Saturday, March 8, 2014

Classic Album Review: Gary Numan - Living Ornaments '79 (1981)

The news last week that Gary Numan was planning to play a one-off show at Auckland’s Studio (bar) this coming May was greeted with much excitement by Kiwi fans of the synthpop genre. I’m not so sure the promotional claim that Numan is the “godfather of electronic music” is particularly accurate (Kraftwerk, Neu!, Tangerine Dream, et al ... anyone?) but there’s no doubt he remains a significant draw for nostalgia freaks in this part of the world. Even as recently as a few years back I found myself rather obsessed with his Living Ornaments series of live albums – made during his commercial peak. Here’s a review I wrote at the time for the first album of the series, Living Ornaments ’79 ...


Living Ornaments ’79 features Gary Numan as found in September 1979, live at the Hammersmith Odeon; part android, part voyeur into the future, part neo-classical posh git … and sometime pilot …

The album captures Numan at the start of what might be called his peak period as an artist – no longer operating under the Tubeway Army banner, and undertaking a serious assault on the UK singles chart, something that would continue well into 1980 and, albeit with ever diminishing returns, well beyond.
In 1979, Numan was bold, brash, and relevant; a genuine emerging commercial force on a fast expanding new wave/synth scene. Living Ornaments represents something of a seminal snapshot of that moment in time, but it’s also more than that – it is an album to prove that there was more to Gary Numan than merely hit singles, and in a “live” setting we see a human Numan (sorry! - Ed) rather than the robotic and distant, dare I say it – ornamental – individual, as characterised by marketing/branding imagery at the time. Though in saying that, the live aspect means the structure and pace (especially) of several tracks are notably different from their studio equivalents.

This is a 21-track two-disc set, and disc one opens with a dramatic extended intro, which then morphs into the instrumental ‘Airlane’ (the opener from Numan’s The Pleasure Principle album of the same year). Numan eventually sings – or rather ironically, finally “connects” with his audience – on ‘Me! I Disconnect From You’, before we’re launched into his biggest hit of the year, ‘Cars’.

‘Random’ and ‘We Are So Fragile’ are other highlights from the first set, but generally the second disc shades the first in terms of overall quality, opening with a superb version of early single ‘Bombers’ before the plain weird ‘Remember I Was Vapour’ leads us to Numan’s most famous cover, ‘On Broadway’, complete with what appears to be an electric violin solo.  

I’m not sure whether the playlist on the album is in the exact order the tracks rolled out on the night, but it strikes me that the climax to disc two would represent as strong a finale to a live performance as you’ll ever get from Numan – ‘Down In The Park’ followed by an uptempo ‘My Shadow In Vain’, the chunky slabs of beefy synth that make up ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric’, and the under-rated closer, ‘Tracks’.
What we don’t get are versions of the two hit singles that dissected The Pleasure Principle and its follow-up album, Telekon – ‘We Are Glass’ and ‘I Die You Die’ – however these can be found on this album’s companion release, Living Ornaments ’80. (There is also a Living Ornaments ’81 for completists – Numan was nothing if not pedantic and organised).

Gary Numan has endured many professional and personal ups and downs during his 35-year recording career. A few of Numan’s mid-to-late Eighties and Nineties incarnations were cruelly mocked and parodied beyond all rationale or reason – given his wider influence and the eventual critical appreciation of his talents. But there is no question that this album demonstrates everything that was good in the first place and it has to rate as one of his genuine highs.

This is not the best quality clip, but here’s Gary Numan on the night in question …


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