One of the highlights of the 1981 concert film Urgh! A Music War is seeing Gary Numan perform “Down in the Park.” Fantastic song, but the performance is what is especially notable. A door opens on the stage and a tiny futuristic one-seater vehicle rolls out with the performer inside. The entirely of the song, Numan pilots the car around the stage as he sings. He looks a tad awkward, especially when the backs the vehicle back into its original location at the end. I have this nagging suspicion he was thinking this could turn into a moment worthy of Spinal Tap at any time.
If nothing else, Numan is a musician who marches to his own drum machine. One of many aspects of his debut album as part of the band Tubeway Army is that drum machine was initially a human drummer. Another big surprise from guy best known for the synth classic “Cars” is how prevalent guitars are on this self-titled debut.
My wife disagrees with me, but I think Numan sounds a bit like Supergrass vocalist Gaz Coombes, especially when he in singing in his higher register and his vocals are double-tracked. The first time this happens is 30 seconds into opening track “Listen to the Sirens”. Then there’s the moment around 1:15 where the sparse opening of vocals, drums and synth line explodes into punkish new wave, complete with roaring guitars.
That was a very solid opening, yet the next track is even better. The bassline in the first couple of bars of “My Shadow in Vain” instantly brought to mind “I Am the Fly” by Wire. Actually, much of the music here recalls that band in the Chairs Missing phase, and that is among the highest praise I can think of.
Another aspect of that track I like are the meaty analogue synth undertones. The moog as used her accompanies what would largely otherwise be punk songs very well. The accompanying liner notes say it was serendipity Numan used it at all—it just happened to be in the studio while they recorded, and conveniently left on a setting he liked. Imagine how differently his career might have gone if not for this coincidence.
Almost every track here is a surprise. Acoustic guitar is the primary instrument on two songs. The lyrics of “Friends” are a machine-gun spray of syllables. “Steel and You” opens and closes with a nightmarish whirlpool of loops of indeterminate origin (though the word “industry” comes to mind with each listen). One standout tracks is “Everyday I Die”, a simple two-up, two-down guitar pattern floating on a dense bed of synth waves. That song is also the one where humanity creeps in the furthest and, given the chorus as the line, “I smell the lust in my hand”, the operative work just might be “creepy.”
In addition to the similarities to Wire’s second album, there are a couple of numbers which have uncanny similarities to works beyond this album. The opening of “My Love Is a Liquid” always sounds to me like it is going to be “Freedom of Choice” by Devo. And Numan’s most famous song, “Cars”, is foreshadowed by closing track “Zero Bars (Mr. Smith).” It is basically the same keyboard line and percussion.
I’m not sure how I could be such a fan of punk and new wave but remained oblivious to Numan’s body of work until now. Tubeway Army is an essential album of that genre, and I look forward to exploring more his catalog.