Stage Times: Gary Numan

The synth-pop pioneer looks back on his gig history – from getting thrown out of his first band to his triumphant Wembley comeback

There was absolutely no way Gary Numan ever envisaged he’d be celebrating the 45th anniversaries of his 1979 albums, Replicas – his final album with Tubeway Army – and The Pleasure Principle, his debut solo album. Mainly because he believed his career would have been over soon after. It very nearly was. 

“It was pretty difficult to begin with, the press being quite hostile,” Gary tells us from Brighton, through a fog of jet-lag, having touched down from his home in Los Angeles only the night before. “I never really thought much beyond it. You just find life has its own momentum. Things are more interesting and challenging than I expected them to be. Mainly because my career nose-dived, I mean.” 

His career has been one littered with arguably more lows than highs. Numan achieved astronomical commercial success in those early years, yet critical acclaim evaded him. The press consistently slated him to the point where it impacted his record sales, with Numan consigned to the doldrums of pop music almost permanently. Especially after a notorious Wembley Arena concert in 1981. 

With hindsight however, Replicas and The Pleasure Principle have been reevaluated as hugely pioneering albums. Numan’s respect as an artist grew exponentially after side-stepping into industrial rock, influencing Trent Reznor (among many others), and with it came the realisation that synth-pop as we know it wouldn’t have existed without him. But even with his newfound acknowledgement, after the years of tireless media tirades in his direction, he remains humble about how it’s all panned out.

“It created a much better memory of that time,” says Numan. “I certainly don’t dwell on the negative aspects, which doesn’t do anyone any good. It’s lovely to know, that even critically at the time, the albums weren’t popular, that they’ve had an enormous effect on how electronic music exploded around the world at the time. It’s a very cool part of my history that I’m very proud of.”

Ahead of his UK stint for the 2024 Replicas and The Pleasure Principle’s 45th anniversary tour, we take a frank look back at Gary Numan’s many years on the stage.

The gig that made you want to become a musician

Well, I can remember the first gig I went to. To be truthful, there wasn’t a first gig that made me want to get into music. I wanted to be a musician long before I’d even been to a show. That desire and ambition was there from when I was very young. It got slightly side-tracked by aeroplanes as I got older – I teetered between being a musician or a pilot.

But the first show I ever went to was to see a band called Nazareth. They put out a single called ‘This Flight Tonight’ which I adored, though I didn’t know much more about them beyond that. So I went to see them at The Rainbow at Finsbury Park. The support band on the night was called Silverhead – you had Michael Des Barres singing, Nigel Harrison on bass who ended up being in Blondie. Michael Des Barres became a hero of mine for a long time. Their album was called 16 and Savaged, and I bought it the next day. I met Michael a couple of years ago and I did an interview with him. He’s a DJ out in Los Angeles now. It was a real honour for me to meet him, especially seeing what he brought as a frontman. I certainly came away from that gig more determined than ever.

The first


That’s slightly muddy. I did loads of gigs at working men’s clubs, weddings, all that sh*t. It was before I could drive so my dad had to drop me off. Then I started my own band. We did three gigs with three different names. I eventually got thrown out of that band – I found out when I turned up to rehearsals and someone else was singing… I sort of realised I was no longer in it. They were my school mates, so it was very upsetting at the time!

After that experience, I thought I’d join another band as a rhythm guitarist, and that became Tubeway Army when I started singing for them. We did loads of gigs as a three-piece punk band when we started. The first gig we did was actually at The Roxy though, the famous punk club in Covent Garden, where we supported X-Ray Spex. 

The first I ever did, properly, after ‘Cars’ and ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’ did their thing, was at Glasgow Apollo, which they knocked down not long after. That was my first proper gig, when people actually bought tickets to see us knowing who we were. What an amazing experience that was. All the dreams you have about being in a band and performing in front of people – all the terror, the doubts – all crystallise in that moment. Apparently, the place was haunted. I remember it was a strange gig. The stage was 18ft high or something ridiculous, so when you started everyone at the front had to run back to see anything. Who built it like that?! F*ckin’ mental. So yeah, Glasgow Apollo, 28 September 1979, I think.

The smallest

They were all in tiny little pubs back then [with Tubeway Army]. But I’ve done some tiny gigs since I’ve been famous! Around the world, my success levels are dramatically different. So here, I can do Wembley Arena for instance. But in other countries, I might play 400-capacity clubs. That’s not unusual, and there are quite a lot of them. We did a couple of little shows in Spain recently, to a couple of hundred people. They were tiny. The dressing room was a cupboard. Literally a cupboard. It was full of mops and buckets. When you play at venues like that, you tend to use the bus as a dressing room.

Gary Numan - Cars (Live at Brixton Academy)

The biggest

Back in the day we were doing arena tours when we started. Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, the Forum in Los Angeles. I never got to stadiums, nowhere near that big. But we were doing arenas for a while. Then it tailed away after that. Nowadays, it’s very much… [gesticulates up and down]. 

The weirdest 

Well, I can remember the weird gigs, insofar as no one came! We did one in Italy, in Milan. I think six people came. There were more people in our crew! That was really demoralising. In fact, we did three tours in America for Savage (Songs from a Broken World) – the album before last – and the first two were great. Then I just got greedy and squeezed in another tour, playing places we hadn’t gone to on the first two that were quite out of the way. 

We played in Saskatoon in Canada, I think there were about 20 people there. It was f*ckin’ empty. But you’ve still got to do it, pull all the shapes. How can you do an intro, when the band comes out, the music starts, smoke machines going, then you come out like “the big I am”, and there’s f*ck all people there? You just can’t do it. Then you feel bad for those 20 people because they’ve paid the same as any other gig. You just have to deflate the embarrassment bubble, turn it into something they’ll remember. There’s no point being upset or grumpy. Bless them, they showed up. They stayed when they saw what a fiasco it was. 

I guess it’s a testament to your cult-ish fandom. People have been with you through the ups and downs of the past 45 years. 

Not in Italy though!

The worst

Gary Numan (London 1981) [25]. Are 'Friends' Electric

Without sounding presumptuous, I have a feeling that both your worst and best gigs might have taken place at Wembley Arena?

No, the worst was Saskatoon! That or Milan, for the same reason. Horrible experiences. The worst thing is those occasions when nobody turns up.

Your Wembley Arena 1981 show, when you announced you were quitting live performance, has loomed over you throughout your entire career though.

The truth behind that was that I wasn’t quitting performing live, but I wanted to quit touring. I only wanted to concentrate on making music, and on songwriting, which touring was getting in the way of. I didn’t think I was a very good songwriter, even with the success of the first two albums, the singles, and the No.1s. I personally didn’t feel that the songwriting was good enough to justify how big I’d gotten. I thought I had a long way to go. I wanted to learn more inside the studio; recording techniques, equipment. I wanted to grow musically. I did two world tours in just over a year. I felt very awkward on stage and I didn’t feel comfortable. I wanted out of it. Though, I got misquoted so many times over the years, I eventually just said “yeah I’m retiring”. 

I felt absolutely out of control. It felt as though I’d been caught in river rapids and was being dragged along. I was making bad decisions – if I was making any at all. There were kiss & tell stories in the papers, I was getting death threats, my mum got a kidnap threat, I got a petrol bomb put under my car. It was nothing like I expected it to be – much more frightening and less fun. It was a childish attempt to put the brakes on at that concert. I’d gone from living with my folks to being this enormous pop star. Then I was on my own – I didn’t have a manager and the record company I was with had no success by that point. It was just me, and I’m f*ckin’ autistic! I think it was a sensible thing to do, to pull out and come back into it when I’d grown up. It’s probably the reason I’m still here now. The mistake I made was saying I was doing it. The fans wouldn’t have felt betrayed, the press wouldn’t have the ammunition to f*ck me over again. It really did wreck my career at that point. My record sales plummeted and continued to plummet for nearly 15 years. But for longevity, and for my sanity, it was a clever decision in the midst of this bubble of madness.

The best

Gary Numan at OVO Arena Wembley on May 07, 2022
Photo by Lorne Thomson/Redferns

The best, most rewarding gig of my career has to be the recent one at Wembley Arena [in 2022]. It meant the world to me. Having been there before, and made that decision which wrecked everything, I spent the next 40-plus years getting back to that point. It became a symbol of the struggle, of my entire adult life, and career. Getting back to that thing you had, and threw away was the most important thing to me. Even seeing my records get back into the charts, which is amazing, I’m very grateful to the enormous number of people who have made that resurgence happen. But what most symbolised getting my career back on its feet again was playing Wembley. Honest to God man, it meant 1000 times more to me than it did getting there the first time. The first time around seemed like it came easy. Everything fell at my feet. I didn’t appreciate how difficult or important it was. The ups and downs I’ve been through, the amount of labels that have dropped me…to get back to Wembley was spectacular. 

I was there. It certainly was triumphant. Not only because of the story, but seeing you perform with your daughters [Raven and Persia], which must’ve felt incredibly special?

It was. I cried! I don’t think anyone noticed. I stood just behind the keyboard riser and looked across at them. I had to get myself together again quickly. The only thing that stopped it being perfect – and it was f*cking close to being perfect – was that my mum died a few years ago, and never got to see it. The fact that my children, my dad, Gemma were all there, all the people that had helped me get there. Everyone felt the emotional importance of it to me, so much so that I freaked out twice before the show. My dad had to calm me down. I was terrified of getting back there and f*cking it up. I was so frightened that I was going to do something wrong.. and I did! I f*cked up one of the songs. But it made the night even more special. It made me human. I loved it. 

Gary Numan starts his UK tour on 17 May, with dates running to 9 June. Find tickets here.

Photo credit: Corine Solberg/Getty Images