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. 61
    Mark G on 25 Sep 2008 #

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

  2. 62
    DJ Punctum on 25 Sep 2008 #

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



  3. 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!”)

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 66
    Mark G on 26 Sep 2008 #

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

  7. 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)

  8. 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.

  9. 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…

  10. 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.

  11. 71
    Mark G on 1 Oct 2008 #

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

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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!

  17. 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.

  18. 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…)

  19. 79

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

  20. 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.

  21. 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…

  22. 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)

  23. 83
    Mark G on 20 Oct 2008 #

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

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 86
    enitharmon on 2 Nov 2009 #

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

  27. 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?

  28. 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.

  29. 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).

  30. 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.

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