“Bowie saw me as a little upstart stealing his thunder”

After a string of dates at Wembley Arena in April 1981, Gary Numan left the stage after announcing his retirement at the age of 23. It had been an incredible period, producing a string of hits, including two UK chart-toppers in 1979 with Are Friends. Electric? and Cars.

After three years in the public eye as a bona fide pop star, albeit an outsider and at the height of his fame, Numan seemed to be stopping there. He has performed sporadically since and is set to return to the stage with an extensive tour which includes a concert in Dublin later in May.

“I hope not to be frightened by all that is possible” admits Numan (64 years old), “it’s something I wanted to do since the last time. I remember walking off stage realizing I had made a terrible mistake. It’s been a long journey to get back to something that I regretfully threw away. This moment has become so important to me it’s almost overwhelming, it was almost a lifetime ago.

In the 1980s, these “final” shows came on the heels of solo success, and before that, ahead of Tubeway Army. Lines and two solo albums The Pleasure Principle and Telekon all helped create a significant cultural moment for Numan.

“It was a four-decade dream to get back to this level,” he said. “I don’t want to spoil, we just had a breakdown in America and had to shut down the show for ten minutes, I would hate for that to happen.”

A sense of dealing with his past added relief to this current tour in support of his 18th studio album Intruder. “I spent more money and put a lot of money into it. It’s the most spectacular stage show since Wembley and we’re shooting everywhere. This show is a way of saying thank you to the fans who feel the new success as much as I do.

His die-hard “Numanoids” fanbase has grown in number, whether it’s returning old cohorts or younger audiences discovering the singer. Well-known admirers have also played their part in recognizing Numan’s influence over the years. Among them Kurt Cobain and Prince, the Purple One suggested Replicas was an album in constant rotation during its formative years while Trent Reznor described Numan as “a vital influence on what came to shape the sound of Nine. Inch Nails”.

“It contributed immensely to my recovery in how I was seen by the public and the media,” suggests Numan. “It sparked the interest of people who had never listened to me before. With Trent, Bowie and Prince [referencing Numan] people wonder why all the fuss and there’s a pressure attached to those numbers that say they’re listening, you have to prove yourself and it was lucky it was in the mid-90s.

“I had made Sacrifice which was my best album for a long time. I was back in shape in terms of songwriting. If it had happened a few years before it could have been different, I would have made a album called Machine (+Soul) which was a big pile of shit. By the end of the 1980s, I had no money and my career was going nowhere.

A decade earlier, David Bowie had Numan removed from the studio while filming The Kenny Everett Show. It had been a painful experience for the lifelong Bowie fan. “I think he saw me as a little upstart who was stealing his thunder at the time, but I attributed to him that he was not well placed at that time. I have no bitterness about it and he more than made up for it later when he said I wrote two of the best songs in British music history, which is pretty cool. I’m just sad he wasn’t there more than anything, he was an absolute genius.

Numan’s attempts to write a science fiction novel helped inspire the cover art, lyrics, and general atmosphere of his work. “I loved writing stories since I was very little and it lends itself to songwriting,” Numan says. “I’ve never finished a novel but it’s a way of getting ideas out. Savage (Songs From A Broken World) began as a series of notes for a novel. I wanted to write about this character during a post-climatic apocalypse and how that affected the human condition.

The 2017 album would hit number 2 on the UK charts, giving Numan his biggest hit album since 1982. He suggests the same approach helped cultivate his seminal albums. “Replicas and The Pleasure Principle both started out as short stories, also Sacrifice.”

Gary Numan and his wife Gemma at the Q Awards in 2004. (Photo: PA/Yui Mok)

Numan’s robot aesthetic influenced by Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, several years before Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, aided the numanoid characters pictured on the replica cover art. It’s one of many covers that have stopped record buyers in their tracks.

“I do all the artwork and start with the vinyl,” says Numan, who previously revealed he has a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome. “It’s a more immersive experience and more in line with the artist’s intent. You are listening to a work that someone worked on for two years of their life, in everything from the cover art, all the interesting information, where it was recorded, the musicians who played on it, the lyrics, the credits and what people looked like, a good sleeve does it anyway.

While Numan has yet to complete a novel, his autobiography (R)evolution was released during the 2020 lockdown. It’s a refreshing change from the usual sex and drug stories. “When you’re around 60, you don’t want to talk about sleeping with women and drugs you either have or haven’t taken.”

He writes that he came close to death as a stunt pilot in World War II aircraft. “Almost everyone I knew was killed, it was too reckless for a hobby. I’ve since sold the plane but it was my whole life for a while, more than the music.

As a family man with three daughters, now based in Los Angeles, he says his wife Gemma put an end to Numan’s old hobby and he credits his involvement in rediscovering his love of music after a few difficult years. “When I met my wife, life changed and I started enjoying music again, thank God for that.”

(R)evolution reveals an encounter with another of Numan’s childhood heroes, Freddie Mercury. It proved more rewarding than meeting The Thin White Duke. “I was in Japan working with this other band and got dropped at the last minute. I saw Queen playing and decided to buy a ticket.

Numan caused a stir when Japanese fans quickly recognized him. “I was rescued by Queen’s security and adopted for the night. They took me to this sushi place where Freddie started courting, he must have told 1,000 stories and was all just brilliant, very articulate and entertaining. I was blown away by the whole thing because I was a huge fan. He noticed I wasn’t eating because I don’t like sushi. I told him I was “as good as gold” and that I would go for a McDonald’s later.

“The next thing was he handed me a McDonalds, he had sent their limo driver to get one. I couldn’t believe he would do that. I had previously met them at the Rainbow Theater in London when I was a teenager, most of the bands were direct but they spent time with the fans.”

Numan says he learned an important lesson in the way Queen looked after their fans. “You can be a larger than life superstar and still be a decent human being and treat people with respect. I’ve never forgotten that.”

  • Gary Numan will perform at the Olympia Theater in Dublin on Tuesday May 24

Elizabeth J. Harless