In Dylan Jones’s recent oral history of the new romantic movement, Sweet Dreams, Gary Numan stands out like a sore pale thumb. He fell into electronic music by accident after early fumblings in punk (other bands like the Human League and OMD had long been plugging away at their primitive synthesisers). He became the first Briton to have a No 1 synth-pop single (Are “Friends” Electric?, with Tubeway Army in May 1979), before repeating the feat four months later, solo, with the advertising evergreen Cars.
His hero David Bowie shunned him, and the music press weren’t keen on him either, but Numan had the last laugh. The music he made then – shiny, icy and immediate, inspired by his science-fiction short stories – endured. Heavily sampled in early 00s pop hits like Sugababes’ Freak Like Me and Basement Jaxx’s Where’s Your Head At?, it was also admired by harder, industrial acts like Nine Inch Nails and goth-rocker Marilyn Manson (Numan’s music moved in this direction later in his career, and expanded his fanbase).
Numan’s autobiography reveals a character who has never really fitted into a clean, pristine box. Born Gary Webb to a dressmaker mother and a paint-sprayer father in London in 1958, he was later expelled from one school and asked to leave another (he was also diagnosed young with Asperger syndrome). But his parents were his saviours, actively encouraging his dreams. They bought him guitars and equipment, including a PA and van: Tubeway Army only got signed to record label Beggars Banquet, Numan says, because Beggars didn’t blow its small budget.
He later discovered his parents spent most of their life savings back then. “I get upset when I think of that even now. What an extraordinary thing to do. They had no idea whether I was any good or not. I didn’t know, so how could they?”
The tone of (R)evolution is similarly full of refreshing, open-hearted sensitivity. When Numan hears Are “Friends” Electric? coming out of someone’s window for the first time, he’s struck dumb (“the shadow of a woman against a curtain moving to the song as she ironed her clothes … it was such a lovely feeling”). When it gets to No 1, he’s watching TV in the front room with his mum and dad and adopted younger brother, John; he’s too nervous to listen to the radio to find out himself. “I looked around the room and everything was the same,” he says, with a poignant bluntness.
Numan quickly realises that becoming successful was not “the glorious end of the journey”, but “the start of a far harder, more brutal, more dangerous next step”. (R)evolution then proceeds year-by-year through his rollercoaster career, via occasional hits and big flops, his early success often hobbling his present. The level of detail is exhaustive and at times exhausting. On occasions, it reads like a title just for fans.
But many endearing, slightly naff stories sit entertainingly in its midst. Numan’s first attempt to fly around the world in 1981, which ends up with him being arrested on suspicion of spying, is quite something (being a pilot was his other dream; he had his own company, Numanair, until 2013). One night, he’s getting chips with Queen’s Roger Taylor when he spots an old schoolmate who stole his girlfriend getting kicked out of a nightclub next door. They clock each other. Numan nods. “A very quiet but supremely satisfying moment of revenge.”
He’s also candid about his lowest point, recording 1992’s Machine + Soul to pay off huge debts (“the sleeve was shit as well”). Throughout, he’s totally uninterested in being cool. He’s also very tender when he talks about his wife, Gemma, a super-fan he met in the mid-1990s, describing their years of IVF (they now have three daughters), and their separate battles with depression in a way rarely delved into by male musicians.
This heart-on-sleeve approach makes the success of his 2017 album, Savage – his first No 2 LP in 36 years – especially affecting as the book approaches its final pages. “I cried like a baby,” he writes, and your heart can’t fail to leap. Here’s the accidental national treasure defying the critics once again, including his biggest one – himself.
• (R)evolution by Gary Numan is published by Little, Brown (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply