Numan’s career’s seen as many ups and downs as one of his flying displays (he was, by all accounts, one of the best aerobatic pilots around), from slightly scary synthpop pioneer through to, well, slightly scary industrial rock god. Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s he fell seriously out of favour and by his own admission made some dodgy albums. Then, as so often happens if you stick around long enough, he started to get the credit he deserved with everyone from Dave Grohl and Jarvis Cocker to (somewhat bizarrely) Kanye West outing themselves as full on Numanoids. Judging by the look of many of the hardcore fans here tonight (an impressive number of whom were sporting t-shirts from the ghosts of tours past) it’s still Numan v1.0 that’s the big draw and given the fact that he’s not hugely fond of looking back this tour’s an all too rare chance to hear all of the classic hits plus some rarely played gems all in one go.
First up though Leeds 4 piece Officers provide the perfect Numan warm up. In fact it would be pretty hard to come up with a better band to get you in the Numan mood. Whilst their musical touchstones include a bit of NIN, Ministry and maybe even a little Einstürzende Neubauten they’re clearly Numan’s children and pick of the set, Co-education, with its “machine, machine” refrain is one of the best blends of synth and rock around right now. The band’s currently raising the profile of a charity called CALM, designed to tackle the rising tide of suicides amongst men under 35, and they were giving away limited edition CDs in exchange for donations. A worthy cause from a band well worth checking out.
As the NOOOMANNOOOMANNOOOMAN chants built in volume the lights dimmed and, like a visiting deity he appeared dressed all in regulation black. He seems in great shape, a lean, mean rock machine, only the extraordinary hair (some kind of nylon weave?) giving the game away that he’s now in his mid 50’s. Curiously many of tonight’s songs still sound pretty fresh too. Of course he sounded well ahead of his time back in the day, like some kind of bizarre robot beamed back from the future to scare the bejesus out of young children watching Top Of The Pops. Those early hits paved the way for the whole synthpop scene (Soft Cell, Human League, Heaven 17, Depeche Mode and co) before he moved in a rockier direction, again opening things up for the likes of Nine Inch Nails. As you’d expect given it formed most of his career tonight was overwhelmingly rocky from the broodingly brilliant Berserker through to the more industrial sounding stuff like RIP (albeit with a surprisingly funky sounding bassline this evening).
Frequently anointing himself with water throughout the gig there’s something slightly messianic about the performance, with Numan himself even pulling the odd arms outstretched crucifixion pose. Given the adoration of his fans it wouldn’t take a huge leap to imagine some kind of Numanic religion springing up a la L Ron Hubbard, despite Gary’s avowed atheism.
Showing that the tin man has a heart Numan was joined by Russell Bell and Chris Payne part way through the set (members of his old backing band Dramatis) to play a moving version of Love Needs No Disguise in tribute to fellow band member Cedric Sharpley who died back in March. It was great to hear some violin in the mix, adding a more human touch to what was clearly an emotional track for them to play.
The distinctly Japan sounding Warriors (from 83’s album of the same name) hinted at the era we were heading back to for the latter part of the set and, for the more casual Numan fan, this was where the nuggets lay. I Die You Die saw Numan wreathed in stark monochromatic lighting with an old school TDK 90 Tape unravelling behind him. Tape, that’s one thing from the ‘80s that can well and truly stay there. Ugh! The hours we spent trying to respool several hundred feet of tape using a pencil. The swirling synths of We Are Glass still sound like they’ve been beamed back from the 22nd century, a feeling aided as ever by Numan’s distinctive half man, half machine vocals.
Teasing the crowd with a pounding run through 2007’s Healing (showing the industrialists that Numan can still cut it) the encore and gig ended with the big crowd pleasers and whether you’re a Numanoid or not it’s impossible to deny the power of a souped up Cars (sounding much rockier than in its original in-car-nation). Despite throwing himself around for the best part of two hours Numan’s still had some mileage left in the tank and it’s a lively performance, distinctly at odds from the days when he just stood and glared at you from behind a keyboard.
In 2012 the idea behind Are Friends Electric? (tonight benefitting from a pleasingly different piano driven reboot) is arguably so much more relevant than it was 30 odd years ago. With millions of people finding it easier to connect with the world through a screen and an increasing number of us zombified by our mobiles (hell, some people seemed to watch the whole gig through the screen of their shitty phones) this hymn to alienation could’ve been written last week. “You see this means everything to me” sang Numan, his arms sweeping out in front of him to the audience and a gentle smile playing across his face. For the hundreds of fans still chanting NOOOMAN as he left this stage the feeling’s clearly mutual.