The anxiety of performance

Right then, I’m utterly confused. This evening I saw Gary Numan (Are Friends in Electric Cars) at the Dome, and well … it got me thinking about the lines which could be crossed when it comes to live performance. I’m still not sure whether Gary crossed them or simply stamped all over them.

Firstly, let me just say that he gives damn good show, striking poses from the rock handbook as if he was born to the role (and has watched a fair few Who gigs), on a stage set heavy on the lights and smoke. His music is an interesting melange of industrial metal and avant-garde electronica, heavily sequenced and synced in with a projection screen showing all manner of tricksy imagery … some interesting, some simply tricksy. His band were reasonable, the sound suitably large, the audience suitably impressed.

There was only one problem … the vocals. The first few bits of singing were an unexpected baritone, somewhat lacking in volume and, well, intonation. Then, as if by magic, those high vocals we expect from the man appeared, remarkably on the money, and sounding a little effected. Then I noticed that when these big chorus vocals happened, so did the great stage moves, and simultaneously the mic seemed to move a good few inches more away from the mouth. Now, I know about mic technique. This was something else … stage technique. The mic volume and sound in the ‘normal’ vocals was erratic, to say the least. Then it dawned on me. He was bloody miming. This was confirmed when in one chorus he routinely stopped singing … and the chorus added another line … I was amazed. Then I realised it was obvious. I asked another concert-goer. He said he thought something was funny. Then another questioned confirmed my suspicions. We discussed it for a bit, and it turned out he thought it was ok. ‘He’s 54’, and ‘there’s only one Gary Numan’ were two of his excuses.

So. the question is quite simple. Is this behaviour simply trampling over the fine line between acceptable and simply cheating, or is it inevitable in this day and age. Patti Smith recently remarked that when she couldn’t perform to her standards, she’d quit. I’ve switched batting stances in an attempt to prolong my cricketing ‘career’, but it strikes me that what Gary Numan is doing is simply disingenuous. He’s making like he’s forming these great choruses but, well, he ain’t. He may have done so once, but no more.

What say you? Cheat or the inevitable consequence of the modern consumer’s a) insistence on perfection and b) their fundamental inability to comprehend what it is.

Or, are cloth-eared twats forcing good musicians to lie, and if so, are they culpable?




2 thoughts on “The anxiety of performance

  1. Pete, I am a life long fan of Gary Numan from 1979 and I first spotted this back in 2000 during a Peel Session for his Pure Album. Listening on headphones you could clearly hear Gary giving it his limited best in a way that we as fans over the years know but then over the top drowing his efforts out for the “shouty bits” were the studio perfect vocals. Until the Pure album and his move to “industrial rock” his live vocals have been as you described, a bit all over the place, but hey we loved him all the same.

    However, the change of musical style in 2000 and so the need for a more reproducible presentation made me sad, annoyed and angry for the longest time, here was an artist that had survived mainly because of the loyalty of his long term fans now seemingly sticking his two fingers up to us.

    And during the intervening years I have had a constant battle with this, choosing only to go to his “Nostalgia” gigs where he doesn’t need to do this and then more recently having a look at what he is doing to see he still drops in the studio perfect vocals when it gets difficult. Now at least I know what he is doing, I think everyone in the audience knows what he is doing, most probably don’t care because it’s a night out, regardless of what he may like to think, most of his fans are still forty somethings reliving a wide eyed moment in 1981 when the Mothership landed in Wembley Arena and Gary Numan strode out full of arrogance and distain for the conventions of Rock n Roll.

    Should the world be worried by this, yes and no. Gary Numan is very unlikely to reach the heights he once achieved and so his influence on music is unlikely to wide, so in the grand scheme it’s only a problem for oldies like me. But obviously technology makes it easier for artists with limited vocal range to now perform miracles and I suspect many of the “major” selling live acts in the pop world use these techniques to the full rather than just when it helps.

    I personally would prefer gary didn’t do it but he probably see’s it as simply a tool for presentation consistancy in what is an otherwise live vocal and still for the most part gloriously incomprehensible 🙂

    • Hi Sarah,
      I’m undecided on it all, frankly, though I see a fair amount of clear water between those ‘manufactured’ acts and the ‘real’ ones. The former will always cheat, but the latter … it’s a bit disingenuous. I see artists such as Robert Plant adapting as their abilities change with time, not faking it.
      The various computer enhancements available merely add to the feeling of inadequacy felt by anyone who expects most people to be able to perform that way, and cheats those who are talented enough to do so.
      I sway between acknowledging that it’s only rock and roll so what does it matter, and thinking that small acts of fraud change the expectations and behaviour for all of us.
      It’s a funny old world.

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