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.)



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  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’.

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