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Sep 08

GARY NUMAN – “Cars”

FT + Popular68 comments • 4,599 views

#442, 22nd September 1979

“Here in my car I feel safest of all” – this is what marketers, bless us, refer to as a ‘consumer insight’ – one of the unspoken reasons people buy what they buy, do what they do, crystallised in a one-liner that seems obvious as soon as you’ve heard it. It’s no wonder this track enjoyed such a prosperous second life via advertising: the message is barely even subliminal. Okay, Numan is going out of his way to sound chilly about the prospect of Cartopia, but the gleeful clunk-click of the synths gives him away: compared to the messy, shabby confusion “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” left him in, “Cars” is pure liberation.

Or at least it starts that way, as a song of praise for atomisation, until Numan’s loneliness starts eating him up again. “Will you visit me please / If I open my door?” is one of the most pitifully lonesome lines in pop, a broken android reduced to a kind of social dogging – even if it can’t quite cut through the impression left by that triumphantly gawky keyboard line.

Though the comments may prove me wrong on this, “Cars” must have seemed at the time like the confirmation of a major new star – the cold shock of “‘Friends'” now married to a monster hook, Numan’s futuristic vision given rein to roam beyond whatever limitations his nominal band might have imposed. Whatever you thought of him now – seer, sad sack or sellout – he would surely be making smashes for years to come. But it never got any bigger than this, and beyond his supremely loyal fanbase Numan has become one of those many acts forever defined by a track or two. That can’t take away, though, from the confidence, panache and pop instinct “Cars” exhibits, or from the stab of truth in its lyric.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    Billy Smart on 28 Sep 2008 #

    What is interesting about the process of cultural memory and Numan is that his two number ones were generally his only songs to have been remembered, but in different ways and for different reasons.

    ‘Are Friends’ had more muso credibility, and tended to be a lot higher rated by those who were around in 1979: It has an odder tempo, more obscure and unnerving lyrics, goes on for a lot longer.

    Wheras ‘Cars’ tends to go down better with those too young to remember it from the first time; more steamlined, an indestructable hook, very obvious what its about, its more clear who Numan is and – having established his presence – there’s less of him in the song!

    I blow hot and cold on which I prefer, but I think that ‘Are Friends’ probably does go deeper.

    More favourite Numan titles; ‘We Are Glass’ and ‘I Die You Die’ (a super-conscise tragedy!)

    Has any act thus far in popular followed up a hot streak with something as anticlimactic as ‘Complex’, by the way? ‘Diamond Smiles’ is like ‘Get It On’ in comparison…

  2. 32
    Conrad on 28 Sep 2008 #

    Yes, “Complex” was an underwhelming follow up. “Metal” would have been a better choice from the PP album.

    You are right about the credibility comparison with AFE. At school, although we all secretly liked “Cars” it seemed less cool and obscure than its predecessor. Perhaps the name change had something to do with it as well – as alluded to in an earlier comment. Your younger brother bought “Cars”. You had AFE and, if you were very hip, “Down In The Park”.

    Now, I too oscillate between the two as to which I prefer. I love them both, but “Cars” is undoubtedly the more polished production, and the one I listen too most.

    I really liked Numan’s trilogy of white-funk singles from 81/82 as well – particularly “She’s Got Claws” which I think I’m right in saying was the first Top 40 single to introduce us to the wonderful sound of Mick Karn’s fretless bass (and saxophone).

  3. 33
    LondonLee on 28 Sep 2008 #

    I had ‘Down In The Park’ on 12″ – I was cooler than I thought!

  4. 34
    Will on 28 Sep 2008 #

    Ah yes, that’ll be during his hair transplant phase, when every record sleeve featured him wearing a hat.

  5. 35
    Billy Smart on 28 Sep 2008 #

    Re The Numan funk trilogy: Perhaps its most lasting impact was to gave us the priceless sight of Alan Partridge miming the bass to the sound of ‘Music For Chameleons’

  6. 36
    fivelongdays on 28 Sep 2008 #

    “we can battle it out when we get to them lee, but i think i probably won’t count em as punk”

    If you had made that sentence end ‘i probably think, i won’t count em as punk’ it would have scanned PERFECTLY with the song.

  7. 37
    Will on 28 Sep 2008 #

    I might have dreamt this but I have a distinct memory of Numan performing Music For Chameleons on TOTP from a kind of motorised wheelchair, which he promptly ‘drove’ around the set whilst miming to his early 82 hit. Even at the time it struck me as a little strange.

  8. 38
    H. on 29 Sep 2008 #

    Yes, this is as good as it got for Numan, although his commercial decline was a fairly slow one. He had quite a few top ten singles after Cars, and I think the next album Telekon went to no. 1.

    Punctum is certainly right to reference Bowie’s Low, there’s a lot of resonance there. Numan is a minimalist and Bowie is way more eclectic, but a lot of the first side of Low is agoraphobic, about retreat to a room, with overlaid self-pity, just as this song is retreat to the confines of a car, with the self-pity coming through at the end of the lyric. Thematically, there’s a similarity with Sound & Vision. Also structurally: both songs have a very short lyric that takes up less than half the song.

    Cars is an incredibly strong single, I think – better than AFE. It’s not easy to do something that is so simple and yet still manages to strike an original note.

  9. 39
    Mark G on 29 Sep 2008 #

    I liked “Complex”, just for being less immediate than the previous.

  10. 40
    DJ Punctum on 29 Sep 2008 #

    Also because it sounded like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra playing Tubular Bells.

  11. 41
    Mark G on 29 Sep 2008 #

    Esso Blue…

  12. 42
    DJ Punctum on 29 Sep 2008 #

    …as opposed to Esso S…

  13. 43
    H. on 29 Sep 2008 #

    I like Complex. I like that synth-plus-strings thing, which he pursued later with Telekon. Granted, it was a strange choice for a single, though.

  14. 44
    Mark G on 29 Sep 2008 #

    It was that “Empirical time” ((c) Neil Tennant) for Gazza New..

    (edit: That sounds a bit “It was a strange one but we loved it…”)

  15. 45
    DJ Punctum on 29 Sep 2008 #

    Dale was mentalist yesterday. Apropos “Cloud Nine”: “Probably best if you don’t listen to the words too closely – they sound like they were pretty high in the studio.” Also contrived not to know what “Je T’aime” was about.

    I think the Tanning Salon overdose is having a deleterious effect on his wellbeing.

    If he carries on like this he’ll lose all his listeners and there’ll be no one there but him-o.

  16. 46
    Matthew H on 29 Sep 2008 #

    I thought AFE was my fave Nu-rave until I played this the other day for the first time in years. Woo! Ahem. It’s rather exciting.

  17. 47
    Matos W.K. on 29 Sep 2008 #

    My favorite useless tidbit about “Cars” is that Prince used to play it in rehearsal with the Revolution. Makes perfect sense to me.

  18. 48
    pink champale on 30 Sep 2008 #

    p^nk s #22. “music for chameleons” is a truman capote steal! or is the law just for band names?

  19. 49
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 30 Sep 2008 #

    48: haha yes you’re right, PC — tho if there was EVER a popstar less likely to be an avid capote reader i think it might be the numanoid!

    “chameleons” itself is sorta kinda halfway between high period japan and “another green world” (in fact it occurred to me while listening that GN may have somewhat based his er “song delivery” on mr can’t-sing-won’t-sing eno’s bland murmur) (tho he also has an anguished yawp mode, viz “my love is a liquid”)

    — not that anyone’s waiting w.baited breath but my explication of “what punk actually really is (lord sukrat’s untimely thorts)” has been held up by slugs-related busy-ness mainly…

  20. 50
    Waldo on 1 Oct 2008 #

    #45 – I didn’t catch Dale this week but I’m not surprised that he was flippant about “Je T’aime…”. Not exactly one for his playlist when he personally entertains, it seems to me.

  21. 51
    mike on 1 Oct 2008 #

    I can’t keep up! I can’t keep up!

    OK, as briefly as I can make it: for me at the time, this could never hope to match the impact of “AFE”, and so it came as something of a second rank pleasure. Oh, I liked it well enough, but it still struck me as sonically somewhat thin – and besides, there was so much more out there to love.

    But as others have said, this has worn very well indeed – as evidenced by the heavy sampling that took place in Armand Van Helden’s “Koochy” (#4 in May 2000), at a time when the rehabilitiation of Numan’s reputation was just beginning to kick in.

    I’m a little hazy as to the respective dates, but “Cars” is one of three candidates from the charts of September 1979 to qualify as the first record I ever danced to at a disco. (If we discount Cockney Rebel’s “Mr. Soft” in a marquee at a traction engine rally in 1974, and I rather think we should.) If so, then this would have been at the first and only school disco that I attended – for after A-levels, I returned for a final Oxbridge term, in a vain and deeply, deeply misguided and ill-advised attempt to study Law at Cambridge University.

    The other candidates? I’m glad you asked.

    Candidate #2 – “Gangsters” by the Special AKA, after a half-term gig by The Jags at Retford Porterhouse. “Back Of My Hand” was in the charts, and the band were staying a few miles away in our local village pub. (A popular rock and roll stop off point, as it happened; my step-sister once spent an evening chatting to a pre-fame Billy Idol, and the Psychedelic Furs scandalised all and sundry by smoking weed on the landing.)

    The post-gig disco took place in a separate night club area, complete with a totally authentic Saturday Night Fever style dancefloor, laid out with the statutory illuminated cube pattern. Thrust into the midst of such sophistication, I felt a little out of my depth.

    Candidate #3 – “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson – in its first week on the Top 40 – at the Friday night teenage disco at the Cambridge YMCA. We blagged our way in without paying while the trendy vicar’s back was turned, nipped upstairs, and soon found ourselves quite the centre of attention.

    “You’re the new John Travolta!”, beamed a starry-eyed fifteen year old (curly perm, horizontally striped sweater dress, thick black belt), as I galumphed around the dancefloor in my ghastly tweed sports jacket. “You should have been in Saturday Night Fever, or Grease, or something!”

    (I am quoting this strictly verbatim. As perhaps was she, maybe from some “How To Pick Up Boys!” guide in Mirabelle.)

    As the strains of “Bitch” by the Olympic Runners started up, another lovestruck chancer (dark crop, pencil skirt) tried to muscle in.

    “Oy! Get off him! He’s MY boyfriend!”

    Five minutes on the dancefloor, and I was literally being fought over. Oh, this was the best night out ever! It was like being in a photo-love story in my sister’s My Guy, or something!

    Eager to stay in role, I leant between them and uttered those immortal words:

    “Now then, girls. Break it up.”

    I swear they both simpered.

    Nothing like this ever happened to me again.

    But I digress…

  22. 52
    DJ Punctum on 2 Oct 2008 #

    When “Cars” was reissued in the mid-nineties (1996 I think – TV ad-induced, but I can’t remember offhand which one) I loved how Numan came on TOTP etc. and performed it gyrating about and grinning from ear to ear, as opposed to the static blankness with which he performed the song on TV in ’79. It felt like a happy ending of sorts.

  23. 53
    mike on 2 Oct 2008 #

    Which tangentially reminds me that his first major public exposure came not through “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” at all, but through – of all things – a TV ad for Lee Cooper jeans, whose new-wavey jingle (“Don’t be a dummy…”) was voiced (but not composed) by one Numan, G.

    Despite considerable pressure, the record was never commerically released. Instead, the quick cash-in option was taken up by a former member of Atomic Rooster called John Du Cann, whose ropey, well-past-its-sell-by cover version limped to #33 in the same month that “Cars” topped the chart.

  24. 54
    Billy Smart on 2 Oct 2008 #

    Wasn’t that 1996 revival because of a beer advert?

    Drinking and driving not to be encouraged.

  25. 55
    mike on 2 Oct 2008 #

    I must also put in a kind word for “Complex”, whose equally minimal (but highly effective) lyric was preceded by an instrumental passage of similar length to the second half of “Cars”. Quite a neat conceptual trick, actually.

    After that, it was a case of slowly diminishing returns, to the point where successive Numan releases started to do something which no other hit singles had done before: Top Twenty in the first week of release, followed by an immediate and precipitous decline, thus giving the lie to the idea that they ever truly “hits” in the first place.

    We’ll be seeing a lot more of that in the fullness of time, of course.

    And finally: does anyone else remember The Damned’s late 1979 Peel session cover of “Cars?” (“In a gay bar, la la la la la la…”)

  26. 56
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 2 Oct 2008 #

    my numan best of has “cars (’93 sprint)” on it, which is presumably some kind of remix re-release

    i saw numan on bob mill’s “In Bed with MeDinner”, round the same time, give a performance as wild as any iggy pop ever gave — i think it was the moment i realised how much i adored him

    (given the mills shtick — which was that he was sat in his own front room — the performance had also to take place in the set representing mills’s front room, crammed into a corner)

  27. 57
    DJ Punctum on 2 Oct 2008 #

    It was the “Premier Mix” and it was 1996 (an “E-Reg” mix charted in ’93) and not only was it used to advertise Carling Premier lager but he even put out a compilation entitled Premier Hits.

  28. 58
    Mark G on 2 Oct 2008 #

    Also, that “don’t be a dummy” ad was after Friends (and “Cars” I’m sure), as I recognised his voice immediately on the ad.

    Possibly recorded before the big hit, as why bother afterwards?

  29. 59
    mike on 2 Oct 2008 #

    Definitely recorded before the big hit, but you’ve got me wondering about the timeline now. But also definitely before “Cars” – perhaps they kept the ad running a few weeks longer?

  30. 60
    SteveM on 2 Oct 2008 #

    Prior to his Mighty Boosh cameo the last time I saw Numan on TV it was as a guest on Jo Whiley’s C4 show (a show I quite enjoyed conceptually, apart from Jo Whiley) in early 2000 in which he rubbished the new Kelis single (“Good Stuff”) and used it to launch an attack of sorts on the insipid ‘replicant’ nature of RnB/rap at the time (as he saw/heard it).

    As you may or may not expect there were some murmurings of racism in a few quarters (NME iirc, and Whiley herself later recalling it as a bit a “wtf are you saying here?” moment) but tho he was being harsh this seemed unfair itself. That show could’ve done with being a lot more controversial anyway.

  31. 61
    Billy Smart on 6 Oct 2008 #

    TOTP Watch; Numan performed Cars on Top Of The Pops on four occasions;

    30th August 1979. Also in the studio that week were; Secret Affair, Nick Lowe, BA Robertson, The Commodores, The Specials, Johnny Mathis and The Stranglers, plus Legs & Co’s interpretation of ‘Lost In Music’. David Jensen was the host.

    25th December 1979. See ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric’ for details.

    1st October 1987 (‘E’ Reg Model remix). Also in the studio that week were; Sisters of Mercy, The Bee Gees, Steve Winwood and Shakin’ Stevens (I’d like to have been backstage that week!). Hosts were Gary Davies and Mike Smith.

    14th March 1996 (Premier remix). Also in the studio that week were; Mark Morrison, Gabrielle, Technohead, Peter Andre, Robert Miles and Bis. The hosts that week were MN8.

  32. 62
    Billy Smart on 6 Oct 2008 #

    Re 37: TOTP Watch: Numan performed ‘Music For Chameleons’ twice on Top Of The Pops;

    4th March, 1982. Also in the studio that week were; The Goombay Dance Band, Imagination, The Jets, ABC and Tight Fit, plus Zoo’s interpretation of ‘Deutscher Girls’. The host was David Jensen.

    18th March 1982. Also in the studio that week were; Classix Nouveaux, Leo Sayer, The Goombay Dance band, Japan and Tight Fit, plus Zoo’s interpretation of ‘Layla’. The hosts were Steve Wright and Richard Skinner.

  33. 63
    wichita lineman on 17 Oct 2008 #

    I’ll swear that the Lee Cooper ad was on after AFE hit – everybody recognised the voice of New Man Numan, as a cleverly titled comp later named him. John Du Cann’s cover was quite timely, if bloody awful (and he still had long hair, in ’79, which seemed extremely uncommercial. A more robotic image/vocal would have pushed it into the Top 20 I’m sure).

    Complex was a Numan ballad, I’m guessing, to show his range. I always have a soft spot for less obvious singles, too. This Wreckage from late 1980 (another great title) was even less obvious than Complex, and pretty great. I remember a letter in Smash Hits around the time of Cars saying that GN was the new Gene Pitney. Not wrong! Compare Nobody Needs Your Love and This Wreckage – the vocal affectations and nasal emoting are remarkably similar.

    So. Got Replicas and Pleasure Principle and love them both. How do people rate Telekon and Dance?

  34. 64
    vinylscot on 17 Oct 2008 #

    “Telekon” was a more thoughtful album. There were still a couple of uptempo tracks (“Remind Me To Smile” and “We Are Glass”) which could have been on “Replicas” or “Pleasure Principle” and many of the other tracks are great to listen to on their own. I particularly enjoy “Remember I was Vapour”, “Please Push No More”, and “I Dream of Wires”, which was covered by Robert Palmer at around the same time on his “Clues” album, which featured Numan on two tracks (I think). However, it’s quite a struggle to listen to the whole album at once; it doesn’t have the immediacy of the earlier two.

    “Dance” has recently undergone a bit of a re-appraisal in Numan-land. Dismissed as a further indication of Numan’s waning powers at the time, a 2008 listen to this shows how far ahead of his time Numan actually was. It’s another sombre affair, with a couple of lighter moments, but it sounds like he was actually putting something coherent together here – possibly his first positive steps in the direction he was to follow from then on. He faltered many times along the way, but this was a good first step. Again, it’s not a very rewarding listen the first time you hear it, and I still rarely listen to the whole album, but it’s one of his better ones …and it’s not a dance album, no way!

  35. 65
    Brooksie on 13 Feb 2010 #

    I loved ‘Complex’, musically it was great. It just had no obvious hooks, which, considering it followed two very catchy songs, was its undoing. Also, Numan’s voice has little range and a slightly nasal quality that makes it irritating. Complex, unlike the previous two hits, was less awash with hooks and power synths, and highlighted how grating his voice was. Musically though; a masterpiece.

  36. 66
    thefatgit on 13 Feb 2010 #

    After the otherness of AFE, “Complex” was such a fragile thing. Billy Currie’s violin prevalent in this song as much as that famous #2 a couple of years later. Synth and strings in plaintive harmony. Numan of course is the lonely android again, but this time implanted with primitive emo software. Not quite Garboesque aloofness, but something more than adolescent self-pity. “Metal” would indeed have been the sensible choice. That was a fan favourite A real stomper on “The Pleasure Principle” tour, and an encore song on the later “Warrior” tour.

    “Cars” is Numan’s only nod to real consumer-friendly pop in his career. He’s always engaged the convert and challenged their loyalty with switching styles. “We Are Glass” is pure Blitz new-romanticism. “She’s Got Claws” is Karn style slapbass funk.

    After Radio 1’s boycott, he explores darker, gothic territory untroubled by critical opinion.
    It was never easy to like Numan the man, but Numan the artist is easy to admire.

  37. 67
    punctum on 21 Nov 2012 #

    TPL on the album from whence “Cars” came.

  38. 68
    hectorthebat on 9 Aug 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Blender (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Songs to Download Right Now! (2003)
    Blender (USA) – The Greatest Songs Ever, One Song Added Every Other Month
    Blender (USA) – Top 500 Songs of the 80s-00s (2005) 28
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1970s (2001) 35
    Slant (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s (2012) 74
    Stephin Merritt (Magnetic Fields) – The Best Recordings from 1900 to 1999
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 1970s (2012) 161
    VH-1 (USA) – Nominations for the 100 Greatest 80s Songs (2006)
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 70
    Artrocker (UK) – The 100 Greatest Art Rock Tracks (2010) 61
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1970s (2012) 62
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 173
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Uncut (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles from the Post-Punk Era (2001) 51
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

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