Review Summary: The principles of electro-pop perfection. Most pleasurable when listened to in the safety of an automobile.
After the runaway success of Tubeway Army’s ‘Are Friends Electric?’, Gary Numan went the whole hog and created a purely electronic debut solo album, ditching any traces of his punk past and cementing his place as one of England’s newest genuine superstars (a status that proved to be short lived, in hindsight) with the commercial success of ‘The Pleasure Principle’ and its most memorable single, ‘Cars’ - both of which topped the contemporaneous UK album and single charts, respectively.
It’s almost unavoidable when reviewing this 1979 outing, not to start with ‘Cars’ - such is its iconic, classic status. It’s about as perfect and memorable as a pop song could be, with every detail being a polished and catchy affair. Consider the ‘moogy’ beat, the glorious wave of synth, the sprightly bridge, or perhaps simply, Numan’s waling-like-a-banshee vocals, singing a typically paranoid of tale of a protagonist who feels “safest of all” in the shelter of his automobile; it all combines to form about as thrilling and satisfying a 4 minute pop cocktail could ever hope to be.
The record also boasts another classic, in the robotic, electro-pop brilliance taking the form of track number five; ‘M.E.’. Featuring a tune that’s not quite as sublime as the propulsive glory of ‘Cars’, yet still insanely catchy and memorable; ‘M.E.’s status and recognisability was boosted when its melody was heavily sampled by Basement Jaxx for their nonsensical hit ‘Where’s Your Head At?’, years later. It’s driving, robotic force and nervous synth backing proved to be the perfect infectious backdrop to Numan’s familiar paranoid and alienated lyrics: “Now it’s over, but there’s no-one left to see / And there’s no-one left to die / There’s only me”.
‘The Pleasure Principle’ wouldn’t be as revered as it is, if all that was worthwhile was the aforementioned couple of hits, something which the rest of the tracklist fortunately solidifies. Numan was an early fan of the original Ultravox line-up, whose punks with synthesisers aesthetic, coupled with singer/songwriter Foxx’s seeming fascination with machines and technology, rubbed off on an impressionable young Numan who would attend several of the group’s gigs around the London area. Tracks like the grinding, icy-cold ‘Metal’, and the, quite literally mechanical, ‘Engineers’, bares witness to this influence especially well, but the album has a predilection for robotic beats and frosty synth flitters in general.
The overall tone of the album, being as frozen, machine-like, and paranoid as it is, may wane on some listeners towards the end, and the fact that the album is a tad samey in places surely doesn’t help in its defence. Take ‘Tracks’ for example - it just doesn’t deviate enough from the areas explored on the first half of the album to seem a worthwhile excursion; and elsewhere a few other niggles are present, with 'Observer' sounding dangerously similar to 'Cars' at times, and 'Conversation' dragging its ‘blurgy’ melody on for too long. Still, they are only minor niggles, and for the most part, said tracks are still very enjoyable, just less so than more distinctive numbers like the nervous, blur of 'Airlane', or the menacingly grim 'Films'.
‘The Pleasure Principle’ is one of the most important and iconic electronic albums of its time, and fortunately, for all the right reasons. Arriving at the tail-end of 1979, the record helped blueprint the way for swathes of other young British groups who were bored of punk and were looking to experiment with new-fangled synthesisers as tools for making pop music. As it turned out, few did it better, with ‘Cars’ becoming a serious chart presence on both sides of the Atlantic, the album reaching number one in the UK, and Numan himself failing to scale the lofty heights he reached here, ever again, with a series of increasingly disappointing albums leading him down a steady slope to cult-status, rather than maintaining the sheer commercial superstardom he managed here. 30 years on, tracks like 'Cars', 'Metal' and 'M.E.' are still blisteringly good, and Numan’s icon has swelled immeasurably since his solo debut, with a mass of covers and remixes of his most memorable songs, and references of influence by the likes of artists such as Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor. In short, ‘The Pleasure Principle’ is a fantastic listen, and nothing less than essential to fans of electronic music at any level, despite one or two minor niggles.