Gary Numan on 'The Pleasure Principle' at 40 & the 'Luck' That Led to 'Cars'

Fin Costello/Redferns
Gary Numan photographed at RAK studios in London, England in February 1981. 

Gary Numan was just 19 when he and his band Tubeway Army signed to Beggars Banquet Records and released their first single, “That’s Too Bad.” By the time he turned 21, not only had Tubeway Army scored a No. 1 hit in the U.K. (“Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”), but Numan – who’d been the band’s frontman as well as its lone songwriter – retired the name in favor of embarking on a proper solo career, one which provided him with a smash hit of his own: “Cars.”

"Cars” proved to be a significant hit across the pond as well, eventually motoring to No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, with Numan’s debut solo album, The Pleasure Principle, making its way into the top 20 of the Billboard 200. While his out-of-the-box success failed to transform him into a staple of the U.S. charts – he hasn’t found his way back into the American top 40 since – his one hit was sufficiently wondrous that his name still immediately conjures up memories of his distinctive delivery while singing, “Here in my car / I feel safest of all."

To commemorate The Pleasure Principle celebrating its 40th anniversary, Numan spoke with Billboard about the origins of the album, the success of “Cars,” why it's easier to be a prolific songwriter when you’re single, how much it means to have guys like Dave Grohl and Trent Reznor singing his praises, and why he hasn’t yet given up hope on securing a second hit single in America.

Music fans don’t always think of their favorite recording artists as being down to earth, but for anyone who’s seen Gary Numan: Android in La La Land, it’s evident that you’re about as down to earth as they come.

Yeah, when you’re famous for a living, I think a lot of people expect us to be somewhat arrogant or somewhat conceited, that if you've had any kind of success at all or any kind of longevity, then you somehow big yourself up in your own mind because of that. I see myself as lucky, first and foremost. And I'm not trying to be humble: there are thousands of people who can write really good things -- tens of thousands, probably -- and for any one that you know about who can do it there are probably 50 more that have never had the luck or the chance or the parental support or the record company support or whatever. I'm very lucky I can do it, and I'm grateful for that, but it sure as fuck doesn't make me special in any way whatsoever. So I am very down to earth. I really am! I'm absolutely as grounded as you can get. I take every year that goes past, and if it goes well, I breathe a sigh of relief and think, "Well, thank fuck for that!" [Laughs] A really good year means I can keep my kids in school, I can keep my house, and maybe we can have a nice holiday as a family. But I don't expect it, and I certainly don't think I deserve it because there's something special about me compared to anyone else.

I made it right at the very, very beginning with a song called "Are Friends Electric?" in the U.K., which was actually two different songs that I couldn't figure out how to finish. And purely by chance one day, I was playing one, I got stuck as always, and then immediately started to play the other one...and I thought, "Hang on, they go together! Those two bits will actually make one song!" So much for songwriting skill. [Laughs] And that was No. 1 for four weeks in Britain, and that's what launched my entire career. And that song got on the television because at that one particular moment in time, Top of the Pops, which was a big TV show then, they did a thing called Bubbling Under. Normally, they'd play things that were in the top 40, but for this brief period, they started taking things that were way outside of it, some interesting little thing that was bubbling way down, and they'd give it a chance. And I was one of them. The week that I got it, it was between me and Simple Minds. We were both way outside the main chart, but they chose me because my band was called Tubeway Army, and the man who decided thought Tubeway Army was a more interesting name than Simple Minds. That's how we got it. It was nothing to do with the music.

Now, after we went on that TV show, we went to No. 1, and obviously the music plays a part then. So I'm not being purely humble. But to get to that position was so lucky....

And then if you take "Cars," I'd been out to buy a bass guitar, because I wanted to learn to play bass guitar better. I thought it would be useful in the studio. Still living in my mum and dad's house, I came home from London, and having bought the guitar - I've still got it, actually - I took it out of the case, I put it on my lap, and I played [the first four notes of "Cars"]. And I thought, "Oh, that sounds all right." The very first thing! The very first four notes that I played when I picked the thing up, having not been a bass player, was fucking "Cars"! There is no way you can put that down to any kind of talent. That is just as lucky as you can get! It took me 10 minutes to write that entire song, all the parts for it. I mean, there's only three. [Laughs] And it took another 20 minutes to put the music to the lyrics, but I think I'd done the whole song in 30 minutes. It's the quickest song I ever wrote, and I'm still learning ridiculously well from it today, 40 years later. That's luck! So for me to ever feel that I was special would be ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.

What led to the decision to drop Tubeway Army by the wayside and just go out as Gary Numan?

Well, that's quite simple, actually. When I signed to Beggars Banquet, I did two singles -- one was called "That's Too Bad," one was called "Bombers" -- and we were a punk band. It was after we did "Bombers" and we went into the studio to make our first album that I discovered the synthesizer. So the music went from being punk to pseudo-electronic. I went back to Beggars Banquet with that - this was before the first album had ever come out, when I first recorded it - and we were arguing about it, because it wasn't what they wanted. They wanted a punk album. They wanted the album which was our live set, which they'd signed the album for.

I understood their point of view, but I was so convinced that electronic music was going to be the next big thing, so to speak, and I so desperately wanted to be at the front end of it -- or what I thought was the front end of it -- that I was hugely aggressive in our meetings about how we had to put that first record out, and I wasn't going to go back and make a punk record, and this is a completely different thing, and because of that, I didn't think it should go out as Tubeway Army, because Tubeway Army was a punk band, albeit a relatively unknown one, and this is a different thing. This is a very, very different thing! But the record company wouldn't have it. So the compromise we reached was that they would release the electronic album - because they didn't really want to - but it would have to go out as Tubeway Army, so that Tubeway Army was still rewarding them, so to speak.

So that album came out, and then I think the next one came out six months later. I mean, I was prolific as fuck back then! [Laughs] And "Are Friends Electric?" was on that, and that went to No. 1. You know, within six months of really having an argument in their office about whether electronic music had any kind of future at all, we were No. 1 and one of the biggest things in the country. So it became good really, really quick, but it was only when that second album came out and I had that...power, I guess? By being so successful, I could then say, "Right, now that this punk thing is gone and it's purely electronic, I'm going out as Gary Numan." And then the next album, The Pleasure Principle, didn't have guitars on it at all. It was a clear-cut decision to try to make a mark as electronic. Unfortunately, it looked as if I'd had some success, dumped the band, and went off on my own. And it wasn't actually like that at all.

Well, no matter how the music was credited, your output during that period was staggering. Was it really that easy for you to write songs back then?

Yeah. [Laughs] I mean, it just was! I released three albums -- the first Tubeway Army album, Replicas and The Pleasure Principle -- all within twelve months of each other. And I released a lot more songs than just on those three records. All of the singles that came out would have a B-side that wasn't on the album. I even released two singles in front of the Telekon album a year after that ["We Are Glass" and "I Die: You Die"] that weren't even on the album. I was just churning stuff out, I think partly because I was young and it was all new and exciting. And I had no wife, no children, no mortgage… All you've got to do is sit on your arse all day in front of the piano and just write songs. It’s pretty easy to be prolific when that's all you have to do…and that’s all I wanted to do.

Mind you, as time goes by and you get older, it becomes arguably more difficult to find new directions and to explore new sounds and to understand the technology that you're using. That can take a while. And then you get married, you have children... And I manage myself now, and trust me, that's a huge amount of work that I never had before. So things change. I’d find it difficult these days to even come close to trying to be as prolific as I was back then, because my life is so very, very different now. That, and everything just sounded new back then. You'd just sit down at a keyboard and press a few notes, and every time you'd get something you've never heard before. It felt easy to be different. Not because I was so fabulous, but because I was using these new sorts technologies and a new type of music that we just hadn’t really used that way before.

Given how much music you were producing and how successful the resulting material proved to be, was Beggars Banquet happy to just leave you to your own devices?

They used to try and slow me down! [Laughs] I remember taking the Telekon album to them, and we had a bit of a meeting with the distribution label as well, and they were saying, "We're still working the last record. We've still got another six months to a year to go on the last one, so we don't want another one!" [Defiantly] "Well, I've done it! I've done it, and there it is! What are you gonna do about it?"

I was stupid. You know, if I could've just been a little bit more mature and understood what they were doing or what it meant for me, I would've slowed down. I really would've done. I would never make that mistake again now. I was undermining their efforts to sell my previous album by being too quick with the next one. But I was running, man. I was absolutely running somewhere, and all I wanted to do was just be in the studio making stuff. Or I was doing these massive stage shows, and I swear, I'd be driving home from the end of one tour, and I'd already be making notes and drawing up what the next one was going to look like. It was just relentless. But I was too fast, too prolific, too quick to put stuff out. I put out too much stuff in too short a space of time. I didn't give the labels enough time to work it properly, for them to do what they wanted to do, and ultimately, I was shooting myself in the foot. I just didn't realize it.

When you first presented The Pleasure Principle to the label, was “Cars” always the song that was seen as the first single?

Yeah, I think "Cars" was the one that stood out to all of us as being the most... [Hesitates.] I think to this day that "Cars" remains the most poppy song I've ever written. I think the truth is, I'm actually really not very good at writing pop music. When I originally became a pop star -- which I was then, I think -- it was accidental. Because -- again, not to be falsely modest -- I do not think I have a talent for pop music. It's too light for me, for my taste in music. It's too...happy. [Laughs] I'm just not very good at it! I'm much better if I slow it down a bit, make it a bit menacing, add a hint of mystery or oppression, I'm in my element at that point! But trying to write uplifting pop music? I'm actually shit at it. "Cars" was the closest I ever got. So, yeah, I think it stood out quite a bit on that album as being the single. Where I made a big fuck-up was with another song called "Metal." That should've been a single. But after "Cars," I put out a ballad ("Complex"). Oh, God... I've got such an appalling history of choosing the wrong songs for singles, with the possible exception of "Cars" and "Are Friends Electric," which were probably the right choices. 

Well, at the very least, Trent Reznor heard and enjoyed "Metal." 

He did, yeah! Oh, God, I loved his version...

That must make you feel good, having artists like Reznor and Dave Grohl genuflecting and proclaiming themselves to be big fans of your work.

It's a very, very rewarding and satisfying thing. It really is. I've been covered now by more people than I can remember. But it's been different artists over the years. And to some degree you would expect perhaps that people in the electronic area might cover my songs from time to time and talk about me in a more positive way, but the thing that I have been really surprised by -- and incredibly flattered by -- is how people from different genres, not necessarily electronic music, have also sort of nodded in my direction as being influential or whatever. That's amazing, actually.

If you're a songwriter, when you have people of the songwriting quality of Trent Reznor and so on looking at me and wanting to do cover versions of my songs... Well, there just is no higher praise than that, and it really does mean the world to me. Being No. 1 is great. Obviously, it's fantastic and fun. But to have people that you genuinely admire -- I mean, I think they're geniuses in their own right -- looking at me and saying some of the things about me.... Well, that is satisfaction that even a No. 1 album can't compete with. Any kind of big album, be it top 10 or whatever, is a fantastic thing, but as I was saying before, there is luck involved in any success, no matter how great the record is. There's always a team of people around you working very, very hard to make sure all the different pieces are in place and that it gets to where it's got to go. And I'm aware of that. But to have genius songwriters talking about me as if I'm something special.... Well, there is no luck involved in that. That's a 100% credible pat on the back, and it just means the world to me.

What was your reaction when "Cars" became a hit in the States?

It was shocking. I arrived in New York, and no one knew who I was. Absolutely no one. But that week I did The Merv Griffin Show, and then I did Saturday Night Live.

What do you recall about the SNL experience?

I remember Elliott Gould was the host. And that I was absolutely blown away by how friendly everybody was. I mean, I was essentially 99.9% unknown, so I felt like a real upstart, like I didn't deserve to be there. But they were absolutely lovely. Everybody treated me with huge respect, very kind, very accommodating. I was very nervous, but they were very calming, and it was just a really, really lovely experience. And as an introduction to America -- and Americans! -- it was a fantastic beginning. I remember going back to the hotel from doing Saturday Night Live, and suddenly everyone knew who I was. Everyone. It went from nothing to everything almost overnight. It was incredibly exciting and really quite nerve-racking, because I was still awfully new to all that and didn't really know how to deal with people and the various ways that people can be when they come up to you, some good, some not so good. So I was floundering a little bit. But it was very, very exciting.

The thing I often remember feeling uncomfortable about... I was terrible at radio IDs. You know, "Hey, this is Gary Numan, you're listening to blah-blah-blah..." I was really bad at that, because I was so horribly English and shy, and I always sounded like I was really miserable and didn't want to be there. [Laughs] And I knew I was terrible at them, and I just didn't know what to do. I couldn't get out of it. And they'd get me to do it two or three times – they didn't give up! – but I felt really awkward, and I thought, "Oh, they're gonna think I'm being a fucking diva, but I'm just not really very good at it!"

I also remember I'd be on the radio show itself, and they'd play all this older sort of music, like Rush or Foreigner or whatever it was, and then they'd play "Cars," and then they'd go back to Rush and Foreigner! And when I heard them playing it, I wanted in my mind to be thinking, "This sounds amazing! This is the future, and everything else sounds shit!" But I didn't at all. I just thought, "Oh, my God, this sounds really weird compared to everything else. Everyone's going to hate it! This doesn't sound like what people want at all!" [Laughs] I was really nervous about it.

Of course, in the end, it went down really well. "Cars" did fantastically well. But to me, hearing my music compared to these other things, which were really well produced and these very competent bands and great players, and there's me going, "Doo doo doo doo..." [Laughs] I just felt very small.

In the U.K., you've had more than a dozen top 20 singles, but as far as America goes, "Cars" remains your big hit. At a certain point, did you just realize that the U.S. was not going to be embracing any of your further work?

Oh, no, no. I'm just extremely optimistic. I'm still waiting for the second one! [Laughs] I really am! I'm not kidding! Every time I make a record and I put out a single, I still think that there's a chance that it might do something. I'm amazed that I've got the credibility that I've got in the U.S., having only had one big single, really. I don't know how that happened or why that happened. It may be the begrudging recognition that I'm still trying. I don't know. But I have an enviable amount of credibility here. So many great people have said so many good things that I guess it has an effect, and I'm incredibly grateful for that. But, yeah, if I'm still alive and I'm still making music, there's still a chance for a second and a third and a fourth big single. And, really, it's that excitement that those things are possible that makes music an eternally exciting thing to be involved in.

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