Friday, April 17, 2020

Electricity: Are ‘Friends’ Electric?

Gary Numan/Tubeway Army: Are ‘Friends’ Electric?

I suggested this theme a while ago, and when it was finally chosen, my first thought was to write about this song. We chose this theme to get away from things like “Alone” that relate to the “current situation” in which many of us are under various degrees of “stay at home” orders. So, of course, in doing my research of the song, I found out that in some ways it relates exactly to the current situation—even though it was released back in 1979.

Gary Numan’s band, Tubeway Army, was a punk band that had released a couple of singles in 1978 with a fairly standard guitar/bass/drum sound, and featuring Numan’s distinctive vocals. However, when in the studio recording their self-titled debut album, they found a Minimoog synthesizer. As Numan told Rolling Stone:

I remember it clearly. I had been sent to a studio by [my label] Beggars to record my first album. It was going to be a punk album and we were going to play the songs live. But as soon as I walked into the control room, there was a mini Moog. I had never seen one before. I just thought it was the coolest looking thing, just fantastic. Quite, quite small. 

Apparently, a company was going to come pick it up but the man said I could try it out until they came to collect it but they never turned up! I had this thing for the whole day and it was the most amazing experience. Very luckily, it had been left on that sound which had become famous: a huge big bottom bass roar. It was just huge. I didn't know how to set it up. All I did was press a key and the room shook! And I just thought, "F--k me! That's the most amazing thing I'd ever heard! The power!' Imagine, if the sound had been something that went ping!, I would've thought, 'This is rubbish' and none of this success would've ever happened to me. So much of this was luck. 

The Tubeway Army album mixed the standard punk sound with synthesizer, but by the time they recorded their next album, Replicas, the sound had become mostly synth-based, including “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” As Numan told The Guardian:

All my early songs were about being alone or misunderstood. As a teenager, I'd been sent to a child psychiatrist and put on medication. I had Asperger's and saw the world differently. I immersed myself in sci-fi writers: Philip K Dick, JG Ballard. The lyrics came from short stories I'd written about what London would be like in 30 years. These machines – "friends" – come to the door. They supply services of various kinds, but your neighbours never know what they really are since they look human. The one in the song is a prostitute, hence the inverted commas. It was released in May 1979 and sold a million copies. I had a No 1 single with a song about a robot prostitute and no one knew. 

So, here we are, 41 years later, and we are stuck at home, with many, if not all, services, being delivered to our homes, although not by robots. And, at least as far as I know, we don’t have robot prostitutes, but the “current situation” has, by some accounts, led to an explosion in online porn, which is even easier to hide from your neighbors.

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