Live Report: Gary Numan

The Middle East, Cambridge, Mass., May 4, 1998

First there was the Damned, reuniting in the wake of Offspring's Batman Forever cover of their "Smash It Up" for a club tour in early '98. Then we had Bow Wow Wow, relaunching their career for no apparent reason with a club tour just a couple months ago. And now it's Gary Numan's turn to see if the kids in America still remember his proto-synthpop new-wave hit "Cars" from its heyday in heavy rotation on early-Eighties radio.

All three acts played the 600-capacity downstairs room at the Middle East, an indie club that doesn't usually get a lot of nostalgia bookings. And all three sold the room out. But it was Numan who brought in the most outwardly serious and devoted fans, including a mass of goth guys and girls who crowded around the stage to obediently mouth the words to every one of the set's eighteen tunes while politely reaching up to touch the star.

You see, unlike the Damned, Bow Wow Wow and countless other British punk and post-punk hitmakers, Numan never really went away. He's been steadily recording and releasing albums for over two decades now -- in England. Here in the U.S., it's been more than ten years since a new Numan disc had any kind of licensing deal. But a Numan renaissance has been quietly in the works for two years. First, there was the Foo Fighters' cover of Numan's "Down In the Park" on the Songs in the Key of X collection of "music from and inspired by the X Files." That came out in 1996, the same year that a British beer commercial helped put "Cars" back on the charts on Numan's native turf.

Then Numan's old label, Beggars Banquet, released Random, a two-CD tribute featuring the Orb, the Magnetic Fields, Jesus Jones and a collaboration between Weezer's Matt Sharp and Blur's Damon Albarn covering old Numan fare like "Are 'Friends' Electric," "Down In the Park" and, of course, "Cars." And now, with Numan back in the States with a new CD, Exile, out on the goth-inclined indie Cleopatra, Beggars is gearing up to re-release four Numan classics with bonus tracks -- Replicas, Tubeway Army, The Pleasure Principle and Telekon -- in June.

From the stage at the Middle East, Numan didn't mention any of those recent career developments or even the fact that he's finally got a U.S. CD on the market. He paused only to say the occasional "Thank you," and seemed just about as stunned as anyone by the genuine enthusiasm emanating from the crowd. Numan was, however, quite a bit more engaging than the old robotic Numan of the Eighties, who was infamous for relying on some of the most elaborate stage props since ELO to get his songs across.

Dressed from boot to collar in black, as was the rest of his band (a drummer, a guitarist, a keyboard player and a keyboardist/guitarist who employed one of those vintage guitar-shaped synths on a couple of tunes), Numan has reinvented himself for the Nineties as a guitar-thrashing, head-banging techno-goth industrialist, an ersatz denizen of Trent Reznor's downward spiral.

That didn't keep him from playing any of the old hits. After warming up with a couple new tunes, he cast his guitar aside and launched into a metal-ized version of "Cars," which segued directly into the somewhat lesser-known but almost as familiar sounding oldie "Films." "Down In the Park" appeared later in the set, as did "Metal" and "Are 'Friends' Electric." Unfortunately, none of Numan's newer material came close to matching the appeal of the classics, but it still beats the hell out of the tepid A Flock of Seagulls reunion.