Dystopias in art are really interesting to me. Especially when they are set in the near future with familiar elements that exist in the here and now. From video games set in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland to 1970s sci-fi films with teenage gangs wreaking havoc within a British police state, these stories dance on the line between frightening and alluring. They are cautionary tales that exaggerate the worst aspects of humanity to make a point about modern day society. Yet, they are strangely attractive almost as to suggest such a drastic change to our current way of life would be exciting. Though, I hardly believe if any of these scenarios became reality that they would be as romantic as our entertainment media can sometimes make them out to be.
Tubeway Army, led by Gary Numan, was a post-punk and new wave band formed during the 1970s. Originally rooted in punk music on their first studio release, the band would take a sharp turn towards electronica with the 1979 release of Replicants, their second and final studio album. A loose concept album, Replicants is about a world cohabited by men and machines; a transhumanist dystopian anti-reality seething with raw sexuality and perversion. The androids appear as androgynous beings that force their will on humans for entertainment.
I was aware of Numan at an early age. Around the turn of the millennium, VH1 featured a lot of nostalgia programming; various countdowns and decade retrospectives. One particular program counted down the best one-hit wonders of all time. Numan’s single “Cars” appeared on that list. I really like that song, but that was it. Knowing that Numan was a one-hit wonder, I didn’t think that he could have any other good songs. Being that I was 12 or 13 at the time and without blazing fast internet speeds combined with an elementary knowledge of pop music, I didn’t really have the motivation or interest to explore Numan’s synthetic world of electric nightmares.
I spent my high school years in a small rural farming community. There weren’t any convenient record shops nearby and commercial radio during the mid-2000s was excruciatingly dull. I consumed all of the TV shows and magazines that glorified artists of the past. Some of which I would never hear on commercial radio. That all would change when I got to college. Technology had progressed to bring people where they needed to go much faster and streaming media was in it’s infant stage. I was in college radio at the time and I wanted more music. My hunger was insatiable. Spending time with other music lovers, I tried to absorb as much as possible. And with the rise of social media, share as much as possible as well.
During my junior year of college, I purchased a boxset by the Police called Message in a Box during a Black Friday sale online. It was a 4-disc collection claiming it contained every commercially released recording (though I would find out later it is missing a few tracks), including studio albums and rarities. A couple of the rarities were live cuts from the concert film Urgh! A Music War. I did my research online and learned it was considered one of the best concert films of all time (always hard to take such claims seriously) and featured a wide array of post-punk and new wave music. I was really into soul music and spent a lot of time in that world for my college radio show, but I like the Police. And if the Police were good enough for this film, then the other artists had to be great.
I learned Urgh! A Music War was not an easy film to find. I had to acquire a bootleg copy online if I was going to watch it. When it finally finished downloading, I watched performance after performance featuring the likes of the Cramps, XTC, and the Go-Gos. While the film featured three dozen brilliant performances, a few stuck out in my head. One in particular was Numan performing “Down in the Park,” a single off of Tubeway Army’s Replicants album
The music was dark and brooding, but featured a lilting synth-pop rhythm that added a sardonic tone. During the performance, Numan was driving around the stage in a black motorized cart while he sang. It look liked something a paraplegic would drive in battle against a robot army. I was stunned by Numan’s presence as a live artist. He was a storyteller with a showman flair for the darkest fringe of society.
Released in 1979, “Down in the Park” is set during a futuristic dystopia where the interactions between humans and androids can be violent and deadly. In this world, machines attack and rape bystanders for entertainment. They state that they are not lovers and not romantics, but they are they are there to serve the will of their robotic friends and masters. Adding life to this story, the synth-pop backing track creates a dark and hypnotic presence that makes the listener engulfed in a deep feeling of paranoia as if they could be attacked next. The harmony is broken up by interludes of Moog synthesizers that heighten the sensation that any calm being felt is only temporary.
I cannot say that I am a big fan of Numan, but I do enjoy aspects of his work. A few years ago, I did see him perform live on JBTV in Chicago. Standing only a few feet away, he performed a five song set from his latest album to promote a show he was doing at the Metro. He had an incredible stage presence and moved very chaotically at his age. This was a far departure from the stoic and androgynous robotic figure I had seen in Urgh! A Music War. Numan is an underrated artist who can present a particular image and idea. And he is incredibly exciting for that. I just hope I’m never down in the park he sings about.