For the mainstream music fan, the name Gary Numan is synonymous with “Cars,” the robotic hit that steered pop music away from the decadence of the disco era and into the otherworldly realm of new wave. The song’s presence on the charts both in the U.K. and the U.S., and its influence on innovative and popular artists to follow, cannot be overstated. But before he was a household name, the British singer was part of Tubeway Army, post-punk pioneers known for their synth-driven sound and sci-fi lyrical themes.
Tubeway garnered a cult following with its self-titled debut, but by the time the group (which came to be billed as Gary Numan and Tubeway Army) put out its transcendent second album, Replicas, Numan’s charisma and sonic input propelled him beyond the frontman role. Gary Numan was a stand-alone rock star.
Last night, more than 35 years after his career-defining recording first came out, he proved he still is. The 57-year-old performed Replicas in its entirety on the first of a three-night stint at the Teragram Ballroom, where he’s doing an acclaimed release each evening (tonight he’ll do The Pleasure Principle, on which “Cars” appeared in '79, and Thursday he'll do 1980's Telekon). Numan was a more visceral live presence than ever. He moved about the stage like a rapt phantom bathed in varying hues of colored light as he played guitar, synthesizer, sang and danced. His interpretation of Replicas’ dystopian lyrics were ironically giddy and delightfully dramatic.
He wasn’t always so expressive. Numan’s alien-meets-droid persona early in his career took cues from Kraftwerk, and more obviously David Bowie. But while Ziggy Stardust was emotive, Numan emanated a mechanical vibe (which he’s revealed in interviews was initially more about stage fright than it was a calculated front). The detached allure served his weirdo-electro well back in the day, even garnering him guy-linered look-alike fans who called themselves “Numanoids.”
For new wavers and Numanoids alike, Numan's most obvious anthem has always been “Are Friends Electric?” — Replicas’ biggest hit and, for many, Numan’s most pivotal work. He added subtle instrumental embellishments to the track that still allow its ominous glory to shine. Replicas’ other cuts, such as “Down in the Park,” “The Machman” and “Me! I Disconnect From You, ” were no less revelatory live, thanks to a strong backing band and Numan's more impassioned-with-age presence.
He also treated the crowd to a couple of samples of what’s in store the next couple nights, playing tracks from his other albums and rolling out the obligatory “Cars” ride. His vivid vocals are as strong as they were in the late 70s and early 80s, and these days more nuanced. They still make for a rapturous complement to the dark, synthesizer-heavy compositions. Replicas and its follow-up releases once evoked bleak futurism. For some, the synthy soundscapes might evoke a retro vibe, but it all felt quite the opposite last night. It was celebratory and surprisingly timeless.