Who: Gary Numan
What: Convergence 2015
Where: Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London
When: 20th March 2015
In 1981, after an exhausting two years, two number one singles and three number one albums, Gary Numan retired from touring with a lavish set of final shows at Wembley Arena in London. On Friday night, at Convergence in the Royal Festival Hall, London, for Numan it is now thirty-four years since he returned from retiring from live shows and he has a one-off special concert to mark his influence as a pioneer of electronica. The poster outside the venue doors described him as having “a ever-growing fanbase”. Apparently despite this, his records no longer trouble the top of the charts. Numan’s career has been a regular conundrum and a game of snakes-and-ladders and tonight was just the latest twist.
I have kept close watch on his career since his 1979 albums and I own them all but wouldn’t regard any of them since 1994’s “Sacrifice” as a truly strong album. In declaring a self-interest, I am also marking in my own mind an ambivalence to much of his recent output although I see in “Dead Son Rising” and “Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind)” something of a return to form.
Numan’s early career was influenced by John Foxx’s Ultravox! and David Bowie and combined the electronics of the former with the wry and alienated lyrics of the latter. His more recent music has taken on more of an industrial edge. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails cites Numan’s early albums as an influence and Gary likes Trent’s sound. Much more than a mutual admiration society, this has had a profound influence on Mr Numan’s music.
Consequently, many of Numan’s classic songs have been re-made with shredding guitars accompanying the electric sounds – the reverse of what happened comparatively early in his career when “The Pleasure Principle” album removed all guitar matter from his sound.
Also in that early part of his career, Numan was fairly static on stage – accused of being cold and robotic – and brought a carefully contrived image to each new album of songs which was then used in his live shows. Now, he storms around the stage in a t-shirt and jeans, an appearance which has remained unchanged for these last twenty years. He may wear a top hat on the cover of his new album but there is no room for any of that nonsense in the live show.
So what do we find tonight? The image and the sound and the band are as in recent times but the songs in the setlist are changed up somewhat for this one-off show. The concert opens with “Pressure” from the “Jagged” album which along with “Everything Comes Down To This” from “Splinter” are two of my favourite renderings of more modern songs included in the set. Part of the reason for this is that for all their energy, tension and sheer hugeness, the newer songs can soon blend into one in the concert environment. They do not necessarily transfer well into the live world – not even in the slightly more neutered atmosphere of the Royal Festival Hall, where we can sit at a safe distance in the front seats and watch it all unfold before us.
Thankfully, Mr Numan has a broad catalogue with which to bring some light and tone to the aggressiveness and he clearly has some fun with “Remind Me To Smile” from 1980s “Telekon” set which is still remade-and-remodelled but like so many of his older songs a more carefully structured lyric than the new ones and it has to be said a stronger sense of melody which even the holocaust of sound doesn’t drive away.
Then it is back to a more recent album with “My Jesus” from “Pure” and then “Here in the Black” from “Splinter”. Already, so early in the show placing these two songs back-to-back does not play to their strengths and I, along with a large part of the audience, seem to lose the sense of when one finishes and the other begins. Time to change things up again, Gary.
And he does. “Bombers” was one of two singles that preceded the first Tubeway Army album and its punky edge fits in well but also takes the sound in a different direction as the band recreates this one the way it was. On “The Touring Principle”, Gary’s first nationwide tour, it had been performed like everything else in an electronic stylee but now it’s back to a guitar-driven energy.
More guitars are to the forefront on “The Machman” from “Replicas” which is, for me, the highlight of the night. Well sung, great lyric, taut guitars. It is in some way a shame that it followed “Bombers” as it could have been used to vary the sounds in a later part of the set.
Next up is “Dark”, a poor song, the performance of which tonight did little to redeem. It originally appeared on the “Exile” album.
Then we have “Down in the Park”, a great song but which loses a little of its majesty with the keyboard sound of old gone. A makeover that doesn’t quite work. Next, it’s back to “Exile” for “Prophecy” which again begins to blur into a wall-of-sound. “I Am Dust”, the opener from the recent “Splinter” album is better but only marginally so.
Mr Numan, even in his early years, sometimes failed to transfer the sombreness of his studio sound to the live show with a tendency to lose the very understatedness that gave him his early big hit singles. This was the case with early live performances of “Cars” and “Are ‘friends’ electric?” and remains so to this day. The quality that made them so mysterious and other worldly is missing – maybe it just can’t be transported into the live environment. Either way it isn’t here tonight and the two songs inclusion seems little more than nostalgia – not something which could have been said about the other older songs that are presented for us. Numan seems to still believe in the others on a deeper level.
The good news is that aside from these two the rest of the set and the encores are pretty much faultless and the audience are built up euphorically and the concert is a success – if you will, a narrow home win.
There are newer songs like “We’re the Unforgiven” and “Love Hurt Bleed” alongside classic Tubeway Army “My Shadow in Vain” and the acoustic-oh-so-Bowie “Jo the Waiter”. There is the deeply profound “A Prayer for the Unborn” and the great single “I Die; You Die” and for twenty-five minutes Numan once more has lightning in a bottle.
Wembley in 1981 must seem several worlds away both for artist and audience. In the foyer is a young man of twenty-five wearing a black suit, black shirt and tie that is half-red and half-blue.
As we go off into the night that image stays with me. Some things are lost and some are gained but I’m glad I stayed along for the journey.