A case of beer today, gone tomorrow?
Sunday 31 March 1996
It's probably because Numan seems only to be impersonating a rock star, and not quite convincing himself. His return to television and the Top 20 is down to the teetotaller's best-known song, "Cars", being used on a Carling Premier lager commercial. Even the new Best Of album - and I'm not sure which party paid which for this arrangement - is entitled The Premier Hits (Polygram), and has images from the advert on its sleeve. When you play it, it seems less Carling Premiership than GM Vauxhall Conference League. Why buy a compilation when the single of "Cars" has Numan's only other classic, "Are Friends Electric?", on the B-side? And, when none of his Premier Hits is more recent than 1983, why see him live in 1996?
Not entirely for nostalgia's sake, that's for sure. Numan used to be an android, all pale-faced and straight-faced. Now he's a snorting rock beast. In the same black suit as he wore on Top of the Pops and The White Room, he flared his nostrils, swung his microphone stand and shook his head to test the adhesion of his divot of new hair. A fat-lipped malevolent grin was wedged between Richard Nixon jowls. Really, it's not a bad rock- god impression, but his robot act was better.
Before a would-be stadium-set design, his band carved out boulders of heavy rock, with the vocals drastically low in the mix. Some of the material could be successful today - it's not far off the futurist industrial racket on Bowie's last album - but it's spoiled by widdly Eighties guitars. For a pioneer of synth music and cold mechanical pulses, Numan does enjoy a bit of ear-bleeding fretwork.
The concert had enough of neither past nor present. There were too few old faves for a nostalgia revue, and too few contemporary sounds to herald the come-back of a viable contender. The Numanoids in the audience saluted in time to the "Wo-ohs" in "Are Friends Electric?" with the zealous uniformity of a mob in a dictator's rally or a Queen video, but it's a show for fans and fans only. When Carling has a new ad, and the public has sobered up, Gary will return to cult obscurity: to Nu-Man's Land.
Marianne Faithfull was born to sing the songs of Brecht & Weill. Her great-great uncle, Baron von Sacher-Masoch, gave his name to masochism, and her mother danced in Thirties Berlin. But rather than rely on nepotism, she has earned the right to sing them, through hard work, hard drinking and hard drugs. "I walk along the street of sorrow / The Boulevard of Broken Dreams," she sang at the Jazz Cafe on Wednesday. Well, Faithfull built a house on that boulevard.
For "An Evening in the Weimar Republic" she was accompanied by a skeletal pianist playing rippling arpeggios and clumping staccato chords. With a Silk Cut and a black silk shirt, she swayed in the spotlight, a slow snowdrift of mirrorball lights around her. Her face, still beautiful, has a lived-in look - and lived in by vandals at that. Her voice is something else. It's a startling brew of acid and tar, bark and croak, crackle and rasp. Technically she is no great singer, but every syllable can convey weariness and disappointment, and, just as importantly, dignity and humour too. Because it's not a depressing show. There is a knowing, bold spirit to her renditions, and charming chat between them. To finish, she swapped Brecht & Weill for Jagger & Richards, and sang a forlorn "As Tears Go By". Pure class.
If Brecht & Weill are too day-glo and smiley for you, you may prefer Marion to Marianne. As young as Supergrass, Marion don't assure us that life is "Alright". No, it's all wrong, and the sooner it's over, the happier they'll be. So, the first remarkable thing about their show at the Cambridge Junction on Tuesday was that their singer, Jaime [sic] Harding, was a pleasant chap who thanked us for attending, "whether you bought the records, or whether you just came for a good night out". The second remarkable thing was that a good night out was what we had.
You have to be a young misery-guts to join Marion, but thankfully there's more guts than misery, more sweat and toil than blood and tears. Phil Cunningham assaults his guitar with Pete Townshend-style windmills of so many RPM that you expect his arm to fly out of its socket, and he appears to be much keener on leaping off speakers than jumping off cliffs. Harding, Britpop's most obvious boy-babe, with elfin good looks and a centre-parted fringe that hooks round his Pfeiffer cheekbones, does the corresponding Roger Daltrey moves. His favourite is to stumble backwards, arms above his head, as if he's about to catch a cricket ball. The other guitarist is less hyperactive, but he exudes black-clad cool. The bassist and drummer don't, which may be why they are obscured by smoke throughout the show.
Marion are the new members of an angst gang that includes Radiohead, Suede and the Smiths, and they've brought some of Iron Maiden's histrionics with them.
Every ferocious song hurtles along at the same breathless pace. The trouble is that they have the same breathless arrangement, too. And as Marion go for oblique phrasing, and titles that hardly ever crop up in the lyrics, it's easy to forget which song is which. Some gems shine through, though. "Sleep" has a clean harmonica break, tough lyrics and a chorus that you don't need a telescope to spot. More tracks like that, and the future will look bright. How depressing for them.
Gary Numan: Liverpool Empire, 0151 709 1555, tonight; Nottingham Rock City, 0115 941 2544, Mon; Southampton Guildhall, 01703 632601, Tues; Guildford Civic Hall, 01483 444555, Wed; and touring.
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