Monday, January 31, 2011

New Wave for the New Week #109

Tubeway ArmyCover of Tubeway ArmyThink, for a moment, of what defined the stereotypical New Wave sound, circa 1979/1980:  Early, metallic-tinged synthesizer bloops.  Choppy, robotic rhythms.  Deadpan vocals.  Themes of alienation and separation.  Now think how that came to be the blueprint that most people think of when they think of New Wave.  It can be traced back, essentially, to one monster hit single - one of the most successful New Wave records ever released: Gary Numan's "Cars."

Gary Numan, both as a solo act and as part of his earlier band, Tubeway Army, was the personification of the New Wave to most of mainstream America.  Really, "Cars" had no business being a hit single.  It was totally unique when it was released in 1980.  Nothing else sounded like it.  Sure, you had Devo experimenting with electronics, but they were filtering actual melodies through those synths and keyboards. The B-52's were delivering on the herky-jerky rhythms, but they were clearly having a blast and inviting everyone to dance.

No, Numan was different.  Melody, such as it was, was stunted at best.  His vocals were mostly monotone; when there was palpable emotion it was brooding and morose.  It was as if he had arrived via time machine from some 1960's Italian sci-fi movie's vision of the year 2000, where machine had all but replaced man and everyone wore unisex Logan's Run jumpsuits.  His music was the soundtrack of our inevitable dystopian demise.  Yet, it was somehow insanely catchy.

Numan's earliest singles with the Tubeway Army were punkier affairs.  At the time going by the name "Valerian," Numan's strongest artistic influences - Bowie, Bolan, etc. - are more readily identifiable on guitar/bass/drum singles like "That's Too Bad," "O.D. Receiver," and "Bombers."  (These early singles were collected and re-issued as The Plan in 1983, later expanded with demos and unreleased recordings for CD release many years later.).  By the time Tubeway Army's self-titled debut album was released in 1978, however, he had rechristened himself as "Gary Numan," and begun to bring rudimentary synths into the mix.

That first album is simply stunning. Opening with "Listen To The Sirens," which pretty much laid out the ground rules for the rest of the decidedly cold LP ("We don't wish to be your friends/We won't ever call again") and burbling away with themes of unwanted solitude and alienation ("My Shadow In Vain," "Are You Real?," "Every Day I Die"), it would be the opening salvo in a three-year string of amazing records.

1979 brought about Replicas, another masterpiece, this time credited to Gary Numan + Tubeway Army.  Guitars of any sort had essentially disappeared, and Numan's lyrics were becoming more icily claustrophobic and removed.  Standouts like "It Must've Been Years," "You Are In My Vision" and the utterly magnificent "Me, I Disconnect From You" helped to refine Numan's alien approach.  In the UK, Numan enjoyed his first smash hit with the album's lead single, "Are 'Friends' Electric?"

The stage was set for Numan's mega-hit.  Later in that same year his next album, The Pleasure Principle, dropped the Tubeway Army name completely, and despite some often overlooked excellent supporting tracks ("Metal," "M.E.") this was a one-track pony.  "Cars," which is probably right now percolating away in your mind's ear, was as big as a single could get in those days.

Numan rang in 1980 with another of his finest singles, "I Die: You Die."  Originally intended to be a non-LP single, it was included on later pressings of that year's Telekon.  Although by no means a bad album, Telekon's songs showed a clearly tiring Numan, who had by now released four albums in three years and had been touring incessantly.  1981's Dance was a bleak affair with nothing much to recommend it, and by the time 1982's I, Assassin arrived, Numan was beginning to sound very forced...and very dated.

Throughout the second half of the 1980's, Numan released several albums on his own NUMA label, trying to recapture the early magic while simultaneously exploring more atmospheric, almost ambient sounds.  His experimental work with early samplers was interesting, but never caught the public ear, and Numan soon faded away.  An attempted comeback album in 1989 was not successful.

Today, the music of Gary Numan and Tubeway Army that was once labeled "futuristic" is now almost anachronistic, but for those of us who were there the preferred term would be "nostalgic."  So enjoy a couple of clips of what the future once sounded like.  Two of his best: First up, an audio-only clip of "It Must've Been Years" from the Tubeway Army days.  Second, the clip for his last great single, "I Die: You Die."  Enjoy!

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