When you hear the name Gary Numan, if you’re like most people you will probably think of one thing– nay, one word cars (and then you may start humming that infectious synth riff). The title of the 1979 single off his album The Pleasure Principle has forever linked the man with the New Wave idiom, and as an unfortunate side effect of never having another hit single in the US, he was also labeled a one-hit-wonder. Nothing is further from the truth, as The Pleasure Principle was Numans third release (though the first to be credited solely to him) and third consecutive number one in the UK. His first two albums came by way of his band, Tubeway Army.
In 1976, then Gary Webb met bassist Paul Gardiner in a short-lived punk band called the Lasers. Splitting a year later, the two along with drummer Bob Simmonds formed Tubeway Army with a goal to fuse the amateurishness of punk with a newfound interest in synthesizers. Replacing Simmonds with his uncle, Jess Lidyard, and changing his name from Webb to Numan, this lineup recorded two singles, Thats Too Bad and Bombers for Beggars Banquet in 1978. Think robotic power pop meets the likes of Kraftwerk in a mosh pit.
Certainly influenced by Kraftwerk, Tubeway Army also exhibited characteristics associated with glam rocks experimental and electronic side seen in outfits like the John Foxx-led Ultravox and Roxy Music, and Bowies Berlin Trilogy, as well as Krautrock by way of Can and C(K)luster. Understanding that using synthesizers could help Tubeway Army break free of the clichés associated with punk, Numan began incorporating a mini-Moog synthesizer into the mix after finding one left behind in the studio. Free from punks limitations and avoiding any synth stigma via prog rock, Tubeway Armys self-titled debut helped lay the foundation (along with bands like Suicide and Futurisk) of what became synth-punk.
Considered by many as a transitional album, bridging the punky nature of the bands first two singles with the more familiar synth-driven material found on the bands second (and final TA album) Replicas and Numans later solo credited material, Tubeway Army is at once hard-driving proto-electro clash and coldly calculated robotic synth pop, coupled with a science fiction dystopia a la Philip K. Dick (The first line of album opener Listen to the Sirens lifts directly from Dicks novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said) and an oddly perverse perspective courtesy of William Burroughs seedy underworld.
The beginnings of Numans fascination with mystery, intrigue and espionage as seen in later songs like I, Assassin can be traced back to Tubeway Armys The Dream Police and Zero Bars (Mr. Smith). Other songs speak to male prostitution (Friends), teenage masturbation (the quirky and humorous Everyday I Die), and friendship with robots (Steel and You, complete with sci-fi effects leading into a blistering guitar riff). From singing about failed homosexual encounters on Jo the Waiter (one of the few acoustic numbers in Numans catalog) to living on life support (The Life Machine), there seem to be few topics that Numan is unwilling to tackle.
To speak well of Numan and Tubeway Armys contribution to todays musical landscape would be nothing less than understatement. With the electro-clash-punk-synth-pop-rock sounds of yesteryear returning via retro sounding outfits as well as newer artists evolving into fresher takes on the familiar, Numans influence is far greater than simply giving the world Cars. Listen to the guitar progression of My Shadow In Vain, which sounds like an early template for the Knacks My Sharona, or the intro to Friends, which rivals that of any Foreigner or Foghat track of the day, and youll see his influence did not need to wait 30 years to be felt. Regardless of the time period, Gary Numans contributions to music, either solo or with Tubeway Army, in both the electronic and rock idioms are unmistakable, undeniable, and unrivaled.