With more music artists enjoying long careers, Myf Warhurst chats to 1980s stars Gary Numan and Lloyd Cole about how to make the magic – and money – last for a long time rather than just a good time.
Gary Numan’s 2013 album Splintered: Songs From A Broken Mind has left him in “a brilliant place”
When rock and roll as a musical movement was in its infancy and only just starting to fill out its skinny leather jeans, no one would have guessed that the young and talented beauties that graced the stage back then would still be around and plying their wares 50 years later.
But in 2013, the likes of Mick and Keith and their band of merry men, The Stones, filled Hyde Park in London with 100,000 fervent fans, just as they did more than 40 years ago. Sure, there was probably a lot less hair in the audience and more metal in the creaky joints of the fans than the first time around, but not much else had changed.
The contemporary music world is now filled with performers who have refused to be carted off and banished to the “too old” pile the minute they can’t carry off a pair of low-slung jeans. Prince has had both hips replaced in the last few years, and that hasn’t stopped him one bit; he’s still performing marathon live shows and has a new album on the way. Clearly, if the artist has the goods, the fans are also in for a long time not just the good times.
With this development comes a bunch of new challenges for artists: most importantly, how to navigate as a creative person through the peaks and troughs of a lifetime in the arts rather than a short time. Enjoying the extreme highs of fame and fortune and the lows that might follow can be difficult, especially if the artist has once enjoyed all the trappings of success.
It’s a subject I’ve discussed at length with guests on my radio show on Double J. Those who have experienced success and failure have much wisdom to impart. Wisdom that’s useful for all of us hoping to maintain a healthy creative life.
Gary Numan is one such survivor. He’s a pioneer of commercial electronic music who gave us the austere futuristic sounds that so captured the spirit of the late 70s and early 80s, with songs including Cars and Are Friends Electric?. Early on in his career, he had multiple number one hits. Then in 1981, he abruptly decided he’d had enough and retired. Suffice to say, retirement didn’t last long.
Numan laughs heartily when recalling how fast interest wanes when you choose to drop out. “God yeah, it can turn so quickly. Shot my career in both feet,” he says of his early retirement. “Been trying to make up for it ever since, really.”
Image Credit: Kim Frank – Poster-boy for bookish music lovers, Lloyd Cole has experienced fame’s extreme highs and lows and come out the other end
Singer, songwriter, and poster-boy for bookish music lovers everywhere, Lloyd Cole, has also experienced the extreme highs and lows that come bundled up with fame and success. He had huge hits in the 80s fronting The Commotions with songs such as Perfect Skin and Rattlesnake. Cole then forged a successful solo career. Inevitably, tastes changed and things got tough for him as an artist. For him, surviving is all about how you manage it. “When things go well it’s exciting”, Cole says. “When my record company reneged on my deal and I had to sell my apartment in New York… that wasn’t so great.
“The ups and downs have been hard,” he admits. “First 10 years it was easy, the next 20 have been quite difficult. The best thing is I have a family. I have kids to look after, to feed, and it’s a lot easier to look after a family than to have to massage my own ego. I think if it was for my own ego I would have given up years ago and I’m glad I didn’t because I wouldn’t have made this record.” Here, Lloyd’s referring his latest record Standards, which he feels is arguably his best yet.
Achieving great success can also stifle the creative process, as it changes the reason why the art is made in the first place. If the art making begins as a hobby, then becomes a career, the artist is pressured to churn out more hits and greater importance is placed on outcomes. Numan came to the conclusion that this was the root of his problem. He needed to stop trying to chase success and remember why he wanted to make music in the first place to survive.
“I did an album in 92 called Machine + Soul. Big pile of rubbish,” he admits, with a laugh. “I should never have made it, but it was all I could do at the time. I just got lost really, I didn’t know what I wanted to sound like, the career was in trouble, I had massive debts. They [the banks] were trying to repossess my house. Life was a bit rubbish for a while. Musically I’d just lost my way, I was desperately trying to salvage a career and write things that people might want to play on the radio. You just sell your soul really. I realised that I was in trouble.
“I had no record contract,” he continues, “So I pretty much gave up and went back to music as a hobby. I went back to doing it for love. I wasn’t thinking about radio play or commercial success because I thought that was all gone, I went back to making music as I did when I was a teenager, and as luck would have it, it started to sell better and everything turned around. So now when I hear a song and start thinking that it will sound good on radio I erase it. I’ve got such a thing about it because it almost ruined my life, this chasing of fame.”
Cole suggests that in order to survive the long haul as an artist, at some point, all musicians should work out why they’re doing it. Not for the right reasons? Ditch the career. “If you don’t have real belief in what you’re doing then you should do something else, because there’s just not enough room, not enough space for everybody to be successful. So much of my job – and people think being a songwriter is like being a poet, but the inspiration is tiny flashes – is just hard work trying to make those flashes into music.
“Work hard, drink after you’ve finished working,” is Cole’s parting shot.
As for Numan, he’s stopped trying to write hits and is now making the music he loves. And he couldn’t be happier. “I’m probably having more fun now than I’ve ever had,” he grins. “The new album [Splinter: Songs From A Broken Mind] has great reviews, it charted. I’m absolutely in a brilliant place.”
You get the sense that Numan acknowledges that own advice wouldn’t have saved him even if he’d heard it back in the day. He had to experience it all to understand where he is now. When asked to remember what it was like when he did have number one singles all over the world, his face flickers with a cheeky grin, as if it all happened to someone else, in the long forgotten past. “I bought loads of stuff – I went mental,” he says. “I bought airplanes, cars and houses. I had three airplanes at one point. That’s why I ran out of money. I spent the lot. Had the best time for two or three years. Ran out of money. But it was great.”
If Numan was to pass on any advice, it would probably be to not buy three planes. Maybe. But he’s having too much fun for regrets right now.
Myfanwy Warhurst is a broadcaster at Double J radio (ABC Australia), TV presenter, Guardian columnist, music nut and general layabout.