market town reflected the moral decline in British society.
But as he prepares to embark on a nationwide tour, he says his comments have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, the family is still planning to move to America, and there was an incident in Heathfield, but the two arent related.
We decided to move 18 months ago, long before this incident, because my wife has always wanted to live in the States and Im keen to try my hand at writing music for the LA movie industry, he says. Gemma wasnt intimidated and actually turned round to confront the lads, but by the time it reached the national press, it had become an attack and we were leaving Britain because of it.
The fact is weve loved living in Sussex. We moved to a large Twenties house near Heathfield six years ago and its set in eight beautiful acres, with a stream and ancient woodland, which is carpeted with bluebells in the spring. Wed never sell if we hadnt set our hearts on living the American dream.
Ive had a great fondness for Sussex ever since Mum and Dad started taking me to Brighton when I was a small child. In fact, the city is still one of my favourite haunts and we love visiting the attractions on Brighton Pier with the children or browsing the fantastic shops. I also have strong ties with Chichester Harbour and Sovereign Harbour in Eastbourne, where I used to moor my motor boat.
Numan, now a well-preserved 53, who still sports his trademark black hair and matching eyeliner, is widely considered the godfather of the British electronic music scene. At the end of the Seventies, he was Britains bestselling recording artist, with his debut single, Are Friends Electric?, selling a million copies and its follow-up, Cars, becoming an instant classic.
By the height of his fame in 1981, he had clocked up two chart-topping albums, but was lampooned for his humourless image, fondness for wearing shiny jumpsuits and lavish lifestyle. Peoples perceptions of me were awful, he admits. I became too famous, too quickly, and said some really stupid things in interviews. To make matters worse, I never smiled on stage, so I looked really serious. But this was because I hated my teeth and was incredibly nervous. It was also years before other electro-pop groups like Duran Duran emerged, so what I was doing came out of nowhere. People didnt know what to make of me.
By the late Eighties, he was, to use his own words, dead and buried. As music fashions changed, his record sales went into steep decline, but rashly he spent a fortune on lavish stage shows, sinking his considerable savings into one ill-considered business venture after another, which left him with massive debts and no obvious way to pay them off.
But then, on the face of it Numan had always been an unlikely bet for super-stardom. Born in Hammersmith, the son of a Heathrow baggage handler, he was a moody teenager, who was expelled from school for disruptive behaviour. In despair, his mother arranged for him to see a child psychologist, who suggested he might have a mild form of Aspergers Syndrome, a form of autism which hinders basic human interaction.
My mother saw this as a slur on her parenting because the condition wasnt understood then, and the treatment just fizzled out, he says. It was only years later, when I met Gemma, that I gave it serious thought because her brother was diagnosed with the condition and she spotted the tell-tale signs immediately. So we did some research on the internet and found a number of American websites where you can self-test. Every time, I came deep within the spectrum.
Ive never felt the need to be medically diagnosed, though the condition does present its challenges. I can only maintain eye contact for three seconds and face-to-face conversation can be very stressful and tiring. Unintentionally, I might say things in an abrupt way, which makes me seem cold and uncaring. And if I meet someone in a pub, I dont know what to say to them. I can only talk for so long and then I fall apart. Thankfully, Gemma is Gods gift to small talk and I willingly step into her shadow. If were out, and she nips off somewhere, I genuinely panic.
The condition also explains his brooding live persona and wooden stage presence. I used to hate performing and before a gig I couldnt even hold a conversation. It was clear that I had to find a way of conquering the fear and thats when I started playing with images and alter-egos. Creating a persona helped me deal with it.
His move into electronic music was accidental, however. When he first entered a studio to record a punk crossover album, he spotted a synthesizer and asked if he could experiment. It was a life-changing moment, though his record company was less than impressed when he presented them with an electronic album. It wasnt what theyd signed me up to do, but I suspect they couldnt afford to send me back to the studio. Fortunately, the gamble paid off and his second album went straight to No 1.
Several decades later though, he found himself on the scrap heap, and he turned his back on his music for a whole decade, qualifying as an aerobatic pilot and instructor, and taking part in air displays. Then in 1992, he met Gemma, a devoted fan and ten years his junior, whom he credits with giving him the confidence to take up his music again. I was riddled with self doubt, but Gemma got me to accept that a lot of people liked what I did, and I should be proud of that.
His recent albums, featuring a heavier sound, have been well received by critics and fans alike. In 1997, Damon Albarn made an album of cover versions of his songs and in 2002 the Sugababes had a No 1 hit with the song Freak Like Me, which contained a sample of Are Friends Electric? Gradually, it became fashionable to admit to being a Gary Numan fan and he is now considered one of pops most influential figures.
Typically, however, he downplays his musical legacy. When I get compliments, Im blown away, but I dont go into the studio thinking: Im a legend! The fact that I wrote a big song 30 years ago means absolutely nothing today. That pressure to reinvent yourself keeps you grounded.
But theres one thing he cant deny. As he prepares to start a national tour which will take in Brighton Dome in June, hes cooler than hes ever been. Not only am I still in the business after 30 years, but Im getting better reviews than Ive ever had. Thats a nice position to be in.