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Sep 08

TUBEWAY ARMY – “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”

FT + Popular109 comments • 2,461 views

#439, 30th June 1979

“I don’t think I mean anything to you.”: it’s a sulky break-up song in android drag. But what drag! There’s a muscley, unpleasantly compelling crunch to the synthesisers on “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” – the song is built on awkward, thrilling mechanical lurches rather than Kraftwerkian glide or Moroderish thrust. It’s futuristic, but this future setting is audibly shabby, an exhausting and dispiriting time to live: you suspect it rains a lot there. Numan himself shifts from distanced scene-setter to hurt suburban boy – the everyday whine of his voice cutting through the future he’s trying to establish, its baffled pique reminding you what these robot worlds get built to cover up.

In some ways it’s the title’s punctuation that makes the record: those two scare quotes are the perfect signifier that we’ve woken up and found ourselves in a more self-consciously clever, or just more self-conscious, era of pop. There’s something thoroughly, irresistably adolescent about that punctuation: but it’s the good kind of adolescence, the kind that turns confusion into ambition rather than retreat.

(It’s worth saying something too about Numan himself: an odd figure, particularly if, like me, you mostly know him by his – dreadful – reputation. When I started discovering pop, Gary Numan was already persona non grata: a Tory, yes, but more than that he was fundamentally seen as simply a bit of a pillock. In the intervening years I’ve been persuaded that this second-hand opinion was unfair, but I’ve never quite brought myself to give the man’s work a fair shake beyond these handful of early hits. I think it’s that – moving in nerdy circles as I have tended to – I’ve known a lot of people like Gary Numan, or like his public image: a combination of prickliness, overreach and complete inability to understand when or why people are likely to mock you. Better to have those last two attributes than to go through life nervously second-guessing everything, of course, but pop (and life) will probably always be unkind to its Numans.)

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Comments

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  1. 91
    Conrad on 3 Nov 2009 #

    Numan was naive – and too honest with the press. He either didn’t understand or didn’t want to play the game. He would happily admit to being interested in making money. He would admit to insecurities and fears.

    I can’t see why anyone would think him obnoxious, unless through personal experience (which I do not have). I thought he made an intriguing and refreshingly different type of pop star.

  2. 92
    Andy Pandy on 3 Nov 2009 #

    As i remember it Numan was subject to terribly harsh criticism in the music press when he broke through usually based around the not entirely accurate criticism that he was ripping off ‘Low’/’Heroes’ era Bowie. Because of this he fought back and/or ignored the music press and the attitudes they expected their pop stars to have.

    This went on for years and was compounded in their eyes by his being a Tory.However I also remember that over the years they also grudgingly used to admit he was actually supposed to be a nice bloke and especially good with his fans something that helped forge his extremely committed fanbase. If anything he was seen as one of the few genuinely decent popstars.

  3. 93

    I doubt his “fightback” was as considered as that — his breakthrough was initially big enough that he didn’t really need to take rock press protocols into account, and he never bothered finding out what they were. In fact I think his antennae in that direction were pretty stunted, which is why he got such ferocious teasing — which I think is closer to the mark than “criticism”.

    His politics, if I remember right, were more or less a totally naive and quite youthful restatement of his dad’s voting attitudes– in itself a massive faux pas in pop terms, where dads are meant to be the enemy you’re fighting.

    It’s all a long time ago though, so may not be remembering very clearly.

  4. 94

    And yes too about the nice bloke thing…

  5. 95
    wichitalineman on 3 Nov 2009 #

    The ‘ripping off Low-era Bowie’ thing was very strong in the press, probably inadvertently started by Numan himself who admitted being a huge fan. Intriguingly, I don’t remember anyone saying that about Scott Walker’s Climate Of Hunter from ’84, which now just sounds six or seven years out of date (I never noticed at the time) – possibly because Bowie and Walker were kinda mirroring each other at the time (see God Only Knows on Tonight).

    Sukrat – teasing is close, but mocking is closer. It was quite unpleasant as I remember.

  6. 96

    Yes, it was a kind of bullying really: this is why I wanted to distinguish it from “criticism”, which is after all what critics are paid for, and is not an intrinsically evil behaviour — though it can be done nastily.

    The Low critique is interesting: I think it works like this. A: a lot of critics were very territorial about Low, which they think is possibly Bowie’s most important record. So B: they WANTED it to be influential, but on THEIR terms. C: Numan obviously liked Bowie and Low and said, so D: people put 2 aqnd 2 together wrongly, and assumed his not-very-like-Low music was a result of him getting Low clumsily wrong. As opposed to be — I would argue — a more interesting and original musician; and a MUCH more singleminded pop philosopher. So his originality was misheard as incompetence: and his inability to be verbally eloquent about it in critically acceptable terms meant it took some time to dig itself in on its own terms; which it did via his very passionate and hugely entertaining fanbase.;. that sounds a bit patronising but honestly, I hold the Numanoids in tremendous affection.

    (Arguably something there was a lot too much of in the great early 80s spasm was minor pop stars who talked a brilliant game in interview and didn’t make the music to back it up… As a writer — and an interviewer — I *really appreciate* people who talk a brilliant game, as it makes my job a lot more fun, and as a consequence have cut many of them more slack than they deserved… )

    I forget if I’ve mentioned this on Popular already, but a Numan-moment far in the future which wil never leave me is his appearance on the Bob Mills show In Bed with MeDinner, in the mid-90s. It was a comeback moment — possibly on the back of Cars being a big hit after a rather startling car advert — and he was performing solo, on a cramped little set meant to be bob’s sitting room, and it was the WILDEST THING I EVER SAW ON POP TV. Like the spirit of a million Iggy Pop’s possessed him: he was limber and grinning with joy and just ON IT. Excellent.

  7. 97
    Billy Smart on 3 Nov 2009 #

    Numan often mentions in interviews the traumatic experience for him of appearing on the 1979 Kenny Everett Video Show Christmas special and being blanked by fellow guest star – and his idol – David Bowie.

  8. 98
    mike on 4 Nov 2009 #

    I asked Numan about the 1979 music press hostility when I interviewed him a couple of years ago. This was his reply:

    “I was probably the first big pop star of the post-punk period, so politically I was persona non grata. Even though punk created huge amounts of stars and heroes, its ethos was anti-star, anti-celebrity, anti-establishment. It was completely hypocritical, but that was the vibe.”

    “I think I got a huge backlash, because I said: “This is fantastic! I’ve always wanted this!” I had an unfortunate way of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong people, and I had nobody to blame but myself. I was insensitive to the feelings of the time. But even if I had the sensitivity, I’m not sure that I would have done things differently, because I’ve never really been that bothered about telling lies.”

    I certainly remember him coming across as off-puttingly arrogant in interviews of the time. Which is odd, as he was thoroughly lovely to talk to: helpful, thoughtful, forthcoming, humble, sincere. One of my favourites, actually. And I’ve been told he now has a reputation as a reliably excellent interviewee.

    But in I-wanna-be-a-big-fat-pop-star terms, he was about 18 months ahead of the zeitgeist. By the time that Adam & the Ants broke through, openly aspiring to be a big fat pop star was seen as a perfectly decent aspiration for a post-punker.

  9. 99
    weej on 22 Oct 2010 #

    This is where I come in. Good job I wasn’t a week late!

  10. 100
    swanstep on 22 Oct 2010 #

    @lord sukrat, 96. Numan on In Bed with MeDinner is up on youtube, e.g., here. Kewl!

  11. 101
    lonepilgrim on 22 Oct 2010 #

    thanks for that link swanstep – that’s a great performance

  12. 102
    ottersteve on 2 Aug 2011 #

    Has anyone yet commented on here that this was possibly the first No.1 who’s lyrics are never repeated during the course of the song?

    Any other No.1s with that feature? (don’t say Bo Rhap ‘cos Freddy repeats “nothing really matters” at the end of the song)

  13. 103
    Alan not logged in on 2 Aug 2011 #

    re has lyrics, never repeated. what about Georgie Fame – Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde?

  14. 104
    punctum on 2 Aug 2011 #

    Sadly the repeated usage of the phrase “Bonnie and Clyde” throughout the song disqualifies that one.

  15. 105
    Alan not logged in on 2 Aug 2011 #

    i figured an exemption for that, on a vague Just a Minute sort of vibe.

  16. 106
    Alan not logged in on 2 Aug 2011 #

    after all, the protagonist in ‘are friends’ is also mentioned loads of times – it’s just that ‘I’ would be too much of a restriction on what counts as repeated lyrics.

  17. 107
    DietMondrian on 2 Aug 2011 #

    The Model by Kraftwerk was a number one after Are ‘Friends’ Electric? but was released earlier.

    Apart from each of the three verses starting with “She’s”, it doesn’t repeat any lyrics.

  18. 108
    punctum on 11 Nov 2012 #

    TPL on Replicas.

  19. 109
    Auntie Beryl on 1 Feb 2019 #

    I was born in 1973, like a few others around here, so was six when this was number one. Through TOTP I was aware of Numan as a performer, without the tools to process why I found him or AFE so captivating. I don’t think I could have known anything of Bowie, Ultravox! or Kraftwerk at the time.

    It would be at least twenty years before I identified or acknowledged my own (mild) autism, and then joined to the dots to the widely held perception of Numan’s own personality at the height of his success. Whilst I haven’t always kept up with his musical output over the last forty years, from afar I’ve admired how he’s gone about his business and the first-hand accounts from Mike and others on this thread do seem to back that up.

    10, by the way.

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