The Rapid Rise of Electronic Music in the Wake of Punk’s Implosion: Gary Numan’s “Cars”
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
In the 1980s, the futuristic sounds of synthesizers and electronic instruments were everywhere, but only a few years before (in the late seventies) punk music had been dominating the popular music scene with its aggressive, DIY, guitar driven sounds. In the transition from this raw, rock ‘n roll sound to a sci-fi dreamscape of futuristic synthesizers, we find Gary Numan and his 1979 hit single “Cars.”
Born Gary Anthony James Webb in 1958, in Hammersmith, London, Gary Numan began his musical career in 1977 in a band called Mean Street, in which they were active participants in the rise of punk in England. It was with his second band, The Lasers, that introduced him to bassist , with whom Numan would form his breakthrough band Tubeway Army. Tubeway Army also featured Numan’s uncle Jess Lidyard on drums. The band signed with Beggars Banquet record label and by 1978 had released their first recordings.
While Tubeway Army was formed in the fires of the punk revolution, they quickly embraced electronic sounds. In many ways they kicked off the electronic colors of the next decade, boasting the first UK number 1 hit that was centered around synthesizers,”Are ‘Friends’ Electric,” in 1979. Written by Numan, “Are Friend’s Electric” showcases the band’s characteristic style: electronic sounds around science-fiction inspired lyrics. This track, in particular, is a reference to Philip K. Dick’s popular novel that had just come out the previous year, ”Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” In 2015, Numan explained:
“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.”
The song and its album, Replicas, were the band’s last single under the name Tubeway Army. After this, Numan’s future recordings would all be released under his name, although he would keep many of the musicians of Tubeway Army as his backup band. More recently, in 2019, Numan explained that he felt the name of the band (with its origins in the punk rock world) did not represent the new and exciting sounds of the music they were creating:
“As soon as I found synthesisers and started making electronic music, I told Beggars I didn’t want to be called Tubeway Army anymore….I’d seen punk was finished and I thought the name ‘Tubeway Army’ overshadowed the new music.”
Even before the release of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric,” Numan was already working on and recording solo material, having recruited a new permanent drummer, Cedric Sharpley, and a keyboardist, Chris Payne. By the time the Replicas album was released, Numan and his band were already in the studio working on the first solo album The Pleasure Principal. The debut single from this album, “Cars”, kicked off Numan’s solo career with unprecedented success, and revolutionized the popular music landscape of England in the wake of punk’s massive implosion.
“Cars” kicks off with a futuristic whirling – a sound that foreshadows the electronic masterpiece that is to come. Despite his punk roots, Numan saw electronic music as the way of the future, even in his early days of Tubeway Army. He recently recalled the first time he saw a synthesize while Tubeway Army was recording their first tracks:
“….we went to the studio later that year to record our album, which should have been all the songs from our set. It should have been a punk album. But when we got to the studio, while the others were unloading the gear, I went into the control room to introduce us to the engineer. And I noticed there was a synthesizer in the corner of the room. I’d never seen a real one before, so I was blown away by the switches and dials. I’m a little geeky when it comes to technology, so I was fascinated by it. Then I asked if I could have a go, if he could turn it on. So he turned it on, and it was an amazing experience. I pressed the key, and the whole room shook. It was the most huge, powerful, floor-shaking thing that I’d ever heard.
So I was fiddling around with this keyboard and trying to make different sounds. And by the time [the band] finished setting up and came into the control room, I said to them, “Everything’s changed. We’re not doing the album that we came here for. It’s all different.”
By the time Numan was working “Cars” he was fully engrossed in the electronic sphere, employing a Minimoog Synthesizer (which complements its catchy bassline) and a Polymoog Synthesizer (which provides those floating electronic string sounds over the tracks).
Although “Cars” eschews the guitar driven musical sounds of punk and earlier rock styles, it does employ a classic rhythm sections of bass and drums. In fact, Numan says the song was actually written on a bass guitar. He explained that he had just purchased a Shergold Modulator bass,, and first four notes he played after pulling it out of its case became the opening bass hook of “Cars”
“….I thought…That sounds pretty good, I’ll keep that. And then I did something else—the next four notes became [the other hook]. It was really simple, like a child’s song. It took me 5 to 10 minutes to get the three parts of the song worked out, and figure out a structure. Then it took me another 20 minutes to do the lyric.
It’s funny to me, that one of the most well-known electronic singles ever, was written on a bass guitar. I’ve written about 400 songs, and only two were written on bass guitar. “Cars” was one of them.”
The song’s structure is really quite simple. Each robotic verse is followed by an instrumental break. After the second verse and break there is an extended instrumental bridge which eventually fades to a close. The song doesn’t even have are a real chorus.
Matching the song’s futuristic character, Numan sings the song in an almost sterile, robotic performance style. Interestingly, the lyrics themselves are not futuristic at all. In fact, they are unremarkably contemporary to Numan’s time of recording – singing rather simply about the feeling of sitting in one’s car, in which you have complete control of your environment.
Numan credits the song’s lyrical inspiration to experiencing a moment of road rage directed towards him: “I was in traffic in London once and had a problem with some people in front. 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… When you’re in it, your whole mentality is different… It’s like your own little personal empire with four wheels on it”
“Cars” and the rest of The Pleasure Principle album was recorded at Marcus Music Studio in London in 1979, at the same time that Numan’s Tubeway Army album Replicas was dominating the UK album charts. “Cars” was released on August 21, 1979, as the lead single for the album which would follow on September 7. The single hit #1 in the UK and Canada and the top 10 in the US, Ireland and Australia. It remains one of his most well known songs, and a staple of his life performances.
After achieving such massive commercial success, Gary Numan’s career has been long and prolific. To date, he has recorded twenty one albums, with his most recent being Intruder, released in May of 2021. He has constantly pushed boundaries and challenged generations of musicians to new creative heights. Despite his constant reinventions of himself and his music, “Cars” remains largely unchanged. He explained: “I did try to update it, I just couldn’t get it any better.” And perhaps that should come as no surprise. Fusing together futuristic sounds with contemporary automobile imagery…Gary Numan created an almost timeless track that declared that the future was upon us.
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