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I remember the first time I saw Gary Numan. It was 1979 and he was performing on Saturday Night Live. I was all of 12 years old, but I knew that this was something special.
Remember, this was before music videos, before the internet, before the 100 channels of cable TV. One learned of music from the radio. If one were older and cooler, perhaps one learned from friends or from imported British music magazines.
Disco had recently died. Light metal was the local craze. If you weren’t a thug with overly greased hair and pants so tight that your testicles popped out, then you had no place in the youth culture of my neighbourhood.
The schoolyard was abuzz the day after the SNL performance. For some of us, this was eye opening indeed. It was a glimpse into a foreign world of science fiction and creativity that was well beyond the buffoonish caricatures of guitar youth culture of the time. In Gary Numan, I saw a youth culture that spoke to me.
Looking back, it seems silly. Today, British New Wave is remembered mostly for being a pretentious product of skinny geeks in plastic clothing and with a penchant for being weird for weird’s sake.
Regardless, 1979 was one of the most interesting years ever, for a lot of reasons. One of those was the rise of Gary Numan, who introduced the world to “rock’n’roll without guitars”, otherworldly synthopop, and a new kind of electric geek cool. Interestingly, part of Numan’s appeal was his detached cool… which it seems might have been due to Asperger’s Syndrome!
Here‘s a link to an early performance by Gary’s band, Tubeway army, of “Are Friends Electric”, a truly groundbreaking song. It has no hook or chorus; but if you listen deeply, you’ll hear its Blues origins.
There are literally scores of covers of the song. Numan himself produced countless versions. Here‘s a recent version by Numan and another band called Little Boots.