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From the KORD writers:

‘Cars’ steers the New Wave into a brave new world

Musician and machine become one in “Cars.” New Wave pioneer Gary Numan’s paranoid-android anthem, a No. 1 hit in the UK in 1979, is a marvel of precision engineering — a chrome-plated vision of a world where technology has transcended humanity, foretelling the Orwellian future hurtling towards us at breakneck speed. 

“Numan” is a surname so implausibly perfect, it could only be an invention. The singer, born Gary Anthony James Webb in London in 1958, played in a series of little-noticed bands after receiving a Gibson Les Paul at the age of 15; per his 2020 memoir (R)evolution: The Autobiography, he once auditioned unsuccessfully for an early incarnation of Paul Weller’s group the Jam. Soon after Numan (an alias plucked from a Yellow Pages ad for nearby Neumann Kitchen Appliances) joined the Lasers, the punk trio changed its name to Tubeway Army, signing to Beggars Banquet to release its 1978 self-titled album. The 1979 follow-up, Replicas, yielded Tubeway Army’s biggest hit, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” recorded by Numan on a PolyMoog synthesizer he played with one finger. 

Gary Numan performing at the Granada Theater in Chicago, Illinois, October 25, 1980. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Beyond illuminating the creative and commercial possibilities inherent in synth-pop — a then-emerging genre later dubbed “perhaps the single most significant event in melodic music since Merseybeat” by writer Piero Scaruffi in his book A History of Rock and Dance Music — “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” blueprinted the future-shock schematics and thematics that Numan explored throughout his career. “All my early songs were about being alone or misunderstood,” he told The Guardian in 2012. “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, J.G. 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 neighbors 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 day after “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” topped the UK singles chart, Numan recorded four new songs in a session for BBC Radio 1 presenter John Peel, scrapping the Tubeway Army name in favor of a solo career. Numan recorded his 1979 solo debut, The Pleasure Principle, at London’s Marcus Music Studio; for the album — described in (R)evolution as “a collection of thoughts I’d had about the way technology was evolving and where it would take us” — he abandoned electric guitar to fully embrace analog synthesizers, feeding them through effects pedals to give the material a distorted, ominously metallic sheen.

Gary Numan performing at the Granada Theater in Chicago, Illinois, October 25, 1980. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Beggars Banquet unveiled “Cars,” Numan’s first solo single, on Aug. 21, 1979, roughly three months into Margaret Thatcher’s reign as prime minister of the United Kingdom — the beginning of more than a decade of social unrest and economic disenfranchisement. “Cars” is an appropriately bleak, forbidding record: its subject is dystopia, the subject of so many of the great works of science fiction. Issued five years ahead of 1984 — a year that loomed increasingly large in the public consciousness as it drew inexorably closer, thanks to George Orwell’s 1948 novel, the definitive word on dystopian society — “Cars” conjures a totalitarian hellscape where the automobile (once the target of screeds like consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s 1956 bestseller Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile) serves as an escape pod, the protective shell where Numan, swaddled in fiberglass and steel, feels “safest of all” against the menace and mayhem of post-industrial life. 

According to Numan, “Cars” was inspired by road rage, a scourge that aggressively metastasized in the years immediately following the single’s release. “I was in traffic in London once and had a problem with some people in front,” Numan recalled in 2001. “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” is hardly the first pop song about four-wheeled fiefdom, of course: car songs have been synonymous with rock and roll throughout its many twists and turns, dating back to the very first rock and roll record, the Sam Phillips-produced 1951 classic “Rocket 88,” credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats (in reality, Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm). In 2022, no less an authority than the American Automobile Association (AAA) even assembled a chronological list of the 100 greatest songs about cars and driving. “Cars” made the cut, but it’s an awkward fit: AAA-approved radio perennials like Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” are songs of freedom — declarations of independence. “Cars” is about freedom’s opposite. The open road has narrowed to a dead end. 

“Cars” doesn’t sound like anything else in the car song canon, either. Numan’s MiniMoog keyboard throbs and grinds, doubling Tubeway Army bandmate Paul Gardiner’s industrial-funk bassline — “the soul of a new machine,” to borrow the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1981 account of the race to build a next-generation computer — as synthetic strings (courtesy of the PolyMoog’s Vox Humana preset) ricochet like beams of light. Then there’s Numan’s lead vocal, a howl of angst and alienation delivered with the robotic emotionlessness of a kidnap victim reading aloud his captors’ checklist of demands. (Isolate the “Cars” vocal track here in KORD to fully appreciate the method-actor intensity of Numan’s performance.)

Though “Cars” runs close to four minutes in length, Numan’s vocal concludes at the 1:30 mark, immediately after his unraveling protagonist comes to the realization that “nothing seems right in cars.” From a narrative perspective, it’s unclear what happens here — whether Numan makes the conscious decision to go silent, or if the machines shut him up. Perhaps Numan is something other than flesh and blood — could he be an artificial intelligence like HAL 9000, the malevolent supercomputer featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 cinematic opus 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or maybe he’s an android — a holdover from “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” or one of the bio-engineered replicants populating Ridley Scott’s cult-classic 1982 film Blade Runner, inspired by Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Forget the AAA list: “Cars” belongs alongside the great works of 20th century speculative fiction, echoing and amplifying the alarm over the existential threat posed by the singularity — a hypothetical future in which technological innovation runs amok, culminating in unforeseeable but radical changes to civilization.

Gary Numan, right, performing at the Park West in Chicago, Illinois, November 8, 1982. To his right is bassist Pino Palladino. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Sci-fi author Vernor Vinge popularized the “singularity” concept and term in his 1993 essay The Coming Technological Singularity, writing “We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence.” Vinge’s essay goes on to credit the influence of the renowned mathematician, physicist and computer scientist John von Neumann, cited by AI, robotics and cognitive science expert Murray Shanahan as the first to explore the singularity in a technological context. Did Neumann also influence Numan? “Cars” presents many questions, and answers almost none of them.

“Cars” topped the pop charts at home and in Canada, while reaching No. 9 in the U.S. — Numan’s highest-charting American hit. He returned to the UK Top Ten in 1980 with “We Are Glass” and “I Die: You Die,” but announced his retirement from touring with a series of sold-out April 1981 concerts at London’s Wembley Arena, and watched his commercial fortunes decline in the years to follow. Numan nevertheless remains a cult hero to subsequent generations of electronic music fans and artists, with acts including Tears for Fears, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson crediting his impact. In 2010, Numan even teamed with Synn Labs (the creative engineers responsible for OK Go’s Rube Goldberg-inspired music video “This Too Shall Pass”) to reimagine “Cars” in a television commercial for automotive battery brand DieHard, performing a new version of the song using two dozen automobiles and their horns — an unexpected detente in the often fraught relationship between the singer and his signature creation. 

“The way I see it, it’s like a cloud with a silver lining — but it’s a cloud nonetheless,” Numan said in 2001. “It’s become a very, very famous song, and I really am proud of it. But sometimes you want to go ‘It’s 20 years old and there’s all this new stuff I’ve got’… It puts me in a very peculiar position, because depending on what country we’re talking about, my reputation and background is different. In America, I’m a one-hit wonder, which is kind of the kiss of death to most people. In Britain, I’ve had 35 chart singles, so it’s a very different story over there, and in Europe I’m somewhere in between. But ‘Cars’ remains the constant through all of it. Everybody knows it.”

Gary Numan performing at the Park West in Chicago, Illinois, November 8, 1982. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Cars (KORD-0007)

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