by Karl Hodge
Jagged bolts of white light shoot through Gary Numan. The electronica veteran, California toned and floppier of fringe than we remember, is etched in misty silhouette. Fearful that the strobes might activate a synchronous flood of neurons in FCK LDN’s frontal cortex, we close our eyes. The light still pours in.
This. Is. Intense.
Gary Numan’s career has followed a three act narrative of rise, fall and rise that’s atypical in rock and pop. His early fame, was based on a series of otherworldly singles and android TV performances, but it began before that. Despite signing to hip label Beggar’s Banquet, Numan’s band Tubeway Army failed to chart with their early singles – a pair of punk records that didn’t quite harness their shy frontman’s restricted charisma.
Then Numan discovered synthesizers and everything changed. A signature sound developed over four classic albums; Tubeway Army, Replicas, The Pleasure Principle and Telekon. Replicas’ centrepiece Are Friends Electric? remains his best known track, challenged only by Cars (and its many deconstructions) from follow-up The Pleasure Principle.
And then… he seemed to get a bit lost. For a whole decade. Instead of capitalising on the cold strength and clinical claustrophobia of his limitations, Numan strained to be taken seriously as a popular songwriter and musician. As his work became more obviously influenced by funk and soul, he shed the Tubeway Army line-up and hired a procession of session musicians – notably fretless bass-player Pino Palladino.
As timeless as the filtered synths of Replicas and The Pleasure Principle remain, the blurping, swooping bass and white jazz of sixth album I, Assassin could only belong to 1982. It was the beginning of a long, painful descent from the charts and credibility.
Finally, after half a dozen records of increasing mediocrity, and under the influence of future wife and super-fan Gemma O’Neill, Numan went back into the studio to record a back to basics comeback. Stripped of session musicians, the album that he made – Sacrifice – was the beginning of a second chapter that, now in its 20th year, has seen him quietly produce some of best music of his career for a hardcore of Numanoids.
While other acts established in the 80s would be offering a greatest hits selection, Numan isn’t here to cater to the Granny contingent. Splinter, his most recent and 20th album, has been widely reviewed as one of his best. Which is just as well because tonight’s set leans heavily on it. It’s near the end of the British tour, a stop off before Sonisphere, and the band show no signs of road fatigue.
The Holmfirth Picturedrome was rammed, hot and static; primed by Bjork with a Minimoog sound-a-likes Roman Remains. Numan was fashionably late – or maybe it was just the electric tension in the room that made it seem that way. It was a kind of aggressive friendliness; the industrial nexus between pumped nostalgia and shared fanaticism. Numan arrived on clouds of CO2 to a roar that dethroned the elite in their balcony seats. It is a statement of intent that we launch straight into Resurrection – the opener from 2013’s Dead Son Rising – and the crowd remain unbowed.
When the band gets to its first classic tune, Metal from Replicas, it has been retrofitted with chrome and glitch, camouflaged to slot between a pair of cuts from Splinter; I Am Dust and Everything Comes Down to This. It is a sonic barrage; an ecstatic assault with 808 bleeps. LED spears and valve cracked string machines.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Numan’s encore reading of Are Friends Electric, upgraded with a quiet, loud, quiet dynamic, that borrows so heavily from Nine Inch Nails that it disappears into a feedback loop of mutual plagiarism. A solo, detuned piano plinks and plonks through the intro and spoken sections, then the bridges and chorus explode through a wall of wailing, perma-sustained power chords and sine waves. It reprograms and wipes your Top of the Pops memory forever.
Numan sells it all with effortless bombast.
His performing style moved on from robot-Bowie a long time ago. He headbangs and strikes guitar god poses; he hand-dances, plucking at lasers like a 19 year old girl at a Sister’s concert. And in the mid-Summer heat, he stalks through the dry ice, pouring bottled water on his arms and face. But not the hair. Never the hair.
But for all that, Gary remains taciturn. He speaks no more than a dozen words throughout the gig. Most of them are variations of “thank” and “you”. Even after returning for an unprecedented second encore at the end of the night, he leaves with little more than a wave. And that’s exactly what you should expect from an android rock star.
There are some signs of softening with age. Numan cracks a smile as the crowd chant his name. It happens again when lead guitarist Steve Harris treats us to a bit of Bez dancing at the beginning of old favourite Down in the Park. It’s just enough to let you know that Numan is human, without muddying the mystique.
Last year, Numan let slip that his penchant for putting on a big show was responsible for his descent into debt during the 80s.
“Our debts levelled out at around £600,000 and perhaps the biggest cause of this was my desire for elaborate light shows long after my career could justify it,” Numan told right-wing bastion of capitocentricity, The Daily Telegraph, “But even during the early Eighties I spent too much: on one sell-out tour I lost £150,000 due to expensive lighting and production – pure stupidity.”
There’s no sign that he’s taking a more modest approach on this 21st century tour of “intimate” venues. The light show on this penultimate night is punishing. Punishing. As relentless as the procession of heavy cuts from Splinter and Dead Son Rising. We left the modestly sized venue feeling microwaved by it. In a good way.
Full Holmfirth setlist: