From Being Boiled to I Feel Love: Gary Numan’s top electro tracks

The musician chooses his favourite songs – and admits that his own discovery of synths was all down to chance

“Recently, one of my friends told me how genius it was that at the start of Cars there is just one note that stays and stays and stays,” begins affable electro overlord Gary Numan, a few days after landing in the UK from his California home to collect the inspiration award at this year’s Ivor Novellos. “I had to break it to them that when I was in the studio I started playing the first note and couldn’t think what to do next. I wasn’t a genius at all, just bereft of ideas.”

Numan’s status as one of pop’s most inventive synth-botherers is itself the result of a happy accident. In the late 70s, he had been signed to Beggars Banquet as a punk artist and released the Tubeway Army album in 1978. But after a chance encounter with a Minimoog left behind by another artist in the recording studio, he made an electronic album – 1979’s Replicas – instead.

Four decades later, he is still at it: his forthcoming album Savage is a futuristic fantasy that is, he laughs, “just more of the same really, if I’m totally honest”. Of his top electronic picks – this sums up his own career, too – he adds: “It’s all about finding interesting noises, then making those noises musical. Whether it’s using a synth or a guitar, you just have to make interesting noises.”

Donna Summer performing in Atlanta in 1978
Donna Summer performing in Atlanta in 1978. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Donna Summer
I Feel Love (1977)

“The last proper job I had before I got a contract with Beggars Banquet was at WH Smith. I used to drive a forklift at Heathrow and load up their lorries. Was it fun? GREAT fun! I Feel Love was the song of the moment, and that was six months before I found the synthesiser myself. It’s a song that never seems to get old.”

Depeche Mode
Never Let Me Down Again (1987)

“When the chorus comes in you can lean your head back, close your eyes and feel like you’re floating off the ground. It sends a thrill from your feet to the top of your head. I could have chosen any number of Depeche Mode songs – their [1993] album Songs of Faith and Devotion was massively important to me. I was lost, musically, back then. I was in trouble. I was writing some terrible old shit, to be truthful. I didn’t know what to do. I honestly thought my career was finished; record labels wouldn’t touch me, I had massive debts. Then I heard that album and it took me right back to my love for music.”

The Normal
Warm Leatherette (1978)

“This was really cool for using a synth for rhythm and groove. Daniel Miller [AKA The Normal, who later set up Mute Records] did the synthetic groove thing a lot better than I had done. When I had my first tour in ’79, I rang him up because I wanted him to support me on tour. He said he couldn’t because he had had an idea for a record company.”

Sunna
Sunna: ‘They totally blanked me.’ Photograph: Record Company Handout

Sunna
Power Struggle (2000)

“I went to see this band live once. I had been talking about them a lot in the press, and I intended to have a chat but I got a sneaky feeling that they weren’t keen on me. They didn’t seem overly friendly; well, they totally blanked me. Regardless: this is a great song. I’m a big fan of melody – a lot of people can’t do it very well, to be honest.”

New Order
Blue Monday (1983)

“Whenever this comes on, you know it’s going to work. I get credit for being a pioneer, but you open a door and it allows other people who have got great ideas to come through and take it even further. You hear other people doing things and you think: ‘Fuck me, that’s great.’”

Officers
Co-Education (2011)

“Officers were introduced to me by the DJ Eddy Temple-Morris, and this particular song really stood out. I got in touch and took them out on tour. They’re really lovely. And they’re great! There are plenty of people who are lovely, but they’re just not very good. You’ve got to think of something nice to say when they play you new music. If I’m stuck I always say: “Hm, interesting.”

Phil Oakey of the Human League in 1980
Phil Oakey of the Human League on stage in Sheffield in 1980. Photograph: Martin O'Neill/Redferns

The Human League
Being Boiled (1978)

“My only exposure to electronic music before this had been Kraftwerk, but they were always trying to be machine-like, and I still loved elements of conventional music, so Kraftwerk didn’t turn me on to electronic music as a musical path. Then the League came along and their music had a human feel to it. It worked for me.”

Nine Inch Nails
Closer (1991)

“I first heard it at home when my [future] wife played it. It’s the best bassline ever, in the history of music. This has got to be one of the three best songs ever made. We had it as our first dance when we got married, actually. We’re at the wedding, there’s my nan and my aunties standing round, and out it comes: ‘I want to fuck you like an animal.’ My nan was apoplectic. I don’t think it was an obvious choice for a wedding …”

Ultravox
Slow Motion (1978)

“This was a fantastic fusion of different elements and set a standard I then tried very, very hard to reach with Are ‘Friends’ Electric? and Cars. I was trying to be as good as Ultravox. I had been arguing with my label because they wanted a punk album, but I was passionate because I thought I was right at the front of electronic music. Then I found out Ultravox were on their third electronic album. So much for me being inventive and experimental!”

Contributor

Peter Robinson

The GuardianTramp

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