Getting Back Behind the Wheel - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Getting Back Behind the Wheel

Getting Back Behind the Wheel

By Barbara Fletcher



His early music influenced industrial to hip-hop and beyond. Decades later, Gary Numan finally accepts it. And moves on.

By Barbara Fletcher

In 1979 Gary Numan rattled cages everywhere when he burst onto the scene with the dark, offbeat Top 10 hit “Cars.” The song is about finding refuge in a safe, personal space — specifically from a road rage incident gone wrong. To protect himself from potential violence, the U.K. singer locked his car doors and drove up on the sidewalk. And then wrote a now-iconic song about it.

The late ’70s were the salad days of synthesizers. Listeners were just starting to wrap their ears around the alien and unfamiliar sounds of machine-based tunes — especially in America where classic rock was still king. Punk was already waning and people were waiting for music’s next big thing. One of those things turned out to be synthpop, despite critics’ sneering.

Where “Cars” came from:

”I was in traffic in London once and had a problem with some people in front. They tried to beat me up and get me out of the car. I locked the doors and eventually drove up on the pavement and got away from them … It explains how you can feel safe inside a car in the modern world, which is probably why you get things like road rage. When you’re in it, your whole mentality is different, in a car. It’s like your own little personal empire with four wheels on it.” — Interview with Philip Anderson, 2001

“Cars” was an instant hit. It was also the quickest song Numan ever wrote — and came about thanks to a chance meeting with a mini Moog in-studio. The album, The Pleasure Principle, became a musical milestone, introducing synthpop to both sides of the Atlantic and feeding nascent musical genres like industrial and hip-hop. Soon Afrika Bambaataa, DJ and “godfather of hip-hop,” was spinning technopop at his parties, and Bronx kids were breakdancing to Gary Numan songs in the streets.

Gary Numan performing on stage with mic in his right hand

Gary Numan

The dark, isolating music also fueled industrial greats like Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, whose connection with Numan 30 years after “Cars” resulted in the singer’s musical U-turn.Highly praised by the likes of Prince, Bowie and Kanye West, and covered by artists from Frank Zappa to Marilyn Manson, Numan’s iconic tracks have also been heavily sampled. Have a listen to Basement Jaxx’s “Where’s Your Head At?” and you’ll hear digital homage to two early Numan tracks. “Cars” has also appeared in movie and video game soundtracks, advertisements, TV shows and cartoons like the The Simpsons and Family Guy.

But Gary Numan has never been about the past. Widely known as being anti-retro, he viewed musical nostalgia as the “kiss of death … like admitting that you’ve got nothing new to offer.” Unlike some of his ’80s contemporaries, he usually shuns retro shows and plays mostly current music at live shows.

[’Cars’ has] given me — probably more than any other song I’ve ever written — a fantastic life.

“I think you’re only as good as your next album, not the one you made 30 years ago,” he said in a 2010 interview with Extra’s Adam Weissler at KCRW.

But three decades on, Numan has a new perspective on the past. And it hailed from one of the artists who credit Numan for helping to shape his band’s sound: Trent Reznor. The NIN frontman has often cited Numan as an influence — and Numan was an early fan of the band — but it wasn’t until 2009 when Numan was the opening act on the NIN farewell tour that he fully understood his influence and early musical worth. Reznor’s complimentary introductions before each of Numan’s stage apperances gave the singer pause.

“If someone like that, who I admire enormously, is saying that kind of thing about The Pleasure Principle, then maybe I should be a bit kinder toward it as well. So I just started to listen to it again and I learned to kind of like it again in a way that I hadn’t in the last 30 years, and have a certain amount of respect,” he said to KCRW.

That epiphany helped jump-start his career. Last month, at age 55, and after decades of music career ups and downs, Numan unleashed a new and very different album, Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind), which some critics are hailing as one of his best. Billboard calls his 20th studio offering the “strongest album in years.” MOJO says it’s “Numan’s finest hour.” 

The heavy and aggressive Splinter took longer than anticipated to create, but it was borne of a years-long depression, of a dark place that started with the fear of death and dying, and was exacerbated by the stresses of new parenthood, a mother’s illness and troubled relationships. You can hear it in the ripped edges of songs like “Love Hurt Bleed” and “I Am Dust.” And while the album is a definite departure from Numan’s debut album — the new tracks are darker, edgier, angrier — those trademark searing synths are ever present.

 Gary Numan Songs in Covers and Samples

• Cars – Fear Factory

• Down in the Park – Foo Fighters

• Metal – Nine Inch Nails

• Metal – Afrika Bambaataa with F, Gary Numan & MC Chatterbox

• Me, I Disconnect From You – Robert Palmer

• Where’s Your Head At? – Basement Jaxx 

Today an astonishingly youthful-looking Gary Numan lives a life quite at odds with the dark music within. He’s recently moved from southeast England to Los Angeles, a city of cars, with his longtime wife, Gemma (who was a fan at age 11), and their three young daughters. These two new chapters — the life-changing move to Hollywood and the release of the career-reinventing Splinter — are being captured in a documentary, Android in La La Land, set for release in 2014.  

One thing’s for certain: Gary Numan has come a long way from “Cars” (have a listen below), but it’s a song that keeps on giving and recently gave back to him. He sums it up in a recent interview with Rolling Stone: “[’Cars’ has] given me – probably more than any other song I’ve ever written – a fantastic life. I’m lucky enough that I’m still here and that I’m still around, and I’m still doing things.”

Watch “Cars” from 1979:

And then watch “Love Hurt Bleed” from 2013:

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories