Electronic-music icon Gary Numan talks performing his landmark album, The Pleasure Principle

Nov 11, 2010 at 4:00 am

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.

"There should be more variety of sound on it than there is," he says. "It seems as if I found the sound for the album, and then I stuck with it, really. Not having guitars on it, for example — that was almost a reaction to what the British press were saying about me. They had been pretty harsh with the first couple of albums, saying it wasn't real music.

"[With Principle] I wanted to make the point of where you could have an album that would be acceptable to the public and still be considered proper music, even if it didn't have guitars all over it. I thought it was trying to prove that electronic music was valid in its own right — it just wasn't a little one-off thing, not this temporary offshoot that would all fall away given time.

"I still think I could have done a much better job of proving the point, that electronic music was a very valid kind of music."

The Pleasure Principle North American tour wrapped up in Mexico City on November 6. (A UK tour happened last year.) As a musician who says he doesn't like "nostalgia" or "retro things," Numan admits that doing the Principle tour was "slightly uncomfortable" for him — in the sense that looking backward seemed counterproductive to his ongoing artistic progress. But he mitigated this discomfort by doing a second set of songs at each show, which focused on newer material from 2006's Jagged, unrecorded material slated for forthcoming new albums and older fan favorites. The second half of his Chicago show had the energy and spirit of a punk show, in the form of rusty-razor industrial aggression, metallic slashes and digital noise. On songs such as the "The Fall" and "Haunted," Numan contorted his body like a youthful performer with something to prove.

But doing the Principle tours has helped Numan warm to the album, he says — and has helped him see the LP's oddities through fresh eyes.

"Although I could have recorded it a lot better, my songwriting point of view [makes it] a fairly quirky little record," he says. "A lot of the songs don't really have vocal choruses, for example. So structurally it's quite unusual, it's quite quirky.

"I didn't really notice how quirky it was until last year when we toured [Principle] here [in the UK]. It's the first time I had listened to lots of those songs since we'd actually did them in 1979. Three or four of them I'm still familiar with, but lots of it I haven't heard for thirty-years-plus. I remember expecting to find the album a bit embarrassing — and I actually didn't. I actually thought — for the day, this must have seemed really odd and a really strange album. It made me appreciate it a bit more, as the writer of it, than I had been."