Gary Numan’s latest UK tour comes under the banner of a 40th anniversary, although it doesn’t say of what. Perhaps it doesn’t need to. Everyone with even a passing interest knows 1979 was Numan’s annus mirabilis: two No 1 singles and two No 1 albums, and a sense that the future was here. Few things said “the 80s are coming” like Numan performing Cars on the telly, every musician prodding at a synthesiser, not a guitar in sight; his star briefly burned so bright that his idol, David Bowie, felt threatened enough to write a song slagging him off.
You definitely wouldn’t need to remind tonight’s audience, heavy on Numanoids, the diehards who sustained him through his subsequent lean years before he was hailed as an influence by everyone from Detroit’s techno pioneers to Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor. Less inclined to dress up like their hero than they once were, they nevertheless have their own terrace chant, deployed before, after and occasionally during songs: “Nuuuuu-muh-un! Nuuuuu-muh-un!”
His set joins the dots between then and now, tactfully ignoring the aforementioned lean years, with their disastrous jazz-influenced new directions, singles with no discernible tunes and preponderance of fretless bass. Tracks from 1979’s Replicas and The Pleasure Principle get a subtle industrial goth makeover to fit with more recent material on which Numan has cannily cleaved to the style of Nine Inch Nails, as if returning the favour. Their trademark icy synth lines now come augmented by squalls of noisy guitar, the rhythms beefed up. They sound great, but you’re struck by what an odd candidate for mainstream fame Numan was in the first place: Cars and Are “Friends” Electric? remind you that even his biggest hits tended to come without choruses, Kraftwerk-y synth motifs appearing in lieu; album tracks Down in the Park and M.E. are sprawling and bleak.
Meanwhile, a wan young Numan peers out from the screen behind the stage, wearing that slightly puzzled-looking frown that was once his default facial expression, as if he was bewildered as anyone by the fact he’d ended up at No 1. It’s tempting to say he looks better at 61 than he did in his 20s: certainly, he’s a more engaging live performer, the old suburban android schtick having long been abandoned in favour of a lot of winningly theatrical gesticulation and angsty thrashing about. In the crowd, the Numanoids copy his gestures, still devoted after all these years.
• This article was amended on 26 September 2019 to correct the spelling of Trent Reznor’s name.