I’m going to put my cards on the table here. I’ve reached a mature and balanced stage of my life where I don’t hate Gary Numan. In fact, I reached that stage a while back. Because I recall very vividly the wall of hatred that Numan inspired among music journalists, fans of synth pop and even…David Bowie. But looking back now it seems completely out of proportion. The beating up in print of a performer whose work was very distinct and dare I say it – rather good. What was it with Gary Numan that rubbed some people up the wrong way so badly?
The main accusation – very damaging at the time but ridiculous in retrospect – was that Numan had somehow usurped David Bowie. He had snuck in with a Bowie-esque sound when Bowie wasn’t looking. As The Thin White Duke returned to the limelight after a period of absence at the end of the 1970s, Nick Kent on the NME told Gary Numan to get out of the way.
“…David Jones from Beckenham (Bowie in case you didn’t know) had returned from his sojourns out in left-field to claim his throne, the very chair your bum has been keeping warm in his Nib’s absence for – how long is it now? Two years, at least, eh?”
“…Ground control is evidently calling your number as I write in the same harsh, hollow cadence you yourself have utilised for your sound…”
It’s hard to remember now how Bowie was revered as a pop deity in the 70s. And during those periods where he seemed to disappear for a while – others who tried to fill the gap were likely to get a lashing from Bowie’s ultra-loyal acolytes. Back in 1974, Steve Harley – another musician I rather respect these days – got it in the neck for allegedly daring to assume Bowie’s mantle while the great man was elsewhere. What absolutely rubbish in retrospect.
But poor old Numan didn’t just get brickbats thrown at him by Bowie fans – no, David Bowie himself joined in!
In 1980, Bowie released the album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). It included a track titled Teenage Wildlife. The lyrics caused many eyebrows to raise:
A broken-nosed mogul are you
One of the new wave boys
Same old thing in brand new drag
Comes sweeping into view
As ugly as a teenage millionaire
Pretending it’s a whiz-kid world
Who was Bowie singing about? Some said it was a critique of his younger self. But others were convinced he was commenting on the New Wave perceived imitators of the late 1970s. And, to stop beating about the bush, fingers pointed at Gary Numan. It seems Numan himself was pretty sure Bowie was taking a pop at him as well. In a 1980 interview with the NME while he was playing the Elephant Man on stage, Bowie left little room for doubt that Numan was not his favourite musical act.
He was asked about Gary Numan, John Foxx and “all the other little Diamond Dog clones” that had arisen of late. On Foxx, he was vaguely complimentary. But then he turned to the vexed question of Numan:
“Numan? I really don’t know. I think what he did – that element of Saviour Machine – type things – I think he encapsulated that whole feeling excellently. He really did a good job on that kind of stereotype, but I think therein lies his own particular confinement. I don’t know where he intends going or what he intends doing, but I think he has confined himself terrifically. But that’s his problem, isn’t it?
What Numan did he did excellently but in repetition, in the same information coming over again and again, once you’ve heard one piece.
It’s rather sterile vision of a kleen-machine future again.
But that’s really so narrow. It’s that false idea of hi-tech society and all that which is… doesn’t exist. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that sort of society. It’s an enormous myth that’s been perpetuated unfortunately, I guess, by readings of what I’ve done in that rock area at least, and in the consumer area television has an awful lot to answer for with its fabrication of the computer-world myth.“
It’s a strange accusation from David Bowie that Gary Numan was TOO futuristic. And TOO convinced that we were on the verge of living in a “computer world”. Ironically, Kraftwerk – who definitely influenced Numan – would release an album by that name the following year, 1981. Bowie is often lauded these days for having predicted the full impact of the internet well in advance. But here he is mocking Numan for embracing the notion of a digital tomorrow.