The most famous scene in Trainspotting that doesn’t involve a dead baby, or The Worst Toilet In Scotland, or statutory rape, or assault with a pint glass, or Archie Gemmill, is probably the one where Ewan McGregor’s Renton and Johnny Lee Miller’s Sick Boy are lying on the grass with the pellet gun, waxing about the ephemeral nature of genius. “Well, at one time, you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone forever,” Sick Boy dryly pronounces. “All walks of life: Georgie Best, for example. Had it, lost it. Or David Bowie, or Lou Reed…”
It’s maybe not quite universal — and I’d imagine that, by this point in their careers, Irvine Welsh and Danny Boyle wish it weren’t — but he’s certainly right that there are all kinds of artists that fit the pattern of having sustained periods of incredible creative outburst that ultimately prove to be fleeting. But to me what’s maybe most fascinating about such periods in an artist’s life isn’t, as Sick Boy observes, how inevitably the flower dies, but how drastically it changes within that time itself.
The Beatles recorded I Want to Hold Your Hand in October of 1963, their first trip to America still a full four months away. Just two-and-a-half years later, in April of ‘66, they were laying down Eleanor Rigby and Tomorrow Never Knows for Revolver. Two years after that they were in Rishikesh, working on songs for what would become the White Album — the sessions for which would essentially tear the group apart. Life comes at you fast.
Though few would put Gary Numan in quite the same category as the Beatles or the artists (footballing and otherwise) mentioned in Trainspotting, these are the things I think of as I listen to Bombers — the second Tubeway Army single, recorded in April 1978.
Less than a year later, in January of 1979, Numan would be in the studio recording the sublimely ponderous synth-driven Are ‘Friends’ Electric? for the Replicas album, with Tubeway Army’s eponymous debut LP having been recorded in between. By September of that year he’d have also made The Pleasure Principle, this time under his own name, and Cars would be topping the UK charts.
From Bombers to the pop perfection of Cars in a matter of 17 months is a hell of an evolution, even for an era when album cycles were much shorter than they are today. One song so utterly primitive, the other so futuristic.
Or at least they are on the surface.
But if you listen closely to the two songs those descriptors fall fairly quickly apart. Cars is underpinned by live drumming — albeit what one might call a slowed down, pop version of Neu!’s intentionally mechanical “motorik” beat — and the bridge is brought absolutely to life by a simple tambourine (albeit with a phaser effect on it).
Bombers, on the other hand, is far more post-punk than raw punk. And the often bouncy guitar and bass lines are as much My Sharona as they are the Sex Pistols’ Submission. There are even days, when I’m feeling particularly kind, that I might say I can hear a little bit of some of the more evolved stuff by the Buzzcocks in there, too — though that might be as much as anything because Numan sings in a vocal register similar to Pete Shelley’s. And with Numan the Bowie comparison is inevitable (and his use in Bombers of a lyrical device lifted straight from Five Years makes this a particularly easy one).
Oh, it’s not not a punk-ish song ca. 1978, and it’s certainly sloppy as hell. But there are hints of what’s to come in it, too. The robotic vocals, the dystopian imagery, paranoia, and the clear desire to do more with sound and with the studio than mere chugging guitar riffs. It doesn’t suggest the mesmerizing synth waves of Cars, but you can hear the songwriting mind in the way Numan fills, or chooses not to fill, the space of the song. There are the siren effects and the “solo” ahead of the third verse that’s mostly just someone twiddling with a delay pedal; there’s the way the whole thing moves in fits and starts; and there’s the somewhat mechanistic drumming that would only get sparer and better disciplined (with the help of drum machines and the eventual addition of Cedric Sharpley) on the forthcoming record and beyond. All of these are bedrock elements of his magnum opus.
Several songs on the self-titled Tubeway Army record that came next follow in the guitar rock mould of Bombers, but most are punctuated with bursts of synth, or are at the very least deepened by layers of it — the very Bombers-like My Shadow in Vain being a perfect example. Preceding that track, and kicking off the record, is Listen to the Sirens, which begins with a throbbing single bass note intertwined with a pulsing synth growl.
This, it turns out, was more than mere electronic garnish. It was a deliberate statement of intent.
Numan says that he saw his first Minimoog when recording that Tubeway Army album, and it absolutely changed everything. In 2012 he explained the moment to Public Radio International’s Echoes podcast like this: “I went into the studio to record a punk album, and there was a synthesizer in the corner. I had never seen a real one before. So this thing was sitting in the corner, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ Quite fascinated by the tech of it — the dials and the switches — and thought, ‘Yeah, that’s quite cool.’ Pressed it and the whole room shook as if an explosion had gone off. I’d never heard anything as powerful in my whole life.”
“In that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” he told the Guardian in 2014. “I converted all our guitar-based punk songs into electro-punk numbers.”
It was a conversion in more than just the one sense. He had renounced the sins of the guitar and accepted the synthesizer as his saviour. And given the synthesizer’s place in punk rock and popular culture in 1978, the move was ballsy as fuck. Not to mention an especially inspired one for something to have come about by such chance.
“There are people still trying to work out what a genius he was,” Prince would say of Numan a decade later. Gary, at this stage, was one of them.
“By the time [the Tubeway Army album] was in the shops, I’d written another track called Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” he told the Guardian. “I wrote it on an old pub piano my mum and dad bought, which I didn’t realise was out of tune. It was initially two different songs, which is why it’s over five minutes long. I had a verse from one, the chorus from the other, and was struggling to mix them together. I got so fed up, one day I played them one after another and suddenly they sounded right.
“So the song is a combination – of me not being able to write songs, and not being able to play them either. The main melody is one note sharp, since I hit a wrong note on the old piano, and it sounded better. I ended up recording it on a Polymoog synthesizer played with one finger. It sounded very different and futuristic, but there was still some bass and drums in there, so people had something familiar to connect with.”
As he explained to the Echoes podcast, his next smash was also the product of a happy accident:
“Cars I actually wrote on a bass guitar. I’d been looking for a way to play bass better, because I didn’t really play it very well. Went up to London and bought a bass guitar, got home, picked the guitar up, and the very, very first notes I played went doo-doo-doo-doot. ‘Oh, well, that’s alright.’ Y’know? And then I thought, ‘What should I do what that?’ — doot-doo-doot — Easy! Whole thing took ten minutes.”
Amazing! And anybody who has done any kind of creative work will surely recognize the feeling of hitting on something you understand as absolutely perfect without quite knowing why or how you happened to get there.
On a scale less grand, this is what’s really at the heart of Sick Boy’s cruel assessment; the notion that inspiration sometimes flows through an artist from a higher plane of consciousness, and the idea that just as quickly and bewilderingly and unequivocally as this inspiration arrives, it goes away. Had it, lost it. Often it seems that simply becoming aware of the immensity of one’s gifts, or of the impossibility of repeating such preposterous strings of happy accidents, can be all that it takes to trip these people up.
I bring this up not to diminish these two particularly incredible songs, or his output over the 35 years that followed — especially given how easy it was for so long to dismiss his work as facile and emblematic of the early eighties’ worst synth sins. Like I say, the elements were all already in place, if somewhat shabbily formed at first. And it took no small measure of work and talent and daring to get there — the latter in more ways than one, as in the piece for the Guardian Numan describes nearly getting in a fistfight in the record company offices after he first “came back with this weird electronic stuff.” It’s just fascinating, to bring this all the way back to Bombers, that in that song we have a document of the moment just before his genius fully bloomed.
The Tubeway Army album was recorded in July and August of 1978. Bombers was released on July 21st. By then Gary Numan, fittingly, was already living in the future. He had it.