By Alison Babka
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By RFT Music
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On a seasonably chilly night in late October, a black-clad crowd crammed into the Metro in Chicago. The occasion: 52-year-old electronic-music icon Gary Numan was playing his 1979 album, The Pleasure Principle, in its entirety. Shortly after 10 p.m., following a so-so set by Recoil, Numan and his five-piece backing band emerged and delved right into Principle: the instrumentals "Random" — which has an EKG-monitor keyboard underneath low-hanging-fog synth clouds — and the brisker, spookier soft-glow "Airlane."
Bathed in eerie green lights and sunburned spotlights — which faded in and out with such brightness that someone in the front row wore sunglasses during the set — the band quickly ran through the album. It took three keyboardists to replicate and manipulate Principle's zooms, whines, analog oozes and lost-in-space effects. Numan's creaky robotic monotone — disaffected, frightened and resigned all at once — matched the mood of the music. But he was far from dour: Dead center onstage behind a keyboard stand, he played air piano like an orchestra conductor during the Krautrock-indebted "Tracks," while the set-ending version of his biggest U.S. hit, "Cars," was almost jubilant in its paranoid isolation.
Released in 1979, The Pleasure Principle remains an influential synthpop album. It's a non-obvious favorite of hip-hop artists — Afrika Bambaataa has covered the song "Metal" — and it's also had a huge impact on electronic-music fans and musicians. Basement Jaxx's "Where's Your Head At?" features a sped-up sample of the mudslide intro of "M.E.," and Nine Inch Nails majordomo Trent Reznor is an avowed fan. (Numan even performed "Cars" and "Metal" with NIN on the London date of its farewell tour.) Well-regarded modern lyricists owe a great debt to Principle as well; everyone from Radiohead's alienated observers to industrial music's apocalyptic nihilists can trace their sentiments to Numan's protagonists. To this day, the album sounds like an alien artifact, an outsider's take on a futuristic world where machines and technology are at once master and slave.
When reached via phone several weeks before the show at his home in England, Numan is affable and chatty. He's also extremely humble about his talents and achievements — especially when it comes to Principle.
"I don't look back on it as any kind of crowning achievement or glory," he says. "I'm nonetheless proud of what it did. But as the person that made it and wrote it, I still think I could have done it better, really."
Numan remembers that he was "extremely prolific and just pouring stuff out" at the time of Principle's genesis. The LP was actually the second album he released in 1979; Replicas, his second and final album recorded with his band, Tubeway Army, came out in April of that year. Buoyed by the single, "Are 'Friends' Electric?," Replicas started climbing the UK charts around the time he was recording Principle.
"It was a really amazing sort of atmosphere and vibe to be in the studio working on an album when that level of success and excitement was happening around you," Numan says. "It was an amazing time anyway; when you have your first successful single or album, it's always an amazing time. But to be in the studio working on the next one and the record company [is] really vibed up — it was just brilliant."
Principle was recorded in just two weeks, a recording session that seems impossibly brief today. Back then, however, Numan said that amount of time "seemed like a luxury" — especially considering that Tubeway Army's self-titled debut LP and Replicas were recorded in three days and five days (respectively) and that they had to rent synthesizers to use in the studio. Remarkably, Numan says that when Principle was recorded, he "probably only had access to a synthesizer for maybe ten days in my whole life up to that point." (In fact, he didn't even have enough money to buy his own synths until the end of 1980.)
"There wasn't a budget there to spend months and months and months working on it," he says of Principle. "The record company said, 'You got this amount of money to make it, you can have' — I think — 'ten days in the studio plus a few more for mixing.' That's it. 'You can only rent synthesizers for' — I think — 'the first four days, because there [isn't] enough money to rent them longer than that.'
"On the one hand, it seems as if it was very limiting," Numan continues. "But on the other, it really focused [you] on what [you] needed to be doing — you went in to the studio very prepared, you knew exactly what parts you wanted. In some respects it adds a sense of urgency to it — which, if you're lucky, can come across on the record. And if you're not, it just sounds a bit shoddy, really."
Luckily for Numan, the former scenario is the one that stuck. Principle is a bridge album between proto-synthpop and ambient electro — mainly Kraftwerk's icy technological obsession and Brian Eno's early electronic dabblings — and the arrival of candy-coated new-wave fluff. And it's poised and self-aware in a way that few albums are, especially those made by 21-year-olds. But something that many consider Principle's strength — its sonic and atmospheric cohesion — isn't necessarily a plus in Numan's eyes.