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This song is about man living among robots - how you can lock yourself in a dark room away from any other human. Numan has Asperger's Syndrome, and many of this songs deal with themes of technology and isolation.
This was released on the album Replicas
by Tubeway Army, which was Numan's first band. Replicas
came out under the Tubeway Army name at the record company's insistence, but Numan was a solo artist by then, and the band was the one he used from then on: Cedric Sharpley on drums, Russell Bell on keyboards etc. By his third album The Pleasure Principle
(also a huge seller in the UK, and featuring "Cars
," his only US hit) the name on the record was Gary Numan.
With its electronic sound, this track wasn't for everyone, and many critics bashed it. In our 2010 interview with Gary Numan
, he explained: "In this country at least (England), the public kind of got it before the media did, and it was #1 here for I think 4 weeks. And it was on its third week at #1 that radio even started to playlist it, you know, there was a tremendous kind of resistance to it, people thought it was quirky here today, gone tomorrow. And at the time I felt like I was waving my flag, fighting for a cause. But now I look back on it, and I think very differently. So I'm just glad that it's evolved the way it has. I'm glad that the stuff I did in those days gets some recognition. I'm glad that the whole electronic thing found its feet and became a totally established part of music in general, and has been now for a good couple of decades or so. I think there's better music around because of it. The technology itself has come more than leaps and bounds. It's made a dramatic contribution to music in general, and I'm just proud that I played a small part in that."
The first Tubeway Army album was far more guitar-oriented, with songs like "Friends" which are pure punk songs. "Are Friends Electric?" represented a new sound for Numan: stark alien synthesizer-driven melodies, with the almost-orchestral sound of the Minimoog and other analog synths, which had faulty "ladder filters" that accidentally produced a richer fuller sound than other synths of the time.
This was a hit in the UK but never got much attention in the US, where Numan remains a one-hit-wonder for "Cars
." Does this bother him? Numan told us: "If an album goes out and it doesn't sell in large numbers, or in America it doesn't sell at all (laughs), I'm not devastated by that. I'm not sitting back thinking it's all a waste of time, because I just enjoyed making it in the first place. And luckily for me there's been other countries - the UK obviously - where things have gone differently and much better. And it's enabled me to keep on doing it, to keep on earning a living from it. So there is a mix of frustration, because it's an amazing country to be successful in. On the other hand, I don't feel as if my life has been diminished by not having an ongoing success there."
Gary Numan (from the February 24, 2006 Guardian newspaper): "I was trying to write 2 separate songs and I had a verse for one and a chorus for the other but I couldn't finish either, but I realized they sounded all right stuck together. That's why it's 5-minutes long. Before I recorded it I was playing it back and I hit the wrong note and it sounded much better. That harsh note is probably the crucial note in the hook. It transformed it from almost a ballad into something quite unusual. The lyrics came from a short story I'd written for a possible book. The reason 'Friends' is in inverted commas is because a 'friend' is an android. It's about a man who calls up for a prostitute and is visited by one. The only way you could tell them from humans was the pupils in their eyes were slightly oblong, and on the picture disc, my eye was like that. I didn't expect the success because you couldn't dance to it and it didn't have a definable chorus. My ambition at that point was to sell out the Marquee."
UK based DJ Richard X came up with the idea of making a bootleg sampling the music of this song and putting the vocals of Adina Howard's "Freak Like Me" on top of it, calling it "We Don't Give A Damn About Our Friends." This became a classic anthem in UK clubs, and it was decided that it would be a good idea to release commercially. However, Adina Howard wasn't happy with her voice being sampled. After some time Universal, the record company which had rights to this song, also signed The Sugababes, a band who had just been dropped from London Records. They sang the vocals to "Freak Like Me" in place of Howard's, and Richard X remixed the track to suit their vocals. Retitled "Freak Like Me," the song went straight to #1 in 2002 in the UK, and in effect saved their career. This meant that, in a way, "Are 'Friends' Electric" has been #1 twice.
Gary Numan apparently loved the new song and presented the Sugababes with the QW award for Best Single. The Sugababes hadn't even heard of Numan before they recorded the song but thanked him for it. (thanks, Adam - Dewsbury, England, for above 2)
Gary Numan and the Sugababes did not meet until the Q
Awards of 2002. Heidi of Sugababes said in In 1000 UK #1 Hits
by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh: "Somebody had the bootleg and our A&R guy played it to us and we loved it and tried it out. It worked so we recorded it properly. It was getting really good feedback and everyone was liking it so we went with it." It won them a Brit award for Best Dance Act. (thanks, Edward Pearce - Ashford, Kent, England)
Kurt Harland, lead singer of electro group Information Society, covered this on the album Don't Be Afraid. His version had 2.0 labeled at the end of the song title.
Numan told Mojo magazine March 2008 about the influence of writers Phillip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs on the Replicas album: "There's a lot of Phillip K. Dick in there. I love him. There's a lot of Burroughs, too. The songs on Replicas were musical versions of short stories I was writing. Each story was about an aspect of what I thought London might be like in 20 or 30 years' time. There's a lot of violence, so they get this big super-computer in to work out a solution. It quickly realizes that people are the problem, so it starts the Quota test, where people have to get to a certain level of intelligence, or they're taken to be re-educated - got rid of."
Numan felt deeply alienated as a teenager, found social interaction almost impossible and was not at ease with the world at all. He added in the Mojo interview: "So how I felt about the world, and my awkwardness and discomfort in it-it's all on there (in Replicas). I just made this big science-fiction world for it all to live in." Subsequently Numan was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism, causing dislocation in the subject's social interactions.
The Moog synthesizer was integral to Numan's sound. He explained to Rolling Stone how he came across the instrument. "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--- 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."
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