Glass Idol: Gary Numan’s ‘Telekon’ At 40

An appreciation of Numan’s fourth album, released on this day in 1980.

Telekon … is a stark witness to the trouble I was having adapting to my new pop star life. I didn’t take to it well. Telekon does a pretty good job of showing a young man struggling to cope with one of life’s bigger changes, from unknown to world famous, if not overnight then over a few weeks.” – Gary Numan, 2016.

The second solo studio album by Gary Numan, Telekon debuted at the top of the UK Albums Chart in September 1980, making it his third consecutive, and to date final, number 1 album. He was knocked off the top spot a week later by Kate Bush with Never for Ever and so began the slow downward spiral of Numan’s commercial success. The album was recorded at Rock City Studios and Matrix Studios on the Beggars’ Banquet label and it spawned three singles; We Are Glass, I Die You Die, and This Wreckage.

From late 1980 to early 1981, Numan was undeniably untouchable. He toured the UK, Europe and North America extensively in support of Telekon with guest support Nash the Slash and a lavish stage set even by today’s standards. Gary’s stage costume of a black leather boiler suit with interlocking red belts, which tied-in very nicely with the album artwork, would be an enduring and iconic Numan image.

An early performance from 1980’s ‘The Teletour’ was captured on the album Living Ornaments ’80 , the 2005 CD reissue of which included the original ten-track album and a recently rediscovered soundboard recording of the entire concert. The Teletour was followed in April 1981 with three sold-out nights at Wembley Arena, where Numan brought down the curtain on this phase of his career in extravagant style.

“I’d become hugely famous and I just wanted to go back to writing songs and being a musician, not a famous person. So that was the reason for getting out of it, or so I thought, with the Wembley shows and the whole thing about retiring “ – Gary Numan, Record Collector, 2015.

A video release of the tour was issued as Micromusic and the soundtrack was released in 1998 as Living Ornaments ’81. Although these were billed as Numan’s ‘farewell concerts’ he would return a few months later to play a series of American club dates the following year. He returned to large-scale touring in 1983 with a change of image to promote the album Warriors.

Gary Numan on Top of the Pops, BBC1, 18 December 1980.

In contrast to the previous album The Pleasure Principle which was heavy on the synths and a distinct lack of the guitars he’d relied on during his Tubeway Army days, Telekon once again featured heavy use of guitars with strings, but also accompanied by richer, more complex electronic treatments. Numan also broadened his previous synth repertoire with additional machines such as the Prophet-5 (one of the first polyphonic synthesizers), ARP Pro Soloist and Roland Jupiter-4, as well as using sound samples with analogue tape, pre-Fairlight: “In anticipation of the sampler, which came out in 1981, we were doing our own sampling with tape recorders”, Numan told Electronic Beats in 2014, mentioning in another interview that year, this time with Digital Trends, “There was an album called Telekon that had several songs with those clanking loops on them. “

Gary Numan and Chris Payne on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, 1980.

Using a combination of analogue synths with solo violin and viola, The Joy Circuit lyrics referenced Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs who influenced Numan’s love of all things dystopian. JG Ballard’s Crash has also been cited as a major influence on Numan’s lyric-writing and has continued throughout his career.

Continuing Numan’s exploration of a dystopian future in tracks like the opening song and I Dream of Wires, Telekon also took stock of Numan’s almost instantaneous fame and how he dealt with it. The relationship between Gary and his fans has always been a close one, but at times the apparently overwhelming adulation of his fans was too much for him to cope with, and this was reflected in songs like Remind Me to Smile and Please Push No More.

“When it came to the singles from Telekon, the first one was We Are Glass, which is about how fragile the whole fame thing is, how easily it can be destroyed, shattered and taken away from you. You’re easily broken and all that shit. The second single was I Die: You Die, which was my reaction to the press, which may have seemed childish, but that’s what I felt. Then the one after that was This Wreckage, which says it all really. So with Telekon, in my own way I was saying very loudly that this is not what I expected and I don’t like it. I’m off! There’s a song on there called Please Push No More. I wrote that knowing that I was going to pack it in.” – Gary Numan, Record Collector, 2015.

Sonically, the album’s styles range from funkier songs such as I’m an Agent and The Joy Circuit to more melancholic tunes with a somewhat sombre mood like Sleep by Windows and Remember I Was Vapour.

Like all of Numan’s commercially successful records from the era, Telekon received a largely hostile reception from the music press. “Ah, the shimmering dust-free corridors, the pleasure machines, the limitless possibilities opened up by microtechnology, the disturbing effects of cybernetic leisure upon the fragile human psyche… one can hardly wait for the future to arrive”, Charles Shaar Murray wrote with tangible disdain in New Musical Express. Nonetheless it has gone on to prove an influential body of work to other musicians; Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails claimed to have listened to it every day during the making of Pretty Hate Machine, and Stephen Merritt (The Magnetic Fields) is also reported to have become a Numan fan through this album. No less a musical luminary than Prince was quoted as saying, “There are still people trying to work out what a genius Gary Numan is.”

Merritt went on to record I Die: You Die as his contribution to the Random tribute album in 1997, which also included covers of the track I’m An Agent, Remember I Was Vapour and We Are Glass. However the earliest cover of a song from this album was in the very year of its release, in the seemingly unlikely form of white soul crooner Robert Palmer, who collaborated with Numan on a version of I Dream of Wires for his New Wave-flavoured album Clues, also released in September 1980 and boasting Palmer/Numan co-write Found You Now as its closing track.

To boost initial sales in the UK, on first release the album came with a free single, in a plain black sleeve, including two live recordings from ‘The Touring Principle’ tour; Remember I Was Vapour and the Drifters’ standard On Broadway.

A year later, in an attempt to further boost sales, the album came with a free poster in the UK using a photo taken from the main Telekon photo-shoot.

“Telekon was the height of Numan’s accidental pioneer work in electronic music – along with Replicas, The Pleasure Principle & the Living Ornaments trilogy, Telekon showcases a fertile period which while sounding of its time still stands up.” – ‘Unsung’, Jason Parkes, Julian Cope’s Head Heritage, 2007.

Love him or hate him, Numan has endured in the music industry for over forty years, sticking it out through the ‘lean’ years when mass-market music press support was at an all time low. He has enjoyed a resurgence in the last decade, with a new generation of fans, becoming the Godfather of synth music and collaborating with contemporary artists like Little Boots whilst also recording a number of film soundtracks. His music also continues to be sampled by artists outside the synth genre proving the enduring and adaptable nature of his earliest recordings and no more so than the songs on Telekon, which has proved to be one of the classic albums of our times.

❉ ‘Telekon’ by Gary Numan was originally released 5 September 1980 by by Beggars Banquet (BEGA 19). Re-released on CD with six bonus tracks, 22 June 1998. Reissued in 2015 as a 2LP set, with a download code.

 Ange Chan is a freelance writer, having produced two novels and six volumes of poetry.  She was also prolific contributor in the anthology collection Me and the Starman (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon) and is a lifelong lover of music, having first been published in the 1980s music press. As well as being a frequent contributor to the pop culture website We Are Cult, she is working on her long-standing third novel Champagne Flutes and Pixie Boots.

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