Call it kismet but as the airshow season approaches, bringing with it an abundance of things to look forward to, the Scarf & Goggles jukebox has been featuring the works of Gary Anthony James Webb – a.k.a. Gary Numan.
How right and just it is that the man who was once the most pilloried figure in pop music is riding high once again. A raft of ‘cool’ acts on both sides of the Atlantic have name checked him as a key influence – from the Britpop gods like Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker to the radio friendly Foo Fighters and the American hard rock community. I even heard him referred to as ‘a sweet man’ and ‘one of the best interviewees ever’ on BBC Radio 6 recently… sentiments that would have seen the presenter beaten up and fed to a crocodile by the music press 20 years earlier.
Back then, in the wilderness years when admitting a fondness Numan’s distinctive post-punk electronica was akin to supporting Apartheid, the man himself divided his time between writing perfectly decent albums, performing to small but passionate audiences in the provinces… and flying at air displays.
Aviation was a family affair in the Webb household, where his father was a British Airways bus driver and his brother became an airline pilot. For Gary, however, the rewards from his all-too-brief first burst of fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s allowed him to buy a WW2 Harvard trainer and learn how to perform flying displays like this one…
This was a pretty amazing time to be a Gary Numan fan. One weekend you could go to an airshow and chat with the man in a relaxed environment that he positively revelled in, then pop over to Oxford or Birmingham or Milton Keynes and see the old android in action. In the office at the S&G there is still a photo of the leather clad Numan onstage with a note wishing your author good luck with his flying lessons. Then in 1996 it all came to an end, and Gary wrote an emotional note to his fans, from which the following excerpt is taken:
“…a couple of weeks ago, two display pilots were killed in seperate [sic] accidents. One of the pilots, ‘Hoof’ Proudfoot, was a good friend of mine and my brothers [sic] and had played a key part in our progress through the demanding and sometimes dangerous world of display flying.
“‘Hoof’ was the man responsible for all of my early training in low level display aerobatics and was an incredibly gifted pilot as well as the most entertaining, decent and charming man. It was a horrific accident, in a World War 2 fighter aeroplane, and it has sent shock waves rumbling throughout the world display scene.
“Another friend of mine was killed in a crash at a display earlier this year. To add even more horror to all this yet another display pilot, plus his navigator, were killed only last weekend when their historic aeroplane crashed at a display near Manchester. This makes eight people, four of whom were good friends, killed in plane crashes in the last 12 months either at a display or practising for one.
“The total is well over 30 since I first became involved. What used to be fun and exciting is now becoming something else, something sad and depressing. I no longer have a single group photograph of my flying friends where all the people pictured are still alive. This is the reason why I’ve been a bit quiet on the news front for a while, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking…”
And the result of that thinking was the end of Gary Numan’s flying career. Quite rationally he decided that becoming a statistic was not for him – but the aviation world’s loss was soon the musical world’s gain, however, as the influence of his earlier work became apparent. Before long the restoration of Gary Numan the musician was well underway while Mr. Webb himself got married and entered into family life.
A story with a happy ending, then… and with spring in the air there’s no better time to salute this remarkable performer both in the air and on the ground. While the airshows of 2014 are organised under much greater care to ensure that risks are minimised, we should perhaps reflect a moment on those great display pilots who literally gave their all for our entertainment… while celebrating the continued good health of an exceptional musician with a recent rendition of his most celebrated song: