Sep 08

TUBEWAY ARMY – “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”

FT + Popular109 comments • 2,795 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.)



  1. 1
    tim davidge on 22 Sep 2008 #

    The 80’s start here!

  2. 2
    Lena on 22 Sep 2008 #

    This is it! This is the song that proved UK artists could be weird – I mean Numan is NOT a bloke here, unless robots are blokey, which they usually aren’t – and get to #1 with a song that is about a longing for connection, a connection that maybe is dubious but nevertheless it’s there. Though not technically New Pop (he’s more next door to it) this must have given courage to a hundred lonely bedsit kids to do the same thing in various ways, not just in the UK but in the US as well (Trent Reznor, for instance). And how HUGE and AWESOME is this, that it could be sampled for another #1 over two decades later and still sound as weirdly compelling? THE FUTURE BEGINS HERE.

  3. 3
    DJ Punctum on 22 Sep 2008 #

    Thatcher, with her strange mix of brutalist futurism and sexless Calvinism derived from the pages of Good Housekeeping as edited by Hayek, won the 1979 election almost in spite of her party, just as she’d gained the Conservative leadership. There has always been a touch of the aggressively defensive misfit about her; privately spat upon by the alleged Great and Good, the lower-middle-class Grantham Methodist never swung by Presley or flowers in hair or pounds in pocket, the austere and – yes – cold rationalist unable to relate to anybody else in a meaningful way, so locks herself in the back room to get on with “it.” It isn’t surprising that her declared favourite pop record is “Telstar,” a record bearing no apparent involvement by a human being (yet, paradoxically, the most human of number ones; Meek locking himself in his front room watching the news and inspiring himself to vacate the planet); and nor should it be shocking that Gary Numan – at that time the biggest-selling artist to emerge from what would eventually be termed post-punk – turned out to be such an enthusiastic cheerleader for Thatcherism (although he has subsequently, and inevitably, made the minimal journey from Thatcherite to Blairite).

    Nor is it any wonder that “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” – those internal inverted commas are as crucial as those in Bowie’s “’Heroes’” – should sound so much like a record Joe Meek could have made had he survived until 1979; the single was credited to the group Tubeway Army – hitherto a fairly run-of-the-mill electro-thrash outfit in the mode of John Foxx’s Ultravox! – but the group is as irrelevant to Numan as the Tornados were to Meek; his querulous but hurting right eye dominating the 12″ picture disc sold the record, and, together with his anxious blankness, was responsible for making “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” the first indie crossover number one single in the post-Pistols age.

    Much scorn was poured on Numan – that name! A total reinvention of the Gary Webb with which he had been christened! And how close to the Harry Webb, that other anxious Conservative pop individualist who reinvented himself as Cliff Richard (and, as this tale is about to demonstrate and fuck the bunny, closer than anyone could have imagined)! – mainly for being perceived as an electro ambulance chaser.

    With Numan, however, I do not believe that he has ever knowingly raised an eyebrow, and myinescapable, rapidly-reached conclusion has to be that he believes every single word and gesture; he means it all. The key critical problem was whether there was any clear precedent for Numan. Kraftwerk were the Man-Machine, but they celebrated the post-human world, luxuriated in its elegant textures. There was of course Bowie’s Low, where on side two language, and eventually the singer, melts into the alien totality; scraps, bulletins of desperation on side one (“Be My Wife,” “Always Crashing In The Same Car”) leading to a landscape (“Art Decade,” “Subterraneans”) which could fairly be described as post-life. Meanwhile, Macclesfield punk scruffs Warsaw were realigning themselves as Joy Division and, in tandem with Martin Hannett, were about to take “rock” music somewhere nobody had been before.

    So Unknown Pleasures, which came out later that summer, invented a genuinely new music (though bear the ghosts of Peter Hammill and Northern Soul one-offs in mind) which flipped everyone’s judgement, and Bowie himself re-emerged with one of the most virulently animal of all pop records, “Boys Keep Swinging.” But Numan wasn’t really like either. His great innovation was to accentuate the position of the human being lost inside the world of machines who isn’t happy there, is not celebrating streams of technology; whereas the Bowie of Low buries his voice in the mix, or simply makes it sing incomprehensible things, Numan’s pained Home Counties vowels – Hammersmith via Banbury – are always clearly discernible in terms of comprehensibility and emotion. In other words, he steps back from total Low-ist annihilation, refuses to relinquish the human being as he lives, breathes and cries.

    In addition, where Ralf and Florian’s synthesisers, and Eno’s sundry devices (even when producing Foxx’s jumpy, rabid Ultravox!), are sleek, up-to-the-technological-minute affairs, Numan (again, like Meek) seems to have had a preference for using imperfect technology; the just out-of-date drum machine, the deliberately primitive synthesisers which (as they are on “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”) sound as though they are being powered by steam. So this is an individual’s approximation of technology, of The Future, imaginable only for a loner – and note the inevitable evolutionary straight line from Numan to Aphex.

    “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” is another single which takes its time to unfold, lasting nearly five-and-a-half minutes, largely because it began life as two separate songs which Numan felt worked better if welded together. If anything, Numan’s voice here sounds, as it unsettlingly does on several of his other noted pieces of the time, like Robert Wyatt – those same plaintive South-East syllables, almost the same degree of poignancy. He sits in his squalid room (“the paint’s peeling off of my walls”) disconnected, remembering details of someone who has now passed (“things I just don’t understand/Like a white lie that night/Or a sly touch at times/I don’t think it meant anything to you”). Then someone knocks at the door (“And just for a second I thought I remembered you”). “It’s the ‘friend’ that I’d left in the hallway/Please sit down” – and they engage in ways of which no speaking is required; Numan has said that the song is about a man being visited by a prostitute, and that one of them, or possibly both, may be androids, thus the inverted commas around “friends”:

    “You know, I hate to ask/But are ‘friends’ electric?/Only mine’s broke down/And now I’ve no one to love.”

    If it sounds as though we’re verging on the territory, not just the obvious one of Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (which became Blade Runner), but also that of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, here, it’s because we are – are these depersonalised humans, humanity bled out of them by grief, or androids who only know how to “love” because they’ve been instructed, or is this song about a fucked-up man who has only been left capable of loving machines because humanity has let him down so badly?

    “And I should never have tried,” he concludes. “And I missed you tonight/Still it’s time to leave/You see it meant everything to me.” The machines of synths and synthesised drums progress relentlessly, while the man, a failure at the only thing he could do well, prepares to do it the BS Johnson way or maybe even the Joe Meek way. The only previous number one even vaguely akin to this which comes to my mind is “Johnny Remember Me,” but even there the attachment is emotional rather than strictly musical, though Hughes’ Crow flies through the rain of both. Think, perhaps, of Tricky’s “Aftermath” as the lullaby leaking through his dying soul – but in truth there had never been a number one record like “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” before, and I doubt there will ever be a number one record like it again. Not even that one. 10

  4. 4
    jeff w on 22 Sep 2008 #

    (drafted before reading Tom’s post or others’ comments)

    A key moment in Popular for me and, judging by the way “Are ‘Friends’…” was received by my year at school, for many of the generation who became teenagers in 1979. Gary Numan gave us a white riot of our own and an identity separate from those insufferable older brothers and sisters who “were there” in ’77. And what an image: the “Man In Black”, a creepy all-black shirt, skinny tie, trousers and nail varnish combo, contrasted by bleached white hair and a pallor to match, set off only by mascara and pouting, rouged lips. (Not to mention that horizontal black bar across the iris in the eye shot on the back of the ‘Replicas’ LP sleeve, the ‘tell’ that says: I am not human.)

    The image was representative of one or more of the characters Numan describes in ‘Replicas’, a sort-of-concept album based on fragments from an abandoned sci-fi novel that he had begun in adolescence. A dystopian, quasi-fascistic world of decay, addiction and suspect morality, where cities have become isolated from one another and where one such city is controlled by a governing machine that is very gradually taking over by eliminating humans, starting with the most ‘disposable’. Vanished humans are replaced by machines (with cloned human skin) that take on certain roles, including IQ-testers, policemen and terminators. The ‘Friends’ of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” are yet another type of machine, one that provides services – someone to pit your wits against in a game, a sex partner, etc. It’s not too much of a stretch to draw parallels with Scrabulous, Facebook and online dating.

    Musically, ‘our’ new star brought a new sound too. OK, there were plenty of others coming through at around the same time peddling electronic pop. But none yet had the image or the commercial nous to go with it. While the sound of the mini Moog (and Moogs played through guitar effects pedals) dominates, Numan was a proficient multi-instrumentalist. His guitars on Replicas are magnificent; Numan knew how to rock out (the riff to “The Machman” and the solo on “It Must Have Been Years” always make me get out my air guitar). The contributions of drummer Jess Liddiard and, in particular, Paul Gardiner’s bass should not be underestimated either. People often forget that Tubeway Army was a band, and I miss the tight, group sound they produced on ‘Replicas’ in Numan’s later solo records. But more about those when we get to his next chart topper.

    As to this single, quite apart from the unstoppable, robotic riff, there are so many individual moments to cherish. The ‘bum’ note in the synth that was kept in (one of several serendipitous moments in the song’s genesis, apparently); the least intelligible spoken word interlude in the history of pop; the heart-tugging manner in which Numan bewails the fact of his broken down Friend: “And now I’ve no one to love.”

    9 or possibly 10 from me.

  5. 5
    mike on 22 Sep 2008 #

    “I don’t think it mean anything to you.”

    This song’s four-week stay at Number One coincided with the first (and second, third, fourth, fifth…) occasions where my passions were – at least in the strictly physical sense – requited. He was fair, athletic, pretty-boy handsome, and frankly well out of my league in the normal scheme of things – but in the cloistered all-male confines of the English public school, one took one’s pleasures where one found them, and I took considerable pains to signal my availability.

    Darkened hallways, knocks on doors, cigarettes, shadows on bedside walls, sly touches, white lies – these were the symbols of our encounters, which eventually and inevitably brought far more suffering than pleasure.

    Running simultaneously with all of this nocturnal furtiveness, my daytime existence had never been happier. Once our A-levels were over, our school in Cambridge became transformed from prison to boarding camp. Seemingly endless days were spent lounging by the river, or drinking in The Anchor, The Mill, The Fountain and The Granta, where we pumped our pennies into the jukeboxes, soundtracking our first tastes of freedom and independence with selections from the best singles chart since… well, since the last time I was in the senior year, five summers earlier.

    For all of these reasons, the singles charts of June and July 1979 remain my absolute favourites. Dance Away, Boogie Wonderland, Pop Muzik, Shine A Little Love, Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now, Boys Keep Swinging, Hot Stuff, Number One Song In Heaven, We Are Family, HAPPY Radio, Masquerade, Roxanne, Up The Junction, The Lone Ranger, Say When, I Want You To Want Me, I Fought The Law, Love Song, Accidents Will Happen, Light My Fire/137 Disco Heaven, Silly Games, Babylon Burning, Space Bass, C’mon Everybody, Good Times, Girls Talk, Born To Be Alive, Breakfast In America, Bad Girls, My Sharona, Chuck E’s In Love, Death Disco, Playground Twist, Can’t Stand Losing You, If I Had You, Voulez-Vous, Beat The Clock, The Diary of Horace Wimp, Kid, Morning Dance, Harmony In My Head, Reasons To Be Cheerful, After The Love Has Gone… hell, even the also-rans such as the Beach Boys’ “Lady Lynda” and (most especially)
    Voyager’s “Halfway Hotel”… I’d challenge anyone to find a better soundtrack to teenage life, love, laughter and longing.

    And topping them all: only Tubeway Bloody Army, if you please! Having previously dismissed them as bunch of third-rate fag-end-of-punk chancers who had been lucky to get a Peel session, nothing could have prepared me for the template-setting WTF Future Shock of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”, whose length and lack of chorus didn’t stop it from being THE defining pop record of that early summer. Everyone I knew loved it, a good half of them owned it, and you couldn’t spend more than a few minutes walking our corridors without hearing it (or its excellent B-side “We Are So Fragile”) booming out of somebody’s study.

    Of course, and like most of us, my interest in Gary Numan rapidly waned – but more of that another time – and it took a full 29 years and a freelance assignment for me to re-assess both the man and AFE’s parent album Replicas. Numan turned out to be one of my favourite interviewees: frank, forthcoming, perceptive and grounded, the worst of his demons long since laid to rest, happy to see his influence finally acknowledged, and – on the eve of his fiftieth birthday and his thirtieth anniversary in the music business, profoundly grateful for his survival within that business.

    By way of a thank-you to his fanbase, Numan broke his anti-nostalgia rule and toured the Replicas album this spring. I had never seen him live before, and was astonished by his performance. As for his rendition of AFE, “ambushed by unexpected emotion” scarcely begins to cover it, as the the symbolic significance of those lyrics coupled with the overall mood of alienated longing hit harder than they had done in decades.

    “It meant everything to me.”

  6. 6
    Tom on 22 Sep 2008 #

    fuck the bunny

    I say!!

    A quick word on the Spoiler Bunny, who is (I reckon) getting a bit overused as a threat/gag/whatever:

    The spoilers policy is meant to discourage direct discussion of upcoming number ones. Just mentioning them isn’t really an issue! Basically, all it means is that (say) comparisons between ‘AFE’ and Numan’s next hit, or between it and a record that sampled it much later, have to wait until those records turn up. Just mentioning that we’re about to encounter Cliff isn’t a big deal – the lists are public domain anyway!

  7. 7
    Tom on 22 Sep 2008 #

    Anyway, some epic comments here – thanks for these snapshots of what Numan meant at point of impact. I had no idea!

  8. 8
    SteveM on 22 Sep 2008 #

    The instant appeal of most of the Numan songs I know and love is more down to the trademark giant whistley pads (esp. on this but also ‘M.E.’ later sampled by Basement Jaxx on ‘Where’s Your Head At’) than the man’s own presence on song. I’m not particularly keen on his voice but I guess he’s playing a part well enough.

    Also the middle eight/instrumental break sounds, to me, strangely jolly and theatrical, a song revelling in it’s own grandeur.

    The big two note synth hook itself is like a single snatch of ambulance siren which would make perfect sense. A little more dot-joining: it’s a simple hook that recurs in string (synthesized or not, can’t tell from memory) form on the Pet Shop Boys ‘Jealousy’. I suppose you could even go a step further and liken it to John Williams ‘Jaws’ theme! Are sharks electric?

  9. 9
    rosie on 22 Sep 2008 #

    Hated it then, hate it now.

    My position on ‘synthesised’ music is complex and difficult to put in a few words. A lot of it is the physicist in me, which sees that carrying out the necessary Fourier analysis to produce funny noises, which I can do, is rather less of a wonder than the sounds that can be made without hard sums but with natural materials and a lot of practice, which is something I can’t do with any great facility and which I envy in those who can. And there’s a lot of music which makes extensive use of electronic sound – going back to the 1930s and Messiaen’s embrace of the ondes martenot and coming forward to the present day – which I love.

    But Gary Numan lays the electronica on with the proverbial trowel, and squwarks over it in that flat dreary voice. The overall effect on me is not dissimilar to an old-fashioned dentist’s drill.

  10. 10
    Tom on 22 Sep 2008 #

    Again, growing up in the early 80s means that synths are the norm for me in pop – which obviously means I avoid Rosie’s adverse reaction to this, but at the same time makes it hard to me to completely take on board whatever shock value AFE had. This is what pop music is meant to sound like… right?

  11. 11
    mike on 22 Sep 2008 #

    Well, Numan has always (rightly) bridled at being described as a primarily synth-based artist – and as crucial as those massive synth riffs are to “AFE”, they actually ride on top of a fairly traditional guitar/bass/drums line-up, that underpinning fuzzed-out guitar squall serving as another crucial ingredient.

    And of course, this is by no means the first major synth-led hit, so it’s not as if Numan was working without precedent – indeed, he faced sustained Cool Police derision for allegedly serving up weedy, adolescent, reductive re-gurgitations of Ziggy Stardust/Diamond Dogs/Low – but nevertheless, a clear line was being drawn in the sand, even if I find myself struggling to describe it!

  12. 12
    jeff w on 22 Sep 2008 #

    re: #10, it’s only fair to remind ourselves that synths had been around for over a decade and foregrounded in chart hits occasionally. We’ve talked about Moroder already via Chicory Tip and Donna Summer. Kraftwerk had got to #11 with an edited down ‘Autobahn’ in ’75. And there had been novelty hits like ‘Popcorn’.

    The difference (the shock element, if you like) here is that synths are no longer tools of the liberating, happy electropop future envisaged by the likes of Jean-Jacques Perrey but rather signifiers of angst and fear of/for The Future.

  13. 13
    The Lurker on 22 Sep 2008 #

    A few years ago Gary Numan announced that he believed he had Asperger’s Syndrome (although he’s never been formally diagnosed). I don’t claim any great medical knowledge, but I think the alienation and “androidness” of this song does seem to reflect an Asperger’s personality (and this may also explain why Numan was seen as a bit of a pillock).

    Incidentally, Tubeway Army’s previous single, Down in the Park, which is also on Replicas, is one of the creepiest and most unsettling songs ever.

  14. 14
    lonepilgrim on 22 Sep 2008 #

    There have been instances in the past where ‘lost’ Shakespeare plays and the like have been ‘discovered’ and accredited by experts – only to be revealed as fakes. When re-examined years later the qualities and values of the era in which the fake was produced – which were transparent to the experts at that time – become blindingly obvious.
    In complete contrast I remember my friends and me dismissing this at the time as ‘fake’ Bowie – a primitive retread without the sophistication of Low or “Heroes”. With hindsight these are precisely the values and qualities which I now realise make this such a great record. The synthesisers wail with a banshee howl that recall WW II air raid sirens and anticipate/capture the mood of cold war paranoia perfectly.

    It’s also worth commenting, in the light of how Numan’s critical stock value quickly deteriorated in the UK, how much his sound was valued by the DJs and musicians that developed House music in the 80s.

  15. 15
    Kat but logged out innit on 22 Sep 2008 #

    It’s a good track this, and the vweeeee-vwoooor sound is one I am very much in favour of. I don’t like Numan’s vocal on this though, all gulping and straggly. Must do better, cross, red pen, see me after class.

  16. 16
    intothefireuk on 23 Sep 2008 #

    Any rock geek worth his salt at this point in the 70s would have been able to identify yer Tangerine Dreams from your Kraftwerks and even yer Ultravox’s & Human League (just) from yer Roxy & Bowie. Numan wasn’t peddling anything new synth-wise & it was pretty quickly acknowledged by the man himself that he borrowed heavily from Ultravox. He did but as has been mentioned already he did it fairly poorly – the synths not quite in synch with the underlying drums/bass & guitar track. But that didn’t matter for here was a song about alienation & robots featuring gigantic slabs of MiniMoog at the top of the charts. Numan’s nasal whine was rather jarring on first listen but I was big on synths so saw past it. ‘Down In The Park’ was actually much better – I didn’t really get why AFE was so big and that wasn’t. We did actually see the boy Gazza a few times as he lived locally (he went to school in Ashford & lived in Staines). On one occasion he was visiting the local KFC and gave us a big thuimbs up as we just happened to be blasting out ‘Replicas’ from our car (what were we thinking).

  17. 17
    LondonLee on 23 Sep 2008 #

    Re: #2

    I think UK pop had proved it could be weird a long time before this.

    I wrote him off as a Bowie copycat at the time, I liked Down In The Park but I think this getting to #1 brought out the insufferable 17-year-old music snob in me and one time I was working at WH Smith two girls came in to buy Replicas and I couldn’t stop myself from telling them if only they heard Low and Diamond Dogs they’d realize what a rip-off Numan was and see the error of their ways. Put a young man behind a record store counter and he turns into an opinionated prick, even in a WH Smith.

    Now I’ve grown out of all that this reminds me of the summer I lost my virginity so I do remember it fondly.

  18. 18
    The Intl on 23 Sep 2008 #

    Right on, Rosie @ #9. This shit sucked. Period.

    Everyone else: Sorry. I apologize.

  19. 19
    Waldo on 23 Sep 2008 #

    Once in a while, one comes across the odd record which one adored back in the day but can’t stand in the here and now. One extreme to the other, in other words. There haven’t been too many examples of these for me but I fear that this is one. Back in the day, I felt that AFE had real attitude and that the electronic bits and bobs supplied an impressive dosage of cred. Pale, strange little Numan was, I felt, the perfect messenger and for a brief while I considered that an original, leading and potentially important artist had been hatched to rival Bowie, if you please! Of course, calling AFE a Gary Numan hit was not strictly true, since the name on the label said “Tubeway Army” but as later with Wham, when “everyone knew it was George”, everyone knew that this was Gary.

    I have a mate and work colleague, Brian, who is about five years younger than I (and was thus an early teen in 1979) who maintains a passion for early eighties music and particularly of the “electronic” genre of which this record is a pioneer. His presence last year in a revival club of such stuff up in London won him the opportunity to pick up a day’s work as an extra in “Ashes to Ashes”, the sequel to “Life on Mars” (no spoilers coming up, Bunny, I promise you). The scene involved Keeley Hawes (yes, please) being taken by a “yuppie” to the Blitz club, the place run, so Brian tells me, by Steve Strange of Visage, a leading New Romantic, who employed Boy George as a cloakroom attendant (my mind reels with all sorts of comments about that), as well as a policy of denying entrance to anyone who didn’t look like a dickhead… sorry, not “New Romantic” enough. The TV shot involved Visage’s “Fade to Grey” being played, whilst about a dozen or so extras danced around three of the main actors. Brian, bless him, looks tremendous in full pirate’s regalia, distinguished by a tartan scarf and is quite clearly in shot more than once in the close proximity to Keeley, the lucky dog. He was paid £100 and given a meal for a day’s work. Very nice experience, he said and I was delighted for him.

    This could never have been me, btw, as I came to loathe this kind of music and I suppose this had a knock back effect on AFE, which I now regard as childishly simplistic and totally annoying. I would therefore have never found myself in a revival club celebrating this kind of thing nearly thirty years later, as I would rather have spent the evening at home hanging myself.

  20. 20
    H. on 23 Sep 2008 #

    I was 15 when this came out and was massively obsessed with Numan for a year or so. I was perfectly aware of Kraftwerk and Bowie at the time and yet Numan still sounded somehow like a “new era” in pop music in a way I can’t quite explain. I guess Kraftwerk were too upbeat and hippy-ish, or at least clearly of a different, earlier zeitgeist to mine. As for Bowie, I recognised the genius of the Berlin albums – but what Numan was doing was simpler, stripped down, unsophisticated in comparison. And although many criticised him at the time for that, I think that naive simplicity is his strength.

    I recently listened to Replicas/Pleasure Principle/Telekon again for the first time in over a quarter-century. It made for interesting listening. Actually I thought those albums sounded quite fresh. Partly because production-wise they are just so simple compared to the today’s fiddly, over-layered production. But also because although these albums and AFE in particular are heralded as the beginning of eighties synth pop, they don’t really sound like that. As someone commented above, that’s because it’s synths with a full rhythm section, rather than synths with a drum machine. And there’s also a fair amount of strings and piano involved. Compare, for example, with John Foxx’s Metamatic, superficially similar type fare, and yet to my ears totally different because of Foxx’s uncompromising synth-and-drum-machine-only approach. Replicas and AFE aren’t so much the beginning of synth pop, more an interesting transitional stage.

  21. 21
    Erithian on 23 Sep 2008 #

    Tom #6 – I think ever since the Chicory Tip debate started on the wrong thread, actual spoilers have become less and less of an issue, and the Spoiler Bunny game just adds to the jollity on here. Most of us treat bunny-baiting as a bit of fun, it’s just the posters who try to discourage it I don’t like. Monday’s reply from you to lonepilgrim was exemplary in this respect.

  22. 22
    DJ Punctum on 23 Sep 2008 #

    I don’t like Monday’s replies.

  23. 23
    Matthew H on 23 Sep 2008 #

    Quite coincidentally – after a vote – I’ve been planning a 1979 Top 20 at my own gaff, and it’s occurred to me that it’s my year dot for really tuning into pop on my own terms. Looking through the books and seeing things like Nick Lowe’s ‘Cruel to Be Kind’ has sparked all sorts of memories and recollections of early opinions/understandings.

    Anyway, this monster was one of my early templates for getting a grip on music, its Prokofievian marching synths the bedrock for my love of electronic pop. It’s still perfectly huge, with the rising middle eight almost Queen-like in its pomp. Sounds like an event.

    Still thought Numan was a prat, mind, but his changing hair colour fascinated me.

  24. 24
    rosie on 23 Sep 2008 #

    22: Tell me why, Marcello.

  25. 25
    DJ Punctum on 23 Sep 2008 #

    Number Two Watch: “Up The Junction” by Squeeze, which I guess has its fans, and Janet Kay’s divine “Silly Games.”

  26. 26
    Alan on 23 Sep 2008 #

    i thought this was terrifying and amazing. on TOTP it was like nothing else i’d seen, but it had a cold theatricality that was going to define a lot of the music i loved.

    I went on to study physics and learnt about frequencies, fourier analysis etc, so i can vouch for the fact that doing so doesn’t necessarily change your attitude to synthesized music.

    simple waveforms or no, it’s the mass feeling of the sound (the timbre if you will) that hypnotise[s|d] me. The grating and piercing qualities of this tune have been something i like, and latch on to in new artists even now.

    as other people have said, at the time he was just a post-punk muso (the album tracks are a giveaway) looking for a new hook, and (so the story goes) a serendipitous moment in a studio holding one vibrating note on a synth was all it took. thank god. (so the story goes – but i don’t suppose kraftwerk and bowie had gone unnoticed had they?)

    in a year of great no 1s, staying restrained, i’d still have to give this a 10 for MAXIMUM DISRUPTION

    i think this may have been where me and my mum might have started to drift apart musically – with the PSBs being the final nail in the coffin

  27. 27
    Waldo on 23 Sep 2008 #

    # 6 + # 21 – Erithian’s right, of course. Quite right. Bunny-baiting is good. I can see no reason cos there are no reasons to stop it. What reasons do you need to be shown, Tom?

  28. 28
    Tom on 23 Sep 2008 #

    I’m a very big fan of “Up The Junction” (and “Silly Games” too of course).

  29. 29
    DJ Punctum on 23 Sep 2008 #

    The “Stanley”/”handy” rhyme always bothered me.

  30. 30
    Matthew H on 23 Sep 2008 #

    Junior and I will definitely be tackling ‘Up The Junction’.

  31. 31
    Tom on 23 Sep 2008 #

    There’s loads of dodgy half-rhymes and forced rhymes in it (that drinking/proper stinking one is the worst IMO), which I always assumed was intentional on their part – rhyme scheme clumsiness mirroring the protagonists emotional cack-handedness. Actually I’d no idea it was #2 when this was #1 – what a bleak pairing.

  32. 32
    rosie on 23 Sep 2008 #

    Up The Junction is one of my absolute favourites and one which would be on the shortlist for a ten if a) it had hit the top and b) I were doing the scoring. Cerainly the best single of 1979 for me, and it was a year of outstanding singles.

    I’m sure the dodgy rhyming is entirely deliberate. As I said on my Abbey FM appearance last April, it’s a novel in the shape of a pop song, complete with unreliable narrator.

  33. 33
    Billy Smart on 23 Sep 2008 #

    “We stayed in by the telly/ although the room was smelly” is the one that I always find particularly clunky.

    I saw Chris Difford perform ‘Up The Junction’ a couple of years ago. People were trying to sing along, but couldn’t quite manage it. He thought that we were being shy, but really its because the song doesn’t have a chorus, and people were trying to remember what the lines were as he sung them.

    Squeeze were the first gig that I ever went to by the way – an anti-poll tax free festival in Blackheath in 1988. Support came from Rankin’ Roger and Skint Video, with Malcolm Hardee as compere and speeches from the likes of Rodney Bickerstaffe. Another time, another time.

  34. 34
    Erithian on 23 Sep 2008 #

    The anti-poll tax festival in ’88? Bloody hell Billy, there’s our parallel lives again!

  35. 35
    mike on 23 Sep 2008 #

    I saw Glen Tilbrook and the Fluffers perform “Up The Junction” a couple of years ago, and duly bellowed my way through the whole thing! (Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one.) Not only is “Up The Junction” in the grand “The Dean And I” condensed novel tradition, but it’s also made for bellowing along to. (If you’re me.)

  36. 36
    Billy Smart on 23 Sep 2008 #

    I was probably quite conspicuous at that festival, as my dear sister encouraged me to have me face painted as “a vampire rat”

    My first proper gig was in February 1989, seeing The Darling Buds, Sandie Shaw, The La’s and Bradford at the Town & Country Club.

  37. 37
    Billy Smart on 23 Sep 2008 #

    My six-year old reaction was ‘scary robot man!’ and having no understanding about what the song was about (not a problem that I had with his next single). I was attracted to it though, it seemed otherworldly and enticing.

    Thinking about it now, the thing that strikes me is how apart it sounds from the synthpop that followed it, and with which it is often bracketed alongside. The League, The Associates, Soft Cell etc – even the glacial and disconnected Visage, all of the greats, they use synthesisers to sound nimble and playful. Whereas the steam-powered slowness and long playing time of this sounds stately to me. A very sad world evoked by slowing things down – and that extraordinarily wracked sounding-voice!

    I’d add Roxy’s ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’ to Marcello’s list of points of comparison.

  38. 38
    Billy Smart on 23 Sep 2008 #

    Numan was certainly a figure of derision by the time that I was a serious muso teenager at the end of the eighties, but I seem to remember that that reputation was achieved through his singles from that period being pretty poor, not though I’ve heard them for 20 years.

  39. 39
    Tom on 23 Sep 2008 #

    My six year old reaction was… well, to be honest, I don’t think I was even aware of this! My pop coverage at this time was spotty and I obviously had other stuff on my mind through most of summer ’79: there’s a big stretch of songs I have no recollection of at all, right up to close to the end of the year in fact.

    (I played this to Lytton yesterday – he watched attentively though showed no excitement. He now understands the question “Do you like…?” so some binary feedback may be possible.)

  40. 40
    vinylscot on 23 Sep 2008 #

    I loved this at the time; I admit my first reaction was WTF??, but after a couple of hearings it had become the real favourite it still is today. I also listened to Replicas and The Pleasure Principle recently, and found both to be fresh, and absolutely choc-full of potential 80s classics – “Praying To The Aliens”, “You Are In My Vision”, “Airlane”, “Engineers” and so on.

    Having seen John Foxx-era Ultravox, I immediately noticed that influence, and have to admit feeling more than a little sorry for Foxx when his single “Underpass” – or “Underpants” as it was more commonly called, was panned by many who should have known better, on the grounds that it was a Numan rip-off. The album “Metamatic” fared little better critically, but at least he got a little boost from the interest that Numan stirred up.

    It is a great pity that Numan had such quality control issues later on in his career. He probably suffered through being too prolific, and having such a high-profile breakthrough to live up to.

    For a pretty average (at best) live performer, it is surprising how many live albums he has released. On almost all of them the version of AFE is pretty poor, as it was both times I saw him at the Apollo in ’79 and ’80. Give him credit – at least he tried to vary things a little by performing radically different versions, but I would imagine most of his audience would have preferred to hear it they way it originally was, or as close to that as possible.

    Anyway, regarding AFE, it’s a 10.

  41. 41
    Tom on 23 Sep 2008 #

    I remember an entire mini-article in NME once devoted to sniggering at Numan’s song titles, many of which now seem awesome! Personal favourite (never heard it so I dunno if it lives up): “I Nearly Married A Human”

  42. 42
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 23 Sep 2008 #

    this is a ten for me too — and also (in a perverse way) the first actual real propah “punk number one”; he is a ninny, but i have grown to adore him… i like the idea that bowie-style glam-alien alienation is available for the pasty-faced and slightly rotund kid who everyone had teased at school (john foxx was always trading on his looks) (not that metamatic isn’t great, but foxx — now an academic teaching practical cybernetics i believe* — was too pretty to get at the heart of the project)

    i remember danny baker’s review of the LP where gary is looking dyspeptically at a glowing plastic pyramid, which also very much mocked him — though this may not be the mini-article tom means

    did the nme ever interview him? my memory is no

    *(did not check)

  43. 43
    Waldo on 23 Sep 2008 #

    I recall “Private Eye” once suggesting in their Lookalikes section Gary Numan and Sheena Easton. Spooky. Also, Breshnev and Frankie Howerd, and Mao’s portriat in Tiananmen Square and Val Doonican.


  44. 44
    Billy Smart on 23 Sep 2008 #

    There is a good 1979 John Savage MM interview republished in the Savage ‘Time Travel’ anthology, though

  45. 45
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 23 Sep 2008 #

    yes, savage was VERY fast onto all the “ballardian” (anti)pop, and (at sounds) one of its primary vectors into the rock press

  46. 46
    LondonLee on 23 Sep 2008 #

    Is this the first Goth pop record? Numan hits all the Goth bases: withdrawn and ordinary suburban boy in make up and black clothes singing a doomy song about alienation. With silly lyrics too, that seems to be the key. I know ‘Hong Kong Garden’ was out by this time but that was still more punky.

    Another shout out for ‘Silly Games’ – easily a 10. Lover’s Rock is another soundtrack of this era for me.

  47. 47
    Alan on 23 Sep 2008 #

    “the LP where gary is looking dyspeptically at a glowing plastic pyramid” = pleasure principle (obv). but cover vaguely inspired by


  48. 48
    Erithian on 23 Sep 2008 #

    Best ever Private Eye look-alikes for me were the Queen and Colonel Gaddafi.

    AFE wasn’t a record that particularly inspired me the way it did a generation of “Numanoids” and clearly did some of those posting on this thread, but I certainly admired it for its stateliness, its originality, and its sheer bloody scariness. It was difficult to achieve a scary effect in the plastic setting of the TOTP studio, but Tubeway Army did: a name conjuring up androids or at least football hooligans coming up from the underground and laying waste to your town, and a sound that said they had seen the future and boy was it bleak. Numan’s voice suited the vision – an everybloke, a Mike Skinner for his alienated times – and the slow pace of the music just underlined the inexorable quality of the approaching doom: you can run but it’ll get you in the end. (Remember the Record Mirror cartoon of Numan with a plug socket in his forehead?)

    As for “Up The Junction”, the clunkiness of lines like “… a daughter, within a year a walker” means it was never high up on my list of Squeeze favourites, as they did so many better songs. Looking at the near-rhymes evoked above brought this choice one to mind, from “Piccadilly” on “East Side Story”:
    “The man behind me talks to his young lady,
    He’s happy that she is expecting his baby –
    His wife won’t be pleased but she’s not been ’round lately…”

    And Janet Kay – I like it rather more now than I did then.

  49. 49
    Alan on 23 Sep 2008 #

    (only just noticed that logged in users can get marked as spam again! i hacked our spam thing to stop that, but i guess i forgot during one upgrade or another…)

  50. 50
    SteveW on 24 Sep 2008 #

    On a personal and entirely self-indulgent note, this is where I come in – number one on the day I was born.

    I’ll go back to lurking now.

  51. 51
    Tracer Hand on 24 Sep 2008 #

    So much happens in this song that’s totally independent of the vocals – I love how the music itself just takes over for awhile to tell the story.

  52. 52
    wichita lineman on 24 Sep 2008 #

    The main lyrical problem I had with Up The Junction was the change of tense – again, it must have been intentional as it’s so clunky. Cliff Richard was a big Up The Junction fan, I remember.

    Silly Games had one of the most annoying, unnecessarily early fades in pop history, along with Gene Pitney’s Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart and The Moody Blues’ Go Now.

    Hats off to some excellent posts. The main difference between this and Kraftwerk for me at the time – and the same goes for electro 3 or 4 years later, which also had constant Kraftwerk comparisons – was that this had a pop urgency. The Kraftwerk I heard back then sounded ponderous and proggy by comparison. It’s much harder to see 30 years later (try a direct comparison of Trans Europ Express and Planet Rock to get an idea of how it felt back then).

    Numan was a major breakthrough, no question. Unknown support act on his early 1980 tour were Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. He may not have been a clear start point for New Pop (D Bowie and Roxy Music are surely the Hank Williams and Robert Johnson of that genre) but he was definitely the catalyst for Synth Pop.

    It took 48 posts before Numanoids got a mention! Did every small town have one (and ONLY one) or was it just the crapholes I lived in?

  53. 53
    SteveM on 24 Sep 2008 #

    Yeah there’s a real THRUST to this that’s lacking in Kraftwerk’s poppier stuff which seems more concerned with elegance and protocol. Numan’s next big hit seems even more robust and vivacious compared to later Kraftwerk tracks of similar tempo. Perhaps you could compare it to the difference between bicycles and, er, automobiles.

  54. 54
    DJ Punctum on 24 Sep 2008 #

    Bowie was a catalyst for New Romanticism rather than New Pop but I’ll give you Roxy.

  55. 55
    wichita lineman on 24 Sep 2008 #

    I don’t think we’re getting too far head of ourselves here… but are the Associates and ABC part of the New Pop canon? I’m guessing they are and both were verrry Bowie influenced, no?

    Silly Games – was that a single edit? Is there a longer one without the premature fade? It sounds more lovely with the passing years, bit adult for me at the time. Anyone want to recommend me any other Lovers Rock (especially female vocal) I’d be v grateful. Sorry Tom, is this the place for requests like this? Or is there a hidden Freaky Trigger pop-swap thread I haven’t found?

  56. 56
    DJ Punctum on 24 Sep 2008 #

    One of two era-defining Dennis Bovell productions in 1979, the other being “She Is Beyond Good And Evil” by the Pop Group.

    ABC were more influenced by the Pistols and Chic, just like Duran except ABC got it right.

    The Associates – I’ll give you ’75-77 Bowie as opposed to the Ziggy crap but he was hardly a major influence on the aesthetic and stylistic development of New Pop as a whole.

    (as opposed to New Romanticism which of course would not have happened without Bowie Nights at Blitz in the days when you could kick a ball in Greek Street)

  57. 57
    Tom on 24 Sep 2008 #

    #55 – recommendations very welcome, there’s no specific swapshop thread! Yer main main on the FT staff for lovers rock is Tim Hopkins, who is in Toronto at the moment I believe.

  58. 58
    Glue Factory on 25 Sep 2008 #

    Reading the comments (particularly #42 and #48), Numan seems to occuppy a rather odd place, both the unreachable other-worldly alien-like figure (Bowie) and the ordinary, “he’s just like me, I could be up there on the stage” everybloke (Mike Skinner, Happy Mondays, etc). Did people really fall for the whole android-like image, as I believe they did with Bowie, or did even the hardcore fans know that ultimately he was a bloke called Gary Webb from Slough ?

  59. 59
    Mark G on 25 Sep 2008 #

    Well, *especially* the hardcore fans knew his name, his dog’s name, his plane’s name, etc…

    Also, that he was dressing up and applying the face, just like they were. That they were all self-manufactured Numanoids together. I suppose Everyman seems to suggest a certain blokeypubness, but I’d argue against that, wouldn’t you agree number six?

  60. 60
    DJ Punctum on 25 Sep 2008 #

    Alcoholic whisky, gin, vodka. Looks the same, tastes the same…

  61. 61
    Mark G on 25 Sep 2008 #

    I am so tempted to edit that into “non-alcoholic” but I did say I wouldn’t ….

  62. 62
    DJ Punctum on 25 Sep 2008 #

    Yeah, argh, I missed the “non” bit.



  63. 63
    LondonLee on 25 Sep 2008 #

    The 12″ version of ‘Silly Games’ is over 6 minutes long with a nice Dub bit at the end that was compulsory for all Reggae 12″ singles at the time.

    Lovers Rock was the one place where the Soul Boys and West Indian reggae heads in my school met in agreement — everyone loved it — though the fact that Lovers records were often covers of Soul songs gave the former some bragging rights (“If reggae is so great why are they always copying soul records then? Ha!”)

  64. 64
    wichita lineman on 26 Sep 2008 #

    Cheers Lee, Tom. Must find that 12. I’m off on hols but I’ll hassle Tim for Lovers Rock recommendations when I’m back – by which time, at this rate, it feels like you’ll be in the middle of 1981.

  65. 65
    Lena on 26 Sep 2008 #

    I looked at the cover of Replicas and it reminded me of an album that came out last month called Walk In Da Park by Giggs – I’m not sure how much they have in common, musically, but they’re both London albums, for sure.

  66. 66
    Mark G on 26 Sep 2008 #

    I remember a fabulous lovers rock cover of “I can’t stand the rain”…

  67. 67
    mike on 26 Sep 2008 #

    I’m no expert and these might be a bit obvious/wide of the mark – but they’re all good records, so hey…

    “Just When I Needed You Most” – Barbara Jones (a cover of the 1979 Randy Van Warmer hit)
    “Good Thing Going” – Sugar Minott
    “Breakfast In Bed” – Lorna Bennett
    “Caught You In A Lie” – Louisa Mark
    “One Dance Won’t Do” – Audrey Hall
    “Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely” – Freddie McGregor
    “Why Don’t You Spend The Night” – Shirley James and Danny Ray
    “If Leaving Me Is Easy” – Lloyd Charmers (yes, the Phil Collins song)

  68. 68
    Glue Factory on 26 Sep 2008 #

    Does the Shinehead version of Billy Jean/Mama Used To Say count as Lovers Rock ? I used to love that.

  69. 69
    Caledonianne on 30 Sep 2008 #

    Temporarily based in Glenrothes, with restricted surf time, so way behind the pace.

    #3 What’s the Banbury reference, Marcello? I only knew of one Popular entrant with a strong Banbury connection and we – ahem – try not to talk about him…

  70. 70
    DJ Punctum on 1 Oct 2008 #

    Either his mum or his dad came from there, I can’t remember which offhand.

    I don’t see why we shouldn’t talk about Gary Glitter even if our moronic current Home Secretary has effectively declared a fatwa on him. Whatever you think of him he’s served his sentence and should be treated in accordance with due legal process, rather than being subjected to lynch mob treatment by bored Murdoch puppets.

  71. 71
    Mark G on 1 Oct 2008 #

    Yeah, but what kind of politician would stand on a “Give Glitter a chance” platform?

  72. 72
    DJ Punctum on 1 Oct 2008 #

    A sensible one but, since we seem to be hurtling back towards medieval feudalism – how long before barter makes a return? – a hugely unpopular one.

  73. 73
    Erithian on 1 Oct 2008 #

    A recent documentary about Maxine Carr, the former partner of Soham murderer Ian Huntley, is instructive in this regard. For one thing there are various women up and down the country who happen to be named Maxine Carr, and who have had a hard time from the Great British Public.

    For another, since Carr was released from prison and given a new identity, the documentary focused on women who have been suspected of being Maxine Carr, sometimes based on a vague resemblance, other times largely due to their being single women who have moved into a new area with no apparent back-story. These women have been hounded, received hate mail or bricks through their windows, and no amount of persuasion will help. They interviewed one bloke in York who’d been harassing a woman and said the police had come to him and said “That woman is not Maxine Carr.” “Of course not, I replied, you’ve changed her name, haven’t you?”

    This has happened to at least 12 women in the UK so far.

  74. 74
    Billy Smart on 6 Oct 2008 #

    TOTP Watch: (Sorry about the delay on this – my possessions have been held in a warehouse for a couple of months…)

    Tubeway Army performed ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric on Top Of The Pops three times;

    24th May 1979. Also in the studio that week were; The Skids, Liner (who they?), The Damned, Dollar, The Shadows and Elvis Costello plus Legs & Co’s (doubtless sizzling) interpretation of ‘Hot Stuff’. David ‘Kid’ Jensen was the host.

    12 July 1979. Also in the studio that week were; Siouxsie & The Banshees, Thom Pace, The Police, Stonebridge McGuinness (who?), Janet Kay, PiL, Chantal Curtis and Judie Tzuke, plus Legs & Co’s interpretation of ‘Lady Lynda’. Mike Read was the host.

    25 December 1979. Also in the studio that Christmas were; Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Janet Kay, Roxy Music, Buggles, BA Robertson, Blondie, M, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Lena Martell, Squeeze, Dr Hook and Cliff Richard, plus Legs & Co’s interpretations of ‘Ring My Bell’ and ‘Some Girls’. The hosts were Kid Jensen & Peter Powell.

  75. 75
    Robbie on 16 Oct 2008 #

    #74: Billy

    Liner were Blackfoot Sue under another name. As Blackfoot Sue they had a top 5 hit in 1972, with “Standing In The Road”

    Stonebridge McGuinness were an offshoot of McGuinness Flint who had a massive hit with “When I’m Dead And Gone” in 1970/71 and also another top 5 hit with Malt And Barley Blues, also in 1971.

    I can’t remember the Liner song though I probably heard it back in 1979 but Stonebridge McGuinness’s “Oo-Eeh-Baby was a moderate airplay hit at the time.

  76. 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!

  77. 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.

  78. 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…)

  79. 79

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

  80. 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.

  81. 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…

  82. 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)

  83. 83
    Mark G on 20 Oct 2008 #

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

  84. 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.

  85. 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.

  86. 86
    enitharmon on 2 Nov 2009 #

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

  87. 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?

  88. 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.

  89. 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).

  90. 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.

  91. 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.

  92. 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.

  93. 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.

  94. 94

    And yes too about the nice bloke thing…

  95. 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.

  96. 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.

  97. 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.

  98. 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.

  99. 99
    weej on 22 Oct 2010 #

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

  100. 100
    swanstep on 22 Oct 2010 #

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

  101. 101
    lonepilgrim on 22 Oct 2010 #

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

  102. 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)

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

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

  104. 104
    punctum on 2 Aug 2011 #

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

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

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

  106. 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.

  107. 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.

  108. 108
    punctum on 11 Nov 2012 #

    TPL on Replicas.

  109. 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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