26
Sep 08

GARY NUMAN – “Cars”

FT + Popular68 comments • 5,499 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. 1
    vinylscot on 26 Sep 2008 #

    I felt at the time that “Cars” was a bit of a disappointment after the triumph that was “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” and its accompanying album “Replicas”.

    Yes this was synth-driven, and memorable, but it sounded like a nursery-school version of what I had hoped for. The simplistic form of the lyrics, understandable even by five-year-olds, allied to the chantable melody left me cold.

    However, over time its greatness has become apparent. It has aged far better then AFE, partly because of it being a perennial target for remixers, and a favourite with advertisers… but mainly because the simplicity is so damn effective – it works its way into your mind and WILL NOT LEAVE!

    I am never sorry to hear this now, and often listen to the album “The Pleasure Principle” which is unfortunately the last Numan album which bears continual listening as a whole.

    Away from the music, this was Gary Numan, and not Tubeway Army, and although Numan effectively WAS Tubeway Army, I remember hoping that he wasn’t getting a bit big for his boots by going it alone. In retrospect, perhaps he was… I’ve mentioned his lack of quality control in the AFE piece, and perhaps the other members of the band (which included his uncle), may have been able to keep his standards up, and his feet on the ground (metaphorically), a little better. We will never know.

    From memory, I think this may have been the first #1 is saw performed live, while it was still #1. Numan’s tour, which had OMD as the unknown support act, hit Glasgow on September 20th which would have been the Thursday after the Tuesday when this hit the top.

  2. 2
    SteveM on 26 Sep 2008 #

    More Kraftwerk connections: The ‘Autobahn’ sleeve depicts cars on the road without drivers whereas here the look on Numan’s face says it all (“waaaait a minute, something’s missing here too…sod it I’ll take to the air instead…”).

    I’ll be collecting up sleeves for the early 80s very soon although I’m not sure how much longer it was before someone figured out a way to bring driver and vehicle together at last at the top of the record shop rack.

    Aaaaand was the ‘Numbers’ beat directly inspired by this also?

  3. 3
    Waldo on 26 Sep 2008 #

    Gary Numan again.

    Goodbye.

  4. 4
    Tom on 26 Sep 2008 #

    #1 and #2 – yes surely evidence A for ‘solo loss of quality control’ is THAT SLEEVE, surely we won’t often see a solo act look so much of a div on their own single.

  5. 5
    Erithian on 26 Sep 2008 #

    I may be wrong, but somehow it’s hard to imagine this as a first hit – it’s one of those records that sails in on the coat-tails of a breakthrough hit and strikes while the iron’s hot. Still plenty of hooks, the synth riff, the little drum breaks, the lyrical appeal to the 70s equivalent of Clarkson Man, but it always sounded like the runty kid brother to AFE. He had better big hits in the next year or two – We Are Glass, I Die You Die – and had a remarkably long career as a niche presence in the 20-30 range of the chart, showing the loyalty of the Numanoid fanbase. But he was never to capture the public imagination in quite the same way again.

    He did look a prize twit on the sleeve, but then I remember the full-page ad Beggar’s Banquet took out in Record Mirror early the following year thanking people for all his end-of-79 poll placings – high up in Best Single and Album, Brightest Hope for 1980 etc, and including a top-three placing in the Pretentious Prat of the Year category. So he (or his record company) wasn’t entirely humourless.

  6. 6
    SteveM on 26 Sep 2008 #

    Re #4 Well it’s a nice suit at least. Probably nicked that from ‘Trans Europe Express’ LP cover too (OK I have to stop with constant Kwerk comparisons but they just keep on coming thick and fast).

    Solo divness on sleeves is surely going to step up a gear as we move into the 80s and beyond tho!

  7. 7
    Tom on 26 Sep 2008 #

    It’s the sideways look that does it – it’s like he’s in the middle of his android driving test and on the back of the single you might find pictures for signal and maneouvre.

  8. 8
    James on 26 Sep 2008 #

    That sleeve art is AMAZING.

    As a side note, I once dressed as Mr. Newman for an 80’s-night extravaganza, and my visual reference point was the cover of “Pleasure Principle” (still a very fine album)

  9. 9
    Elsa on 26 Sep 2008 #

    At the time Numan came on the American morning news program The Today Show to perform this – in itself odd since I don’t remember pop acts being presented there, much less scary electronic ones. He told the presenter something to the effect of “I feel more comfortable around machines than around people.” My mother, who is a people person, recoiled at that. In retrospect he may have been put on the program because an android singing with synthesizers was deemed a newsworthy development.

  10. 10
    Tom on 26 Sep 2008 #

    Another qn – which can probably wait untl after people have had their say on the record!

    When did “Nu” as the ‘futuristic’ form of “New” start being used? One for the Sluglords maybe?

  11. 11
    jeff w on 26 Sep 2008 #

    I never thought Numan looked like a div on the sleeve. More scary than before, if anything.

    It was a bit of a shock, actually, the sudden transition (Replicas and TPP were released only a few months apart) from bleached blonde, black-shirted android to suited and booted alien with dyed-black hair.

  12. 12
    jeff w on 26 Sep 2008 #

    As to ‘Cars’, in this case I think you have it spot on in your final paragraph, Tom. And yet I also agree with nearly everything vinylscot says @ #1 (if that makes sense). My sister was the Gary Numan fan. I was the Tubeway Army fan. I think the change of image may well have had something to do with that.

    This is not to say I didn’t play my sister’s 7″ of ‘Cars’ an awful lot. The intro in particular – those several seconds of wobbly synth monotone suddenly punctuated by a tattoo on the drums – is one of the greatest openings of any single I can think of.

  13. 13
    jeff w on 26 Sep 2008 #

    The next single, “Complex”, I could never get into at all. However, there is a fantastic 6-minute live version of “Bombers” on the B-side. Aerial dogfights on synthesizers! Yeah!

  14. 14
    LondonLee on 26 Sep 2008 #

    He looks like he’s milking a cow on that sleeve.

  15. 15
    Waldo on 26 Sep 2008 #

    “Just like that!”

  16. 16
    Jack Fear on 26 Sep 2008 #

    That sleeve picture cries out for the LOLCATS treatment, actually. May I suggest

    INVISABLE JAGYUAR

  17. 17
    Kat but logged out innit on 26 Sep 2008 #

    This is way better than Are Friends Electric! His voice sounds less grating when he’s talking instead of squealing. And then most of it is awesome instrumental wibbly-woo = MUCH BETTER.

  18. 18
    Lena on 26 Sep 2008 #

    For some reason I misremembered this song as a US #1 (wrong – the late summer was “Good Times,” “My Sharona” and then into fall, “Sad Eyes” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”) – it just got to #9. But it was unmistakable and impressed me as…different. I know I called him weird before and this is what I mean – there was nothing like “Cars” on the radio, on any station. I never saw the cover, I never saw the video, nothing. The song was more than enough, music from an outsider expressing an outsider’s feelings (is it just me that finds his attachment to his car poignant – it is Aspergerian to feel safer with machines than people for a good reason), and of course it wouldn’t be a hit in the US or UK without monster hooks and hummability, which it has just as much as Michael Jackson or The Knack. It also rocks, but it’s not ‘rock’ as such; Gary Numan isn’t a ‘classic rock’ artist here like Bowie, for instance. And while I know ‘influence’ isn’t a favorite word here, Numan clearly had an influence on early and for that matter current hip-hop (I listened to Tim Westwood and so much of it is synthetic/electro-based):

    Afrika Bambaataa has also talked about the influence of Numan’s music on the fledgling American DJ scene: “In the late 70s and early 80s Gary had the rhythms that DJs wanted to get hold of and people waited for his records on the dance floor.” (from the Wiki article on Numan)

    I’m not sure why he invites ridicule – which is here, even – he has been a bit of a twerp but he regrets that, and as Mike said on the AFE thread, he is a genuinely modest man who loves to make music. Looking back, “Cars” is one of the least self-conscious #1s of this time…

  19. 19
    Ned R. on 27 Sep 2008 #

    It just occurred to me that his vocal performance on here is one of the most buried ever in the pop realm. The way that his staccato speak/sing matches the synth riff is such that it most calls attention to itself whenever it disappears — you realize its importance by its absence, whenever he punctuates with ‘in CARS’ and then temporarily falls silent.

  20. 20
    Conrad on 27 Sep 2008 #

    Re 19, One of the many magnificent things about this record is that less than half way through (approx 1.50) Numan’s vocal disappears altogether and for the next 2 minutes we are surfing a juggernaut synthesizer groove punctuated by brilliant drum fills.

    It demonstrates supreme confidence to cut the vocal hook so early (particularly a hook as good as this one).

  21. 21
    Alan on 27 Sep 2008 #

    “Cars” must have seemed at the time like the confirmation of a major new star

    YES. if the first song seemed like a blast from another world, this was confirmation that he had hung around to set up a new world order. this is indeed way better than AFE, it pierces and fills you up with the sound. but the lyrical conceit here needs the cyborg/inorganic/ballard context of numan’s world established in AFE so as to not sound trite or just daft. and indeed hataz at the time (IIRC) just went pfft at them.

  22. 22
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 27 Sep 2008 #

    this is the third and (unless memory deceives me) the last punk rock number one

    best titles on my numan best of (reverse order):

    5: music for chameleons
    4: remember, i was vapour
    3: my love is a liquid
    2: we take mystery (to bed)
    1: me! i disconnect from you

  23. 23
    LondonLee on 27 Sep 2008 #

    There’s quite a few more “punk rock” number ones to come (depending on how you define it of course). I can think of 5 more off the top of my head, and that’s just two bands.

  24. 24
    DJ Punctum on 27 Sep 2008 #

    By now he was unequivocally Gary Numan, solo artist, on his own – some say a willing prisoner of machines but my feeling, as evidenced by “Cars,” is that machines liberated him. His second number one is faster and more streamlined structurally than his first, and his vocals sound a crucial tiny bit less neutered or processed vocals, the song’s controlled microexplosions mutating his attitude to alienation from despair to unexpected gladness. The man preparing to leave at the end of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” has been left with no option save to become machine; yet Numan, and I don’t necessarily think paradoxically, sounds more human as a machine – even with “Here in my car/I feel safest of all/I can lock all my doors/It’s the only way to live/In cars.” Maybe it’s the only way he can live, the engine (ha!) that makes his life comfortable, not to say liveable. “Here in my car/I can only receive/I can listen to you/It keeps me stable for days/In cars.” The small, mobile, self-reliant unit, obliged to no one, least of all family or society, with no need ever to act, simply drive forever, absorb select waves from the world but never refract them.

    But no, that façade breaks down in the very Ballardian third verse: “Here in my car/Where the image breaks down/Will you visit me please/If I open my door/In cars?” (Ballardian in the sense of young Jim the Shanghai PoW rubbing his eyes at the end of Empire Of The Sun and getting back into the world, but is it his world (see also Concrete Island for the same story told from the other side of the mirror)

    “Here in my car/I know I’ve started to think/About leaving tonight/Although nothing seems right in cars.” Following which, with half the record still to go, he disappears altogether. I note that neither of his number ones has any discernible chorus, apart from the repeated melodic and rhythmic instrumental motifs; but I also note the crisp but slippy mechanics of the rhythm track which the likes of Bambaataa would find importantly alluring. So his pleas and waves did manage to refract from beyond the confines of the car door (see also “Warm Leatherette” for the obverse self-destruction perspective but see especially Grace Jones’ version of the latter wherein Sly and Robbie draw their own unwitting – or was it? – line from “Cars”).

    And finally I note that I have quoted the entire lyric here, but then the lyric is a coldly minimalist one slowly acknowledging and turning into warmth; the riff continues but the string synthesisers begin to play chords and sustain odd, wavering sonorities – the reverse of that frightening, low (or should that be Low?), wobbling drone at the record’s beginning – and they sound like invisible but deeply perceptible clouds embracing the already reborn driver to allow dreams free of sheep, with new vision, new perception and renewed life. Difficult really to go further without drawing a possible parallel between Numan and myself which would explain the whole thing outright but I’ll leave that for others to work out. He sits, driving through his own city (even if he finds content – in both senses of that word – in stasis) and in the neighbouring club, bodies which are not quite those of robots start to dance. Much of the rest of Popular will journey down the motorway both he and they built.

  25. 25
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 27 Sep 2008 #

    we can battle it out when we get to them lee, but i think i probably won’t count em as punk* — bearing in mind i am not terribly consensus-minded in my definition (viz “rat trap” isn’t but “mondays” is)

    *tho i might have forgotten something i *do* count (like in the 90s or something)

  26. 26
    LondonLee on 27 Sep 2008 #

    I was thinking of three blokes from Woking and a certain multi-racial combo from Coventry. How you can count Gary Numan as “punk” (even in the wider sense of new) and not them is beyond me.

  27. 27
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 27 Sep 2008 #

    i know you were! (well, i thought you probably were)

    but they’re not and he is

    (as much as anything it’s a dates thing)

  28. 28
    Conrad on 27 Sep 2008 #

    I’m really not sure that this whole punk number 1 debate is anything other than meaningless, the usage of the term too liberally, or to narrowly applied, to add anything of value here.

    Punk Number 1s – Adam, the League, Paul Hardcastle, Dexys, and none of the above.

    “Much of the rest of Popular will journey down the motorway both he and they built.” Yes – exactly!

  29. 29
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 27 Sep 2008 #

    i’m sleepy tonight or i’d have argued my reasoning as well staking the claim, conrad — i’ll do it tomorrow when/if i’m a bit more clearheaded (it’s not really about getting ppl to agree with me, more about mapping out the way i was responding to stuff at the time — punk was about all disagreement all the time anyway, for me, then; and definitely about drawing lines in annoying places)

    (yr four suggestions also fail datewise) (tho i admire the ambition of hardcastle!)

  30. 30
    rosie on 28 Sep 2008 #

    Same as for the last Numan. Only blander.

    This message is brought to you from a breakfast table in Handsworth, Birmingham. Along with a headache and a post-curry thingy. Very nice!

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