Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Man Who Fell to London


Banquet (9.4)

The first full-length from synth-pop pioneer Gary Numan
plays like The Man Who Fell to Earth come to life. That isn't
a mistaken reference to David Bowie's sweeping 1970 song "The Man Who Sold the World," but rather to Nicolas Roeg's arty 1976 film with the pop star as a freaky-deaky dehydrated spaceman.

Granted, David Bowie was a significant influence on Numan,
who sported a similar bleach-blond hairstyle at the time he re-
corded Replicas—gone by the time of "Cars"—but it wasn't the glam racket that appealed as much as the trio of chilled-out platters the Thin White Duke cut with Brian Eno in Berlin.

Numan's lyrics extend sci-fi themes the former Davy Jones
first explored in "Space Oddity." Just add a dash of Kubrick's
2001: A Space Odyssey, a dose of Philip K. Dick, and Gary's robotic phrasing, and there you have it: "Me! I Disconnect
from You," "Are 'Friends' Electric?", "Praying to the Aliens,"
"When the Machines Rock," and "I Nearly Married a Human."

The song titles tell the whole story. Just as Numan felt "disconnected" from the punk movement, he felt a similar remove from the human race. (Billing Replicas as a Tube-
way Army album was the re-
cord company's idea, not his.)

As the liner notes reveal, Numan (born Gary An-
thony James Webb) was just another London punk when he chanced upon a Moog in a rented studio. Tired of the violence at
pub shows, the synthesizer allowed him to reinvent himself—to make a new kind of music and to attract a less aggressive audience.

As he explains, "It was clear to me that the scene was dying
and I wanted to do something else." As a model, he looked to Ultravox, another British act that recorded in Germany. Nu-
man would soon eclipse Mitch Ure's outfit (even swiping Vox keyboard player Billy Currie), and this #1 UK record holds up wonderfully well 29 years after the fact (over the years, his
songs have been covered by everyone from Blur to Beck).

The unholy union bet-
ween Tangerine Dream-
like ambience and proto-
metallic crunch never sounds
as schizophrenic as it should.

And "Down in the Park," which strikes the perfect balance between
pop melodicism and Existential dread, remains one of the most
seductively spooky singles of the post-punk era—up there with
Joy Division's "She's Lost Control" and Bauhaus's "Bela Lugosi's
Dead." The second disc features outakes, which sound almost
as polished as the final product. The biggest difference is that
Numan sounds softer, warmer—almost, well, human.

Endnote: I've been a fan of "Down in the Park" since 1982 (cue
my favorite phrase: Boy, do I feel old). The thing is, I thought Nu-
man was singing "Down in the park with the Franco Five." I lov-
ed the idea that he was mixing it up with the Italian or Spanish
mob. (In Hyde Park? Or Kensington...?) The actual line reads,
"Down in the park with a friend called Five." Of course.

As for The Man Who Fell to Earth, I saw it with my Mom up-
on its release. It freaked me out. Haven't seen it since, though I'm
looking forward to picking up the Criterion DVD—complete with
Bowie commentary. In the interim, i.e. the '80s and '90s, I became
a fan of Bowie in Berlin, Roeg in the '70s, and all things Rip Torn,
so it'll be interesting to see how that crazy combination plays
today. Images from Jalopnik, Posteritati, and Torrent Portal.

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