Synth Pop Classics
by Philip Sherburne | August 19, 2010
I was probably 12 or 13 when I first discovered Gary Numan, sprawled out in front of the television set, flipping through basic cable. Forget MTV: in the early '80s, a show called Night Flight was where the really freaky stuff was. Bauhaus, Cabaret Voltaire, crucifixes and gore and stuff I was damned sure my parents, asleep upstairs, would in no way be down with.
Most of it I couldn't even understand, and not only because videos in the early '80s were supposed to be nonsensical. I didn't get the style or the references or the context. I just knew that it was alien: it came from across the ocean, from adults who wore skinny ties under blazers with narrow lapels, nothing an Oregon kid had ever seen in person. (I would learn the hard way not to try to replicate such alien fashions in middle school, when I sewed my very own skinny tie in Home Ec out of purple satin, at that.) More importantly, I think I vaguely grasped that all this cryptic signifying was a reaction to something that same something that my adolescent mind couldn't stand, even if I couldn't give it a name. I only knew that the enemy of my enemy was my friend.
Way before the Internet, Night Flight dangled a networked lifeline to stranded suburbanites all across the U.S., kids who didn't know 'zines from Exene Cervenka, but who knew they wanted something different. If any of the producers of the show are out there, reading this I salute you.
But back to Gary Numan. One of the many great public services Night Flight performed was to broadcast a film called Urgh! A Music War, a 1982 feature that gathered concert footage of a sprawling array of bands that might loosely be identified as New Wave: Devo, Oingo Boingo, Echo & the Bunnymen, XTC, Dead Kennedys even the The Police.
Some of the acts I found all but inscrutable: Skafish practiced cartoonish Catholic discipline to the tune of lyrics like "Sign of the cross/ It'll make you feel real boss." Pere Ubu's frontman was a falsetto sausage in a too-tight suit. Oh, the falsetto: Klaus Nomi was a Weimar opera marionette, voguing long before voguing had been invented (and even longer before I'd know what it was). He also bore a striking resemblance to my idea of the boogieman, right down to the harlequin butler getup.
But the one that really stuck with me was Gary Numan, performing "Down in the Park." (You can watch the clip on YouTube here.) It was the synths that got me first, and they had to, given that the stage was dark, lit only by low, pulsing orbs in fog. An almost pastoral melody, something bright and simple enough for George Winston, played out on tinkling electronic piano before being cut down by buzzing, minor-key synthesizers like a phalanx of kazoo-toting stormtroopers. Evil had never sounded so beautiful, and vice versa.
By the time Numan himself appeared, I was sold. It wasn't the skin-tight red leather getup or the impossible cheekbones or the anti-sideburns, sliced diagonally an inch above his ears, although those were awesome enough. It was his mode of transport, as he came trundling out in a pyramid-shaped space car whose controls he never touched once. He was the epitome of unflappable, untouchable detachment, something my soft, early adolescent brain could only dream of. While his cardboard vehicle slowly pirouetted across the stage to the tune of those seasick, seesawing synthesizers, he simply gripped his mic with one wiry wrist and emitted a deathly, nasal whine.
Gary Numan was, in other words, my gateway drug to all that is cold and synthetic and forbiddingly distant. (Judging from the video for his even bigger hit, "Cars," I'm not the only one.) Just last week, he announced his plans to tour the U.S. this fall, performing his 1979 album The Pleasure Principle in its entirety. I don't expect the occasion to blow too many 12-year-old minds. The world's a different place these days; the Internet has made shows like Night Flight feel quaint. Moreover, his current live shows are reported to be more like sub-NIN electronic-industrial fare; hardly the spectacular performance art showcased on Urgh!.
Fortunately, the records haven't aged a day. In honor of the coldwave icon a man so chilly he makes Kraftwerk look warm and cuddly I put together a selection of tracks that fit the same mood: sleek, cryogenically preserved retro-futurism, misfit music that still sounds thrillingly out of place.