First Listens: Gary Numan’s ‘The Pleasure Principle’

INTRODUCTION: Yes, believe it or not, there are famous albums I have not yet sat down and paid significant attention to. Many of them, actually. Some I have in my mp3 collection while slowly gathering various band discographies, and some I’ve only read about in the numerous music biographies and histories I’ve read over the years. And some I’ve owned back in my vinyl days and only paid attention to the singles from it. This occasional series is my way of dedicating some time to focus on the album as a whole, to familiarize myself with them, get to know them a bit. These are albums that can be fan or critic favorites (or both), many of them you can probably find in Robert Dimery’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and Rolling Stone’s varied Best Albums of All Time lists.

So why am I doing this? Well, why not? I’m always up for discovering a new (old) favorite!

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I’m old enough to remember when “Cars” came out and thought it was the coolest damn thing I’d ever heard in late summer of 1979. It was so different from the pop, disco, AOR and classic rock that filled all our local radio stations. It was like M’s “Pop Musik” that came out just a few months previous: what the hell am I listening to, and why does it sound so cool?? It was one of those songs that was just so weird yet so catchy it became a huge hit — one of his biggest in the US, and pretty much the one everyone knows the most — but certainly it was a one-hit-wonder fluke. Even Numan had no idea it would be so big, as it’s just a song about when some yobs once tried to carjack him. It’s hanging out as the next to last track on the album, almost forgotten.

While the single itself was relatively easy to find, The Pleasure Principle itself was a bit tougher to find for someone like me whose closest record shop was a section of the local department store. It wasn’t high on my list of albums to look for anyway, considering I was deep into my Beatles collection at the time. I’d see it at Strawberries or Musicland. It never really went away.

The thing that blows my mind today about the record how quickly it was recorded and released after the second Tubeway Army album, Replicas, which already had a cult following due to its several singles and deep tracks like “Down in the Park”, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and “Me! I Disconnect from You”. That particular album is worth having in your collection as an early example of Numan’s flirtation with science fiction and dystopian imagery. Sacking his original band soon after, he gathered a new backing group and leaned even harder on the sci-fi synth gloom. [He’d move away from that sometime in the early 80s but return to it and stay there a decade later. His brand new album Intruder just dropped last week, continuing his recent foray into NIN-style industrial darkness.]

It wasn’t until recently that I finally got around to catching up with Numan’s discography, so I figured, why not start with the one that put him on the map for most Americans? Here we go!

Track 1: Airlane — An instrumental opening to set the mood. Right away you can hear the difference between the punkishness of Replicas and the post-punk synthetics of this album…a fascinating change given the five months between these two records. Right away you can hear many differences: Cedric Sharkpley’s powerful drumming, and the several synths going on.

Track 2: Metal — I’m familiar with this one as it was the b-side to the “Cars” US single (I learned to pay attention to flip sides early on). While it’s got the creepiness of his earlier songs, there’s far more aural tension here, with the grinding bass keyboard riff keeping the pace, inserted flanged whooshes and the twitchy tones throughout. It feels totally devoid of any emotion or humanity, which is kind of the whole point with early Numan. Totally makes sense that Nine Inch Nails covered this later on, as it’s right in their wheelhouse.

Track 3: Complex — This ballad kind of sounds a bit like a Replicas outtake, as it’s more tender and solemn. There’s even a treated viola in there, countering the swirling monotone-ish melody that kind of meanders all over the place. It feels more like a mood piece than an actual song, even though it was the follow-up single to “Cars” in the UK. Noting here that the first three songs do feel super short, even though they’re all a bit over three minutes.

Track 4: Films — Okay, this one’s a LOT groovier, more melodic, and a lot more sinister. Hiring Sharpley as a permanent drummer was one of his best moves. The bass is pushed up front here as well. This one’s a really memorable and fascinating deep cut and I know it’s shown up on some of his numerous best-of compilations. Love the bassiness of this one, gives it that sprawling on the floor feel. Apparently Afrika Bambaataa loved this track and cited it as an early influence!

Track 5: M.E. — Not nearly as memorable a deep cut but kind of interesting. He’s leaning super heavy on the sci-fi here (it’s about the last machine on Earth) but I’m not sure if he truly pulls it off. Another track with the use of treated viola! That’s an unexpected choice, but it kind of works? Feels a bit overlong, though…could have faded out maybe a minute earlier.

Track 6: Tracks — Don’t let the quiet piano opening fool you — it quickly turns into a jerky uptempo track that almost sounds like post-Stardust 70s Bowie. [Side note: apparently those two initially did not get along at all, apparently due to Bowie offering a snarky “he’s trying to sound like me” at the time, but I digress.] I kind of like it!

Track 7: Observer — Another uptempo track that sounds like a variation on “Cars” with its “doont da-doont” backing riff and high, ghostlike synth notes. It’s not nearly as catchy, but he’s getting there. This one also feels a bit like a mood piece. Feels too short!

Track 8: Conversation — Back to midtempo here, and the drums and bass are up front once more. A groovy deep cut with delicate, sparse lyrics that interestingly reminds me of Three Imaginary Boys-era Cure. He’s definitely leaning heavy on the not-quite-human riffs here. It kind of meanders, but it goes in really interesting places, including a brief passage with that viola.

Track 9: Cars — Ah, here we go. This song really is brilliant and perfect, even decades later. Like “Films”, the tension is extremely high here. He makes really great use of the emptiness between the notes, filling them only with that three-note bass riff or the brief synth slap. And it’s the most danceable track too! Pretty sure the Blitz Kids loved this one. It’s like he really did his homework on this one track to make it the best song on the album: each section of the song is unique, with the verses cradled in that emptiness, switching only to a verseless and extremely melodic middle-eight that lifts up the listener…only to drop back down to another tense and sparse verse. And that extended ending! While it only repeats that two-chord verse riff, it’s what he does with the layers that pulls it all together: the high, soaring melody and its lower counterpoint, driving you away from it all with a super-slow fade.

Track 10: Engineers — Tying up the whole man-as-machine theme of the album, this one wraps it all up with a slow, chugging rhythm with all sorts of aural sound effects going on. It’s like you’re in a forest of technology, where all the living beings are really wired-up automatons. Unfortunately it’s not nearly as memorable as I’d like but soundwise it’s definitely interesting.

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Thoughts: As a post-punk/synth/new wave album, I see where he was going with this, though I don’t think he quite pulled it off. “Cars” definitely does feel out of place here, as it sounds super-polished compared to all the other tracks. I know now that it took him several albums until he figured out where he wanted to go with his records and how to make it all cohesive (personally I think 1986’s Strange Charm is where he finally hit that). I know he was going for the unfeeling “non-human” thing here, and seeing it in that point of view, it makes much more sense.

Final Opinion: I know this one will grow on me, like Replicas did. For me, it’s not a ‘drop everything and pay attention to this’ album but a background soundtrack, something to listen to while I’m writing.

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