Gary Numan: Numan remains

He was the living embodiment of electronic music - pale, nerdy, fond of sci-fi jumpsuits and executive jets. By the mid-Eighties he'd lost everything but now, 25 years after his first hit, he's cooler than ever, a defining influence on a new generation of pop stars. How on earth did that happen?

Fiona Sturges
Monday 27 January 2003 01:00 GMT

The cottage that Gary Numan shares in Essex with his wife Gemma, two rescue dogs and six cats is a faux-rustic idyll surrounded by acres of undulating green fields. Inside, the aesthetic is suburban gothic – blood red walls and plump cushions, soft toys, scented candles and framed photos cluttering every surface. Under the staircase lurks a large stuffed wolf – also rescued, though evidently too late. They found him in an airport shop in Seattle where unruly children taunted the animal by poking his ears with pencils. Now the couple hope to give him some dignity beyond the grave.

Numan, 45, has a reputation for being a bit of a nerd, although he doesn't seem particularly offended by the accusation. Gemma certainly thinks he is and, just in case I'm not convinced, dredges up some anecdotes that, were I in his hobnailed boots, would have me diving under the sofa in shame.

"He used to wear lemon-and-grey checked jumpers tucked into his jeans," she cries with horrified glee. "Oh, and his jeans were ironed down the middle. What a rock star!"

Numan takes it all in good humour, however, telling me how his wife is right about most things and how she probably saved him from "turning into the next Val Doonican". They have been married for six years. Gemma, who is 10 years his junior, used to be a fanatical fan. They first met when she was 11 and she asked him for his autograph, though Gary doesn't remember that. Years later, he began to notice her at gigs and they started hanging out together at the after-show parties. Now they're devoted to one other. Every 20 minutes or so Gemma saunters in from the next room, fluffs up his hair for the photographer, and affectionately picks the cat fluff off his T-shirt.

At the end of the Seventies, Numan was Britain's best-selling recording artist – his debut single "Are 'Friends' Electric?" sold a million copies while the follow-up "Cars" was an instant classic. Yet he was also the most maligned. His chilly brand of electro-pop, which arrived at the tail end of punk, was viewed by many as pompous and silly. Even at the height of his fame, in 1981, when he'd clocked up two number one albums and a fistful of hit singles, he found himself lambasted for his lavish lifestyle (in particular his predilection for planes), those daft space suits, his avowed Thatcherism and the hair transplants.

He's had the last laugh, however, since now, a mere 25 years after he first hijacked the charts, Gary Numan is finally cool. This new-found credibility isn't just about Eighties nostalgia – though who could have predicted that we'd be enduring the agony of pencil skirts all over again? – or that electro-pop is back. Numanoids, as his fans are known, have been coming out of the woodwork for some time now. In 1997, there was a tribute album assembled by such luminaries as Beck and Damon Albarn; that same year he released his 18th album Pure, earning some of the best reviews of his career. By the time the teenage trio Sugababes scored a number one hit last year with "Freak Like Me" – a song containing a sample from "Are 'Friends' Electric?' – Gary's rehabilitation was complete. Once a buffoon in Bacofoil, Numan was now revealed as a pop pioneer. Even David Bowie – Numan's most notorious bête noire – has reportedly revised his opinion.

Numan bristles at the mention of Bowie, who once had him thrown off the set of Kenny Everett's TV Christmas Special. Numan had already filmed his song for the programme and was hanging around to see Bowie film his. "Before then I thought he was a god," he recalls. "I used to get into fights at school protecting his name. Then, all of a sudden, this bloke I'd adored for years was throwing me out of a building because he hated me so much. It really upset me at the time, especially when I thought of how many thumps I'd taken for him. I can only imagine he was going through an insecure patch. At the time I was outselling him about four to one."

Right at the beginning of his career, Numan received death threats via letters and phone calls. His father once had a petrol bomb put under his car, though it didn't go off; his mother was threatened with kidnapping and was briefly put under police protection. "I think when you become famous very quickly, as I did, there's a resentment in people because they think that your life had gone from just like theirs to something very privileged," he ponders. "People used to walk down the street and shout 'wanker!' at me. I'd think, 'How can you say that? You've never even met me.'"

Given the strength of feeling against him, it was inevitable that Gary's stardom wouldn't last. In 1984, sales started to dwindle and by the late Eighties he was all but washed up. Having spent a fortune on elaborate stage shows, he sank his earnings into a series of business ventures – among them a restaurant and a record company – all of which failed.

"I was in big trouble," he says, staring in to his cup of tea gloomily. "I needed to make some money quick, but at that time no one liked what I was doing. The radio stations weren't interested, my record company thought I was rubbish, and the media hated me. I released one single that sold just 3,000 copies. You really have to adapt to that."

Surprisingly, he tells me that much of the criticism levelled at him in the early days was fair. Yes, he was a wooden performer and, yes, he made a point of not smiling at the camera – though the reasons are more prosaic than one might imagine. His plank-like performances were a result of fear – he would often throw up before going on stage; the reason he never smiled in photographs was not aloofness, it was his "big Bugs Bunny teeth".

And there's another, more serious, explanation for his glacial demeanour, although he wasn't aware of it at the time. He suffers from Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism that hinders basic human interaction. "It means I don't say things in the way that other people would," he explains. "I might say things in an abrupt way and therefore seem cold and uncaring. This interview is fine, because our relationship is clearly defined and I know exactly what's expected of me. But if you met me at a party, I probably wouldn't know what to say and you'd think 'what a miserable sod'. I've learnt how to have conversations almost in a mechanical way. I might think to myself, 'I've now been talking to this person for five minutes and I should probably ask them what they do for a living.' It doesn't come naturally at all."

There are other rather dubious elements of Numan's early incarnation that can't be ascribed to anything other than poor judgement, however. The clothes, for instance...

"OK, OK," he says, holding his hands up. "It's true that I've had a few looks along the way that were a mistake. I remember I did an album called Fury. The album was OK, but the image was diabolical. I had been doing the Man-in-Black thing for ages, so I wore a white suit and red dicky bow. Then there was a dreadful hat. I'd had hair transplants and my head looked like a pin-cushion, so I always had to incorporate a hat."

Ah yes, the transplants. I was wondering how to bring that up. "No need to be embarrassed," he insists, running his fingers through his mop. "I'm not. The best thing has always seemed to be to come right out and talk about it. I even let the clinic use me as an advert after I first got it done. It meant I got the next treatment for free."

If you ask me, he's a little too comfortable with the whole transplant thing, as he takes great delight in recounting the gory surgical procedure.

"I had the old punch-graft surgery in the Eighties where they take hairs from the back of your head and effectively re-plant them at the front. They use a drill to extract thick tubes of skin and put up to 30 hairs in each hole. There's blood and it's agony. The hair all falls out to start with, which is a bit alarming, but then it grows back. About 18 months later you go back and they fill in the gaps. In 1993, I had the new microsurgery, which is much more effective and less painful."

Numan may stand by his decision to tell the world about his scalp surgery but he rues the day he told anyone that he voted for Thatcher – "Sometimes I'm made to feel as if I'm the only one." Yet he still defends his position. "The previous Labour government was a disaster. World crises came and went and they sat on the fence with every single one of them, and then along came a party that wasn't like that. Thatcher had a clear idea about everything and seemed to be massively pro-British against the rest of the world."

When I ask if he would call himself right-wing now there's a long pause followed by a frustrated shrug. "I honestly don't know what criteria makes someone right-wing or left-wing anymore. The boundaries of those definitions seem to be in a state of flux. I'm not socialist, I know that. I don't believe in sharing my money. If I go out and work my nuts off and make some money, I don't feel that I should have to share it with my community."

Numan was born Gary Webb, the son of a baggage-handler father and a mother who worked part-time in telesales. He originally planned to be an airline pilot, but when the careers instructor at school told him that he'd never pass the exams he decided to be a pop star instead. In the mid-Seventies he went to concerts as much to study the singers as to hear the music. He left school with no qualifications and got a series of deadly dull jobs that included building air-conditioning systems and driving a fork-lift truck in a WH Smith warehouse. His interest in music, he says, stemmed from a fixation with hi-tech gadgets.

"Of course, the lifestyle was attractive as well," he says with a not especially lopsided grin. "Naturally, I wanted to be rich and famous and have load of girlfriends."

In 1977, he and his band got their first gig in front of three punters at the Hope and Anchor in Islington, north London. A second one at a club in Soho attracted about 50 people, among them a prostitute who was trying to drum up trade among the crowd. Numan continued his fork-lifting duties right up until the day, on 10 February 1978, that he released his first single.

Amid the awkwardness, there's a discernible cockiness. He says he never had any doubt that he would be rich and famous when he grew up. Even when he was submerged in debt, he claims he never had any doubt that he would get back on his feet. It's in the studio that he becomes plagued by self-doubt. He says he's a terrible singer and is intimidated by other people's talent.

He's is still fond of flying – he's a qualified stunt pilot and instructor – although he's given up teaching and appearing in air shows. Four of the six people in his flying team, along with his former instructor, were killed in accidents. "It got to a point that so many of my friends had been killed, that there was no one left to fly with. It rather took the shine off it."

Still, he has some great stories, such as the time in 1981 when he was flying around the world with his pal Bob and his engine gave out off the east coast of India. They made an emergency landing and went off to see if they could get some help. Having found their planes, customs officials eventually caught up with them and arrested them on suspicion of spying and smuggling (the latter charge on the basis that they were each wearing two watches; the former because they were carrying cameras). The pair were kept for four days while they tried and failed to get help from the British Consulate. Eventually, Numan managed to get hold of his father, who alerted The Daily Star, which in turn got on to the Foreign Office.

Numan also wants it to be known that he never crash-landed a plane on a Southampton motorway, as has been widely reported over the years. In fact, he was just a passenger. "People obviously thought that was hysterical," he mutters. "No one actually bothered to find out if it was true."

But now planes are out and boats are in. Gary recently bought a 28ft sports cruiser and is currently taking a seamanship course. Having been expelled from two schools for unruly behaviour in his teens, the learning process is something that he now takes very seriously indeed. Nowadays, he can be found of an evening sitting at home in front of the telly practising his knots on lengths of old rope. "You see?" he says. "I told you I was an anorak."

"Yup," yells Gemma from the other room. "I can second that."

'Hybrid', a compilation of re-worked Gary Numan hits, is out 10 February on Jagged Halo/Universal

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