By: Eric Greenwood
Taking the stilted, jerky structure of the first Tubeway Army album to the next logical level, Gary Numan created his own streamlined, space-age world, where synthesizers replaced guitars as the driving force behind the icy music. This was the defining moment of the synth-pop era. Numan"s obsession with syncopation makes each track blend seamlessly into the next. Critics complain that Numan"s music sounds horribly dated today. Of course they are right, but that"s hardly the point. The music rises above and beyond the constraints of new wave production techniques.
Numan"s detached, sci-fi lyrics coupled with his David Bowie-influenced yelping vocal style helped create an image of futuristic doom. His melodies are robotic, sounding cold and dejected. The nod to Kraftwerk is understood, as is the incorporation of Glam and post-punk, but Numan packaged it all like it was brand new- like he"d never even heard of T-Rex or Ziggy Stardust. The opening track, "Me, I Disconnect From You", encompasses everything that is genius about Gary Numan. His isolated and paranoid lyrics are delivered in a semi-robotic lilt that somehow sounds genuinely profound despite the obvious affectations. The overly dramatic keyboards surrender to the simplest rock formula that still sounds exciting and strange today. The pretentiousness is balanced by and unintentional silliness that makes Numan the perpetual underdog.
"Are Friends Electric?" had to sound alien when it topped the charts in England in 1979. The minor-keyed synth riff plays a call and response game with the heavily affected guitar line while Numan barks out his disjoined machinations: "so I found out your reason for the phone calls and smiles/and it hurts and I"m lonely/and I should never have tried/and I missed you tonight/it must be time to leave/you see it meant everything to me." Numan straddles the line of absurdity without any sense of irony or cynicism. He was truly caught up in the bombastic weirdness of it all much to the benefit of the music. If he"d let on that it were all a joke, he would be a forgotten blip on the musical radar today. His sincerity is the key to his longevity.
The high point of the album, though, is the new wave anthem "Down In The Park", which became a live staple and the quintessential Gary Numan song. The downtrodden beat plods behind swirling synthetic melodies and Numan"s strangest batch of lyrics: "I was in a car crash or was it the war/but I"ve never been quite the same/little white lies like "I was there."" Numan hadn"t altogether abandoned the guitar, though, as evidenced by "You Are In My Vision", which takes one simple riff and churns out a classic post-punk rocker. Never afraid of repetition, Numan pounds the riffs into your subconscious without losing its appeal.
The title track is a haunting masterpiece with its unforgettable dueling keyboard/guitar melody and Numan"s disaffected vocals. The lyrics are typically cryptic for Numan, recounting some bizarre tale involving "Mr. Wall" and the "police": "So I said do you know Mr. Wall and they looked the other way and then they smiled at me/but the police came and I said it was me and I just walked away." It"s strange how Numan can make such meaningless nonsense seem like a matter of life and death. He returns briefly to his punk-influenced youth on "It Must Have Been Years." The guitars chug aggressively, despite the wash of flange effects. The song caps Numan"s illogical sci-fi journey for this, his "concept" album.
It"s a shame that Gary Numan is only known in this country for the fluke one hit wonder, "Cars", because his first few records are the foundation upon which the music of the eighties is based. The re-issue of Replicas features the best batch of bonus tracks of any of the Beggars Banquet re-issues. These b-sides and outtakes from the Replicas sessions include "We Have A Technical" with its gorgeous synthesizer introduction (which, incidentally, was covered faithfully by Blur"s Damon Albarn and The Rentals" Matt Sharp for the Gary Numan tribute, Random) and the brilliant "We Are So Fragile."