About 10 years ago, the Bristol trip-hop legend Tricky declared that James Brown, Kraftwerk, Public Enemy and Gary Numan were the most important pop musicians of the 20th century. While it was obviously a statement designed to provoke the reader as much as anything else (the list is missing David Bowie, the Pixies, Black Sabbath and Johnny Cash, for starters) it indicates how perceptions of Numan, the synth-pop pioneer, have changed over time.
It is difficult to remember just how big Numan was when he burst onto the scene in 1979. Numerous style and image changes in the late 1980s reduced his stock to laughable. By the 1990s, he was pretty much seen as a spent force. But over the past decade, the likes of Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails have endorsed him, and his booming keyboard riffs have been sampled by everyone from Basement Jaxx to Sugababes. A whole new generation has been introduced to the alienated sounds of such classic singles as Cars and Down in the Park.
Recently, Numan celebrated the 30th anniversary of the album that cemented his international fame, Pleasure Principle, with an expanded reissue and tour. In 1979, Numan (real name Gary Webb) and his band Tubeway Army released their second album, Replicas, which featured the No 1 single Are "Friends" Electric? It was a dystopian vision of the near future influenced by such authors as JG Ballard and Philip K Dick. More importantly, it was an expression of Numan's then undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome.
Just months later, he released his first solo album. Pleasure Principle didn't have the same cohesive narrative as its predecessor, but it sounded incredibly new, constructed almost entirely from synthesizers. Songs such as Metal and Films had tremendous hooks but, in terms of structure, were closer to what experimental bands such as Cabaret Voltaire and the then unknown Human League were recording.
Choruses were banished. All that remained were massive, booming Moog synthesizer riffs. With the guitars stripped away, it was easier to divine that the introspective and seemingly ill-at-ease pop star had an unusually soulful voice (which was perhaps more apparent on the electro ballad and single Complex). It's hard not to wonder what drove such an explosive amount of creativity. Numan, an affable and self-deprecating character, says: "If you count the first Tubeway Army album that came out at the end of 1978, then in a 12 month period I actually put three albums out. And all of them had singles and B-sides that weren't on the albums, so that was maybe 40 songs.
"But I was absolutely loving every second of it and had found a kind of music that I was passionate about, so I just wanted to get into the studio as much as possible and make as much music as possible. I felt like I was learning and getting better, not just on synthesizers but in new studio techniques. I felt like I had to push on as well because I knew there were other people doing electronic music, and now that the gates were open I knew that there was going to be an influx of people doing things like me, if you like."
For a teenager, he was incredibly canny, initially presenting himself to his record label, Beggars Banquet, as a punk rocker in order to get a deal. He changed direction as soon as possible after a chance encounter with a Minimoog in a practice room revealed that the future was in synthesizers. "I knew there were other people doing it, people like Human League, Ultravox and OMD, and that there were going to be newer bands doing it for the first time. It was this massive, successful new music kind of thing. But the real reason for the lack of guitars on Pleasure Principle was to do with a reaction to what the press had been saying. They had been really hostile up until that point saying that what I was doing wasn't proper music. So at the time I was trying to prove a point: that you could have an album without guitars and still have it sound powerful."
While Replicas wasn't exactly a concept album, it had a sort of narrative arc: a horrific vision of a future with android escorts and parks filled with human killing devices. Pleasure Principle felt a bit looser and less story-driven but still had recognisable themes regarding fear of technology and the alienating effects of modern society. "It's a little bit less complete," Numan says. "Pleasure Principle was more along the same lines, I think, but it wasn't quite so consistent. There was a song called M.E. that was about the last intelligent machine on earth, waiting for its power source to run down. A bit like Wall-E, really.
"So it's the last machine alive doing its thing but aware of death. There were one or two others, but it wasn't the sci-fi themed album that Replicas was, for sure." It's not hard to see these songs as metaphors for the effects of Asperger's syndrome, a less severe form of autism. Tracks such as M.E. and Metal (which concerns a machine wanting to learn how to be more like a human) appear to deal with the alienation or loneliness that Numan felt.
He partially brushes the idea aside: "M.E. not so much. But Metal, that was typically me. I was just out of my teens, full of angst. 'The world doesn't understand me. Poor little me.' That kind of thing. Much of it was transposed on to machinery. "I already knew about Asperger's. When I was younger I had a lot of trouble at school and I went to St Thomas's in London, which was kind of like a child psychology unit. At the time, it wasn't a diagnosable condition. People knew about it vaguely and discussed it but they didn't really know what the criteria were. So it was suggested that I might have it but there was no test for it. That didn't come until years later.
"So it was always at the back of my mind because I've had problems my entire life with being out and about and talking to people. It's weird. I can talk to you because it's one-on-one and about my work, but if we ended this now and started talking about the world at large, then there's a 50 per cent chance I'd say nothing at all or a 50 per cent chance I'd say too much. So many people think I'm full of myself because I talk too much and overcompensate or because I can't say anything because I'm too clumsy and awkward."
This said, he is obviously touched by the many covers and samples of his work that heavy metal, techno, hip-hop and pop artists have done. "I'm biased about my favourite because I'm a massive Nine Inch Nails fan," he says. "They did a cover of Metal and I thought that was brilliant. We did a version of that together at the O2 Arena in London and on some of the dates in the US as well. It was a great memory for me, and a great experience seeing it live.
"There are so many [covers] that have blown me away. The Basement Jaxx song Where's Your Head At? is based on a sample of M.E. You know, Cars is being used on the next single by Chicane, and I think in the past two weeks there have been something like three or four clearances of samples from Cars. I'm really proud that 30 years later people are still interested in that song. I should say that I really like the Sugababes song Freak Like Me as well."
In fact, Numan and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails enjoyed the live collaboration of Metal so much that they are planning to record an album together. "It's all a bit vague because he's got all kinds of things going on with his private life," Numan says. "I guess we'll talk again and start putting something together later in the year, but yeah, he's suggested we do something together. In fact, he suggested it once before many years ago but we never got it together. Hopefully this time, especially now that he's not touring. Hopefully he'll have more time to devote to such a project."
They're not sure what kind of style the album would take, but Numan says: "One part of me would like to go down the industrial route because together I think we could do something that would be really quite cool. On the other hand, it would be really good to work with someone who is that talented. We could do something far more experimental. I just think it would be a really cool thing to do. He's told me that he really wants to try something new, so perhaps it would be best not to do a version of something we've already done."