Back to Gary Numan index


The only person I know of, apart from Thaemlitz, who has treated Numan's lyrics with the seriousness they deserve is Paul Sutton. (8) Paul Goodman's Tracks goes through the songs one by one but is an anthology of reminiscences by Numan himself and some of the people who worked with him (strangely, though, none of the women who sang with him, notably Tessa Niles and Tracy Ackerman, in the 'Numa' years, 1984-1992). I disagree strongly with some of Sutton's interpretations but I still recommend the book. It captures very well the startling novelty of what he was doing and the disgusting way he was treated by the music press - all the more disgusting when we consider we're talking about a very young autistic loner with (at the time when he made his mark with Replicas) a three piece band, his uncle on drums, his best friend on bass, recorded by a tiny record company (Beggars Banquet) with only two other bands (The Lurkers and The Doll, both punk groups, as was Tubeway Army to begin with) on its list. As Numan put it (quoted in Tracks): 'I was just a bloke sitting at home, living with his Mum and Dad, who'd wrote a song. Two weeks later it was number one and suddenly the whole world hated me.'

(8) Understanding Gary Numan: The Machine Quartet (1978-1981), Buffalo Books, 2016 (2nd edition). I have it in the Kindle version that doesn't give page references.

Though he wreaked splendid vengeance with the angry, passionate song I die, you die and the video as seen on the Kenny Everett Show (done for December 1979 but actually broadcast in February 1980 because David Bowie refused to appear on the same show with him). (9)

(9) Numan had been a Bowie fan - in Praying to the aliens, he describes starting a riot at a David Bowie concert, at the time a tribute of affection. He was deeply disappointed at Bowie's attitude to him. Maybe Bowie saw Numan as so many 'critics' did at the time as just a cheap imitation of himself. But maybe he had seen Numan's video. His own contribution to the show - Boys keep swinging (not as Sutton has it, John I’m Only Dancing) - is an exceptionally frivolous song. The confrontation with I die, you die would have blown him away out of sight.

(the 'weapon' he is carrying in this photo is actually one of the tubes from his mother's vacuum cleaner)

My disagreement with Sutton is that I think he takes the whole sci fi android element, concentrated on Replicas, too seriously. And that he attaches too much importance to Numan's insistence that he was never attracted to men. Yes, Numan and Malins tell us that 'Are "Friends" Electric' and 'Down in the Park' were based on science fiction stories he had written which involved 'friends' who could be summoned by telephone to relieve loneliness. The 'machmen', 'downstats', 'randoms', 'crazies' all have a part to play in these fantasies. And yes, the 'little girls and S.U.s and things that I don't understand' of 'Are "Friends" Electric' (the transcription on A-Z lyrics has 'little deals and issues') refer, together with the mysterious (7.4) that appears in the lyrics on the album liner, to real incidents concerning girlfriends. Numan himself says (Goodwin: Tracks): 'The spoken part was about an incident that happened at Christmas (1978). It speaks for itself, S.U. was a person. The rest of it was about the theme, where you can buy friends - you hire them by the hour. They're electric. You ring up and say you want a friend for something - it can be for sex, for talking, whatever you want - and they'll send one along. The friends were all identical - a grey man in a long coat. Grey hair, all smoking a cigarette so that nobody knows what you've hired them for ... The song was basically about how life in the near future would be, a world of personal alienation. The song was inspired by living in tower blocks in England, I was feeling very depersonalised at the time.'

Well, all right, that's what he says. But it isn't obvious why electric androids hired for purposes of sex and conversation should take the form of men in grey coats. Numan was an admirer of William Burroughs. He knows how sci fi fantasy can be used to express very human feelings. I read 'Are "Friends" Electric' as being about a boy who has been betrayed by a friend and is now offering himself up to the anonymous depersonalised sex that is easily available on the gay scene at the hands of men who can quite reasonably be represented as wearing grey macs and slouch hats:

'I know exactly
What you've crawled here for
Cringe down lower
You're all dressed in grey
Me I'm still breathing
It's just not your day' 

('O.D. Receiver', The Plan)

'Me I'm so ashamed
You're all connected to my number
I'll wear my old grey raincoat
Just in case you're "confidential"'

('Do you need the service?', Replicas)

'I was standing outside your door
Waiting for the grey men to go
When my mind turned on me
With a vengeance I had never known -
My own.'

('The Machman', Replicas)

'Are "friends" electric?' was of course the song that established Numan in the public eye and therefore, because of the way he performed it, his image as a cold, emotionless alien. But it's difficult to see how anyone reading the words could miss the poignancy of the spoken lines:

'So I found out your reasons
For the phone calls and smiles
And it hurts
And I'm lonely
And I should never have tried
And I missed you tonight
It must be time to leave
You see it meant everything to me'

or the sung

'You know I hate to ask
But are 'friends' electric?
Only mine's broke down
And now I've no-one to love'

Assuming he's referring to an electric android which has literally broken down one wonders why he has no-one to love if there's another one waiting outside in the hallway. Couldn't the question Are 'friends' electric not refer to real - false - friends whose friendship turns on and off, like an electric switch? As in the song 'Ice' (The Plan):

'Fill my head with false feelings
I can't trust anything you say
Today I missed a special friend
That never really cared anyway.'

or, also from The Plan, 'Something's in the house':

Memories lost in faded films
of my life
and a friend that used to be
something special to me.'

And when he invites the electric android or, as I would have it, the older man seeking sex, into his room (or the room in which he finds himself - 'I wonder what I'm doing in a room like this') what an image he gives of him! - 'A candlelit shadow on the wall by the bed.'