Numan did himself few favours. The reputation he started out with – a rather morose loner writing songs in his bedroom – was bad enough. But then “his reputation among music critics atrophied amid accusations of anachronism,” to use the Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music’s strange semi-alliterative summation of his career at around the time of the release of Your Fascination. It was difficult to see how his reputation could atrophy given his already low standing with the critics, but it did seem to when he re-invented himself as a white dinner-suited Tory socialite who flew himself around in a private jet. These characterizations were grossly exaggerated but there were elements of truth in both and neither endeared him to the music press; all he needed to do was make a record with Stock Aitken Waterman to have broken every rule of making credible music in the 1980s. But back to that NME piece from ’82, where a list of his shortcomings was provided. “Is it his whining voice, his tawdry little fantasies, his ridiculous appearance, his endless stream of clichés, or is it some other, previously unconsidered factor?” the reviewer asked, trying to answer his own question about the why the artist was ‘repulsive’. Were these allegations fair?
● Well, his voice wasn’t the strongest: a bit nasal, rather thin, he more or less spoke some of his lyrics rather than sang them. But anyone’s vocal limitations would be shown up by his kind of synth-driven material.
● His ‘fantasies’ revolved around futurism and science fiction, his most successful album Relicas heavily influenced by the novels of Philip K Dick. On the cover of the album Numan portrayed one of the Machmen (sinister androids with cloned human skin), characters he had created for a novel of his own he never completed. Unoriginal, maybe, but not exactly tawdry.
● His appearance was governed initially at least by circumstance. Poor skin led to the make-up team at ‘Top Of The Pops’ plastering his face with white powder; bad teeth were the reason he didn’t smile during his first performance on the show. These everyday cosmetic concerns resulted in the dour robotic appearance he would be famed for early in his career. There was no excuse for his outfits though. He wore costumes, not clothes, and as the reviewer pointed out he had a “long-standing fascination with uniforms”. This certainly left him open for ridicule.
● As for cliché: pretentiousness would have been a more defensible charge to level against him, which was largely due to a lack of humour in his work. But another criticism was how influenced he was by electronica pioneers such as Kraftwerk, elements of whose audio and visual styles he borrowed; the NME review said he had a “policy of embodying all of David Bowie’s faults and none of his virtues”. But Numan was a pioneer in his own right, whether the contemporary critics accepted it or not. He didn’t invent techno-pop but he was there from the earliest days. When he famously upset the musicians’ union (by pointing out that he didn’t need an orchestra to back him on ‘Top Of The Pops’ because he could do it all himself), he was indicating the shape of the industry to come.
NEW SINGLES on sale from Aug. 2
Gary NUMAN Your Fascination (Numa NU9)