These days, Electronic acts like Owl City and MGMT regularly top the charts without repercussion, but when Gary Numan released his pioneering synth-pop album The Pleasure Principle, he was savaged in the British Press for making what many critics felt was fraudulent music.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts)
More than 30 years later, Numan has won accolades from Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson and many others who cite him as an influence, even if he's considered a one-hit-wonder in America for "Cars."
Numan has a mild form of Asperger's Syndrome, and has said of his diagnosis, "I realized there was a reason for the way I see the world, which was a relief. I'm more comfortable around machines than people." Many with Asperger's exhibit extraordinary talent, as this alternate worldview can result in unusual creativity.
: When you were recording The Pleasure Principle
, did you sense something special?
: Not particularly. I felt really proud to be part of the electronic thing, in general. You know, it did feel as if it was at the very front end of something new and exciting. The albums that were being made by the electronic people felt as if they were important records, because it felt like an important time - as if this is a new door opening to what music had to offer. And I felt really proud to be just a small part of that. So when I was making Pleasure Principle
I didn't think much more than that. You know, this is just a very small piece of a period in time, but some new things happened there, and it opened doors, and it moved music forward just a little bit. It felt as if music had stagnated for a while; it had been very much variations of a similar theme: guitar, bass, drums, that kind of thing. And then when the electronic thing came along it felt as if a new chapter had been added to music. And with Pleasure Principle
, I felt as if I was one small part of that.
I didn't have any inkling that the album was going to be important in any way. It's kind of nice, especially in more recent years, people have started to talk about it in a very positive way - as being one of the key albums of that particular period: the late '70s, early '80s. It's a very cool thing for me to read that sort of thing. But at the time, no. There were plenty of people around that I thought were doing some really good stuff, and I always thought I was playing catch-up, to be honest.
: In the States, you're thought of by some as a one-hit wonder for "Cars." Does that frustrate you?
: (laughs) In a way it does. But you have to be realistic; better to have had one than none. On the other hand, it gives you that drive to keep on going, I suppose. I don't know, I mean, if even that's true. Because I do it because I love it. I think if having hit singles and that level of success is your reason for making music in the first place, then I would find that situation very frustrating if I only had one hit. But the truth is, I do it almost as a hobby. I've just been lucky that I've been able to earn a living from it for such a long time. Because if I didn't earn a living from it, I would still make exactly the same records, and write exactly the same songs. Even if the only ones that heard it were my mom and my dog. Success to me is like the cherry on top of the cake. I would do it anyway. I don't get that sense of frustration some other people might get, because I love doing it. The main reason I'm doing it now, at my age (52), is it really is as much a hobby to me as it is a profession. I just really enjoy it. So any success that comes along is very welcome, but it's not the reason I do it.
If an album goes out and it doesn't sell in large numbers, or in America it doesn't sell at all (laughs), I'm not devastated by that. I'm not sitting back thinking it's all a waste of time, because I just enjoyed making it in the first place. And luckily for me there's been other countries - the U.K. obviously - where things have gone differently and much better. And it's enabled me to keep on doing it, to keep on earning a living from it. So there is a mix of frustration, because it's an amazing country to be successful in. On the other hand, I don't feel as if my life has been diminished by not having an ongoing success there.
: Guitar is your primary instrument, and yet you're known as a synth-pop pioneer. Are people surprised when they find out that you're really more of a guitar guy at heart?
: Yeah, I think so. Most people think of me as synthesizing, electronic bass and so on. But I started out in a punk band. I didn't know anything about electronic music in 1977. I put my first proper band together, which was a 3-piece punk band, and we went out playing guitar, bass and drums. It was only going into a studio to make what should have been my first punk album, I stumbled across a synthesizer that was laying about in a corner, and had a go of it and loved it, and kind of changed there and then from being guitar based to being electronic based. But apart from Pleasure Principle
, strangely enough, the guitar has been in every album I've ever made, and yet the only instrument that I've still got that I've had since I was a kid is my guitar. It's the same guitar I've had since I was about 17.
: No kidding.
: Everything else, every synthesizer that I've ever bought has been and gone - they're almost like hammers and nails to me. They're tools to make noises, to make albums. I don't have any great love or affection for any particular synthesizer in the way that I do my guitar. Now, whether that's the nature of the guitar, and it's that much more physical, I'm really not sure. I get really excited about keyboards, and when a new one comes in and I start to integrate new sounds, I love it, and I'm very passionate about it. But when that album is done, when that machine fills up, when I feel I've got the most out of it, then I just get rid of it, and I have no affection for it whatsoever. But the thought I would ever get rid of my guitar is as unlikely as selling my mother - it would never happen. I'll take it to my grave, probably. I just feel a connection with it I don't feel with the synthesizers, with any keyboard, really.
: A lot of people compared The Pleasure Principle
to some of the music that Kraftwerk was making at that time. Was that a group that really excited you when you first heard them?
: It did a bit. But I never wanted to be like that. Kraftwerk has been purely electronic. I don't know if they've ever had a real instrument in any of their albums, and I didn't want that. I really loved electronic music, and I thought it was really cool, but I also loved guitar based drum bands - that's what I grew up with. I love the guitar, so I wanted to add an electronic element to a conventional lineup. My first two albums were guitar, bass, drums. Some of the songs on my second album, Replicas
, don't have keyboards. So I didn't go the technology route wholeheartedly, the way Kraftwerk had done. I considered it to be a layer. I added to what we already had, and I wanted to merge that. There's plenty of things about guitar players, and bass players, and songs I really love that I didn't particularly want to get rid of. The only time I did get rid of guitars was on Pleasure Principle
, and that was in fact a reaction to the press. I got a huge amount of hostility from the British press, particularly, when I first became successful. And Pleasure Principle
was the first album I made after that success happened. I became successful in the early part of '79 and Pleasure Principle
came out in the end of '79, in the U.K., anyway. And there was a lot of talk about electronic music being cold and weak and all that sort of stuff. So I made Pleasure Principle
to try to prove a point, that you could make a contemporary album that didn't have guitar in it, but still had enough power and would stand up well. That's the only reason that album didn't have guitar in it. But apart from that one album they've all had guitars - that was the blueprint.
: I think it's interesting that you say that you wanted to prove a point, that you could make electronic music that had some sort of warmth to it. Certainly, if your album didn't prove it, albums by the Human League and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark definitely proved that point. Do you feel vindicated now?
: Not really. As times evolved, my feelings about that have mellowed a lot. I understand now that when that music came along there were people that just genuinely didn't like it. It was just one of those things. It was quite a new sort of music, and there were people that just didn't get it the first time around. Strangely enough, in this country at least, the public kind of got it before the media did. I remember my second offering before Pleasure Principle
(Are 'Friends' Electric?
), and that was #1 here for I think 4 weeks. And it was on its third week at #1 that radio even started to playlist it, you know, there was a tremendous kind of resistance to it, people thought it was quirky here today, gone tomorrow. And at the time I felt like I was waving my flag, fighting for a cause. But now I look back on it, and I think very differently. So I'm just glad that it's evolved the way it has. I'm glad that the stuff I did in those days gets some recognition. I'm glad that the whole electronic thing found its feet and became a totally established part of music in general, and has been now for a good couple of decades or so. I think there's better music around because of it. The technology itself has come more than leaps and bounds. It's made a dramatic contribution to music in general, and I'm just proud that I played a small part in that.
: Some of the bands that I mentioned you had an influence on, have you had any chance to really talk to them, and have they told you what an impact your music has had on their evolution?
(Performing "Cars" with Nine Inch Nails)Gary
: Yeah, a fair bit. I imagine you get to talk to lots of people and so on, but myself, I read interviews other people have done and they'll mention me, and I had no idea that I'd been a part of it. And that's really, really cool. There was a brilliant documentary here some months back called Synth Britannia
, and there were lots of people on that talking about how the whole electronic thing exploded over here. And there were people being interviewed on there that would talk about me, and I just had no idea that I'd had that big an effect on them, and how they saw it. It was really interesting, it was actually very positive. There wasn't a great deal of negative jealousy or weirdness going on at all. It's nice to find out after some time that there are a range of people that have been affected by what you've done, or interested in what you've done. It's actually far wider than you thought. I remember the first time I started to hear about it was a way back when Marilyn Manson did a cover of one of my songs called "Down In a Park," and then I found out that Trent Reznor was into it, and the Foo Fighters had done a cover, and it just went on and on. It's been a most amazing thing, really, to keep hearing about the people that are doing cover versions. I was trolling around the other day for something totally unrelated and I came across a Youtube of Courtney Love's band, Hole, doing "Cars." I just thought, "Yeah." And there's a lot of that. It's very cool, and I don't take it for granted at all. I'm so totally blown away with a big grin on my face every time I hear that someone's done something like that. So it's not as if I'm kind of arrogantly expecting it. Quite the opposite.
And then, the thing that I'm proud of is this spread of different sorts of music that seem to have been able to take something from what I've done, from hip-hop to metal and pretty much everything in between. For an album, I'm just sitting in a seat trying to make something that I think is about the second or third best to most other things that were around at the time, just trying to catch up, really, and just have a part in it, it's very gratifying to see that it's had such an effect.
: Have you ever been asked to use the song "Cars" in any kind of an automobile advertisement? And if so, how did you react to that?
: Yeah, I'm up for that, actually. I think any use of it at all. I think Nissan used it in a campaign for America quite a long time ago now. And someone told me that General Motors did a 60-second ad for it, which is actually a rip-off of another ad, but really, really funny, during the commercial break of the Super Bowl about 10 years ago. It would be great if it happened again, though.
: What was it like touring for the re-issue of The Pleasure Principle
: Last year it was the 30th anniversary of the album going to #1 in the U.K., so we decided to do a tour just playing the songs on the album, to celebrate it, really. And then because of that the record company that owned the record decided to get involved. It's a really good thing they got involved, and they promoted the album and we did the tour, and it was a good experience, really. I'm not a big fan of doing retro things, but when it's such an important anniversary, and when an album's been around for that long, it seemed a worthwhile thing to do. And it was actually a lot more fun than I thought it was going to be. I didn't think I'd enjoy it that much, because I don't like playing lots and lots of old songs. But because on The Pleasure Principle
I play keyboards in every song - and I don't usually play that much live, I normally just do the singing - I felt more involved than I have for a while. Yeah, I'm still not a big fan of retro things, but it was a good experience.
We spoke with Gary on August 26, 2010