Gary Numan - Forerunner of the Emo Genre

If you'll indulge me for a moment, I thought it would be fun to look at some music history and give you a laugh at a particular subgenre that used to be enormously popular, why it was important decades later, and where it's at now.

Smile

During the late 70s/early 80s, British New Wave and Synth Pop rose from the ashes of the quickly collapsing British Punk era. For what it's worth - I hated 1970s British Punk. I thought that the bulk of what that genre produced was absolute crap. However, several extremely popular bands emerged out of British Punk's decline; for example: U2, The Police, The Cure, Joy Division, and a host of other artists. Part of what made the British New Wave scene enormously successful was a heavy dependence on an explosion of new synthesizer technologies during the advent of the digital age. These new types of synthesizers were extremely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, but British Synth Pop bands used them differently than their American counterparts. For example, see bands like Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, Yazoo, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Erasure, etc.

FWIW - the following Synth Britannia documentary is an excellent expository about the British Synth Pop genre. It's long, but it's amusing, and it's pretty nostalgic for those who listened to British New Wave during its heyday.

However, there was one artist who had a slightly different take than his musical contemporaries, and that was a vocalist named Gary Numan. He had a string of hits, and I will freely admit that his style is probably not most people's cup of tea. That being said, for a good example of Numan when he first hit the music scene in the late 1970s, see the following performance of his "Are Friends Electric" on BBC's "Top of the Pops," which was the TV show that you were invited to play in England when you had "arrived" as a musician. (PS - A lot of British artists became superstars overnight after playing on "Top of the Pops.")

As I said, Numan probably isn't many people's style, but that video is really funny when you think about it from an 80s perspective; the weird costumes, the strange lyrics, Numan's odd voice, and a plethora of synthesizers. And this is where Numan seemed to create his own subgenre that was a departure from his fellow synth-based colleagues, which we liked to refer to as "Science Fiction Rock" at the time, because there was something otherworldly about his approach.

However, recently Numan revealed that he has Asperger syndrome, which makes his success even more amazing. Performances like "Top of the Pops" might have been somewhat easier for Numan, because they were in a tightly controlled environment. Yet Numan was required to tour to sell albums, which makes performances like the following example all the more spectacular when you consider how hard it was for someone with Asperger syndrome to be in front of thousands of people.

I still freely admit that this additional video is probably even less appealing to many people. Although it's interesting, because it shows something that happened at a lot of his shows: he would spontaneously start laughing, but not lose his place. I think I heard Numan laugh on every live recording of him from back in the early 80s. I had always assumed that he was simply enjoying himself as a performer, but now I wonder if it was more of a coping mechanism of Asperger's.

Jumping ahead a few years in the music world, you can see how Numan was the progenitor for the later Emo genres. For example, here is "Are Friends Electric" in 1989, which is ten years after his "Top of the Pops" performance.

And the same song in 2003, which 20+ years later than his TOTP performance.

Note that I am using live versions of the same song simply to illustrate Numan's evolution over the years, and how he was always "Emo" before the industry caught up with him.

All of that brings us today's world. A good friend of mine from my late 70s/early 80s high school days just sent me the following video of Numan performing "Are Friends Electric" from a few years ago.

I find it admirable that Numan is still performing despite his having Asperger syndrome; although to be honest, his more recent live videos have seemed as though he's a little less socially awkward in front of a crowd. Regardless, it's clear that he's still willing to evolve musically. But if it hadn't been for artists like Numan (and a few artists like him - e.g. Morrissey), we probably wouldn't have had the Emo genre. (That could be good -or- bad, depending on whether you like Emo. Personally, I think it has it's place.)

I mentioned earlier that I wanted to use Numan's performances of "Are Friends Electric" over the past 40 years just to chart how Numan changed and evolved musically, but I think it's worth taking a complete departure and showing some of the cool things that Numan has done more recently; like last year for example. To see what I mean, take a look at the following videos.

 

Personally, I think Emo music with Middle Eastern themes and an orchestra/choir works for Numan. His music is probably not most people's style, of course, and it's not necessarily my style, either. That being said, I still think it's... interesting.


UPDATE: The Synth Britannia documentary was the first video that I shared in this blog post, and I should mention that the program has a section that highlights Numan's importance to the British Synth Pop scene; here is the relevant excerpt from that documentary.

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