Gary Numan Brings the Joy of Doom to Union Transfer
by John Diliberto 12/7/2017
At dinner the other night, I told a friend of a friend that I was going to see Gary Numan.
“Cars?” she responded.
“Yeah,” I said, “but he sounds more like Nine Inch Nails now.”
“Oh, I like them,” she enthused.
Of course, those who don’t think Gary Numan fell off the map around 1980, know that it was Numan’s music that had influenced Trent Reznor’s vision for Nine Inch Nails in the first place.
Gary Numan could’ve easily settled into the novelty act nostalgia circuit, riding 80’s pop hits like “Cars.” But instead, every album from 1982’s I, Assassin on, Gary Numan kept digging deeper, getting harder, pushing the edges. Until now, you would never recognize the Gary Numan of “Cars”, although if you peel the synthetic skin back, you’ll still see the roots of this sound in his second album, Replicas. I wasn’t surprised at this. I’d seen Numan live at the Mountain Oasis Music Festival in 2013. He came out clad in black leather and ready to roar. The 59-year-old musician has lost none of his energy.
Numan took the stage with his quintet at Union Transfer in Philadelphia, a perfect, Matrix-like venue with a high stage, surrounding balcony, and bare, vaulted rafters. He drenched the audience in smoke and then lit it so they looked like they were floating in a sea of mist, heads and cell phones barely bobbing to the surface.
The band came on stage in off-white tunics, looking like the Garbage Pail People in Walking Dead, or name your post-apocalyptic film. Lights and strobes cut across the audience from the stage, immersing everyone in a world of haze and doom, and then Numan launched into the portentous groove of “Ghost Nation” the first track from his latest album, Savage (Songs from a Broken World).
Numan danced like he was at a tribal stomp, leaping, twisting, clawing at the sky and crouching in attack. He played most of the songs from Savages, drew several from the later part of his career and dropped-in some of his early work, including a roaring “Are Friends Electric?” and darkly poignant “Down in the Park” from Replicas, and “Metal” and “M.E.” from The Pleasure Principle. It took the audience several moments to recognize these old songs, because Numan has intensified the arrangements, made the rhythms more crushing and sings them with an angst he didn’t have in 1980.
The old songs from nearly 40 years ago sounded just as contemporary as his latest music, but his lyrics have gotten darker and more pointed. He’s moved from Philip Dick-inspired dystopia to more pointed lyrics tackling religion and politics on songs like “Ghost Nation” and the marching grooves of “When the World Comes Apart.” A bit a sameness crept in, as Numan used drop-outs and false endings frequently, often fooling the audience. But his kinetic, possessed performance and the strobing lights maintained the energy for all of his 90 minutes.
And yes, he did perform “Cars”, although it’s now “Cars” on heavy metal steroids. Gary Numan is more vital now than he was in his youth 1979, and that early music is even more influential.