Gary Numan (vocals, guitar, synthesizer)
Steve Harris (guitar)
Tim Muddiman (bass)
Richard Beasley (drums)
Gareth Thomas (synthesizers,keyboards)
Support: I Speak Machine
Tara Busch (vocals, synthesizers, electronics)
O2 Forum Kentish Town
9-17 Highgate Road
For me, 2015 has been a year of some truly great live music, and this was carried onwards and upwards by the positively sterling performances given by Gary Numan and support artist Tara Busch (aka I Speak Machine) at the O2 Forum in London’s Kentish Town on Wednesday 21st October 2015.
Sometimes, you go to a gig, the music is great, the performances are on the mark and you really enjoy the evening. However, it can sometimes be a little tricky to put into words because, great and all as the night was, a lot of the acts doing the gig circuit start to look and sound the same. I think this is more directed at the newer slew of bands around at the moment such as Lower Than Atlantis, Paris, We Are The Ocean, Peace etc – great musicians, tightly performed sets and solid music but, well, nothing that really makes them stand out from one another or anything that makes them particularly memorable. Then, you get two acts that basically knock the ball out of the park, on the same bill.
Gary Numan is basically a music icon, considered by many as perhaps one of the most influential musical figures of the last 40 years and even at the ripe old age of 57, still very much on top of his game.
I clearly recall, as a spotty-faced, hormonally surgent 13 year old, the very first time I saw Numan, then as part of a combo calling themselves Tubeway Army, making his debut appearance on the sorely missed weekly chart show Top of the Pops. He was performing a song that was to become a genuine, bona-fide classic, “Are Friends Electric?”. Quite frankly, I was totally blown away by what I saw, what I heard and what I experienced. The look and the sound hit such a harmonious chord in me that I was out into Great Yarmouth (when it was a nice place) the following Saturday, armed to the teeth with my pocket money, buying the “Replicas” album purely for the “Are Fiends Electric?” track, without hearing what else the erstwhile Mr. Webb had to offer on it (these are the days when we listened to albums and bought albums for THAT track – older folks amongst you will no doubt smile nostalgically at this). This album was, I suppose, something of a musical epiphany for me and sparked the beginning of a pretty much lifelong admiration and respect for the music of Gary Numan. The rollercoaster fortunes of this man are very well documented and I’m not really sure that there is a need to cover what every other review has covered already, so I won’t, suffice to say, that, along with John Foxx (the very man who he admired and was inspired by), Gary was at the forefront of a new era of music and of public acceptance and assimilation of a new wave within the electronic music genre, paving the way for the million and one acts that would follow.
Fast-forwarding to a new century and a lot of water under the bridge, Gary Numan is still an artistic force to be reckoned with. The move, way back in the mid-1990’s, to a darker and heavier feel to his work has paid dividends on a number of levels, and none more so than with the re-imagining of his earlier works, which was the focus for the three “Classic Albums” concerts he played at the O2 Forum. Each night focused on a particular album, those albums being “Replicas”, “The Pleasure Principle” and “Telekon” and in that order as well. These three albums represented the absolute pinnacle of his earlier success, they are the albums that are held most dear in the hearts of the fans and the albums that paved the way for a host of acts thereafter. I was present at the first night, being the “Replicas” concert and it couldn’t have been a more fitting one for me as “Replicas” was my first Numan album (okay, Tubeway Army for the pedants out there) and to this day, still my favourite Numan (yes, I know, Tubeway Army) album. The fan-girl thing didn’t stop there either, as the support act was none other than I Speak Machine, aka the lovely and quite amazing Tara Busch, whom I was lucky enough to both see in live performance and photograph last year at the Royal Festival Hall (review HERE). This time around, Tara was performing without her usual visual backdrop created by her talented film-maker husband, Maf Lewis. And on top of that, I had been asked to take a photographs during Gary’s set.
So, to the venue. Located in North london, the O2 Forum Kentish Town is one of the U.K.’s best-preserved theatres as well as one of London’s top live venues. Built in 1934, it’s an art deco building and according to the venue’s website, it had a:
“35 foot tall proscenium (the part of the stage between the front of the curtain and the orchestra pit) and a 25 foot deep stage. It had six dressing rooms, a Compton organ and a safety curtain weighing 5 tons. It seated 2,175 in stalls and a single balcony. The first floor accommodated a large tea room and dance hall where tea dances took place; there was even a cosmetics room for the lady patrons.”
It was taken over in March 1935 by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) took it over in March 1935, not changing it’s name to ABC until 1963. The ABC cinema closed in 1970, becoming first a bingo hall and then a dance hall. In the 1980’s, it was re-named as the The Town & Country Club and became a very well-known and popular live music venue, a definite must-play location for emerging bands on the independent scene as much as the more well-known ones, such as The Velvet Underground, Pixies, Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine and The Wedding Present. 1993 saw it being bought up by The Mean Fiddler Music Group, becoming a Grade II listed building and going back to it’s original name of O2 Forum Kentish Town. Ownership changed again in 2007, when it was bought by the MAMA & Company (formerly MAMA Group), “a U.K.-based entertainment company who own a number of music venues and festivals (see here), artist management companies and other music-related businesses such as the UK’s most widely circulated music magazine, The Fly.” A £1.5 million refurbishment saw standing downstairs remaining, but also a fully seated option, a new P.A. and lighting system, a new bar and an increased capacity of 2300.
And now on to the concert.
The support act was the excellent I Speak Machine, featuring the acclaimed, accomplished and simply amazing American singer/composer/performer Tara Busch, as stated earlier, performing without the visuals normally associated with an ISM set. Oh, and you need to know right now, I’m unapologetically biased when it comes to these guys.
Yes, I’m a fan.
Tara has an impressive background, with close links to the Moog synthesizer family and a highly respected standing within the global electronic music world, having created official remixes for Annie Lennox, Gazelle Twin, Bat For Lashes, iamamiwhoami & John Foxx, as well as sound banks for premium software instruments and performances around the world. And talking of which, an I Speak Machine live performance is something you really must see if you get the chance – contemporary and progressive electronica, spiced with acrobatic vocals that are sometimes laced with a resonant vocoder embellishment, and when you have Maf Lewis’ brilliant visuals as well, you are transported off to something of a dystopian cinema-of-yesteryear experience.
As the smoke gently billowed, Tara cut a solitary silhouette within the mist, surrounded by her electronics and accompanied by “Suzy“, Tara’s workhorse Moog Voyager synthesizer, a festival of LED lights blinking on the subdued stage before the sounds created by this diminutive figure ranged forth. Performing elements of the film-score material used with husband Maf Lewis’ “Gagglebox” and “The Silence” movie shorts, and battling on-stage technical issues, Tara presented a very strong and solid set, maintaining the standard set by the last two occasions I have seen her live. For this reviewer, I Speak Machine was the perfect kind of opening for someone such as Gary Numan, with the almost proto-industrial rhythms and sounds intertwined with wonderfully experimental layered synths and THAT voice. It was a pure pleasure to once again experience Tara’s amazing vocal range in a live situation, going from dark and brooding in one breath, to mysterious and sultry in another, to positively operatic in the next. Further manipulations using a vocoder added a strangely sensuous tension to the natural dynamics of her voice, creating a near “other-world” dimension that aligns itself with the heady twisted samples and synthetic overlays of the accompanying music. Tara uses her voice as much as she uses the small machines that surround her, the most natural of instruments commanding and yet supported by the quirky synthesized orchestra at her fingertips.
Her vocal is very distinctive and was used to incredible effect on two very interesting covers. The first was Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”, stunningly sinister, claustrophobically dark and probably the best version of this song I have heard outside of the original. The second was a little tune called “Cars” written by some bloke called Gary Numan apparently. In the absolute spirit of what a cover version should be, and in true TB style, Tara took this electronica classic to a new, gritty and brilliantly disturbing level. It had everything to expect from this lady and all the better for it, with her soprano voice taking the high instrumental hook with what seemed little effort, interspersed with her laid-back near-spoken/vocoder-enhanced vocal over a brittle, shattered glass bed of voice samples and insistent synth bass.
There were a few technical issues, not least a poorly-levelled vocal on the main mixing desk, but these things didn’t affect the overall performance at all and acted as a clear demonstration of Tara’s experience and professionalism as she over-came them whilst performing. Generally speaking, Tara’s set was well-received, however there was an element of the audience, probably fuelled by alcohol and closed minds, that didn’t get what was happening before them and sadly exposed their ignorance – a lack of audience respect is an unfortunate aspect of being a support act. But for me and a number of people I spoke to , it was the opening salvo for this night of electronica.The lights dimmed and at the back of the stage was a very youthful peroxided Numan replicant image, looking down upon the stage and audience, safely entombed within the pyramid of “The Pleasure Principle” and guarded by the red criss-crossed double bars of “Telekon” and the seemingly-traditional crowd chant of “Nuumaaaan” crescendoing with every exalt. Very soon after, a backing track boomed out, and the arrival of Gary Numan was now imminent. Flashes of white light danced around the stage before a blood-red wash of light heralded the full impact of the opening track “Replicas”, and almost immediately we were back to 1979, but with 21st century ears, eyes, sights and sounds.Gary Numan entered the stage to a rapturous response from the audience, a dark posturing shadow in a crimson veil of light, wielding his Gibson guitar like a modernist reaper collecting the souls of his believers, breathing in the tremendous energy from this hot and sweaty gathering. And so the show began.
One of my favourite tracks from “Replicas” was up next. The new reworked versions of Numan’s older material give them a new and very current vibe, none more so than “Me, I Disconnect From You”. As a photographer, I usually have three songs to get the pics and when tracks like this are played, it’s sometimes important to remember what I’m there for as I found myself joining in, possibly to the bemusement of my fellow toggers. It’s a very strong track in it’s original form, but live and with the re-imagining to suit Numan’s current style, it was easily the first of many highlights of this evening.
Between songs, Gary Numan’s banter is sparse, minimal and perfectly right I feel, there were no awkward gaps, the songs flowed well and so it was as we went from “MIDFY” to “The Machman”. I loved the underlying sinister ebb of the original, but it went to a new level of disturbing with the new arrangement and Numan’s delivery in the splendid lighting that arced around him. All too soon this song was done and “You Are In My Vision” blasted from the speakers followed by another favoured “Replicas” track and the second of this evening’s highlights – “It Must Have Been Years”. This song that has seriously benefitted from the darker and heavier style Gary adopted over his last few releases – “It Must Have Been Years” sounded to me as though it could have been written last year, it’s compositional structure such that it has the hallmarks of a timeless song. The energy that this track created was immense and hit hard – brilliant.
One of the many things that enthralled me on this evening, was that Numan had chosen to include the B-sides to the singles (ah, the B-sides – them were the days), and next up was a favourite B-side and yes, the next highlight – “We Are So Fragile”. The moment the pulsing synthesizer bass started, I was there, and from my place in the photographer’s pit (I had a AAA pass and was thrown – quite literally – back into the photo pit by the venue’s security dudes at the end of the fourth song when they saw it – a big shout out to them as well, they were a great bunch) it looked and sounded awesome. The next song was really not one of my favoured songs on the “Replicas” album, but “Praying to the Aliens” took on a new life of its own, the lighting illuminating Numan’s on-stage writhing and posturing movements to great effect making this previously over-looked (on my part) song seriously stand out.
A change of pace as the album’s instrumentals were given an airing – “When the Machines Rock” followed by “I Nearly Married a Human”, showed again how 36 year old pieces of music could be as relevant today as when they were first released. I experienced the former during Numan’s soundcheck (I was attending the concert as the photographer for I Speak Machine – I did say I had a certain bias with them!!!) and it sounded terrific then, but now seeing and hearing it in context of the broader show, it shone with it’s pop-like backing, cheeky little synthesizer lead and Gary playing elements on his Virus synthesizer. “I Nearly Married a Human” is another album favourite and guess what? Yeah, another highlight. This, for me, is a deeply emotional piece of music with it’s sparse drums and cold desolate synthesizers – this live version was very moving and the performance pitch was on the mark as a smiling Gary and his wife Gemma (who was sat next to me), exchanged little messages and looks – throughout this track, I was mesmerised and the cameras had a little bit of a break.
Pure dystopian heaven happened next as the strains of something familiar filled the O2 Forum, and the lighting suggested something was afoot. It was a most splendid tension because the sounds metamorphosed into “Down In the Park”. Again the place erupted and all were carried along on the powerful, earth-shaking hookline. The subject of “rape machines”, a place to eat called “Zom Zom’s”, playing “kill-by-numbers” and chanting “death death death” until the sun cries morning, all became so much more real with the dominating presence of this darker Numan, moving under a wondrously splintered sky of nihilistic LED lighting, his steely vocals embodying the very essence of a Philip K. Dick/William Gibson cross-fusion tale of all the future’s we might (and some would say, should) fear and the powerful shapes of the backing band creating a kind of post-apocalyptic gathering, all watched by the image of Numan, taken during the “Replicas” era from on high at the rear of the stage. Another highlight (like you hadn’t guessed).
All too soon “Down In the Park” was done, a weird transmutated sense of satisfaction prevailing. But no, it didn’t stop there because another B-side was thrown out to us to feed on and it was just great – “Do You Need the Service?”. I was pleasantly surprised, and utterly delighted, at the way in which this song translated to the live scenario, and what an inspired choice to follow what had gone before. From my highly enviable viewpoint, it was clear this was (yet) another crowd pleaser. But the next highlight was a mere few minutes away, and it was the song where it all began for the greater majority of us that were there this night.
The roof basically went into orbit as soon as it was quite clear that the iconic “Are Friends Electric?” was about to kick in. I recently read elsewhere on the Louder Than War website that this song could have become something of a millstone around Numan’s neck, but he that had been clever in not allowing “Are Friends Electric?” to define him – I couldn’t agree more. I have seen Numan twice in the last three years, and for many years followed his live side via video, DVD, YouTube etc. and each time you can hear the way in which he has crafted it’s evolution to fit whatever point he has been in his career. As a track, it is required listening as much as it being required playing by Numan and I think, to many, “Are Friends Electric?” is as important to a Numan gig as the national anthem is to an international sports event, it’s that iconic. Tonight, it was magnificent with Numan’s energetic performance seemingly unending, the arms out-stretched one minute then his entire body pretty much wrapped around the microphone stand in the next. This song is personal to many people, and tonight, Numan made it personal to him as he spoke the words “you see, THIS means everything to me” to his adoring audience, with genuine intent and sentiment, and from where I was, I could clearly see the emotions in his face. An electronica anthem if there ever was one.
And that was it for the “Replicas” album part of the evening, I was staggered at how well the songs translated to not just the live scenario, but also to Numan’s darkened and heavier styling. What now? Where can we go from here? I was about to find out as we went into what can only be described as a greatest hits assimilated with a trip down memory lane.
“I Die: You Die” from the “Telekon” era took the evening in a new direction, the new arrangements once again favouring the more guitar-based elements of the original track. Another one of my favourite Numan tracks, this kicked off the next part of the concert perfectly, Numan still commanding the centre stage, washed in red light for the verses before shards of piercing white pin spot lights scan the auditorium during the frantic chorus. Fabulous. Another highlight.
No rest or respite, because it’s straight into “Films” from “The Pleasure Principle” album, green and white lights flooding the stage and an under-lit Numan looking dark and menacing whilst singing and then a pouting, head-banging silhouette during the intrumental parts – again this was another song that held neither favour or dislike for me on the original album, but it’s inclusion and power on this night has since caused me to re-visit it. Green turned to red, with the criss-crossed red “Telekon” bars blazing at the back of the stage, for “This Wreckage”, which was the only single from the “Telekon” album; another extremely powerful, near-anthemic rendition and both Numan’s voice and energy showing no sign of abating. I’m almost at the point of using the word “epic” here. But this was a mere warm-up for what came next – “Cars”. Along with “Are Friends Electric?”, this is the Gary Numan that EVERYONE knows, and as with “AFE”, Mr. N has crafted this song to suit his style and to fit the times. The original was very pop, purely synthesizer driven and very much of its time. This new hybrid was the same song, but my, how it has evolved into another electronica anthem, Numan taking to his keyboard towards the end of the song, it was pounding and raw, augmented by bright colourful lighting and a crowd with arms raised in a kind of salute to the song and the man. Simply put, it was- and here, I will now use that word – epic. A very definite highlight.
The opening notes of the next song continued the audiences roars at the end of “Cars”. Pumping, insistent, demanding and sharp – it could only be “Metal” from “The Pleasure Principle”. Numan’s performance level matched the persistent rhythm as he travelled the stage between verses, stopping to occasionally head-bang, his blackened hair flying like a fibre optic lamp in a hurricane. Another very powerful performance that led into another favourite of mine, “We Are Glass”. And WOW!!! Another song that has benefitted from Numan’s latest styling, I was taken back to 1980 when as a 15 year old I was blown away by this track, and have loved it ever since. But this was sooo much better!!! I got lost in this and on a couple of videos I have viewed on YouTube of the night, I can see myself, arms raised singing along – yeah I forgot I was there to take pics again – oops!!! And yeah again, another highlight.
The band left the stage, but it was clear Gary Numan hadn’t done with us yet. Nope.They returned, Numan strapped on the Gibson and they launched into “Are You Real?” from Numan’s debut album “Tubeway Army”. This was from a time when Gary Numan’s music was more guitar driven and this played very well tonight. His voice was right on the mark, the band were tight and this was probably the only song that was not really any different from the original recording, and hey, that really made no difference at all as it fitted the set and the night perfectly. The song crashed to an end and one of the few moments of Numan speaking followed as he took up an acoustic guitar. Yes, I said acoustic guitar. “You know I’m not a fan of retro”, he said, “but I fucking love this” much to the delight of the audience who then launched into chanting “Numan, Numan, Numan” with GN posing with arms aloft, quite obviously loving and feeding off of the love bombarding him. He walked back to the microphone and said “I’m supposed to be an electric legend right? Listen to this shit” before performing a truly brilliant version of “Jo the Waiter” from the “Tubeway Army” album. Again, this is another song that I have loved for many years and to hear it being performed tonight, as the closing track to what had been the most fantastic evening of Numan music I have experienced, basically brought a lump to my throat. Everything about this last song was, for me, perfect and I have to say, with some surprise when considering the simply awesome stuff that had gone before, that this for me as THE highlight. The crowd loved it and very loudly showed their approval long after its deliberately abrupt ending.
Gary Numan has often stated his discomfort with the in-vogue retro thing that seems be the flavour of the moment, as well as his insistence that he will never do the “Rewind” concerts. I have to say that I’m totally with him. He has newer and far more interesting material to offer, and I personally don’t always want to hear the same songs re-hashed and churned out like a stuck record player, simply because I’m not a person who is sadly stricken with a terminal case of “stuck in the past”, demanding that he only play the “old stuff cos that’s wot the fanz want”. Any artist needs to be able to present material that excites them, the new things they have created that they want to share with the world and expand their repertoire beyond songs that are 35 plus years old. And I salute him for taking this stance, because I’m really not that sure “Rewind” truly presents those artists who take part in their best light, I feel that their individual creative sparks are dampened and the magic of the songs are lost. However, that said, I think the approach Gary Numan has taken with the “Classic Albums” concerts is the right way forward, in pretty much the same way as Ultravox did between 2009 and 2013. The way in which Numan has re-visited these old songs, because that’s exactly what they are, has re-energised them to a whole new level through careful re-working and set-listing. So, he’s done the retro thing, now the fans need to get off their high-horses and properly embrace his newer stuff, as well as giving him the breathing room he needs to continue creating new and more exciting material. For that, I cannot wait.
But back to tonight. This was a Numan concert like I have never seen, full of power, energy, nostalgia and reciprocated love between fans and artist. It was VERY evident throughout the gig that Numan was enjoying this night as much as the fans. Gone was the awkward, self-conscious android of too many years ago, and what we had here was a seasoned, confident and relaxed performer who put on an awesome show and enjoyed every last minute of it. Every box was ticked, from the quality of the backing band’s musicianship, the creative and awe-inspiring lighting, the crisp sound to the performance standards of a man that has known nothing but adversity from a blinkered music press that sadly seems to have had it’s taste purely in it’s mouth for the last 40 years. The energy of this 57 year old man was staggering – I’m 7 years his junior and I couldn’t have maintained 10 minutes of what he was doing, let alone closing in on 2 hours!!! His highly distinctive and immediately recognisable, almost metallic voice remained constant and strong throughout – he’s not the best singer, but that doesn’t matter one bit because the greatest singers don’t always have the most perfect voices. His delivery styles ranged from pathos to roaring, from dystopian to positively icy – but you could never doubt for a moment that you were listening to Gary Numan. As a whole, the evening was one of the best for music I’ve enjoyed this year, and the greater majority of those that I have seen have all been fantastic. The choice of I Speak Machine as support was inspired, Tara’s angle on the electronica thing was, for me, the perfect entrée to Numan’s main course – how I would have loved to have seen TB perform with Numan during the show. I’d really like to see that one day. And the dessert for me was meeting Gary after the concert.
I run the risk of sounding like a stuck record, or even a grumpy old man, but yet again, here is an artist to whom newer, younger acts need desperately to look at and to learn from in terms of style, presentation and performance, because Gary Numan has all three of those in bucket loads.
A great artist.
A great show.
Concert Images (courtesy of Neil Fellowes Photography):
Gary Numan – COMING SOON
I Speak Machine
Thank you to:
Tara Busch, Maf Lewis and Gary Numan for letting me be a part of a great evening of music.