Sunday, 11 November 2012


(#211: 21 July 1979, 1 week)

Track listing: Me! I Disconnect From You/Are ‘Friends’ Electric?/The Machman/Praying To The Aliens/Down In The Park/You Are In My Vision/Replicas/It Must Have Been Years/When The Machines Rock/I Nearly Married A Human

It is a sobering thought that Ridley Scott’s 1982 film of Blade Runner is set in the Los Angeles of 2019; a time once so far away, now only as far away as the 1979 Gary Numan was from, say, Lindisfarne. Perhaps more frightening is the increasing plausibility of Philip K Dick’s original story as its time looms, the deepening (or shallowing) knowledge that humans have willingly become their own “replicants.” “Let me tell you about my mother”; is this a planted premonition of an unimaginable future, or what is now routinely seen on any television channel or in any magazine or website on the globe? Has telling people about anybody’s mother become compulsory? Is the quiet, unexamined life as spent a historical artefact as the Gutenberg press, or the proper understanding of other human beings?

What is maybe most remarkable about this seventies lonely boy is that, finally, he doesn’t much care whether he himself is human or replicant; he seems to welcome the difference (“I Nearly Married A Human,” which fittingly has no words), and as machines become the rock, so does he willingly submit to whoever or whatever will accommodate him, even if only by virtue of his being – naturally – out of step. This record is dotted with memories (possibly implanted ones) of some(body/thing’s) past; “On Broadway” turns up in one song, “White Christmas” in another (isn’t this 1979 world cold and lonely without Bing to smile us into the chill?), and beyond that there is the remarkable sleight of hand that Gary Numan has pulled off here; taking the molecules of rock – its attack, its dynamism, maybe even its priapic preening – and refitting them to fit into the neutrons and chips of what might best be termed the future. Plugging it in, maybe even – in the record’s last two wordless tracks – removing the need for human input altogether? And yet, deep, deep down, there still exists that ancient lament, “And now I’ve no-one to love,” a self-elegy that goes back to Bobby Vinton and bobbysox.

Crucially, however, Numan(droid) doesn’t see things that way at all; because of the way he is, he views the world – and whatever its implications of a dystopian future, this is very palpably still a record of the late seventies – only in extremes, and so emphasises and de-emphasises all of “classic rock”’s tropes; “You Are In My Vision” and “It Must Have Been Years” rock, like Numan’s early idols Thin Lizzy still rocked from time to time, and the scenario of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” could have come straight out of the Faces’ “Stay With Me” (in both subject matter and tempo). But Numan de-sexes, or rather re-sexes, these elderly calling cards to bring out things perhaps only he and people like him could notice; others see sleaze and professional sex, but he sees beauty and love. The worrisome people who populate “Down In The Park” could be seen in every British town and suburb in the seventies (and probably again now) but Numan opens his wordless mouth, gasps and sees unutterable horror and carnage – all set to the most elegant, least obtrusive, most French melody and arrangement his side of Satie.

But he is still the machman outsider, and it was his lot in 1979 as much as his emotional state; in the context of this tale, both “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and Replicas spring as though out of nowhere. The wider shock was instant, as was the gradual delight. But Numan remained, critically, a loner; rather than being praised, he was damned, ridiculed and mocked, not just because, as a solitary man who couldn’t easily relate to groups or masses of people – except on a concert stage where he could block all of them out and respond to a greater totality – he openly welcomed the coming of Thatcher, if only as a relief from grey nothingness. This is what Numan had to say in 1979 to Jon Savage about the experience of standing in front of other people:

“I’ve really no idea…apart from the fact that you talk to the audience and claim to be one of them, or admit that you’re not one of them, which is why you’re singing and they’re not, and get on with it, which is what I’ve done…I’ve very little to say to them. They know what the songs are, I’d imagine. I really wouldn’t want to tell them what the songs are about before each number: there’s no need to tell them what they are because they already know. There really isn’t much more to say – you can’t have a conversation – it’s very false with between and (sic) four thousand people…”
(Jon Savage, “Gary Numan: In Every Dream Car, a Heart-throb,” originally published in Melody Maker, 20 October 1979, reprinted in the anthology Time Travel, Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1996)

In the same piece, Savage makes the interesting observation that the bulk of Numan’s audience is under 21 (Numan at this point being only 21), i.e. not only too young to have seen Bowie or Roxy, but possibly even the Sex Pistols. For them, this next generation, Numan was newness. Never mind the carping oldies who swiftly accused him of being an ambulance electro-chaser, selling out whatever “punk” in 1979 might still have stood for, and being happy to do so (in Savage’s interview, Numan visibly perks up when talking about the astute major label deal he has just done with WEA); they meant nothing to an audience who in 1979 looked around them and saw only Abba, the Bee Gees and ELO – more of the same, all that stuff punk was supposed to have gotten rid of.

Likewise, it is ridiculous, as most of the “credible” music press of the time did, to claim that Numan swiped a career which should properly have belonged to Howard Devoto. Magazine were a very different, and not particularly comparable, type of band to Tubeway Army; Devoto’s songs, painstakingly improvised into being, talk about disconnection between humans and the perverse attraction of rock’s bottom, but his outlook and approach are markedly different – Devoto always gives the impression in his singing that he is somehow, if only slightly, above all of this carry-on, whereas Numan gladly immerses himself in its substance. In 1979 Magazine were on to their second album, Secondhand Daylight, and while no album including the likes of “Feed The Enemy,” “Rhythm Of Cruelty,” “Back To Nature” and “Permafrost” can be described as dispensable, it is equally clear that Devoto, McGeoch, Adamson etc. have no intention of “crossing over” – you, the listener, have to get to them. Whereas Numan perversely opens out to everybody willing to give him a listen, and a chance.

In almost direct contradiction of the above quote – or maybe it’s just that people change - Numan was subsequently happy to give an extensive interview to Steve Malins for the CD edition of Replicas in which he cheerfully explains the entire process behind the album and its songs. Indeed, Malins’ sleevenote is so good and comprehensive that it almost negates the need for reviewing the record here. From it, however, we can glean that Replicas was designed as something of a concept album – and, like Blade Runner, based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? - about men, and machines (Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine had been out for less than a year), and machines that can be programmed to destroy humans, and others that merely “service” humans, and how does the noble, isolated individual fight all of this, or does s/he simply succumb to it? In the Blade Runner setting, the viewer has to concur, glumly, that the only way for humanity to survive is if Harrison Ford, broadly speaking, takes out all the interesting characters in the film; and that might constitute an even greater nightmare. Whereas Numan adopts the viewpoint that it’s the interesting characters who make human life bearable; those who can’t readily be slotted into a preordained diagram of Perfect Humanity.

Certainly, despite its warning surface, I find Replicas an unexpectedly optimistic album. It only takes a few seconds for the synthesisers and beats of “Me! I Disconnect From You” to slip into place before the listener breathes a sigh of immense relief; after all this supposedly modern kowtowing to the past, it is as if someone has switched on a light, or opened a window, again; here is complete, unrepentant modernism, and here (because Numan might not be who or what he’s singing about) is the first “true” New Pop number one album (as well as the first New Romantic one, because, well, the transience of human relationships, the consolations of knowing solitude, and so on; they were all in Wordsworth and they are here too).

As far as “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” is concerned, I can do no better than to hand over to my Popular self of over four years ago, to see what he had to say about the song and record:

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 possibly 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.

I think the above is still an accurate assessment of the song, and of Numan, except that the vocal similarity to Robert Wyatt (which only James Truman, in 1979 still at Melody Maker, otherwise caught) is quite pronounced throughout Replicas, though processed in a way I can’t readily ascribe to any machinery or technology as such; it is as if the nonsense-words-as-inarticulate-heart-speech of “Alifib” or “Muddy Mouth” have been canned, confined and acclimatised to a newer, if not brighter, world. “The Machman” itself rocks – it is easy to forget that here it is still Tubeway Army, a three-piece parallel-to-punk group, just like the Jam (Numan was born in the same month as Weller, though there are really no direct comparisons between the two – although you might like to think of “Down In The Tube Station At Midnight” and “English Rose” as differently-filtered Numan); their preceding (and excellent) eponymous album makes that pretty clear. Again, “The Machman” has that elusive Phil Lynott thrust about it (and, interestingly, who should be helping Lizzy out on guitar around this time but Midge Ure?) but the moment halfway through the song where the synthesiser waddles into its afternoon is, in this tale, unprecedented. There is clearly a battle of some sorts between Old Rock and New Pop; “Praying To The Aliens,” musically a sort of prototype of “Cars,” moves (as do several other songs here) in ways that would become entirely familiar a dozen years later with Nirvana (the ten-year-old Dave Grohl was a keen Numan follower), including the regular pauses after each chorus (where he is, as it were, praying for the New to come and take over).

Then there is “Down In The Park,” another song whose construction and aura, according to Lena, make the song sound “very French to me” (and again I think of the endless permutations of the placider Satie). I thought this an awesome song at fifteen and still do; he is describing Ballardian supraviolence, mutations beyond the ken of William Gibson. “All captured Crazies and other law breakers are put into the park, which is actually a prison,” says Numan. “Very few people survive more than one light, no-one survives two…however, the administrators and so on, are allowed out at night and their favourite hang-out is a club, Zom Zoms, which overlooks the park. From this vantage point they can watch the machines at play, purely as entertainment” (“You can watch the humans/Trying to run”). So there he is, in his room with its naked light bul, looking warily at what is not his reflection in the window, where a plastic moon shines and a neon-lit sign saying “THE PARK” is situated beneath it; and he is watching these unspeakable atrocities, or maybe he’s just taking an evening stroll down North End Road or King Street – I can’t dismiss from my mind the notion that, as much as Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four was merely anagrammatising 1948, Numan’s world is late seventies Hammersmith, before the Coca-Cola building and the Ark went up (the irony now being that, as you approach the monolithic Coke building at the top of Fulham Palace Road, Hammersmith looks remarkably like seventies East Berlin; this huge entity which devours everything that comes into it, including buses and tube trains, and he is simply refracting this spectacle into his own inward-looking world.

Yet there are no screams, or grinding, or freaking out, on “Down In The Park”; like “Electric” it is a very slow and patient song (remarkable, really, how “Electric” made number one in a chart where slowness and patience were as little valued as they are today) which never raises its voice, but turns the song’s blood into pictures of heartbreaking serenity.

“‘We are not lovers/We are not/Romantics/We are here to serve you’/A different face/But the words never change.”

Or perhaps Numan will tell you who he really is if and when he feels like it, since the rituals distantly described in “Down In The Park” have a voodoo tinge about them, and we know the immense dangers latent in trying to explain that which should never be explained.

With “You Are In My Vision,” I can’t help but feel that this is what Lester Bangs derided the Clash for not doing with their version of rock, namely not facing up to the decaying late seventies Britain so accurately delineated in Drabble’s The Ice Age (or at least until Drabble gives up near the end and converts the novel into a silly sub-James Bond spy caper). This “rock” seems frozen to the spot.

The title track meanwhile suggests, particularly with its welding of rock drive and electronic craving (other than the admitted, and huge, influence of John Foxx’s Ultravox), that Numan’s real forebear is not David Bowie or Bryan Ferry, but Marc Bolan. Listen to Numan’s pained guitar lines, the way in which the song becomes gradually submerged in electronic discordance, the rhythm track that is not quite synchronised; this is Bolan boogie flattened, Electric Warrior II (and what an apt name for Numan!).

With “It Must Have Been Years,” he goes one critical step further; in other hands this could easily have come out as a sub-sub-Zeppelin rock stomper. But look what Numan is doing with the very building blocks of rock; he is either neutralising or recharging them. There are agonised guitar squeals, the late Paul Gardiner’s unchanging one-note bass pulse, and a riff strong and new enough to inspire the Trent Reznors and Marilyn Mansons of the next world. At the end of his vocal Numan utters a growl of exhaustion; he’s said his piece, it’s up to us to make something out of it.

The two closing instrumentals are their own manifesto. “When The Machines Rock” belies, or justifies, its title, being a bright, synth-led spring of electropop; hello Depeche Mode. The concluding “I Nearly Married A Human” is an obvious tribute to side two of Low; a long-building sunrise of synthesisers. A drum machine patters in and out of the song like a curious infant. Eventually, however, the electronics take over and dominate the music entirely; standing at the water’s edge, we watch the seventies sink slowly into the West, waiting for a new era to be born. It is, unquestionably, a song of hope.

If indeed that is all that Replicas is about.

“He wore a Number 7/Badge on his collar/He would show it with pride/And say ‘it means I can feel.’”
(“Only A Downstat,” recorded during the sessions for Replica - and how apt that this rainiest of albums should have been recorded in Gooseberry Studios in Soho – which appears as a bonus track on the CD edition but was left off the original album)

“Gemma [Numan’s wife] spotted my Asperger's right away because her brother has it. I'm hopeless at small talk and have a problem making eye contact. That's why Gemma is so brilliant, because she talks for me. In social situations, I willingly step into her shadow. If we're out and she leaves me alone for a few minutes, I panic.”
(Numan, interviewed by Angela Wintle for Family Guardian, published 5 May 2012)

I’m not saying that Replicas is secretly a concept album about Asperger’s syndrome – about an individual who sees, thinks and feels but cannot actually connect with anybody else (“Me! I Disconnect From You”) – but it would explain a lot, not just about Gary Numan, but also about how little this condition is still understood. It is true that Numan has used his condition to his advantage – he does not have the extreme, crippling manifestation of Asperger’s that makes people not want to get out of bed, let alone leave the house; given that he sticks to what he finds comfortable, he has proved to be capable of making a very good career for himself. But for many it is still a barrier, a ball and chain that affected people are compelled to drag around with them all their life. So what I suspect Numan is saying here, amidst many other things, is that he, and people like him, should be recognised, and encouraged and respected for what they can bring to the world, even if they do not do so in a conventional manner. The persecution and victimisation continue, and the only way we are ever going to stop that happening, as Numan himself feels, is to try to reach out and understand.

This means not mocking them for knowing Einstein’s theory backwards but having problems tying their shoelaces. This means not mistaking shyness for aloofness. This means making allowances for people who don’t understand the body language of others, who perhaps take things a little too literally and end up in a mess or being regarded as a “Crazy” as a result. This means not calling them insulting names and making a sport out of it, or wagging an admonitory finger at them as if people with Asperger’s were just more naughty children at the back of the class who need drumming into line (but whose line is it anyway?).

Dismissing them, however you choose to do it, is not communication. It is a lambasting. A cutting down to size. A reminder of who’s in charge. A rejoinder to bend an apparently inferior head. A matter of point-scoring. And I’m afraid that until we stop jeering and sticking out our tongues, and try instead to listen to other people – not just taking individual words or expressions or actions out of context, and making our decision on that basis – then the circle will never be completed, and we will never know what it feels like for a person who has Asperger’s.

Maybe Lester Bangs was right when, around the time of Replicas’s initial release, he wrote the following in the Village Voice: “…you don’t have to try hard at all to be a racist. It’s a little coiled clot of venom lurking there in all of us, white and black, goy and Jew, ready to strike out when we feel embattled, belittled, brutalized. Which is why it has to be monitored, made taboo and restrained, by society and the individual.” Perhaps the theorists who believe such a theory are right, and there is something of the racist, or the sexist, or whatever –ist you care to name, in everybody.

All I can say is that what I’ve tried to do with my life is move beyond that initial faulty default setting, to reach out and make an effort to understand people who I’m not, and as a result learn to sympathise and, who knows, empathise with them. It is at such moments I look at the bleached Numan on the front of Replicas, and then look at pictures of me from the time this was number one, when I was fifteen – and to look into the eyes of that kid staring back at me and think: “Why move around and waste my time? You don’t know the half of it yet, mate.”