Live: Gary Numan, Columbia Theater, Berlin 2/6/22

My first gig was seeing Gary Numan (with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark as support) at a sold out Birmingham Odeon on his first major tour in 1979. He was riding high with his ‘The Pleasure Principle’ album at number one and the accompanying single, ‘Cars’ in the top ten after having already hit the top spot. It was something that I remember to this day, and set me on the road to experience live music for the rest of my life so far. What a first gig to have!

Despite feeling like I was at the centre of the pop universe at this gig I have since taken an awful lot of flack over the years for being a Gary Numan fan since his ‘downfall’ seemed quick. This, I think was a mixture of him being a young man subjected to the sort of money, adoration and scrutiny that many of us would have struggled with. The media certainly seemed to take against him, and this was difficult for someone who was subsequently diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome.

There were only five tracks that were common to both of these gigs, over forty years apart, and, to my surprise it was not these that I was most enamoured with… ‘Metal’, a particular favourite of mine, was great… an excellent rendition which retained its colder and bleaker elements… ’Films’ integrated well into the set, showing that Numan has maintained a certain consistency in terms of his personal outlook… and was perhaps a sign of things to come in terms of his relationship with showbusiness.

Then onto what might be called the three classics: ’Down in the Park’ was, and remains, an astounding track which stands the test of time very well… ’Are ’Friends’ Electric?, as I’ve written elsewhere, is one of my breakthrough songs and will always be special… and was a moment I enjoyed in my own way rather than the traditional audience participation. Then there’s ’Cars’, probably his most iconic number but, actually, I could have done without it… I understand the obligation to do it… but I wouldn’t have missed it. There was only one other older song, ’I Die: You Die’… which I first saw on his second tour in 1980… this was an absolute stonker which he and the band really belted out… excellent stuff.

Since then Numan stopped touring for a while… became something of a figure of fun in the media and moved to the States, well out of the spotlight but returning occasionally to tour and self-release albums on his own ’Numa’ label. My last interaction for some time being the incredible sold out gig at the Hammersmith Apollo at the end of his 1993 Dream Corrosion Tour… it felt like sales were dwindling… but this felt like a massive ’fuck you’ by a cult artist with a show to the ‘faithful’ that I still rank as one of my favourite gigs from that time… You can watch it here.

I took a lot of flack over the years in continuing to support Numan… and while the albums in the eighties and into the nineties weren’t classics (‘Dance’ was the last one I still listen to with any regularity) every one has tracks which still endure for me… but, eventually, things tailed off and I found new music to get into.

In the meantime, however, strange things began to happen and, slowly but surely, his reputation started to rise again… a mixture of new artists finding and sampling him, and the natural cycle of nostalgia revealed that much of Numan’s early work had stood the test of time and was being hailed for the groundbreaking work that I always knew it to be.

So to this extent I feel vindicated, and I hope that Numan does too because the flack that I took for liking him was nowhere near as bad a what he got for being him. He was at best ignored  and in many cases vilified by much of the mainstream media who did not seem to like to support artists who took as many risks as he did; following up the mega-selling ‘Cars’ with the electric ballad ‘Complex’ being a prime early example… but this is perhaps why he was still selling out shows to his rabidly loyal fan-base.

And that was it for a while… I saw that he had albums out now and again, and that he was playing… like other artists of his generation doing ’full-album’ tours… which, frankly, did not appeal to me. However, when ’Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind)’ came out in 2013 (a full 20 years after that Hammersmith gig) I was asked to review it…

In some ways it felt like coming home… I was pleased to see that Numan had retained his honesty and ability to channel his thoughts through his music… but there seemed to be a real maturity to what he was writing… the music itself seems to really reflect the depression and darkness that he has clearly experienced… and I could really relate to the introversion… where as before he tended to relay his experience through external things (cars, films, culture, society)… now it felt far more intimate and, for me, recognisable… I regularly listen to ’Splinter’ (I am now) and find a massive affinity with it.

Four years later he released ’Savage (Songs from a Broken World)’ in which he seemed to return to the outside world for material… once again picking up post-apocalyptic themes of his early work, there’s now far more of a realism here as the dystopias of the past become life of the foreseeable future… written pre-pandemic and pre-Ukraine this feels like something of a credible warning… but also such as ’My Name is Ruin’ is a massive and moving statement of what he has personally been through… the relationship between the personal and the global being intertwined in this album too… but also showing how he is coming to terms with his own issues…

Again, after a four year gap, came ‘Intruder’ in 2021… the album that he was essentially touring here… and I have to say that it is once again a cracker… full of self-reflective and considered thoughts on life and the world from someone who clearly thinks deeply about such matters… from someone who is not afraid to show the scars… Indeed, each of these albums seem to add another layer to who he sees himself as… and as someone who is just a few years younger than him… this is something that I admire hugely…

This is why I was very interested to see that he was playing Berlin while I was over there last week. Seeing that the gig was not sold out (although it must have been close) I rocked up to the Columbia Theater to see how these albums sounded live, and I have to say that I was blown away. These last three albums made up just short of half the set and, actually, I wouldn’t have been upset if the whole thing had been from Splinter/ Savage/ Intruder because they were translated brilliantly by a band who were really on it… and a front man who belied his years to put together a show that will live long in my memory… with particular highlights including: ‘Love Hurt Bleed’, ‘Here In The Black’, ‘Everything Comes Down To This’ (‘Splinter’); ’My Name Is Ruin’ (‘Savage’); ‘Intruder’, ’The Chosen’ (‘Intruder’)…

…but also gave me encouragement to go back to the tracks/ albums I’d ’missed’ over the years such as ’Pure’ and ‘Prayer for the Unborn’ from Pure (2000); and ’Resurrection’ and ’The Fall’ from Dead Son Rising (2011)… the latter of which I particularly liked…

Going to see Numan again after all these years felt like something of a reconnection with something from the past… although those old tracks really felt like fragments in a bigger and more complex picture… it felt that while I had moved on so had Numan, and I had found my way somehow back to his way of thinking… not through nostalgia, but through us both being men coming out of the top of middle age… not seeking to re-create old glories but living the moment and being reflexive in that moment.

I also felt a pang of resonance as we slowly come out of this pandemic… Numan’s music, it struck me, was well suited to reflect on the isolation of the past few years… of the collective trauma… and ecological disasters that should probably be occupying our minds more than they do… he is an artist that never quite seems to be in synch with the world… but at the moment he may, once again, be ahead of it…



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