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Sep 08

TUBEWAY ARMY – “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”

FT + Popular109 comments • 2,493 views

#439, 30th June 1979

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

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

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

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Comments

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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 34
    Erithian on 23 Sep 2008 #

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

  5. 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.)

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.)

  10. 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.

  11. 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”

  12. 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)

  13. 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.

    Quality.

  14. 44
    Billy Smart on 23 Sep 2008 #

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

  15. 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

  16. 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.

  17. 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

    http://www.galleryofart.us/Rene_Magritte/Principe+du+plaisir,+Le.jpg.html

  18. 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.

  19. 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…)

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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?

  23. 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.

  24. 54
    DJ Punctum on 24 Sep 2008 #

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

  25. 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?

  26. 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)

  27. 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.

  28. 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 ?

  29. 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?

  30. 60
    DJ Punctum on 25 Sep 2008 #

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

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