One of the most important things about liking new music in 1979 – at least to the kind of teenager I was – was the idea of being simultaneously ahead of the curve, and not being seen to like anything too popular. Being into music in any form was a minefield – there were genres and sub-genres to navigate; some things which were inexplicably popular, and others which sounded perfectly fine, but were apparently to be avoided at all costs. You never knew whether bringing your latest purchase in to school would cause eyebrows to be raised or brows to be furrowed, and having the ‘wrong’ opinion on something could be social death.
It was, of course, profoundly tribal – navigating the wild waters of the final couple of years in school needed the instincts of a politician as fads, football teams, bands and people fell in and out of fashion. Striking out on your own was wildly risky, but if you got it right, could be enormously rewarding.
I’ve written before on here about how the end of my fifth year at school revolved around the drama theatre, and putting on plays rather than doing any actual school work. The record player in the dressing room was just one of the incentives we had to spend as much time as possible skulking around backstage, ostensibly learning lines, painting scenery or figuring out the lighting, but in reality listening to as much and as varied a selection of music as possible.
And doing so in the company of like-minded contemporaries; people whose musical tastes clearly overlapped in some intriguing ways. We’d compete to bring in the record we thought would score most points, and we’d talk confidently about bands we’d never heard, and we’d disparage music because it got played on daytime radio. We listened to The Jam’s All Mod Cons album, and wondered why English Rose didn’t warrant a mention in the tracklisting; was it possible that the musicians themselves were as self-conscious about the songs they liked (and wrote) as we were?
Liking something new, then, was fraught with danger. You might rave about a single you heard one evening while failing to do your maths homework, only to discover that the NME had already panned it and decided it didn’t fit with that week’s prevailing orthodoxy. Equally, you might hear something and confidently declare it a tuneless dirge, only to discover that the band had a four-page spread in the music press and were being declared the future of music.
It took me a long time to get over my first reaction to Joy Division, I can tell you.
I had no doubts, however, about Tubeway Army. I like to think I heard Down in the Park first, but it’s unlikely; like everyone else I knew, I saw them perform Are ‘Friends’ Electric on the Old Grey Whistle Test and went out and bought the single the next day. The previous album in this list notwithstanding, here was something genuinely different and arresting – it might have been written intentionally for a sixteen-year-old science fiction reader suffering from all the usual teenage insecurities and uncertainties. It didn’t – or so I thought at the time – have an obvious wide appeal; I couldn’t actually imagine anyone who didn’t share my exact tastes actually liking it, so it was perfect.
I brought it back in to the dressing room and played it several times that afternoon. I like to think that everyone else gave it and me a wide berth, but in truth, many of us has seen them on TV the night before, and we were all intrigued. The single had a picture sleeve with a close up of the robot frontman (whose name turned out to be Gary Numan) and the B side suggested that here was a whole new sound, not just a novelty single, although the layers of guitar on the B side also promised that it wouldn’t be a completely alien listening experience.
Of course, there were doubters – those who pointed out that Numan was basically doing a slightly less tuneful David Bowie impression, and who scoffed at the whole ‘synthesisers as viable musical instruments’ thing, but Tubeway Army definitely made a connection with me, and the album quickly followed the single into my ever-expanding collection.
My obsession with all things Gary Numan, however, didn’t outlive the band by much. Numan dropped the band name before the end of 1979 (which always struck me as a curious decision), and I lasted only one more album before moving firmly toward the more guitar-heavy end of the music continuum. But for a year or so there, it seemed that androids, computers and synthesised keyboard sounds were the way forward, and I was right there with them, right up to the point where it all got a bit too popular and successful, because I was still a fickle teenager, after all.
I have listened to Replicas since then, so this is not a completely cold reading of the album – however appropriate that might sound. I do seem to remember that it’s not as bleak, cold and artificial as its reputation might suggest, but I also know that I haven’t hurried to procure a new copy, nor have I gazed fondly at it any time I came across one. It was an important part of my life at the time, but perhaps not so much in retrospect; I’m keen to find out just what I actually think of it now.
Me, I Disconnect From You starts with the synthesiser equivalent of a guitar riff, followed by an actual guitar, or just possibly an artificially generated guitar sound. The fact that it’s hard to tell is one of the most appealing features of what is otherwise a simple, if catchy song. It clearly introduces the idea of the narrator as distant, alien and possibly artificial. Is he the vaguely robotic figure on the front cover? We assume so, and I think this is the first glimpse of the issue which makes this album harder to like than it should be. It is cold and distant; it’s meant to be, but that really does make it hard to love – the emotions are missing, and the voice is playing a key part in keeping the listener at arm’s length, which is tricky to pull off successfully. I like this song, but a whole album of it will be tough going.
Fortunately, all such reservations are swept aside by the powerful nostalgia rush of Are ‘Friends’ Electric? This is much easier to relate to, although I’m the one bringing the emotion to the occasion – the song is telling a story, and the variation in the vocal style to the semi-narrated sections works to break up the flatness of the singing, and gives us a way in. I have read suggestions that the lyrics to this, and to the album as a whole use the disconnected, robotic android effect to show us life from somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and it’s an intriguing thought – you can definitely hear in the words to Are ’Friends’ Electric? that sense of disconnect from social interactions, but you can just as easily, I think, ascribe it to the character Numan is playing, who is – I think – intended to be not-quite, or not-entirely human.
The Machman is much warmer (I’m aware I’m throwing around terms like ‘cold’ and ’warm’ as if it was obvious how they relate to music) because of the guitar part it kicks off with – the more analogue sounds help to make the vocal tone more relatable, and even though the emotion of the song is downplayed, there are a couple of places where words are oddly stressed to make them fit, and they allow a glimpse of the person behind the robot mask. I like this more than I remembered.
On the other hand, my heart sank a little when Praying to the Aliens started with the same staccato rhythms and nasal voice; it does redeem itself with a more catchy chorus and interesting bassline; the various keyboard bleeps serve to keep the interest going, and by the end, I’m humming along, but I am definitely finding the relentless sameness of the approach to these songs a little wearing.
Down in the Park is, on the face of it, more of the same, but it has a bit more spark to it (I’m going to mention the bass playing of Paul Gardiner here again; he really propels this and several other songs along when the repetitive nature of the keyboard threaten to drain the whole thing of life. Down in the Park takes a broader look at the setting for these stories, and it is not a pleasant one; I’m sure the line about ‘rape machines’ was designed to shock; it provokes unease now, although it’s not objectionable in context, it’s just not necessarily a context I want to spend much time in – I get it; the machines are mutilating and killing humans. Perhaps there’s a redemptive through-line to all this mechanical misery, but I have to say, I don’t remember one.
You Are In My Vision feels like it rocked in from a completely different album. There’s some more feeling to all of it, even the lyrics which simply depict the android being unable to look away from the degraded state of the humans around him. It’s not exactly cheery and sing-along, but I think it works better than most of the songs on here, partly because the mix of instruments seems to work better.
Next up we get some treated drums, which really were the harbinger of the sounds which would fill up the charts of the early 1980s. Where did the soundscape for all those synth-pop songs we remember so fondly come from? Right here. It’s not – I don’t think – a drum machine; the rhythms sound like they were created by a human and altered later (or were one of the very first electronic drum kits, although I have my doubts about that, too). Either way, Replicas, the album track, is – deliberately or otherwise – pointing the way to one possible future, and it’s interesting mainly because of that.
It Must Have Been Years is further evidence that Numan’s voice reacts to the backing it’s being given. While the tone is unchanged, this is a fairly straightforward guitar-based rock song, and the vocal line can’t help feeling more engaged and alive. I have no idea what he’s singing about; like several songs here, these appear to be short stories pulled from a bigger context; we don’t know what ‘UDs’ are, but it’s an effective way to hint at a much greater depth and bigger story than we’ve seen so far.
When the Machines Rock is an instrumental, and freed from having to provide a platform for the words, the machines do, if not exactly rock, at least bounce along convincingly and with more life in them than we’ve heard so far.
The longest track on the album, I Nearly Married a Human is also instrumental, and feels like it has a lot of work to do, to round this all off with enough conviction to make you want to come back for more. It has a lot of interesting stuff going on, and this time I think I do detect a drum machine once the long, filmic introduction gives way to the beat. I honestly haven’t remembered any of the songs on the second side, but this one, I think would repay a little more investigation. It certainly contains some of the seeds of the Next Big Thing which was just emerging as bands got their hands on relatively cheap technology – I can hear Ultravox, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, even Depeche Mode in this track, and while all of those were already on the road to their own sound in 1979, and might well have got there without this album, the fact that someone had brought this new style into public consciousness didn’t hurt.
Overall, I can’t say I’ll be rushing back to Replicas any time soon. Unlike the other distinctly 1979 sounds I’ve talked about in the last few posts, this hasn’t surprised or delighted me beyond the nostalgic buzz I got from the first side. It’s a cold, dark world, and not one I care to spend too much time in. I appreciate its influence, and I do – at least I think I do – get why I was so in thrall to it at the time, but it doesn’t feel like it has stood the test of time nearly as well as I had hoped. I’m a little sad about that, because it was important to me at the time, and I wish I liked it more than I do.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
There is only one other Tubeway Army album, the self-titled debut. I listened to it a while back, and found that I like it much more than Replicas. It’s definitely worth a listen, as – I suppose – is the first Gary Numan album, The Pleasure Principle. Recorded shortly after Replicas with the same band, but bafflingly released under his own name, it contains more hit singles, but is otherwise very similar to this. I owned and loved it at the time, too, but I haven’t listened to it in many, many years. After that, Numan went on doing his thing, and was successful at it, and I tip my hat to him, but don’t feel the urge to investigate any further.
Compilations to consider?
No Tubeway Army ones, and I’d hesitate to recommend a Gary Numan one, on the grounds that I haven’t heard any.
There is a live version of Replicas, and any number of other live albums, including at least one I remember from about 1981, called Living Ornaments, but – again – I’ve only heard snippets from that and not enough to recommend anything. I did hear a live version of Are ‘Friends’ Electric recently, and that seemed to work pretty well; Numan’s voice had lost some of that affectless tone, and the whole thing, complete with audience singalong, was quite a lot of fun.
Anything else? A couple of autobiographies, which I’m going to suggest are worth looking into if you’re a fan, mainly on the strength of an interview I heard Numan give a few years back, during which he came across as a thoroughly likeable bloke with some interesting stories to tell.