Webb of Intrigue
An evening performance
ES&CM gets to grips with Gary Webb, better known as master electropopper Gary Numan
Gary Numan was the man who almost single-handedly invented synthesizer pop. Taking influences from Kraftwerk, David Bowie and the punk explosion of the late seventies, he produced a unique combination which concentrated on cryptic lyrics, emotionless appearance and penetrating synthesizer sounds.
Howls of complaint about derivativeness and musical illiteracy largely subsided as Numan's style slowly changed. He was, it was becoming clear, determined to keep up with (or ahead of) the time, and the re-introduction of guitars, then sax and fretless bass to his music, confused as many as it delighted. At the bottom of it all still lay a unique showman with clear ideas about music and entertainment.
"Before getting into music professionally I was driving Bedfords to get money together for demo time. At that stage I was playing guitar, which I'd been doing since the age of 10 or 11, and I didn't touch a synthesizer until I was 19 or 20.
"I'd written countless songs including three sets for a punk band I was in. Punk songs are so easy, you just churn them out! One night I decided three or four of the songs we'd been using were a bit tired, so I wrote three new ones the next morning, we rehearsed them in the afternoon and performed them in the evening. I found writing easy in those days because it didn't matter so much if I repeated myself.
"One or two of the songs from that period ended up on the first album ('Tubeway Army', Beggars Banquet) but they'd been turned into synth songs by then. Instead of going chunk-chunk-chunk on the guitar they went blip-blip-blip on the synthesizer! On the whole they crossed over very well. I only got into keyboards when my mother bought me an old piano two weeks before I was due to go into the studio. I started to play some of the tunes on the piano and learned how to add bass notes to certain chords, and when we got into the studio there was a MiniMoog there that had been left behind after the previous session. Luckily it was set up on a good sound — one of the deep bass notes the MiniMoog does so well — and I added bass notes on the synth instead of guitar. I thought it sounded great, and after that we hardly used the guitar at all.
"I'm not a big tan of Fairlights and other computer instruments, not because they aren't great but because I'd worry about relying on a single computer on stage."
"For the next album ('Replicas', Beggars Banquet) I got a MiniMoog and a PolyMoog, and after that and the success of 'Are Friends Electric' and 'Cars' the money started to come in and I started to get other things; those two are still like old friends though, and I turn to them when I can't think what else to do. I use the ARP Odyssey more for bass things because it has more cut to it, and my favourite at the moment is the Oberheim OBXa. I'm not a big fan of Fairlights and other computer instruments, not because they aren't great but because I'd worry about relying on a single computer on stage. I've had two computers on the lighting system go wrong on this tour; if a MiniMoog goes down you can use the Odyssey, if the Oberheim goes down you can replace it with a Prophet even if it isn't quite the same, but if you're relying on a computer..!"
"I haven't looked at the Jupiter 8 yet, although I like to use different instruments as much as I can. For instance on 'Telekon' (Beggars Banquet) I went back to using a lot of guitar again and 'I, Assassin' had a lot of sax and fretless bass. It was a pure funk album a little like the new one ('Warriors') which also has a lot of guitar, sax, fretless bass and so on.
"The Warriors Tour presents a very much funked-up Numan although the synths are still there."
"I use drum machines quite a lot to write with, with the keyboard line usually coming next. Luckily the digital drum machines don't sound too electronic unlike the older Roland designs, in fact the Linn can be treated to a degree where you can't even identify it, although it's got a distinctive sound like a good drum kit should. It's tremendous to work with — totally unreliable on the road! The same applies to the Fairlight — if I used it in the studio I'd have to tape the sounds to go on the road as I have to do now with the Linn. Generally I like to take everything used in the studio on the road to get the same sound, even the effects units. If I use an effect in the studio I usually buy one as well — at the moment I've got about 18 rack mounting units, mainly MXR. I like to keep things as live as possible even when I'm not working towards a particular tour."
"The Warriors Tour presents a very much funked-up Numan although the synths are still there. I don't want to be tied down to a particular style because the audience then labels you and are put out if you want to change. I suppose I've lost some of the audience to Depeche Mode or Culture Club, but I've gained others too. You should buy a record if you like it and see a show if you want to, not out of some kind of loyalty even if you don't like the songs.
"So the saxophone is very much to the fore now, it's really taken the place of the guitar. The guitar in itself is no more interesting now than it's ever been, what is interesting is the way you integrate it with the new technology, which is what I'm trying to do. I think the idea of one man and a computer playing all the music is not only bad for the music business, it's not even entertaining. A synthesizer doesn't make you hip!
"'Friends' would have dated too much if it had been left alone — if people want the old songs they have to be done to fit in with the new set."
"This time we've been playing six or so songs off 'Warriors' and a lot of old stuff including funked-up versions of 'Friends' and 'Cars'. The band is the Dramatis boys — Russell Bell (guitar), Chris Payne (viola and keyboards), Ced Sharpley (drums), Joe Hubbard (bass) with my brother John Webb on sax and keyboards. Dick Morrisey plays sax on the album, and the producer Bill Nelson adds some guitar and keyboards. My favourite track on the album must be 'This Prison Moon' because the sax and backing vocals are tremendous and the arrangement and production are so good. On some of the tracks I found Bill's ideas didn't enhance things at all, but on that one it was tremendous.
"Still, the best track on the album isn't necessarily the best one to put out as a single. I thought 'Are Friends Electric' was a bit too long, too droney with no clear hookline and not an obvious single at all. I don't really share the enthusiasm that the fans seem to have for it, and I was surprised when it did so well. I liked it at the time, but I didn't realise you were meant to put out the most obvious single rather than the track you liked the most! 'Friends' would have dated too much if it had been left alone — if people want the old songs they have to be done to fit in with the new set."
"On this tour I designed the lighting set-up and patches and the stage set as well as the musical aspects. The lighting engineer was ill for a week and by the time he got back I'd done it all! The only way to make sure you have a smooth product is to do it yourself, and if anything's going to have my name put to it I want to have done it all myself. That's why I did all the editing on the last video — it also gives you a tremendous feeling when you see the finished product!
"The next plan is a documentary of the round-the-world trip for which I may do a soundtrack, and a video of an airshow possibly for television. After that, a new single (not from the album) for which I haven't got a title yet because I don't add titles until the vocals are recorded. I've got an advanced flying licence to get before Christmas, then a tour of the United States and Canada in the New Year, a new album, and possibly a Japanese tour."
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