It Must Have Been Years
June 29, 2019 2:49 PM   Subscribe

At the end of June 1979, Tubeway Army's Are "Friends" Electric? started its four-week residency at the top of the UK pop charts. Painting a dystopian SF world of broken humans emotionally dependent on androids, it wasn't the first synth-heavy song to get to the top, nor did composer/front man Gary Numan come from the northern cities which had hitherto been the breeding grounds of British machine music. But it was the breakthrough hit that made synth-pop a powerhouse genre, foreshadowing much that was to come. For the twenty-one year old Numan, though, that future would turn out less science fiction, more soap opera.

Gary Numan - the second stage name of Gary Webb, who discarded previous nomme de strum ‘Valerian’ on discovering it wasn’t the cool SF hero moniker he wanted but rather a kind of flower - was determined to be a rock star, and made no secret of it. Born and raised in the London suburbs near Heathrow, He’d quit his job in an airport warehouse on 10 February 1978, the day Tubeway Army’s first single, That’s Too Bad, was released. The band at that point was ‘Valerian’ on guitar and vocals, his uncle Jess Lidyard (‘Rael’) on drums and best friend Paul Gardiner (‘Scarlett’) on bass, and the song a brief punk thrash that Numan later said was designed to make punk commercial.

The single lived up to its name rather than Numan’s ambitions for it. The follow-up Bombers, released in July 1978, also demonstrated nominative determinism by unceremoniously bombing, but did introduce two significant items - it included electronic sound effects, and the cover sported the stylised monochromatic portrait of Numan that was to become the logo for his record label.

First, though, it became the revised cover art of ‘Tubeway Army', the eponymous first LP. Initially released in November1978 on blue vinyl, it too failed to chart at first, although it made it to 14 in the album charts in 1979 on a rapid reissue. With 12 tracks mostly coming in at three and a bit minutes long, it kept some of its punk heritage but was far more notable for the appearance of growling Minimoog and Numan giving free rein to his science fiction obsessions of the time.

The Moog was accidental, Numan famously coming into the studio to find the previous band had left one plugged in and turned on. It was set up for an enormous bass sound; he pressed a key and was completely blown away, rearranging all the songs on the fly to make use of this discovery. The themes were much more carefully planned - the first line of the album - Listen To The Sirens' “Flow my tears, the new police song” being a direct lift from Philip K Dick’s Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. Numan’s musical influences are similarly undisguised - for example, the track Every Day I Die being a callback to Ultravox’s Ha!-Ha!-Ha! era The Man Who Dies Everyday from 1977. The synthesised schtick of sound and imagery borrows freely from Eno, Bowie, Kraftwerk, Burroughs, Ballard and others - something that was to lead to a lot of hostility in the music press, despite Numan’s often painful honesty about what he did, how and why.

Standout tracks include Steel And You for its proto-metal riffing and full-on android world lyrics; Jo The Waiter, a balard about a gay encounter that starts with Numan’s unprocessed, vulnerable voice over acoustic guitar and builds confidently through addition of bass and drums until the final verse sees the arrival of a delicate Moog line that ties up the song with a bow;The Dream Police for its dense imagery and harmonic scaffolding that looks ahead to the full-on constructions to come.

And come they did. It was time for Replicas.

The Replicas LP began as an unfinished set of short stories Numan was writing, heavily influenced by Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. They described a world where humans live alongside Machmen - human-looking androids in a repressive society. (The novel famously became 1982’s Blade Runner, which also introduced the word ‘replicant’; Numan was to use samples from the film on the track Call Out The Dogs from 1985’s The Fury LP.) Recorded in three days and mixed in two - in part because the record label, the then-tiny then-indy Beggar’s Banquet couldn’t afford to hire the synthesiser for longer - the album moved a long way from the guitar-heavy songs of Tubeway Army.

The first reveal of the new sound came on Numan’s first John Peel session. Peel was a strong early supporter of Numan and for a while was the only UK DJ to play his music on the radio. The session was recorded on 10 January 1979 and broadcast on the 16th, comprising live versions of three songs - the album’s opener, Me! I Disconnect From You; the album’s intended centrepiece and first single-to-be, Down In The Park, and the album closer, I Nearly Married A Human - incidentally, Numan’s first use of a drum machine.

With three tracks over five minutes long - Are ‘Friends’ Electric? being nearly five and a half, and I Nearly Married A Human over six and a half - the album has a lot more heft and thematic continuity, at the inevitable loss of diversity. There’s no point in pulling out stand-out tracks; the album stands as a complete creation.

The album version of Down In The Park was released on 16 March 1979. As with its predecessors, it eschewed the charts but was played enthusiastically by John Peel. The album itself followed in April, with Are ‘Friends’ Electric? being the second (and final) single from the album, coming out on 4 May.

Then things got interesting.

On 15 May, the single enters the charts at 71

On 22 May, Tubeway Army plays live on the Old Grey Whistle Test, the BBC’s hard-to-categorise ‘serious rock’ programme, airing Down In The Park and Are ‘Friends’ Electric?

On the same day, the song is at 45 in the charts.

On 24 May, Tubeway Army makes its first appearance on Top Of The Pops, the BBC’s chart show and the crucible in which true pop success is tested and bestowed. The show is at its artisitic and popular peak this year, reflecting the country’s taste for disco, punk, reggae, ska, and a multiplicity of pop and new-wave post-punk acts. This is the year that TOTP records a 19 million audience figure, or roughly one in three of the UK population.

On 30 May, Are ‘Friends’ Electric? breaks the Top 30, rising to 25

On 05 June 1979, it’s up, but by a relatively modest five places to 20. Is momentum slipping?

On 12 June 1979, the song barrels into the Top 10, reaching number 7. Question answered.

On 14 June, Tubeway Army is back on TOTP.

On 19 June 1979… number 2. Just ahead of Roxy Music's maraca-fest, Dance Away, and just behind Anita Ward's disco-drumtastic Ring My Bell.

On 26 June 1979, Are ‘Friends’ Electric? hits Number One, staying there until 24 July when it is demoted to 2 by the Boomtown Rats’ I Don’t Like Mondays. It gently eases off the charts, with its last position being 62 on 29 August.

Replicas was hauled up by this success, spending just one week at Number One on the albums charts on 15 July, but clocking up a very respectable 31 weeks in total.

And that was it for Tubeway Army - Numan dropping the name as he prepared his third album, The Pleasure Principle with his first international hit, Cars. Years of depression, money woes, rediscovery, reinvention, and coronation as the grandfather of synth-pop await - as do being arrested for carrying an offensive weapon, being arrested for spying,… and playing Are ‘Friends’ Electric? one more time on The Old Grey Whistle Test’s anniversary night in 2018.

But on the night of 28 June 1979 all that is in the unknowable future, as Gary Numan puts on his make-up, throws up in the dressing room sink through sheer nerves, and prepares to walk onto the stage of Top Of The Pops as the UK’s newest Number One hitmaker.


Numan talks to Steve Lamacq about the making of Replicas and Are ‘Friends’ Electric? In 2015, revealing that AFE is a mash0p of two songs, one about a mechanical prostitute and one about a woman who used him for sex.

Synth Britannica - BBC documentary on the birth of UK electronic music. Numan’s meteoric arrival on the scene starts at around 36:30, but the whole thing's worth watching.

posted by Devonian (35 comments total) 111 users marked this as a favorite
Flagged as fantastic!
posted by theperfectcrime at 3:07 PM on June 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

Yikes, super post! Slow clap.
posted by ashbury at 3:37 PM on June 29, 2019

I was listening recently to the Sodajerker interview with Numan, which is worth a listen.

I remember Are Friends Electric? coming out quite clearly. The thing about that time was that records could become enormously successful because (rather than despite) the fact that they sounded like nothing you'd ever heard before.

For a short time Numan was an enormous star, the nearest thing we got in 1979 to a proper pop star, post-punk Stalinist NME purity being what it was (they hated him, of course). He very much wanted to be David Bowie of course (but then who did not?) as this footage of his gloriously over the top stage show will demonstrate (that's at least one member of Ultravox on keys. I wonder how they felt about that).

In some ways he was like a trial run for the 1980s. He sounds happy these days and I'm glad.
posted by Grangousier at 3:38 PM on June 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

> ...being arrested for spying...

hold on, what?
posted by ardgedee at 3:38 PM on June 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

Personally my favorite of Numan's work is his 1997 album Exile. Preferably the original version, the extended version rather consistently makes each track outstay its welcome IMHO. It is worlds away from his early hits, with a sound he swiped from the industrial acts he influenced. Dark, dense, pulsing, and goth. You can see its roots in the alienation of some of his early work, but it's a much more mature, grown-up alienation rather than the early barely-out-of-teens alienation.

Maybe it hit me at the right point in time, in my own young adult alienation. I dunno. It resonated with me in a way his earlier chart-topping work never did.
posted by egypturnash at 4:09 PM on June 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm told that, despite the whole brooding stage presence, he's a really really nice man
posted by scruss at 5:00 PM on June 29, 2019

Devonian, are you absolutely sure you aren't my friend Todd from Seattle?
posted by Naberius at 5:09 PM on June 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Gary is one of the few people to have married the head of his fan club (with great success apparently).

I photographed him a few times during the years when I was a magazine photographer. He's a bit quiet and awkward, so we got on fine.
posted by w0mbat at 5:11 PM on June 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

scruss: A friend of mine was the opening act* for a Gary Numan show recently, and can confirm.

* She makes music under the name Void Vision, and if you like Gary Numan, you'll like her.
posted by SansPoint at 5:42 PM on June 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is such a great great post. The Tubeway Army album hits so many sweet spots for me, but I have learned everyone has their favorite era Gary.
posted by spartacusroosevelt at 7:37 PM on June 29, 2019

#2 comment on youtube

Gary Numan is two weeks older than Gary Oldman
posted by lalochezia at 7:50 PM on June 29, 2019 [34 favorites]

I also came to the music late, about a year ago. I was looking for interesting covers by Foo Fighters, and I found their cover of Down in the Park. It was captivating. I have listened to it at least once each day ever since.

Speaking of "The grandfather of synth-pop", I also found NiN and Gary doing a live version of Cars. It's fabulous.
posted by dfm500 at 7:51 PM on June 29, 2019 [7 favorites]


Being under house arrest in India
on suspicion of smuggling and spying was unexpected. Another air-display pilot and I were flying around the world in a little aeroplane. We landed in a small village on the coast of India and got arrested on suspicion of smuggling and spying. It was madness. The policeman asked if we were taking photographs of the Russian submarine base. I said I wasn’t, but asked where it was. He told me it was 20 miles south!
posted by lalochezia at 7:53 PM on June 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

Some of us here might remember Esser, a flop-topped British dude who had a brief hurrah in 2009 with the electro-trash song Headlock. In 2012 he released an EP, the lead single for which was Enmity with a video clearly influenced by that Are Friends Electric clip. It remains largely undiscovered, but I thought this crowd would dig it.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:39 PM on June 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

I also found NiN and Gary doing a live version of Cars

"You know your the man when Trent Reznor plays tambourine for you!"

-- top comment on the video. I kinda liked that compliment. And it's quite true.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 9:04 PM on June 29, 2019 [9 favorites]

Had to wait 30 years to see him live, but totally worth it. Go if you get the chance, even if you're not that in to live shows.
posted by conifer at 11:57 PM on June 29, 2019

I remember seeing 'Are Friends Electric?' on the night it was first on Top Of The Pops, and being riveted. Probably what started me off on seeking the left-field in music.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:28 AM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Well, I was not expecting to go down a Gary Numan rabbit hole at 1 in the morning, but here we are. That was fun, thanks!
posted by mykescipark at 1:14 AM on June 30, 2019

I'll never forget that first moment on TOTP. In this day and age, it's hard to imagine a straight man looking so deliberately, sensually vulnerable on stage. Nobody else did that, not even Bowie, and it looks more subversive and unsettling than ever. Remind me to smile indeed.

The reason he was hated by the music press is pure and simple: teenage girls adored him. Twelve year old me can confirm this, having enjoyed a memorable ninety minutes screaming at him in the Hammersmith Odeon, circa Telekon. It was a formative experience, my first live gig, and it was enabled by my much cooler older sister. We had some excellent pop stars back then, something I love repeating just to annoy the kids these days.

This is why it's slightly irritating that it takes Trent Reznor on tambourine to make him cool again, but it's churlish to complain when he still has the goods and the songs have aged as well as he has. In some respects, where he is now is closer to the garage angst of that first TA album than the synth pop that came after it, and in my view Are "Friends" Electric? sounds all the better for it. When I saw him for the second time last year, the hall was full of middle aged women nodding away and smirking for having been proven right at last.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 2:18 AM on June 30, 2019 [13 favorites]

Good THIS is a POST!

My cousin played The Pleasure Principle for me back when it first came out, and I was hooked. Even to tween me, it seemed like something special and different and altering. I think hearing Gary Numan at just the right time was the reason I weaned myself off Shaun Cassidy and got into Bauhaus.

I can find something I like on almost every album, but I have a soft spot for Dance, because Mick Karn played on it and, well....Mick Karn. Not his best album, but Mick Karn.

Thank you so much for this, I will be sitting with headphones on enjoying it for a while.

(and yes, we sure did have some excellent pop stars back then)
posted by biscotti at 5:44 AM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am not your 'friend' Todd from Seattle, no, but my reflection is no longer me at all...

And yes, the spying was during the round-the-world flight. Numan's aviation exploits are worthy of a post in themselves. He taught aerobatics as a qualified instructor, which is as good as you can get in civilian flying short of being a test pilot, but as he said all his friends got killed so he got the message.

having enjoyed a memorable ninety minutes screaming at him in the Hammersmith Odeon, circa Telekon.

It is entirely possible I was at that gig! I saw him a couple of times at that venue, but can't quite remember which tour (I have the programme packed away...).

It's hard for me to say how profoundly Numan's music affected the young Devonian. It's not because the sheer musical genius awoke new levels of consciousness in me - but it was the first signpost to some amazing places. Synthesisers - my god, the sounds. Who else does that? And then you go scampering back down the chains of influence through the OMD/Human League/Cabs/Wire to the Eno/Bowie/Kraftwerk/Can and there's no stopping until you thud into Cage and Stockhausen and... The same goes for "He says he likes Philip K Dick and JG Ballard... does that mean I might... oooooh!". And all the time there's a steady stream of new music, and it turns out Numan's not like other rock stars because he's honest in his artifice, and the cool kids used to like him and now they hate him and damn you, cool kids, I don't care.

I grew up in the south-west of England. There really wasn't much going on, and unless you got lucky there weren't many on-ramps to off-mainstream. Numan was mainstream for just enough to abduct me (and so many others), and although I no longer fly in that spaceship (I think his new stuff is very good in lots of ways, but a little goes a long way with me) I still cherish the music and love to go fishing there...

And by God he comes across as happy and proud and still very much up for it all, all the things, which is a wonder in itself. Surviving that business, let alone with a healthy career, an intact family and enormous respect after forty years. I mean, Moses was in the wilderness that long and what did he get? Some nibbles and a runny rock.

(Oh, and there's also a post to be done on the whole Ultravox/Numan/Visage/etc cross-over scene. I only recently found out that 'Visage', the song that launched the band, was worked up as the soundcheck song by Numan's tour band of the time under the name 'Toot City'. Hmmm... I read an interview with the (sadly deceased) Ced Sharpley, where he was sounding a bit miffed that this had happened. But who knows?)

Bonus: one of my favourite Numan covers.
posted by Devonian at 5:57 AM on June 30, 2019 [11 favorites]

That vid of Numan w/NiN is definitely fabulous!
posted by sundrop at 8:05 AM on June 30, 2019

The reason he was hated by the music press is pure and simple: teenage girls adored him.

No doubt that was part of it but see also their hatred of Depeche Mode – another synth act from the increasingly Tory-voting exurban fringes around London. OMD and New Order, by contrast, were from Proper Places - Liverpool and Manchester, respectively, and adored by the UK music press. The Human League (Sheffield) may have got a pass as well: certainly Cabaret Voltaire did.

The fact that Numan was an ardent supporter of Margaret Thatcher pretty much sealed the deal.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 8:30 AM on June 30, 2019

And that was it for Tubeway Army - Numan dropping the name as he prepared his third album, The Pleasure Principle with his first international hit, Cars. Years of depression,

... except before all that comedown, there was the Telekon Tour, 1980. The album wasn't the best, but ...

It was the day of the show. I wasn't a huge Gary Numan fan. A little too pop for my sophisticated twenty-one year old tastes. But it was hard to ignore him, and I had seen a few vids, and Cars had been ubiquitous (and cool) on the radio. Anyway, a friend and I had nothing else going on and decided, we may as well check this guy out.

It turns out the stage set up was so elaborate that they'd had to hold off selling a bunch of tickets from the first few rows until they got everything installed. Lucky us. We ended up row two or three, just right of center. Best Seats In The House.

And What A Fucking Show!

Jaw dropping, mind blowing, (other expansive adjectives!!!) from beginning to end, with a live band that absolutely nailed the material (magnitudes more powerful than the records suggested). Ultravox's Billy Curie was involved as I recall. To this day, one of the top ten live experiences of my life.

Great post by the way.
posted by philip-random at 9:03 AM on June 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

I always hated "Cars" because, well, I always hated cars.

And I'd find myself sucked in by the last minute of the track whenever it came on in public. I'd just find myself rolling with the high synth riff and bopping to the bassline and then I'd go "Oh ugh, this is that stupid song about how great cars are, isn't it?"

In reaction to this FPP, I went to actually look up the lyrics.
Here in my car
The image breaks down
Will you visit me please
If I open my door
The song does seem to start out relishing the control and security of the car, but this gets twisted into irony at the end.
I know I've started to think
About leaving tonight
Although nothing seems right
In cars
I spent the past four decades not realising that this song was at least partly about the fear of isolation and loss of touch with the world outside the steel shell.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 10:53 AM on June 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Never liked "Cars" either (it hit the charts during the five-year interval when I did without one) but "Down in the Park" was the hit song for me ("With a friend called 5"!?) However, his best stuff was still to come -- in The Pleasure Principle (Complex), Telekon (I Dream of Wires), I Assassin and especially Dance, his best record.
posted by Rash at 2:25 PM on June 30, 2019

I found out like a month ago that Gary Numan is still making music and it kinda slaps?!
posted by taquito sunrise at 2:48 PM on June 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Just finished watching "Synth Britannica" - a great documentary! Thank you for this post.
posted by sundrop at 4:05 PM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Never liked "Cars" either (it hit the charts during the five-year interval when I did without one) but "Down in the Park" was the hit song for me ("With a friend called 5"!?) However, his best stuff was still to come -- in The Pleasure Principle (Complex), Telekon (I Dream of Wires), I Assassin and especially Dance, his best record.

Cars is a strange little thing. It was written in two minutes, literally the first thing Numan did with a new bass guitar he'd picked up in Denmark Street because he fancied teaching himself how to play. The lyrics are about a time he had to lock himself in his car to protect himself from a road rage incident - but there aren't many of them, so when playing it live there's an awful lot of time to fill for the singer. And it has endured for forty years as an instantly recognisable, timeless.piece of music. Like AFE it doesn't follow any of the rules for writing a pop song but just works so well.

I could go on at length - oh, couldn't I just - about all the other albums, at least until his career restart. There are things to love about all of them, even the later ones that sold nothing and Numan himself says were exercises in futility. Telekon and Dance are probably my favourites; I didn't much care for all the image changing (although Music For Chameleons is something of a classic). I'd like to do a post-Tubeway Army FPP, tbh, but there's so much there.

Dramatis - his band's go at a side project - is also worth a listen, and among the copious Numanlia out there one should also mention Gary Goes Shopping, Basement Jaxx's Where's Your Head At?, and Random, an album of covers by people you've kinda heard of. That's uneven, and most of it doesn't seem to be on YouTube (it is on Spotify), but Matt Sharp (who?) and Damon Albarn (with you now) do quite a good job of We Have A Technical. There are plenty of other oddities out there if you go poking around. Oh, OK, here's Robert Palmer doing I Dream Of Wires.

One thing I enjoy - there's quite a lot of people who try very hard to replicate the Numan sounds on modern synthesisers. Thr classic Pleasure Principle lead is the Polymoog's Vox Humana, which has proved surprisingly difficult to pin down, though many try. One of the best is a guy called Paul Kingsley-Hurst, who plays in a tribute band called Tubeway Days, but he also does stuff like this - an uncannily good replica of Down In The Park from the Living Ornaments 79 live album.
posted by Devonian at 8:57 AM on July 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

I had the pleasure of seeing Gary Numan live last year (I made a setlist on Apple Music), and he is terrific. Best album of 2018 for me, hands down.
posted by bouvin at 10:17 AM on July 1, 2019

Are "Friends" Electric? has been one of my favorite songs since the day it came out, and I listened to that album all the time. A lot. But terrible fan that I am I've never really listened to anything else, except hearing "Cars" on the radio.

These revitalization trends of older artists are strange and confusing to me.
posted by bongo_x at 2:01 PM on July 1, 2019

Numan's first heyday was too soon for me, I wasn't a teen yet, and then my tastes were too pedestrian until not long before Nirvana hit -- thanks, Madchester, no matter what anyone else might think. I liked Cars well enough but never explored past that until Sugababes based "Freak Like Me" on "Are Friends Electric?". So thanks to them too even if it's the least-cool route to the material possible.
posted by Quindar Beep at 6:50 AM on July 2, 2019

i love this song and video now

the less hair-having keyboardist kinda looks like Michael Sheen and Joel Hodgson had a kid
posted by fleacircus at 5:23 PM on July 3, 2019

I once spent my entire allowance on the 45 for Cars. Then I had to wait a week to get the 5 cent adapter to play 45s.
posted by srboisvert at 9:18 AM on July 7, 2019 [7 favorites]

I made a good friend at school because we'd both nipped out at lunchtime to buy Complex from the local Virgin Megastore, but I coughed for the 12" while he settled for the 7". He saw me sporting my spoils later that day and regretted his parsimony while determining to make my acquaintance.
posted by Devonian at 1:45 PM on July 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

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