Monday, October 11, 2010

Metal by Gary Numan

Many of the posts I've made recently are more concerned with the early synthpoppers than with those who came out when the genre was more fully defined and mainstream. This would seem odd, since I came across the genre more fully in those later years, and actually missed much of the beginnings of it, but I'm a person who's always been interested in roots and beginnings, and for my own reasons, I've done quite a bit of exploring in the earliest synthpop and the acts that preceded it.

I don't think it's any secret that Brian Eno (and his work in art rock with Brian Ferry of Roxy Music, as well as his production of David Bowie's Berlin trilogy of albums) was hugely influential on later synthpop followers, as was the entire krautrock movement, but most especially Kraftwerk. Kraftwerk are often considered the godfathers of electronic music, and synthpop, industrial, techno, electro and even hip-hop. Kraftwerk, for that matter, were hugely influential on Bowie's Berlin trilogy itself. But Kraftwerk was not synthpop, and it took a number of enterprising young artists who were intrigued or captivated by the artistic approach Kraftwerk took and then fused that influence with pop music structure and the punchy, single-driven feel of the punk movement to really create synthpop itself. While Ultravox's "Hiroshima Mon Amour" is often called the first true synthpop song, it wasn't a big hit, and neither was their follow-up album, often called the first true synthpop album, Systems of Romance.

I recently read an interview with Paul Humphries and Andy McClusky of OMD, who while reminiscing about those early days, said that they weren't initially aware of there being any scene of synthpop New Wave; they thought that their condensing of Kraftwerk down into something more poppish and accessible was a unique thing. McClusky specifically remarks that he was devastated to discover that other people were doing the same thing at the same time. Interestingly, he also remarked that while speaking to Phil Oakey, he remarked that he was similarly devastated to discover that the Human League wasn't unique.

Of course, that phase couldn't have lasted long. Although early Ultravox, Human League and even OMD releases were not hugely successful, by later in 1979, Gary Numan hit #1 on the singles charts twice with "Are Friends Electric?" and "Cars" both of which were more overtly Kraftwerkian than anything OMD was doing, or even that early Human League was doing. Not long after, electronic success in the charts was a regular occurance, and it happened to (among others) OMD, Ultravox and the Human League, although in many cases after they toned down their bleak, Kraftwerk-like coldness and embraced a warmer, more pop-like sensibility. And Kraftwerk themselves had some inadvertent success when an older single, "The Model", was re-released in Britain and performed relatively admirably.

But briefly, in the latest 70s and very early 80s, that cold, computerized, dehumanized futurism vibe permeated much of what was going on in electronic music. Before splitting up and recording Dare, the Human League had a cold, dehumanized, sound. Some of the early Ultravox tracks exhibited it in spades, and John Foxx's Metamatic was probably the best single example of it recorded. Sadly, Foxx's work was undercut by the success of Gary Numan, who's sense of showmanship and his persona of the dehumanized android performing electronic music from Replicas and The Pleasure Principle captured the public's interest and made short-lived big money by being heavily influenced by a number of New Wave science fiction writers who went on to become very influential in their own fields (John Foxx commented about Metamatic that he was reading way too much J. G. Ballard that year.) In this sense, oddly, the music preceded the revolution in science fiction of cyberpunk; Gary Numan, John Foxx and others writing what could be the soundtrack for cyberpunk five years before the release of William Gibson's Neuromancer. This futurist synthpop sound could almost be called the first cyberpunk soundtrack, predating the crystalization of the genre in print by just a few years.

My favorite Gary Numan song was always "Metal" which is probably one of the darkest songs on the The Pleasure Principle, and a major fan and cult favorite, despite not ever having been released as a single (in fact, in the US at least, it was the b-side to "Cars.") It was also heavily influenced by science fiction writing, particularly Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for the movie Blade Runner) and the work of William S. Burroughs. Afrika Bombaataa covered it as a weird New Wave hip-hop fusion, using Numan himself to re-record the vocals. Nine Inch Nails made an intriguing cover of the song, and Gary Numan himself completely re-recorded it, updated with new technology, as the 90s rolled over into the 00s. All of these subsequent versions lack the delicate fragility of the original, though, and while I like them, they stand a bit apart from the 1979 version.

Gary Numan: Metal
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