Wednesday, August 20, 2008

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Cars," by Gary Numan

Back in 1977, as punk was breaking across England, a musician named Gary Webb put together a group called the Tubeway Army, and by the following year, the band had landed a deal with Beggars Banquet, a record label that had no affiliation with the Rolling Stones. Webb changed his name to Valerian, and changed his bassist and drummer's names to Scarlett and Rael, and they released a couple of singles in 1978 that bombed.

Webb/Valerian soon came across a Minimoog synthesizer and used it to put together the band's first full-length album, also called Tubeway Army. He also changed his name one more time, to Gary Numan. The album was more successful, selling out in its limited run. They followed that up with Replicas, a record directly inspired by science fiction and the work of Philip K. Dick that featured an unsmiling Numan on the cover. It went to Number One in the U.K., propelled by the Number One single "Are 'Friends' Electric?" (It hit Number 85 here in the U.S.)

Numan wrote and sang every song on Replicas, and played every instrument except bass and drums. So by the time Tubeway Army was ready to release its next album, it was credited instead to Gary Numan, even though the personnel hadn't changed. This one was called The Pleasure Principle, and again featured an unsmiling Numan on the cover. The onetime punk band now put out an album with no guitars at all. All the songs had one-word titles.

The first single from the record was "Cars," which was supposedly inspired by an incident in Numan's life. "I was in traffic in London once and had a problem with some people in front," he said later. "They tried to beat me up and get me out of the car. I locked the doors and eventually drove up on the pavement and got away from them. It's kind of to do with that. It explains how you can feel safe inside a car in the modern world, which is probably why you get things like road rage. When you're in it, you're whole mentality is different, in a car. It's like your own little personal empire with four wheels on it." I question the opening part of that - shouldn't they try to get you out of the car first, then beat you up afterward? - but whatever.

As striking as the song was, with its insistent synthesizers and crashing drums (and, incongruously, lots of tambourine), the video really helped make "Cars" a hit, with Numan's grim, emotionless visage. I remember hearing Casey Kasem talk about how Numan had read a SF story about a future where people had no emotions, and based his persona on that. That's probably somewhat true, given Numan's devotion to Philip K. Dick, but I also later heard Numan admit that he was really shy (he was still only 21 when Pleasure Principle came out), and found it hard to enjoy himself and smile in his videos.

There may also be a medical reason for this. "Just recently I actually found out that I'd got a mild form of Asperger's Syndrome which basically means I have trouble interacting with people," Numan said in 2001. "For years, I couldn't understand why people thought I was arrogant, but now it all makes a bit more sense."

"Cars" was released in the U.K. in August 1979, and landed at the Number One spot by September. In the U.S., "Cars" motored into the Top Forty the last week of March 1980, eventually pulling in at Number Nine on the charts. Contrary to his somber image, Numan had turned into a bit of a party boy, being expansive in interviews with the press and driving recklessly around London in a white Corvette that Beggars Banquet gave him. Yes, of all people, wrote a song supposedly about Numan, called "White Car"; its lyrics, in their entirety, are: "I see a man in a white car/Move like a ghost on the skyline/Take all your dreams/And you throw them away/Man in a white car."

The followup to "Cars" was a song called "Complex," which went to Number Six in Great Britain but didn't make the Hot 100 in America. Numan's follow-up to The Pleasure Principle, Telekon, was his third straight Number One album in the U.K. It didn't do much in the States, where the single "I Die: You Die" stalled at Number 92 on the charts. It would be Numan's last entry in Billboard's Hot 100.

The "Cars" video predates MTV, but it seems like everyone has seen it anyway, on USA's Nightflight or something. "I thought it was excellent," Numan said later of music video. "I thought it was the future of everything." Here's the future as it looked in 1980:


Scraps said...

It's a shame Numan's breakthrough couldn't have come a year earlier, because "Are Friends Electric?" is one of the pinnacles of electronic pop music; that synth riff in the verses is one of the great earworms of all time.

The first album, too, is quite good; nothing that takes off into the stratosphere, but consistently good and interesting.

He wasn't just inspired by Philip K Dick; there are a lot of literary science fiction references scattered through his first four albums. For example, the line "friends come in boxes" is lifted from Michael G Coney.

Gavin said...

The Cars really should have released a single titled "Gary Numan."