One of the founding fathers of synth pop, Gary Numan's influence extends far beyond his lone American hit, "Cars," which still stands as one of the defining new wave singles.
That seminal track helped usher in the synth pop era on both sides of the Atlantic, especially his native U.K., where he was a genuine pop star and consistent hitmaker during the early '80s. Even after new wave had petered out, Numan's impact continued to make itself felt; his dark, paranoid vision, theatrically icy alien persona, and clinical, robotic sound were echoed strongly in the work of many goth rock and (especially) industrial artists to come. For his part, Numan just kept on recording, and by the late '90s he'd become a hip name to drop; prominent alt-rock bands covered his hits in concert, and a goth-flavored brand of industrial dance christened darkwave looked to him as its mentor.
Numan was born Gary Anthony James Webb on March 8, 1958, in the West London section of Hammersmith. A shy child, music brought him out of his shell; he began playing guitar in his early teens and played in several short-lived bands. Inspired by the amateurism of the punk movement, he joined a punk group called the Lasers in 1976. The following year, he and bassist Paul Gardiner split off to form a new group, dubbed Tubeway Army, with drummer Bob Simmonds; they recorded a couple of singles under futuristic pseudonyms (Valerium [or Valerian], Scarlett, and Rael, respectively) that attempted to match their new interest in synthesizers. Scrapping that idea, Webb rechristened himself Gary Numan and replaced Simmonds with his uncle Jess Lidyard. Thus constituted, Tubeway Army cut a set of punk-meets-Kraftwerk demos for Beggars Banquet in early 1978, which were released several years later as The Plan. That summer, Numan sang a TV commercial jingle for jeans, and toward the end of the year the group's debut album, Tubeway Army, appeared. Chiefly influenced by Kraftwerk and David Bowie's Berlin-era collaborations with Brian Eno, the album also displayed Numan's fascination with the electronic, experimental side of glam (Roxy Music, Ultravox) and Krautrock (Can), as well as science fiction writer Philip K. Dick.
The group's second album, Replicas, credited to Gary Numan & Tubeway Army, was released in early 1979. Its accompanying single, "Are 'Friends' Electric?," was a left-field smash, topping the U.K. charts and sending Replicas to number one on the album listings as well. (The record also included "Down in the Park," an oft-covered song that stands as one of Numan's most gothic outings.) Numan had become a star overnight, despite critical distaste for any music so heavily reliant on synthesizers, and he formed a larger backing band that replaced Tubeway Army, keeping Gardiner on bass. The Pleasure Principle was released in the fall of 1979 and spawned Numan's international hit "Cars," which reached the American Top Ten and hit number one in the U.K.; the album also became Numan's second straight British number one. He put together a hugely elaborate, futuristic stage show and went on a money-losing tour, and also began to indulge his hobby as an amateur pilot with his newfound wealth.
Numan returned in the fall of 1980 with Telekon, his third straight chart-topping album in Britain, and scored two Top Five hits with "We Are Glass" and "I Die: You Die"; "This Wreckage" later reached the Top 20. In 1981, Numan announced his retirement from live performance, playing several farewell concerts just prior to the release of Dance. While Dance and its lead single, "She's Got Claws," were both climbing into the British Top Five, Numan attempted to fly around the world, but in a bizarre twist was arrested in India on suspicion of spying and smuggling. The charges were dropped, although authorities confiscated his plane. His retirement proved short-lived, but when he returned in 1982 with I, Assassin, some of his popularity had dissipated -- perhaps because of the retirement announcement, perhaps because the charts were overflowing with synth pop, much of which was already expanding on Numan's early innovations (which were starting to sound repetitive). I, Assassin was another Top Ten album, and "We Take Mystery (To Bed)" another hit, but in general Numan's singles were starting to slip on the charts; the title track of 1983's Warriors became his last British Top Ten hit.
Numan and Beggars Banquet subsequently parted ways, and Numan formed his own Numa label, kicking things off with Berserker in late 1984. (Sadly, longtime collaborator Paul Gardiner died earlier that year from a drug overdose.) Released in 1985, The Fury became the final Numan album to reach the British Top 20. Over the next few years, Numan collaborated occasionally with Shakatak's Bill Sharpe, releasing four singles from 1985-1989. Following 1986's Strange Charm, Numan signed with IRS, but the relationship was fraught with discord from the start. IRS forced Numan to change the title of 1988's Metal Rhythm to New Anger for his first North American release since 1981 (and also remixed several tracks), refused to release his soundtrack for the film The Unborn, and would not fund any supporting tours for New Anger or 1991's Outland. When his contract expired, Numan returned to Numa for 1992's Machine + Soul.
The industrial-tinged Sacrifice, the first glimmering of Numan's return to critical favor and underground hipness, was released in 1994. Over the next few years, bands like Hole, the Foo Fighters, and Smashing Pumpkins covered Numan songs in concert, and Marilyn Manson recorded "Down in the Park" for the B-side of the "Lunchbox" single; moreover, Nine Inch Nails cited Numan as an important influence. With his fan base refreshed and expectations raised, Numan delved deeper into gothic, metal-tinged industrial dance on 1997's Exile. However, he didn't truly hit his stride in this newly adopted style until 2000's Pure, which was acclaimed as his best work in years and expanded his cult following into new territory. Into the new millennium, a number of Gary Numan compilations hit the shelves, as well as 2003's Hybrid, which found him reworking and modernizing his earlier pop hits. Jagged was released in 2005, and incorporated more of an industrial goth sound. The album was co-produced and co-written with Ade Fenton, who returned for the 2011 follow-up Dead Son Rising. That same year he appeared on Gloss Drop from post-rock group Battles, lending his vocals to the album's "My Machines" single. In 2013 he released his 20th studio album, Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind). ~ Steve Huey, Rovi