Gary Numan is another one of my all-time favorite entertainers. People sometimes write him off as being just a “David Bowie clone” – and Numan has never denied that Bowie is one of his greatest influences – but he’s a great deal more than that. This guy was a real trailblazer for the entire new wave and synthpop subgenres of popular music. Even Trent Reznor has cited Numan as being one of his primary influences for Nine Inch Nails. (They’ve even appeared on stage together, with Reznor encouraging his own fans to track down and listen to some of Numan’s albums. How awesome of him is that?) For my own part, I’m always a sucker for late 1970s/early 1980s electronic music, especially when it’s dark, moody, expressive of paranoid fears about dystopian futures, and filled with thick sawtooth synths. In fact, Gary Numan’s music is probably a good representation of what might happen if you took Tangerine Dream or John Carpenter’s film scores and gave them lyrics and a subwoofer-exploding pop rock beat.
I unknowingly discovered Numan back in 1998, when I first heard Marilyn Manson’s rendition of the 1979 Numan classic, “Down in the Park” (which is about people watching other people get attacked and raped by machines for sport). I didn’t realize this was a cover, however, and it was several years before I even learned who Gary Numan is. (The Foo Fighters later did another version of the same song, and I must say that both of these cover versions are spectacular.) Then one day in 2007, I acquired a copy of Numan’s 1979 album, Replicas, on which the original version of this song appears. Numan himself is very humble about his work, and he often compliments other artists who cover his songs, saying he thinks they do more justice to the material than he ever could. I must politely disagree with him, however, because as great as Marilyn Manson and the Foo Fighters are, neither of them can capture the chilling terror in Numan’s own voice. His vocals are so haunting and dire; they make me think of a guy who’s trapped in a prison cell, who can’t remember how he got there, who’s crying out for someone to come help him, and who doesn’t realize that everyone in the world outside his cell has already been dead for years.
With all that being said, my all-time favorite Gary Numan album is Warriors (1983). This may seem strange to people who are in the know, for this is actually one of Numan’s least successful records. In fact, it’s generally considered to mark the beginning of his artistic decline during the late 1980s and early 1990s (from which he gracefully resurrected himself with his 1994 album, Sacrifice). One reason for this is because Numan recruited quite a few session musicians for this album, including female backup singers and a saxophone soloist. (Actually that soloist is Dick Morrissey, who also played on the Blade Runner film score by Vangelis.) For many devoted fans, this contrasted with the simpler and more “stripped-down” sound of Numan’s earlier albums, to which he has now returned in recent years. Even Numan himself seems to have disowned Warriors, which is probably due to the fact that its production was very troubled (with Numan constantly butting heads with his co-producer, Bill Nelson of Be-Bop Deluxe). Nevertheless, after listening to his entire discography for several years, I feel that Warriors boasts some of Numan’s very best work.
The album cover for Gary Numan’s Warriors (1983)
The album opens with its title track, which appears to tell the story of a celebrity who falls out of favor with his adoring fans. (Considering what would happen to Numan after this album, this seems oddly semi-prophetic.) The celebrity is reduced to “feeding strangers” (which I think means he has to become a waiter just to make ends meet), and his wife leaves him as well. He then grows old and weary, lamenting over the eternal youth that was once promised to him by his former celebrity status. In the chorus, Numan enigmatically states that “I fell for so long for you all,” which makes me think of at least two possible meanings. The character could be referring to his fans and his fellow celebrities (whom he once believed would support him wholeheartedly for the rest of his life), or he could be rationalizing his fall from grace as an Osirian “sacrifice” for the good of the world. It’s also uncertain as to whether the title of the song is meant to be ironic or sincere. If it’s ironic, the character isn’t really a “warrior” at all; he’s just a narcissistic crybaby who can’t handle being a “normal” working class citizen. But if the title is sincere, Numan is showing that there’s something heroic about being a so-called “little person” and still managing to reach old age. (I personally lean toward the latter interpretation because I’m an optimist.)
“I Am Render” is an unusually “jazzy” Gary Numan song that’s based on The Dream Master, a science fiction novel written by Roger Zelazny in 1966. This book is about a scientist named Dr. Charles Render who specializes in “neuroparticipation” (i.e., a form of psychotherapy in which doctors can travel into their patients’ dreams). It was very loosely adapted into the 1984 film, Dreamscape (starring Dennis Quaid), and it also provided the basic concept for Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010). In Zelazny’s original novel, Render decides to treat a potentially risky patient, and it turns out that he really isn’t emotionally stable enough to do so. As a result, the patient’s neuroses begin to imprint themselves on the therapist and all kinds of bad shit happens. Having never read The Dream Master myself, I can’t really comment on whether Gary Numan adapts the story very well or not. But the song is very catchy, and the lyrics do a good job of communicating that something about this neuroparticipation process has gone horribly wrong.
(Incidentally, one of Roger Zelazny’s other novels – Creatures of Light and Darkness – is based on Egyptian mythology. Part of the plot involves the Egyptian Gods battling a dark force called “The Thing That Cries In The Night.” This thing – which resembles a sentient black hole and wants to devour the entire universe – sounds an awful lot like
Apophis, and Seth shows up to heroically fight it at some point. I’m going to have to find a copy of this book and read it!)
The title of the next track, “The Iceman Comes,” refers to the famous Eugene O’Neill play, The Iceman Cometh (1939). The “iceman” of the play (Hickey) is a figure who’s both literally and figuratively symbolic of death, ranging from the murder of his housewife to the “murder” of his acquaintance’s pipe dreams. In the Gary Numan song, the “iceman” is a faceless figure who’s “out there” somewhere, waiting patiently to kill Numan like a slasher movie villain. Numan seems to have cut himself off from the rest of the world and is hiding alone in his house, but he’s beginning to think about “giving in” to his nemesis. The suspense is becoming too much for him, and he wonders if his situation is truly “such dark business” at the end of the song. The fact that the music sounds like a dreamy love song only makes it more disturbing, since the source of Numan’s fears at the beginning slowly becomes a figure of salvation for him at the end.
Next up is “This Prison Moon,” which almost became the name of the Warriors album. Numan seems to be greeting us from a distant future in which humankind has finally established a great intergalactic empire. But somewhere along the way, this empire has corroded and become completely totalitarian. Political dissidents are summarily rounded up and shipped off to a nameless prison on a distant moon. (To make matters worse, there’s apparently no Sun around which this moon can orbit, meaning the prisoners will be without light “for a thousand years.”) What’s more, the prisoners on this moon are “little people” whose only “crime” was to seek greater autonomy and mobility in their personal lives. Here again, Numan represents the underprivileged and the working class as martyrs who are far more heroic than the politicians and celebrities they’re brainwashed to worship. The fact that “This Prison Moon” takes place on a moon also seems relevant, for totalitarian regimes often declare their dissidents to be legally “insane.” In this case, we have such “lunatics” being shipped off to a lunar prison, never to be seen or heard from again.
“My Centurion” is autobiographical; it details an incident in which Gary Numan almost died in an airplane crash just one year before this album was released. With this in mind, his description of feeling absolutely powerless and of waiting endlessly for a horrible painful death is truly frightening. Whatever the “centurion” of the title actually is, Numan specifically mentions that it “dies” while the plane is going down and everyone onboard is screaming. Centurions were officers of the Roman imperial army, and the use of the term here is symbolic of someone or something that makes Numan feel safe. My guess is that he’s referring to the concept of faith; Numan’s notorious for being a hard atheist and for criticizing religion (usually Christianity) throughout his entire discography. It stands to reason that he would criticize religion at least once on this record, and I can imagine how almost dying in an airplane crash would probably have killed whatever faith he still had left in 1982. (I think it would actually have the opposite effect on someone like me, but then again, I’ve never almost died in a plane crash, so I really don’t know what it’s like.)
I believe the sixth track – “Sister Surprise” – is about people using androids for sex, and I think these androids are designed to resemble celebrities from the past (i.e., Numan says they’re “like old movies for real”). This song makes me think about Anton LaVey’s “Den of Iniquity,” which was a room in his basement that he set up to look like a bar from the 1940s. He filled it with mannequins that were dressed up to resemble people from that period, and toward the end of his life, LaVey spent more of his time down there with them than he did with real flesh-and-blood people. (Even though he was an atheist, LaVey believed in magic and hoped to pull a Pygmalion and bring his various Galateas to life.) Since Numan is also an atheist and seems to share the Black Pope’s fascination with artificial human companionship (for this theme shows up again in many other Numan songs), I often wonder if Numan was ever influenced by any of LaVey’s work. (I’m not suggesting that Numan is a “Satanist” – he seems far too gentle and soft-spoken for anything like that – but simply that he might have admired LaVey as an artist.)
As far as I can tell, the last three songs of the album are very loosely based on Harlan Ellison’s 1965 short story, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said The Ticktockman.” For those who don’t already know, this story is about a future totalitarian regime in which people are required by law to be on time for everything. If you’re ever late to work or even to a social engagement, the same amount of time that you’re late is deducted from your total lifespan by the “Ticktockman.” The “harlequin” of the title is Everett C. Marm, a rebel who tries to bring the Ticktockman down by dressing up as a clown and playing huge practical jokes (thereby making lots of people late). These three songs don’t seem to be based on any specific events in the story itself, but are more like “deleted scenes.” I think “The Tick Tock Man” explores Everett’s doubts and insecurities while he’s sticking it to his arch-nemesis (and it seems to reflect some of Numan’s own frustrations from working with co-producer Bill Nelson on this album). I also think “Love Is Like Clock Law” is a scene with Everett lamenting over Pretty Alice while he’s at the Coventry facility, and “The Rhythm of the Evening” probably shows us what happens to Everett after the original story’s conclusion. (Your guess is as good as mine, however, since the lyrics to these songs are so arcane that it’s hard to be certain of what Numan’s really getting at. The music, however, is absolutely top-notch.)
Warriors is important to me for deeply spiritual reasons. I first discovered this album during a very dark time in my life, when I was involved in a truly bizarre love triangle and my living situation was falling apart. (On top of everything else, I also had to pass a kidney stone around the same time, which was excruciatingly painful.) It was about 18 months after I had flirted around with worshiping
Apophis, 12 months after I made my pilgrimage to Malvern, Pennsylvania (where I was born again in Big Red), and 6 months after I started talking to this girl from Michigan on the Internet and over the phone. My toxic living situation finally reached a breaking point and I decided to buy a Greyhound bus ticket and visit my new friend for a couple of weeks. That friend would end up becoming my wife, and I would never return to Texas; after giving up everything and living like a nomad for three long days, I started a completely new life for myself and became a successful husband and priest. Warriors provided me with a much-needed soundtrack for that time of my life, and it never fails to make me think of that fateful bus trip and of meeting my wife for the very first time. As such, the album’s strange combination of upbeat jazziness and downbeat melancholy matches many of the emotions I was experiencing during that transitional phase (which ranged from feeling sad about leaving my family to feeling joyful about starting my own).
One of the most memorable experiences I had during that time occurred after my bus left Dallas and was en route to Little Rock, Arkansas. We were on I-30 East, up in the northeastern section of the state and out in the middle of nowhere (probably somewhere around Greenville). The Sun had already gone down, but you could still see outside almost perfectly. There was this raging thunderstorm, and it was firing off streaks of lightning on either side of the highway almost continuously (like it was some gigantic hydra licking the Earth with myriad tongues of electric blue flame). As a result, the cloudy post-twilight sky was illuminated as if it were still daytime. I’d never seen anything like it before, and I’ve never seen anything like it since. I knew in my heart that this storm was a sign from Seth-Typhon and that He was telling me, “Say goodbye to Texas, boy – you ain’t comin’ back here for a good long while.” And I just happened to be listening to “Sister Surprise” from Warriors while this was all taking place.
Then, well after we had already passed through Little Rock, my bus made a stop at Memphis, Tennessee. Imagine my surprise when I saw a gigantic black pyramid situated right by the Mississippi River. This was the Pyramid Arena, of which I had been completely oblivious up to that point. I knew good and well that the Gods couldn’t have arranged for that thing to be built just so They could make Their presence known to little old me a full 18 years later, but I couldn’t help taking it as a sign. My life in Texas had just been ripped apart with all the force of an F-5 tornado; I had just become a nomad for three long days; I had just witnessed the most beautiful Typhonian disturbance I had ever seen in the northeastern Texas sky; and now I was seeing a gigantic black pyramid in Tennessee. How couldn’t I have taken it as a sign? And naturally, I had “The Tick Tock Man” blaring on my headphones when I first caught sight of the thing. Even after I reached my destination in Michigan, things just kept clicking into place like that as I began my new life. They clicked into place so well, in fact, that I had shivers going up and down my spine almost continuously for the entire summer of 2009. And all the while, I was listening to Warriors pretty much non-stop. (It even got to a point where my future wife was shocked when I pulled out some Alice Cooper, for it seemed like Gary Numan was all I ever listened to!)
Gary Numan in 1980
There’s far more to this story, of course, than I can justifiably mention here, but these are the most important details as far as this review is concerned. While many other people (including most Gary Numan fans) seem to hate Warriors, it’s of incredible importance to me personally because of what was happening in my life when I first listened to it. I actually find it annoying that so many people hate it so much. Usually they cite the saxophone and the female backup singers as their primary complaints, arguing that when they listen to Numan, they want to hear Numan himself (and not other musicians). But I don’t see how this is any different from how artists like Electric Light Orchestra, Pink Floyd or the Alan Parsons Project will recruit various session musicians for their albums; as long as the music is enjoyable, who really cares? Besides, Warriors has actually aged very well; it’s far better than the other 1980s Numan albums that followed it – including 1984’s Berseker and 1985’s The Fury – which sound like incidental music for bad Miami Vice episodes.