Gary Numan was sent a bullet and death threat in 1981
This was in April 1981, at the height of the electro-pop star’s fame. His meteoric rise made him a magnet for the unhinged. A petrol bomb was placed under his father’s car and “there was a kidnap threat on my mum which the police took seriously,” he says, blaming his kohl-eyed android pop persona and the unexpected speed of his stardom for the horrific backlash. The other-worldly musician, whose first hit single Are “Friends” Electric? sold a million copies in 1979, has just published his autobiography which charts his career with humour, humility and an honesty that borders on recklessness.
He’s the same talking to me, casually turning the air as blue as his eyes.
Gary’s previous autobiography, 1997’s Praying To The Aliens, “ended when my career had hit the bottom and covered my childhood and long decline to near ****ing oblivion,” he says. “But I felt bad leaving it there. Since then things have been better…and I’ve had kids.”
Although approached by a ghost-writer, Numan – real name Gary Webb – realised that only he could do his life justice. And what a life it’s been.
In 1981 Gary, now 62, was placed under house arrest in India “on suspicion of spying and smuggling”. He was flying around the world with a pal in his own two-seater plane and had just left Madras for Thailand when an engine failure over the shark-infested Bay Of Bengal forced him to turn back.
“We found the nearest runway and it all kicked off,” he recalls. “Indian police were talking to us on the tarmac, asking ‘Why are you here?’. I told them what I did for a living, and the head guy said ‘Where are your press cuttings?’ – as if you’d carry them around everywhere – and ‘Why do you have two watches? Perhaps you’re smuggling…’
Gary on stage at Wembley Arena on April 26 in 1981
“I said, why would I have gone from London to India to smuggle one watch? And it was a watch I’d bought from a Texico garage! Nothing fancy.”
Because he also had two cameras, they demanded to know if he’d been taking pictures of “the Russian submarine base”.
“I said what Russian submarine base? He said ‘The one 20miles south of here…’
“They were like the Keystone Cops with Indian accents. They put us under house arrest in what they laughingly called a hotel. It was dirty and disgusting and full of Russians from the submarines…”
They were held for four days before Gary got word to his father who called the Daily Star who in turn contacted the Foreign Office. Liberated, the Star’s rescue squad took him to meet Mother Theresa in Calcutta.
“We got a cab, knocked on a door, asked a nun if we could say hello and Mother Theresa came down and shook our hands. It was surreal.”
Hammersmith-born Gary is the son of British Airways bus driver Tony and mum Beryl who worked part-time in telesales. He originally wanted to be a commercial airline pilot, but Asperger’s got in the way.
“My behaviour at grammar school was terrible. I was in trouble all the time. Before they expelled me, I was sent to a child psychologist who recommended another one at St Thomas’s. That’s where Asperger’s was first mentioned. But I was 14, and to me it was just a good way of getting off school. I didn’t think I was odd. I thought it was everyone else.”
He left school with no qualifications and drove a fork-lift truck in a warehouse, later fitting air conditioning ventilators.
At 17 he was beaten up, stabbed in Soho and hospitalised. “They were Chelsea supporters from the brief glimpse I got of their scarves.”
Gary performing on-stage where his assassin allegedly watched him playing
He dabbled in punk “in a half-hearted attempt to get a label”. When his band Tubeway Army gave one A&R man their demo tape, “he took it out, threw it on the floor and said ‘You can **** off’.”
Yet Beggars Banquet signed them on the strength of the same demo and reaped the benefits. Are “Friends” Electric? – inspired by Phillip K Dick – was their fourth single and first hit.
The album Replicas also topped the charts, as did follow-up single Cars – inspired by a road rage incident when a furious man attacked his car in a traffic jam for no apparent reasons. Numan continued to have Top 30 hits until 1987 but faced a sustained barrage of hostility from the rock press, who dubbed him “a buffoon in Bacofoil”.
“The worst review – the one that crossed the line – said my mum and dad should have been doctored,” he says, adding philosophically “But if you want this life you have to accept it. You put yourself out there.”
Gary’s rise was very much a family affair. Tony managed him; Beryl ran the fan club. Tony bought Gary his first guitar and gave him £6,000 from his savings to buy equipment.
Gary backstage at Wembley Arena in 1981
The 2016 documentary, Gary Numan: Android In La La Land, was a fascinating insight into the down-to-earth star’s mind and personality, revealing him to be a likeable family man, clearly besotted with his wife Gemma and daughters.
He also opened up about his Asperger’s that had made making and keeping friends so difficult all of his life. “You see the world differently,” he says. “You’re almost like a bulldozer. But when you realise you begin to recognise and modify your behaviour.
“Knowing you have it answers a lot of questions in a good way.”
Gemma, whose brother had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, understands and helps Gary “enormously” in social situations. She was a devoted “Numanoid” coming to all of his gigs – he once said he was “disappointed she wasn’t a groupie because she was so beautiful.”
When Gemma’s mother died Gary got her number from the fan club database. “It wasn’t allowed but I invited her on a trip to cheer her up. By the time we got back I was in love.”
Gary with one of the new planes he had bought in September 1981
They married in August 1997. Despite a heart-breaking series of miscarriages, they have three daughters – Raven, Persia and Echo. “My eldest is 17 and has just got into Nirvana. She found out Kurt had written about me so I’m the greatest dad in the world,” he laughs.
Gary’s sole US hit, Cars, was enough to win him a legion of stellar fans including Prince, Marilyn Manson, Dave Grohl and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.
The family emigrated to California nine years ago and enjoy life in the San Fernando Valley. “It’s a relatively short drive to anywhere – the beach, the mountains,” he says. “I love it. The climate is fantastic.
“When I was 50 I had a bit of a crisis. You realise you’ve had half your life, or more, and I wanted to make the most of every single day. In England some things weren’t possible, largely because of the weather.
Prince was a fan of Gary, along with other stella celebs like Marilyn Manson
“One year we had a spring when it rained every day. We had seven acres of land, but for half a year it was a mud bath.”
This year he signed a two-album deal with BMG, both due out next year.
“I was locked in the studio every day working on that, so Covid didn’t have a massive impact on me. But all three of my children are now showing signs of crumbling with the pandemic.
“Seeing the news, the sky’s a weird golden colour because of the fires, that’s upset them. They care about climate change and social justice…I’m proud of their humanity.”
*(R)evolution: The Autobiography (Constable, £20) is out now.