By the end of 1980, Gary Numan had a level of superstardom that, for working-class kids like him, had seemed as unachievable “as landing on the moon”. The singles Are “Friends” Electric? (with his band Tubeway Army) and Cars had both rocketed to No 1, as had the albums Replicas, The Pleasure Principle and Telekon. But he was unprepared for fame.
“There’s a glossy front-cover version where everything looks very glamorous,” he says, “but the reality can be damaging and destructive. Making music stops being this thing you love and starts to become about units and strategies. The stress and pressure of it all was unbelievably difficult, particularly for someone like me.”
Numan has since “learned how to be a famous person”, but at 23, with longstanding issues over social interactions, the constant interview requests, intrusion outside his house and snarky music press coverage (“with an unnecessary level of animosity”) were unbearable . Then he received death threats. “I felt like I was being pushed towards the edge of a cliff,” he says, flailing his arms as if to illustrate the feeling of losing balance. “And I didn’t want to fall off.”
So Numan walked away, announcing a “farewell” concert at Wembley Arena in 1981 (which was expanded to three nights owing to huge public demand) and retiring from live performance (for less than two years). “I wanted to get back to making music and to who I was before it all started,” he says. “The mistake was going public. I should have just quietly stopped touring and no one would have noticed. Instead, I upset everybody and destroyed my career.”
Today, the 64-year-old star is speaking by video from a house near Stirling in Scotland, which he bought as an investment after the pandemic exposed his reliance on live touring. The much-sampled electronic pop pioneer, who is politely spoken, friendly, open and occasionally endearingly self-deprecating, is in good form – and with reason. After years plugging away, his last two albums each entered at No 2 in the UK charts, and in May he even returned to Wembley, which had become a “symbolic target” for his recovery. “I thought it might take four years,” he laughs, “not 41.”
A new documentary, Gary Numan Resurrection, tells the story of his rejuvenation with unusual candour, even showing the singer having a panic attack as the Wembley stage beckoned once again. “There was an earlier one which wasn’t filmed,” he reveals, “but about an hour before going on I was properly losing it. My dad was there, doing that typical bloke thing: ‘Come on, you’ll be all right.’ It was almost word for word what he told me when I was 18, playing in some little pub.”
But the moment Numan faced the audience, his anxiety melted away. “It was brilliant, actually,” he smiles. “The power of all those people making all that noise. Some of them had been at the first Wembley concerts, or stuck with me from the beginning. I think they were even more emotional than I was.”
Numan was born Gary Webb to a British Airways bus driver father and dressmaker mother and lived at Wraysbury in Berkshire, beneath the Heathrow flight path. His first ambition was to fly planes before a careers talk at Ashford grammar school in Surrey changed his mind. “The man said: ‘Only one in a thousand people get to be a pilot,’” he remembers. “Which is actually bullshit, terrible advice! But there were about 800 people in the school. I thought ‘There’s no way that’s going to be me.’ So I just said, ‘Right, I’ll be a pop star.’ It was childish thinking, but from that moment school became a pointless obstacle.” On top of becoming a pop star, he got his pilot’s license in 1980 and founded the charter flight company Numanair.
The documentary reveals a letter from Numan’s headteacher branding him “the most disruptive pupil I’ve had in 21 years of teaching”. The singer was expelled twice – first from Ashford, then from Brooklands college in Weybridge. When he was 15, a child psychologist referred to Asperger syndrome, a then less well-known autism spectrum disorder. “She didn’t actually diagnose it, but she mentioned it,” he says. “It would have been viewed as a stigma then. My mum certainly took it that way and was quite upset about it.” Numan was put on anti-anxiety drugs Nardil and Valium for a year but it was never followed up and he continued having difficulties making or keeping friends.
In his first band, at school, he turned up at rehearsals one day to discover somebody else singing. “Then every single person in or around the band stopped talking to me or walked away,” he remembers. “I’d always tried to be friendly so I couldn’t understand it. Finally, one of their girlfriends said: ‘No one wants to know you any more.’ It was traumatic, but you accept that there’s something wrong with you, that you try to be friendly but are inherently unlikable, and so you become reclusive. Then you write songs about that.”
Adapting a name from one he found in the Yellow Pages (Neumann Kitchen Appliances) and very convincingly hiding his stage fright behind an image and persona, he poured his alienation and love of sci-fi into futuristic songs such as Cars (where “I feel safest of all. I can lock all my doors. It’s the only way to live”) and Me, I Disconnect from You. The singer had always been more fascinated by technology and noises than by conventional music, preferring the electric guitar bought by his steadfastly supportive parents to the acoustic “because it had dials and switches”. Numan was fronting Tubeway Army, with whom he made his first two albums, when he came across a Minimoog synthesizer: “A eureka moment. I thought, ‘That noise sounds brilliant. How can I get that into song?’”
He set about converting all his band’s guitar-based punk songs into electropop. Soon afterwards, the memorable synth hook for Are “Friends” Electric?, written on an old out-of-tune pub piano his parents bought, came about through “my bad playing. I hit a wrong note and it sounded better.” Just over a year after he signed to Beggars Banquet, the 1979 single sold a million copies.
By the 90s, though, his albums were being badly reviewed or not reviewed at all. “Which was even worse! In 1995, I did a single called Absolution which sold just 3,000 copies,” he reveals. “Less than my debut single when I was a complete unknown. That means 997,000 people had fucked off!” Then, in the 00s, he was being mashed up by Sugababes and increasingly recognized as a key figure in electronic pop.
Numan’s resurrection started after he met Gemma O’Neill, a fan who connected with the singer after her mother died from cancer. They have now been together for 30 years and married for 25, and he credits her with helping him to view himself more positively and be more at ease in conversations. “Little nudges under the table, or long conversations after we’d been out somewhere,” he says. “’Why did you say that? That’s why that person left.’ Socializing will always be stressful for me but I’m quite happy to hide in her shadow when we’re out. She has given me a confidence I never had before.”
His wife also helped him recognize where his music had gone wrong. “I’d come to think of myself as the weak link in my albums,” he explains. “I was bringing in guitar players and other people to do the vocals. She said, ‘You may not be the best keyboard player or guitarist in the world, but you have a sound that people love.’ She was right.”
The couple have been through “very traumatic” IVF and lost a baby (they now have three teenage daughters), but their only serious period of turbulence was when both experienced depression. “She was coming out of her just as I was going into mine,” he says. “I was thinking of … not getting divorced, but getting away for a while because everything felt negative.”
Instead, Numan wrote Lost, a beautiful song on Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind), the 2013 album that returned him to the Top 20. “I fully intended to vent about how shitty she was and how right I was,” he grins , “but all that came out was how brilliant she was. This might be dramatic, but I think it saved us.”
Numan admits that when 2017’s Savage (Songs from a Broken World) went in at No 2 in the UK album chart, followed by 2021’s Intruder, he “cried like a baby, because it meant so much”. His next “little hurdle” is another No 1, but some anxieties remain. He worries about global heating and the environment, and after the family relocated to Los Angeles in 2012, he worried about the rise of Donald Trump. Now, his biggest fear is that one day he won’t be here for his children, so he’s writing about “being dead, or coming back as a ghost and trying to communicate”.
“I don’t write happy songs,” he grins. “I write about what bothers me. I’d rather not be worried, but it’s all good. If I had stopped worrying I’d have only done one album.”