Gary Numan, electropop pioneer turned record business entrepreneur, has renewed his partnership with Shakatak keyboardist Bill Sharpe to make a new single, 'New Thing From London Town'. Will the unlikely tie-up become permanent?
NOW THIS IS AN ODD couple, a marriage of extremes. Bill Sharpe, the archetypal classically trained pianist, a successful jazz-rock keyboard player for some years.
And Gary Numan, a rock 'n' roll rebel weaned on a diet of Sex Pistols and Kraftwerk, once as bright and as influential a star as you can get, now something of a supernova, a man whose career seems to be at an eternal crossroads.
The couple teamed up, quite by chance, 18 months ago to produce 'Change Your Mind' — a catchy, moody piece of dancefloor confectionery that made a bigger dent on the nation's charts than either musician had dared to expect. Sharpe had written the song as part of a collection unsuitable for his band, Shakatak, but eminently usable on a solo album. Numan happened to be in the same studio at the same time, and sang Sharpe's lyrics with all the passion and precision that had distinguished his vocal style since the beginning of his pop career.
At the time, neither artist had plans to renew the collaboration: it was a one-off that worked as far as it went, with both benefitting from the experiment, artistically and financially.
A year and a half later, though, and Sharpe and Numan are sharing a record sleeve again. The single is called 'New Thing From London Town', and the similarities between it and 'Change Your Mind' are obvious: it has the same heavyweight (though subtly programmed) drum sounds, a similarly infectious hook, and a sprinkling of synth sounds whose appeal lies not so much in their originality, as in the sympathy with which Sharpe plays them.
The couple sit, some distance from each other, in the relaxation lounge of Numan's Rock City studios in Shepperton, Middlesex. The film is in the camera, the tape is running. The first question: How?
Sharpe: 'It was a song I'd had around for a while. I re-did an old demo of it, sent a cassette to Gary, and he liked it. It's the same sort of atmosphere as the last one we did, but this one was a little bit more planned. We knew more about each other this time, but it's a similar kind of thing.
'The track was recorded here at Rock City, and mixed down in Taunton by the same people who did 'Change Your Mind'. I quite like the idea of other people mixing a track — they add a new dimension to it. On this one, the mixing engineer was rushing around sampling toolboxes and things to make the track sound different. So the snare drum on the single isn't really a snare at all; it's actually a tool-box being hit with a wooden mallet.
'The instrumentation is very straightforward. The drums are a Linn LM2, with various samples that I made on the Kurzweil, and which I nicked off other records — though I'm not saying whose. It seems a pretty standard thing these days. My advice is: don't leave four bars of drums at the end of your record, because somebody will nick the sounds. Somebody will probably nick the drum sounds off this single, because they sound pretty good on the 12-inch...
'The synth sounds are mainly DX7 and TX7, with the Kurzweil being used as a master keyboard. And that's it, really. There's Gary's vocals and some backing vocals, but that's all there is in the way of instruments.
'It's all actually played, though, not sequenced. It suits the track because it's not perfect, some bits are just that little bit out of time.'
GETTING 'NEW THING' to its finished state took five days of work in the studio. By Sharpe's standards that's fast, but Numan, ever the maverick with his simple melodic compositions and down-to-earth arrangements, isn't convinced.
Sharpe: 'It's quick working for me, yes. Coming to do this from Shakatak, where it can take us two years to make an album, is refreshing because so many of the decisions are left up to me. Shakatak is a very democratic band, and everything we do is put to the vote — that's why it takes us so long to record any thing.
'I really like the idea of working within a band that's just two people. You can achieve things much more quickly, and once a track is really starting to happen in the studio, all it takes is a bit of fairly intensive work, and it's finished.'
Numan: 'I suppose five days isn't very long to make a single these days. But I can remember, back in 1978 and '79, making a whole album
in that time. And we still took our time — it wasn't particularly intensive work.
'Part of the reason for that was that I always wanted my own way. I was the one that took all the decisions because it was my band, and we were playing my songs. I must have been terrible to work with, though I think I'm getting better at working with other people now.
'Then again, there weren't so many things you could do in the studio then. We used to play everything live, overdub the odd bit of synth or guitar, and then do the mixing — which was nothing like the process it is today. It was just a matter of setting a couple of EQ controls and getting the levels right. There wasn't the amount of outboard gear to start fiddling with, and something like sampling wasn't much more than a pipe dream in 1979. Everything has accelerated so much since then.
'I think the quality of recording has gone up a lot since those days, but... I'm not sure I really prefer to work in the studio with all this new equipment. I've just spent a terrible two months in the studio trying to record my new album. Rather than write most of it at home and go in with a master plan already drawn up, which is what I normally do, I thought I'd just go into the studio and see what happens. I was hoping something nice and spontaneous would come out of it, but instead almost nothing came out of it at all.
'The problem with being stuck in the studio is that, if you don't know how you want a song to turn out, you keep on trying new things, most of which don't get used. You might put down six tracks in case a song goes in one direction, then another six in case it goes another way.
'I got really pissed off with it, really frustrated. So I ended up going home and sitting writing songs again, developing what ideas I had had in the studio, and thinking of new ones.
'It's an experiment I won't repeat. I think I'm better off working the way Bill does: writing songs and doing decent demos of them at home, so that you've got something definite to aim for once you go into the studio. And when you do that, the quality of the demo can only get better.
'...The way things are going generally, these days, you only need one instrument to make a record. With samplers you can take any sound you want and use it, and then all you need to do is sequence all those sounds together. I've just done a lot of my new album using the PPG system, as before, but I got a Prophet 2000 towards the end, and I reckon I could have done the whole album on that — it's absolutely brilliant.
'In a way things have only gone full circle. In the early days people only had one synth, and used that to do everything. Then people started getting loads of synths up on stage with them, because one did a good bass sound while another was good for strings.
'The only old synth I still use on stage is the ARP Odyssey, because it's the only machine that makes sounds you can't make on anything else. Everything else goes onto one.'
'I've still got my Odyssey, too', says Sharpe. 'Even with the Kurzweil at home, there are things only the Odyssey can do. I've still got my Solina strings synth too, and the same goes for that. The problem with the Odyssey, of course, is that it keeps going out of tune, but I wouldn't get rid of it...'
BOTH SHARPE AND NUMAN are sufficiently encouraged by 'New Thing' to want to take the partnership further, perhaps with a collaborative album project.
'I've got four or five other songs in demo form', says Sharpe, 'which could all suit Gary's voice and the way we work. I'd definitely like to take it further, as something that we can both do outside of our main careers.'
'We've got nothing to lose really', Numan affirms. 'Bill's still got Shakatak and I've still got my solo career. If we do an album together and it's successful, then it'll benefit both of us individually. If it's not successful, we've both got outside interests to go back to...'
For Numan, the main outside musical interest remains his solo career (the new album, provisionally titled Strange Charm
, is due out this autumn) and the independent record label he runs from Shepperton, Numa Records.
But Numan is no more fashionable a face now than he was when he founded the label two-and-a-half years ago, and mass media attention — crucial airplay included — has eluded both him and the other acts on Numa.
'It doesn't bother me too much about my own career', he says, with characteristic selflessness. 'I don't think I really want to be Number One again — there are just too many hassles. I'm at the stage where I can still get Top 30 singles without getting any airplay whatsoever, because the following I've got is strong enough and loyal enough. But with the unknown acts that are signed to my label, they can't get anywhere without airplay, and that's what upsets me.'
'Airplay is vital', echoes Sharpe, ruefully. 'It's a shame about the situation with Radio 1. I mean, the Network Chart has given it some competition nationally, and some of the local stations are good, but it's still true that to get anywhere with a new act, you really need airplay on Radio 1.'
So has one company's virtual monopoly over modern musical taste resulted in a decline in the worth of pop music? Numan surprises us by leaping to its defence...
'Personally I don't think today's pop music is any worse now than it was 20 years ago. You're always going to get your Chicken Songs, and you're always going to get something like the last Robert Palmer single, which to me was brilliant. Those are the two extremes, really.'
Which, if I remember correctly, is where we came in.