Graded on a Curve:
Gary Numan, Replicas, The Pleasure Principle, Telekon

Out of the UK’s punk scrap yard came Gary Numan, first as part of the ever more synth-imbued Tubeway Army and then as a solo artist for a long string of albums. His chart dominance in the waning moments of the ‘70s was fleeting but huge, and his most commercially successful run of LPs detail a pop-savvy artist of much deeper value than his hit singles; Replicas, The Pleasure Principle and an expanded Telekon see vinyl reissue in the US on December 11.

Gary Webb started out in the bands Mean Street and The Lasers; recording with neither (Mean Street waxed one song after his exit for the Live at the Vortex comp LP), after departing the latter with bassist Paul Gardiner they formed Tubeway Army with Webb’s uncle Jess Lidyard in the drum chair. Promptly signed by Beggars Banquet, with Webb on guitar they initially dished out beefy Bowie-influenced punk, the singles “That’s Too Bad” and “Bombers” later compiled with a mess of demos from the same era as The Plan.

It’s a cool acquisition for serious punk collectors, but ’78’s Tubeway Army was even better. By the point of its release Webb had adopted the name Gary Numan (he’d briefly wielded the handle Valerian) but his signature sound was still in development, the debut augmenting the punk excursions (which occasionally leaned into a hard rock/glam merger) and sci-fi themes (impacted by Phil K. Dick and William Burroughs) with interjections from a Minimoog discovered in the studio by Numan after recording began.

Tubeway Army is very good record with a few excellent spots and conversely a handful of lags; ‘79’s Replicas is more fully-formed, and while the group’s name remains on the cover it’s flanked by Numan’s on later editions; the LP is clearly his show and any doubts over such will be quickly dispelled by the icy/edgy opener “Me! I Disconnect from You.”

Replicas commences what Numan has termed his “machine trilogy” (completed by the LPs considered below) and part of the music’s enduring appeal is its preoccupation with the dark and dystopian rather than the slick and escapist (elements that hindered synth-pop as it marched into the ‘80s); this disposition is even apparent (though less so) on his UK No. 1 single “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”

It’s followed on Replicas by the rocking, rubbery synth menace of “The Machman.” Likewise, “Praying to the Aliens” marries strangeness to a warm driving beat; that Numan maintained an interest in organic sounds as he embraced technology is another strong point. “Down in the Park” slows the tempo and widens the landscape through ample keyboard cascades as “You Are in My Vision” immediately picks up the pace on the flip, serving as exemplary synth-punk.

A large part of Numan’s popularity surely derived from the sheer newness of his sound, but he of course stemmed from precedent; alongside Bowie the influences include Kraftwerk and perhaps more importantly the John Foxx-era of Ultravox. The title-track considerably underlines the level of ambition, though “It Must Have Been Years” somewhat backslides into Tubeway Army territory. But Replicas finishes very strongly with a pair of contrasting instrumentals, the upbeat “When the Machines Rock” followed by the slower, lengthier soundscape of the terrific “I Nearly Married a Human.”

In terms of pop artistry, The Pleasure Principle is Numan’s strongest statement, though even as he temporarily eschewed guitars for the album his avoidance of any jarring breaks from Replicas is impressive; instead, he seemingly just picked up where the previous disc left off through the superb instrumental “Airlane.” His second album of ’79, the music was formulating fast and was all the better for it.

Less dark than its predecessor, The Pleasure Principle retains edge in part through Numan’s tactic of running the synths through guitar effects pedals. “Airlane” glistens but also reverberates as it draws the listener in, and “Metal” combines the motif with sturdy writing and vocal presence. “Complex” slows to ballad tempo but distinctively adds violin and viola and “Films” is as sonically layered as it is rhythmically powerful. “M.E.” reestablishes the synth-punk angle with threads of pop to close side one.

Side two’s opener “Tracks” nods to Numan’s increased use of piano, though for the majority of its running time it’s amongst the record’s more vigorous entries. “Observer” and “Conversation” are deep studies in synth reverb, a slight sameness in writing kept lively by the drums of Cedric Sharpley (replacing Uncle Jess) and momentary assertions of violin. “Cars” remains Numan’s biggest hit, withstanding overplay through unconventionality and fitting into The Pleasure Principle sans disruption or qualitative dip. “Engineers” closes strongly via electro throb, Sharpley’s traps, and Numan’s voice.

Telekon is sometimes praised as Numan’s best work; given the ratio of success to ambition that’s understandable. Failing to extend Numan’s brief appearance on the US charts, the LP is bolder in conception while being at times more contemplative, “This Wreckage” beginning the record with a combination of both.

The punk edge lingering during The Pleasure Principle is essentially absent and as illustrated by numerous five-minute-plus song lengths so is the chart-inclined sensibility, though Telekon can’t be accused of lacking accessibility; to the contrary, “The Aircrash Bureau” is a gem of synth-driven art-pop. The title track and “Sleep by Windows” both flirt with the chilly/woozy ambiance of the prior albums, but “Remind Me to Smile”’s rendezvous with the funky, while thankfully eschewing the overzealous, ultimately isn’t much more than passable.

“I’m an Agent” connects as a likeable distillation of Numan’s writing style; it’s followed by “I Dream of Wires,” its drifting aura springing to life mid-way through. “Remember I Was Vapour” is a spacious piano-shaped investigation of common themes and it concludes side two strongly. Keyboard gets employed with less vigor on the fairly standard neo-balladry of side three’s opener “Please Push No More” but the atmosphere picks up through the superb blend of synth and chamber strings in the standout “The Joy Circuit.”

In its original configuration, Telekon is the least of these albums, if not by a particularly wide margin and mainly through unevenness. But the extra material expanding this vinyl pressing to double length does lend a minor boost, especially the two singles cut during the album’s sessions but released beforehand, namely the ragged guitars and swooning Moog of “We Are Glass” and the advanced synth-pop of “I Die: You Die.”

Even better are three b-sides; there’s Numan’s take on the first movement of Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies” (backing “We Are Glass”) plus two additional instrumental originals, the superb piano and baroque synth of “Photograph” (the flip to “This Wreckage”) and a gorgeous solo keyboard rendition of Replica’s “Down in the Park” (the other end of the “I Die: You Die” 45). Filling out the program is the worthwhile outtake “A Game Called Echo” and two remixes.

Innovators often struggle with longevity, but Numan’s had a long career and is indeed still active. Residing at the crossroads of punk, new wave, pop and electronics, the albums detailed above constitute the apex of his oeuvre.




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