“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.)