Gary Numan: Live in London

[4 August 2004]

By Tim O'Neil

There reaches a point in the career of just about every rock star when they face the mammoth dilemma of career attrition. With the exception of a few indisputable giants, most rockers—no matter how big—eventually get to the point where fewer and fewer people bother with their new albums, the critics write them off as passe, and they are consistently hailed as “pioneering”, or worse, “groundbreaking” artists. The unspoken implication here is that the artist’s days of breaking ground and being a pioneer are a long way in the past, which must be a slap in the face.

Some artists know just the right moment to fade away, leaving on a high—or at least less embarrassing - note (you can probably count the Cars and Soundgarden on this short list). Some artists linger long after their expiration dates have passed (Hootie, anyone?). Some get back together after a suitable absence in order to cash in on their former fame and make a lot of money playing “Mr. Roboto” and “Blue Collar Man” for capacity crowds at State Fairs (ahem, Styx). And then there are folks like Gary Numan, who never really reach the point of total irrelevance, and who somehow manage to keep going despite the fact that people stopped paying attention a long while back.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to take anything away from someone who’s had as long and eventful a career as Numan has. Perhaps some critics may have been a bit overzealous in ascribing the rise of ‘80s synthesizer music single-handedly to Numan, but that doesn’t mean that “Cars” wasn’t a massively important song, or that “Down in the Park” or “Are Friends Electric?” weren’t fabulous futuristic singles. Perhaps Depeche Mode and The Human League would have happened regardless, perhaps not.

But really, with 25 years hindsight in this particular case, I think we can safely say that Numan has been far more influential than important. Is there a difference, you ask? Well, yes: I think there are dozens of artists who would say they were influenced by Numan, but who would stop short of calling Numan the defining figure in their formative career. And it’s important to remember that while Numan’s fey Bauhaus motif inspired later pop-industrial artists ranging from Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson to Orgy and Fear Factory (with whom Numan would later work), Numan himself cribbed a great deal of his persona from Brian Eno, Roxy Music and Berlin-era Bowie.

Somewhere along the line, after he recovered from the career doldrums of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Numan realized it was more profitable to put out “Greatest Hits” compilations and remixes. Along the way he also managed to rework famous hits with newer artists eager for the cred boost of working with one of the architects of modern pop (as with the aforementioned Fear Factory and “Cars”, which again proved a chart success). And so we’ve now entered the Superfluous Live Album phase of Numan’s career, wherein he continues to release Superfluous Live Albums for as long as his hardcore fanbase continues to buy them.

If I sound particularly cynical, I really don’t mean to be—but the fact remains that Live in London is just about as critic-proof as you can get. There’s nothing wrong with that: this is obviously an artifact produced and marketed squarely at Numan’s ardent fanbase. Recorded in 1997 at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire, There’s nothing really groundbreaking about this show, or particularly notable. It’s not even recorded very well, with sound fidelity being just above the quality of your average soundboard bootleg. Unless you count yourself among Numan’s most devoted fans, you can probably skip this.

If this isn’t a particularly noteworthy show, it’s not necessarily a bad one either. If Numan’s yelping falsetto can be grating in high quantities, he can still be admired for having assembled an especially tight touring group, in particular guitarist Steve Harris. The precision-quality riffing reminds the listener how much the droning pseudo-industrial style Numan pioneered has influenced artists as diverse as Rammstein and the Smashing Pumpkins. The setlist leans a bit heavily towards Numan’s later, less melodic material, and some of these uneventful stretches can drone on for quite some time. Despite the obligatory and quite perfunctory performance of “Cars”, the hits are well represented, with an especially potent “Down In The Park” serving to open the show.

If the past few years are any indicator, Numan’s influence will continue to be a dominant force on the pop landscape for many years to come, even if Numan himself will continue to dwindle into the hazy gray of late-career obscurity. Numan samples have featured prominently on two of the catchiest singles in recent years—the Basement Jaxx’s propulsive “Where’s Your Head At?” and Richard X’s phenomenal mash-up remix of the Sugababes’ “Freak Like Me.” But the fact that this is Numan’s second live album in the space of fourteen months (the first being 2003’s “Scarred” double disc) says that Numan’s career has long since entered the realm of gradually diminishing returns.

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