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!


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.


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.

First Listens: Kraftwerk’s ‘The Man-Machine’

Image courtesy of Discogs

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!


Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine was released on 19 May 1978. I was seven years old, and more than likely I was listening to my older sisters’ record collection and taking out albums from the local library. (ELO’s Out of the Blue was a constant favorite at the time, I recall.) I’d also listen to whatever was playing on the radio, still wet behind the ears (*ba-doom-tiss*) when it came to finding my own musical tastes. My Beatles obsession would becoming within a few months, of course.

The new music selection that month was extremely varied. Captain & Tennille released Dream, which contained the single “You Never Done It Like That” which I thought was kinda groovy. Cheap Trick dropped Heaven Tonight, their best and rockingest album to date with the classic “Surrender” as its first track. Commodores had a chart hit with “Three Times a Lady”, as did Nick Gilder with “Hot Child in the City”; The Cars dropped their amazing first single “Just What I Needed”; Bob Seger’s Stranger in Town and Journey’s Infinity quickly became AOR radio gold; The Rolling Stones released their very first 12″ remix with “Miss You”. And on the more obscure, won’t-know-this-stuff-until-later side of things, The Go-Betweens released one of their first singles, “Lee Remick”, The Dickies covered Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”, and The Stranglers dropped their Black & White album.

I actually knew about Kraftwerk early on, as one of my sisters owned the “Autobahn” single, which I thought was a really neat track. I loved that it had that sort of mellow prog-rock feel to it, and that it was purely synthetic in its sound. I’d listen to that single enough that it eventually ended up becoming part of my own burgeoning collection. For me, Kraftwerk is up there with Gary Numan (and in a way, Gary Wright’s The Dream Weaver) as This Is What Science Fiction Music Sounds Like in the 70s and early 80s, before I discovered post-punk. [Side note: I’ll be listening to the English version here.]

Track 1: The Robots — I know this one well as it’s an AOR classic and one that KEXP plays every now and again. It’s kind of funky, isn’t it? It has a bit of a late 70s disco groove too. I recently learned the Blitz Kids in London loved dancing to this track. I love how the R’s are rolled on purpose like it’s some kind of We Are Aristocracy type of thing. It’s also very bloopy — I can see where early Depeche Mode picked up on this style on their early albums. It’s deliberately synthetic in its completeness.

Track 2: Spacelab — Have I heard this before…? I think I have! Hooray! It’s this series’ first example of “Oh THAT Song”! And there will be many, I’m sure. The opening is like that cool spacey intro to the album version of Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle”, which I love so much! Nice use of rippling ascending keyboards to signify liftoff. Kicking in now…a high meandering melody with a driving yet primitive drumbeat. Kinda groovy! I’m picturing this as a music bed under some PBS film I might have seen as a kid, or one of those long bumpers that MTV used to play in their early days, you know, the ones with a bunch of NASA and public domain films. This totally sounds like something off of Duran Duran’s first album…one of their deep cuts. Martin Gore must have taken a page from this song as well, as it kind of sounds like something from A Broken Frame! Looking at Discogs, apparently this was a single in the UK and the US, so maybe that’s why I recognize it…I must have heard it at some point in the past.

Track 3: Metropolis — The Depeche Mode comparisons continue…this plodding, plonky opening is straight off Construction Time Again, and that one bass note that’s keeping the beat sounds like water droplets on a PVC tube, doesn’t it? Very Blue Man Group there. Ah, there we go…song kicks in, and now it’s got a bit of Thomas Dolby beat to it. Minor key, high flanged chords shimmering in the background. Okay, I see what they’re doing here…kind of going for an aural poem of 70s urban tension, with maybe a bit of a wink to the 1927 movie of the same name with its dramatic delivery. Not exactly a memorable track, but it’s an interesting deep cut.

Track 4: The Model — I definitely know this one. Their Other Big Hit here in the US. I remember seeing the video for this on MTV, which I learn was made because of its resurgence with the English version as a 1981 single. It’s kind of sad sounding, isn’t it? Comparing this to Air’s Moon Safari this time, with some pretty nifty use of mellotron-like chords and delicate high melodies. But yeah…it’s kind of an odd song, isn’t it? It’s definitely got radio potential, though.

Track 5: Neon Lights — Longest song on the album. so I’m going to assume this is the centerpiece. It’s kind of a counterpoint to “Metropolis” I think…definitely lighter and dreamier in its delivery. I can see where M83 stole a bit from them here! I do like the shift two minutes in…a change in key to a motorik-style single chord groove (which makes sense, considering Neu! was formed by two ex-Kraftwerk guys with similar musical ideas). I like that this has suddenly become an extended jam for the main melody synths. Okay, yeah…this song is in my wheelhouse as Possible Writing Session Soundtrack material!

Track 6: The Man-Machine — And we’re back in early Depeche Mode territory again. Like “Metropolis”, it’s not entirely memorable as a song, but the parts that make it are kind of neat. Programmed drum loops, vocoderized voices, and the classic high dissonant bloops to hint at Big Computer Technology. Kind of an odd, anticlimactic way to end the album (this feels more like a denouement than a climax point), but it does work in its own way, pulling the rest of the album together as a whole, as it’s a more humanlike response to the cold and clinical “The Robots”. This song’s less about the song and more about the What Have We Learned Here summary of what we’ve just heard.


Thoughts: I can definitely see now how all those early 80s synth bands like DM, OMD, Visage and so on were highly influenced by this record and others like it. A lot of them had their minds blown by this stuff, realizing that not only could they write and play this sort of thing that was so different from the pop charts of the time, the newest much smaller keyboard models were actually becoming quite affordable — or alternately, they were learning to kludge together their own electric bits and bots to make the same or similar unnatural sounds and beats.

There’s also the fact that this stands out separate from other experimental bands at the time, in that they’re supremely melodic. They’re not hard on the ears like Throbbing Gristle, or hypnotic like Neu!, or weird like Einsturzende Neubauten. Each of these bands would inspire other bands in some way, and Kraftwerk, to my opinion told these new groups that electronic music can be enjoyable as much as it is experimental. It’s the appeal of the passive listener as well as the big music nerd.

Final Opinion: I think it might take me a few more listens for most of the album to stick with me, but it’s definitely something I’ll listen to in the future!

Coming Soon: First Listens

Source: K-On!

I’ve been posting Favorite Albums and New Release Reviews for so long that I think I’m starting to burn out. I’ve already talked about a lot of my all-time faves (numerous times for some), so maybe I should shake it up.

SO! It occurred to me that The Internet Kids have been using a variation of music blog and vlog by posting First Listen reaction videos. I’m sure you’ve seen and enjoyed some of the best out there (such as this classic featuring Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’). I’m certainly not someone who wants to create a reaction vlog, though. I’d rather be behind a camera than in front of it. And for the longest time I felt reaction videos were kind of silly, but I kind of get them now, especially if they’re done in a fun way like this.

So what I was thinking is, there’s got to be a significant number of bands, musicians and albums that are well-known that even I haven’t gotten around to listening to, right? I might be familiar with their discography and history, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve ever gotten around to sitting down and listening to it, or even owning it. I know a handful of Neil Young songs thanks to classic rock radio and MTV, but do I even know what After the Gold Rush or Harvest sounds like? I live less than three miles from Haight-Ashbury, but do I really know more than maybe five Grateful Dead songs?

I’m thinking this might be worth looking into, and also a hell of a lot of fun. Sometimes I’ve avoided these musicians due to disinterest, and other times it’s due to their unavailability (or my being too broke), but I’ve also ignored them due to rock radio overplaying the same three songs out of their multi-album, multi-single career and turning me off them. It’s my own ridiculous prejudice there, so I think it would be interesting to work past that and see and hear what I’ve been missing.

This won’t just be classic rock or albums from Rolling Stone’s Usual Cast of All-Time Greats. There are a lot of records out there that I’m familiar with by name, fame, infamy, or word of mouth, but have bypassed for one reason or another. This includes different genres as well: I’d like to try ’em all.

I’ll be taking next week off to come up with a list of albums to try out and how to deliver this crazy little idea in blog form, and hopefully by the end of the month I’ll have a few posts for you! Stay tuned!