Artist: Tubeway Army
Title: Are ‘Friends’ Electric?
Description: single; album track, Replicas
Label: Beggars Banquet
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979
It’s cold outside
And the paint’s peeling off of my walls
But not the face. I never painted my face. I never wore rouge or eyeliner, not even during my peacock Goth phase in the early 80s, when my genuflections to androgeny happened strictly above the forehead and below the neck. Hence the high esteem in which I held those gentlemen who did turn it up to No.7 during that first flush of male empowerment in the first decade of gender realignment. I was called a “poof” by rugby players on a number of occasions for my effete style choices (neckerchief, cavalry shirt, velveteen boots, even a bow tie), but the only time I wore actual makeup was for a sixth form production of Macbeth.
Gary Numan rocked the full slap. In line with his bid to appear alien, remote and “other”, he did what a number of prominent public men did during what, in 1979, had not yet emerged as New Romanticism, and that was to colour himself in. Or, in actual fact, rub the colour out. He claims it was to mask his acne, but it masked more than that. (It’s important to remember that Tubeway Army preceded the Blitz kid movement and never felt a part of it, or any sect, although whiteface was worn by plenty of rockers before Numan, not least Japan and Kiss and all those Glam Rock fops.) To mangle a line, What a piece of work was this man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god.
Are ‘Friends’ Electric? seemed to beam down, fully formed (“Please sit down”). Just as we provincials were getting comfortable with our binary system for identifying which records were and weren’t “punk”, here came some new jets, with their Philip K Dicks out and their Minimoog synthesisers in flight cases. It was a revolution, nothing short of. In the wake of Kraftwerk and Roxy and Moroder and Jarre, Tubeway Army took the discordant spirit of punk and remodelled it to look like an Auton. On this demonstration disc for what machines could do, the music pulsed and klaxoned, but it was driven by a skin-and-stick beat courtesy of Numan’s uncle. An important human factor. Rather, an important Numan factor. For it was Gary’s dispassionate, prosaic, borderline-frigid vocal that drew you into the noir. Part serial-killer, part sentient onboard computer, this pale, paranoid, panda-eyed android was sure fine looking, man, he was something else.
I was too ill-versed aged 14 to join the dots to his musical ancestors and felt instead as if something illegal had landed: contraband from another planet, smuggled onto Top Of The Pops and to the top of the pops – for four weeks, bean counters. Once deconstructed in Smash Hits – and willingly – Numan was more of a pop star than he at first seemed, playing Ziggy left-handed and constantly threatening retirement to spend more time with his pilot’s licence. It took the edge off his 2000AD horror-show style (Down In The Park, I Nearly Married A Human, The Machman, “There’s a man outside … a candlelit shadow on a wall near the bed”) and made him somewhat approachable, for all the trussed-up jumpsuit stylings.
Most sci-fi ages badly. Even Blade Runner, which was still in the future in 1979. But this single, like the faster Cars, still sounds ahead of the curve. If Numan became a figure of fun, it was because he put himself out there without fear of dying: flying his plane, making Groundhog Day comebacks, advertising hair transplants, marrying his biggest fan. When I finally met and interviewed him on 6 Music in the early 2000s, he told me he’d been only recently diagnosed with a mild form of Asperger’s. This may go some way to explaining his direct manner, his remote stance, his perceived arrogance, the speechmarks around ‘friends’ and his utter focus.
You see this means everything to me …