Sep 08

TUBEWAY ARMY – “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”

FT + Popular108 comments • 1,682 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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  1. 76
    vinylscot on 17 Oct 2008 #

    Liner’s stuff was infinitely inferior to Blackfoot Sue’s raw pop-rock of the early 70s – it sounded tired and jaded. The only reason they managed two small hits is that their record company put them out as pic discs, at a time when the GP would have bought pic discs of me singing in the bath. I know – I bought them!

  2. 77
    Mark G on 17 Oct 2008 #

    This was the old wave of rockpop music…

    It wasn’t the Led Zep/Yes/Prog that died off after punk, it was the “vaguely melodic nice pop music played by rock bands of fairly long hair” that died.

    The record labels did their best to keep fuelling the lack of fire by means of big promo budgets and pic discs. They did this purely because they understood the attraction (or the mechanics of “Good musicians, good singer, catchy tune = good record” equation more than the ‘punk’ equation of “Chuck it all in together and it makes a cake” with its wild unpredictability of the result.

    Of course, to no avail, and eventually the people behind the doors lost their jobs/roles to the people who had a handle on the new new wave.

  3. 78

    punk and prog were basically a sibling battle over on the same wing of rock, over the nature of rock-as-serious-culture

    isn’t “vaguely melodic nice pop music played by rock bands of fairly long hair” reborn as the hairmetal ballad? there’s a ton of non-punk/non-prog soft rock in the 80s, probably more actually than in the 70s (also cf hopkinfrog’s argt that after a cetrtain point — in the 90s? — country BECOMES a species of aor, or hairmetal w/ the actual hair…)

  4. 79

    (reader plz to insert grammar, clarity etc into previous post)

  5. 80
    Mark M on 17 Oct 2008 #

    RE” “after a cetrtain point — in the 90s? — country BECOMES a species of aor”,
    I’d suggest (but am willing to be proved very wrong) that Alabama had this project in hand by the early 80s.

  6. 81
    Mark G on 20 Oct 2008 #

    isn’t “vaguely melodic nice pop music played by rock bands of fairly long hair” reborn as the hairmetal ballad?

    Actually, I’d say it was more reborn in the “New Wave” as opposed to punk or postpunk. Ex-members of Stackridge reborn as The Korgis, etc…

  7. 82
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 20 Oct 2008 #

    but new wavers made themselves cut their hair! (unless cheap trick are new wave)

  8. 83
    Mark G on 20 Oct 2008 #

    Oh yeah, for the most part they cut their hair and were reborn…

  9. 84
    rosie on 9 May 2009 #

    Having listened to this a couple of times in the last few days I’ve revised my opinion considerably. Instead of being irritating, as it was in 1979, it’s grown on me considerably. Not that Numan’s voice has anything to do with it: it’s those menacing synths in a relentless, mechanical, I might even say mathematically overpowering way and made chilling by the sudden upward lurches. It’s terrifying and captivation! One case where only synths would do, methinks. Not comtemporary, though – it’s ‘Modern’ in the sense of the modernism of the post-WW1 years. A crowd flowing over London Bridge, undone by death.

  10. 85
    swanstep on 2 Nov 2009 #

    me then: this sounds interesting, but trying to *be* a robot is stooopid and a dead end. can’t anyone warm these machines up? the cold futuristic stuff already sounds dated. OMD, League….that’s more like it!

    me now: I really like this a lot, and the more Numan stuff I revisit or check out for the first time now, the more I’m very, very impressed, and the more I feel a little guilty that I as a snotty kid decided I was too cool to listen to Numan or give his stuff the time of day really. Oops.

    I’ve been thinking about why a lot of poeple (not just me) ended up having a quasi-allergic reaction to Numan’s stuff, when with a little distance, it’s clearly awesome…. I saw an interview with Phil Oakey from the League recently and he talked about how getting to #1 had been a bad career move for them: that once you were #1 you belonged to everyone whereas if you got to #3 like Cure and New Order then you got to be massively successful but all your original fans/tribe would stick with you. I’m not sure if that’s right myself, but now I think about it there *is* a kind of special status that some bands get – they stand for something, a movement, a look as well as a new sound etc. and then if they get to #1 they’re really *in for it*. They now get evaluated not just for their music and style etc., but also for whether, as it were, they’d be benign hegemons/rulers of the pop universe – for whether, if most pop were like them, that’d be good all things considered. Where am I going with all this? Well, I think that for me my reaction to Numan is best explained as follows: yes the music and some of the image stuff was pretty great, but he made a lousy (prospective) pop hegemon. That chilly robot future stuff just *sucked* if it was taken as prescriptive for the range of emotions and techniques in pop in the future. Why does Numan appeal to me so much now? Well, now his stuff just fits in as another possible room in pop’s mansion, and it’s a *great*, even essential room. Now Numan’s very explicit projection of a possible future isn’t our actual future, we’re all free to dig it.

  11. 86
    enitharmon on 2 Nov 2009 #

    Swanstep, I think Numan-allergy has more to do with the obnoxiousness of the man himself.

  12. 87
    swanstep on 2 Nov 2009 #

    @ enitharmon. So what did he do/say that was so obnoxious? Noel and Liam Gallagher ‘We’re as good as the Beatles, Cobain’s just a dumb c*** who couldn’t hack it’ obnoxious? If it’s just generally being a little pricklish, well, hell, post-punk was full of difficult, pricklish characters: Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Howard Devoto, and later, of course, Morrissey are four that come to mind. And pre-punk figures like Reed and Dylan proudly came across as jerks in interviews etc. – it was part of their respective images that they were in fact genuinely unpleasant/mean people (with the saving graces of oodles of talent). But none of these other figures, at least as I understand them, provoked that toxic allergic reaction that Numan generated. (I vividly remember someone like Depeche Mode or Heaven 17 being interviewed by a US dj on a call-in radio show in ~1983. Someone called in and asked the Mode’s or whoever it was what they knew about what Gary Numan was up to these days. Both the DJ and the Modes just laughed and laughed at the question, i.e., because they thought it was so utterly incomprehensible and ridiculous that anyone would still be interested in Numan. I believe I felt the same way.)

    Trying to channel what my 13 year old self was thinking when I presumed to look down my nose at Numan, it feels a little like the reaction Muse and Tool, say, inspired in a lot people, myself included, at least for a little while. Just the basic music seemed overblown and ridiculous. But both of those bands grew on a lot of people, myself included, whereas my sense is that Numan’s career came to a screeching halt – that the tarring and feathering of him as supremely uncool and socially toxic was near-fatal, with ressurrection happening only relatively recently (certainly as far as I am concerned).

    Anyhow, it feels like maybe there’s some crucial piece of cultural information that I’m missing as a non-Brit. Anyone? Surely the problem can’t just be that Numan was a Tory. Hell, so, very loudly, was Michael Caine, and he’s beloved by almost everyone, right? And Neil Young, very loudly, supported Reagan. And Elvis was a big Nixon guy. What of it? Doesn’t good music etc. blast through politics for most of us?

  13. 88

    I don’t recall him being hugely obnoxious in terms of attacking others; he was a bit of a tool in interview — rather self-absorbed, not very self-aware, high self-opinion etc — but more in a way that made people laugh at him than hate him. He did seem strangely out of step with the zeitgeist though: the kind of disconnectedness that registers much more at the time than afterwards. Also he was a bit moonfaced and pudgy: so he LOOKED wrong, to be a “proper” popstar.

  14. 89
    swanstep on 3 Nov 2009 #

    He did seem strangely out of step with the zeitgeist though: the kind of disconnectedness that registers much more at the time than afterwards.
    This rings true for me. Reflecting some more about all this, it strikes me that Devo got slammed/caught in something like the way Numan did (although they never had a couple of #1 records to paint a target on their backs). High concept schtick like ‘we are becoming machines’/’long live the new flesh’/’machines are evolving into people, while people are devolving into pimped-out apes’ inherently rubs a lot of people the wrong way, and has a novelty act trajectory/short shelf-life for mass appeal…perhaps particularly when pop’s spin cycle is set as fast as it was in the post-punk era. Anyhow, Eno strongly influenced Numan and produced Devo’s first two albums, so there’s a connection there too. At any rate, my sense is that people really like both Devo and Numan these days, that their respective schticks seem both partially prescient and beautifully, utterly bonkers. Fun stuff in other words, whereas at the time it just got old fast (esp. if conceived as a model for a new pop era).

  15. 90
    wichitalineman on 3 Nov 2009 #

    Devo had a ‘we are bonkers’ schtick which means I still need to jump a few hurdles before I can think about enjoying them. Numan, as is pretty obvious in retrospect, was autistic. Which meant he liked to be in a car, feeling safest of all, and also that he’d say “I’m voting Conservative” without being aware of what a rock media faux pas that was.

    ps I’m aware that I really might like some Devo, but need some prompting.

    pps Friendly prompting has only made made me realise I actively dislike Talking Heads. This may be unrelated to Devo/Numan.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 94

    And yes too about the nice bloke thing…

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 99
    weej on 22 Oct 2010 #

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

  25. 100
    swanstep on 22 Oct 2010 #

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

  26. 101
    lonepilgrim on 22 Oct 2010 #

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

  27. 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)

  28. 103
    Alan not logged in on 2 Aug 2011 #

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

  29. 104
    punctum on 2 Aug 2011 #

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

  30. 105
    Alan not logged in on 2 Aug 2011 #

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

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 108
    punctum on 11 Nov 2012 #

    TPL on Replicas.

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