Thursday, 12 February 2015

Gary Numan - Berserker (1984)

Whilst I was mightily partial to a bit of Numan at school, Gary and I parted ways round about the time his album covers began to resemble budget versions of action films which hadn't even had the sense to rip off anything that had been worth ripping off in the first place. This wasn't so much a direct reflection on his music as that I was on a budget and suddenly aware of there being plenty of other stuff out there which I liked better. Occasionally I would pause in my local branch of Our Price to briefly examine the cover of Strange Charm or The Fury with an indulgent smirk, amused by the fact of his still churning it out regardless, then head for the counter to complete purchase of my sophisticated Heaven 17 album.

Years later, having completed my fine art degree and realising that I was pretty much fucked, I moved to a bedsit in Chatham and resigned myself to beans on toast having become an exotic luxury, a rare treat enjoyed when I could afford to buy a loaf of bread. I no longer had the money to buy my records new as they came out, and took to trawling the racks of Plastic Surgery, a second-hand place in Maidstone which, if nothing else, at least bought me up to date with Kate Bush and Gary Numan for relatively little outlay - thus inadvertently priming me for the appreciation of Vostok Lake some years later. I was intrigued that Gary Numan had continued to release stuff despite my failing to buy it, and so I took the White Noise live double album for mere pennies on the grounds of it including older material I already knew I liked, in the event of the newer songs turning out to be as pants as I was fairly sure they would be; and against all expectation I played that live double into two large flexidiscs, then bought Berserker, the associated studio album from which many of the newer tracks were derived. Life was pretty miserable at the time, and Gary seemed to understand.

Ha ha, you may well observe, customarily smirking at the slightest mention of our beloved comical Bowie impersonator, or else having decided that it's now okay to admit you like Numan in the same way you might admit to liking Leo Sayer or the Rubettes.

Ha ha.

I never had any problem with openly admitting to the pleasure I took from Numan's records. Sure, he may have been a light aircraft piloting knobesque Conservative voter who married his own stalker at certain points in his life, but there are many other artists whose political views fail to align in precise accord with my own, and we're not exactly talking No Remorse here. Additionally, Gary was hardly the only person to draw inspiration from David Bowie, and nor was his inspiration drawn exclusively from that particular sausage-seeking well. The crime seems to have been that his version of Bowie was always more technical college than art school, music for the chess club guys with their boxes of cheese and onion sandwiches and terminal virginity - the kids who would never be cool enough to dance upon the hood of a gridlocked vehicle like Michael J. Fox teaching those grown-ups a thing or two about what it means to be young. Of course, this says more about those who deem that which must be regarded as saaaaaaad this week than the actual music, the artist, or his fans.

Gary's crimes, aside from those mentioned above, seem to be based around having a big fat face which never lent itself to robot impersonations so well as those of his peers, and having a bit of a nasal voice, and failing to conceal his influences, and the one song on every album describing how much the music press hates him and how little he cares. The last point probably holds some water because sour grapes are never a good look, although the rest can be put down to either personal taste or being so much irrelevant bollocks. Whilst it could be argued that having been a sort of conflation of David Bowie and John Foxx, he briefly turned into Japan, then Robert Palmer, and has more recently been heard sounding quite a lot like Nine Inch Nails, this doesn't have to be a problem unless you want it to be. Even when the influences are kicking you in the shins, a Gary Numan album will only ever sound like a Gary Numan album, and besides, if it's okay for Bowie to send his butler out to look for one of those drum and bass chappies when he feels the self-conscious need to be down with the kids, I don't see why anyone else should be denied the benefit of the doubt.

The bottom line here is that, for all his faults, Numan can make just two notes sound like no piece of music you've ever heard, invoking isolation and alienation with such profound conviction as to make all those other glumsters sound like twenty-four hour party wankers. In other words the proof of the pudding is in eating the thing, and in that respect, this man has a fairly astonishing track record providing you keep in mind he may not necessarily have set out to sing the song you want to hear.

Beserker emerged from the transitional period between Numan turning funky and then deciding to be Robert Palmer's Addicted to Love on Metal Rhythm - another great album, by the way. For something which sounds like it's trying quite hard to get into its own party, it's a surprisingly chilling record, particularly on Cold Warning and My Dying Machine. Lyrically it's business as usual in so much as it's anyone's guess what any of it could be about, and there's the customary selection of William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick one-liners hinting at that which Gary apparently dare not describe; but crucially, as ever, the level of obvious sincerity is terrifying, so painful you can barely look it in the eye. This is Numan's strength. Regardless of how lame he sounds, how well he measures up to your expectations, or what the blistering fuck he's talking about, he really, really means it, and that's why he sounds so great when life has been kicking you in the face for any length of time. Ironically, Bowie now sounds like his own Phil Cornwell impersonation by comparison.

One day some Mojooid will mislay his copy of Exile on Main St., slap on Beserker by accident, and recognise it as the fucking cracking record it is and always has been; and then we will all be told it's okay to admit to liking Gary Numan yet again, or at least the old stuff, like the one that got sampled on that dance tune. At this juncture it may be worth noting that some of us never needed permission.

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