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Gary Numan: Are 'Friends' Electric?

It's hard to imagine that next year will be the 40th anniversary of new wave singer Gary Numan's first number one hit, Are 'Friends' Electric? With his signature synthesiser sound, the Hammersmith-born singer shot to fame with his band, Tubeway Army, in June 1979.

After being signed by the record label, Beggars Banquet, in 1978, the chart topper wasn't his first release - as lead singer, song-writer and producer with the band, he had already written and released three singles: That's Too Bad and Bombers in 1978, followed by Down in the Park in 1979. However, none of them had enjoyed commercial success.

The number one hit, Are 'Friends' Electric? was taken from the album, Replicas. It marked the start of Numan's long and highly successful career in the music industry, which continues to this day.


Early years

Numan was born Gary Webb on 8th March 1958 and was educated at grammar school, before joining the Air Training Corps in his youth. However, he had been interested in music since his father bought him a Gibson Les Paul guitar when he was 15.

He played in several bands, including Mean Street and the Lasers, without any commercial success. Then, he formed Tubeway Army with his uncle, Jess Lidyard, who played drums and bass guitarist, Paul Gardiner. He reportedly changed his name to Numan after seeing an advert in the Yellow Pages for a plumber named Neumann.

After he heard his first ever synthesiser (the Minimoog) he said the sound "blew him away" and he realised it was the type of music he wanted to make. He converted all of the band's guitar-based punk songs into electronic songs instead.


Song inspiration

Always fascinated with dystopian science fiction, after "Are 'Friends' Electric?" reached number one, he revealed the hidden meaning of its mysterious lyrics – the song was composed on a piano that his parents had bought.

Apparently, the odd sound was a combination of Numan not being able to write songs or play them on the piano at the time. However, he said once he had transferred it to a Polymoog synthesiser, it sounded much better and quite futuristic.

The bass and drums were left in so that listeners had "something familiar to connect with", instead of just the synthesiser sounds.

All his early songs were about being misunderstood and alone - a theme he attributes to being diagnosed with Asperger's. Initially, as a teenager, he was diagnosed as suffering from depression and was prescribed anti-depressant medication.

He immersed himself in sci-fi novels, including works by Philip K Dick and JG Ballard. Philip K Dick wrote the famous 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This was the basis for the hit sci-fi film, Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott in 1982.


Lyrics meaning

Imagining what London might be like in 30 years' time, the lyrics for "Are 'Friends' Electric?" are based on short stories he had written in his youth. The machines – which he calls "friends" – come to the door to supply various services.

As he sings, "I open the door, it's the 'friend' that I'd left in the hallway," this refers not to a human friend, but to a robot. He explains they look very human, so the neighbours don't actually know who they are. This is why the word "friend" is in inverted commas - because it isn't really a friend, but an android.

The single sold a million copies and was the record that rocketed him to fame. During his long career, Numan has released 50 singles, 21 studio albums, 25 live albums and 13 EPs. Today, now aged 60, he is still a recording artist.

His most recent single was My Name is Ruin in 2017, while his album, Savage (Songs from a Broken World) was released in September last year and reached number two in the UK albums chart. He also completed a European tour last year and was awarded the Ivor Novello Inspiration Award.

The electronic synthesiser sound inspired a generation of new wave artists in the 1980s and he was a pioneer of the new sound in the post-punk era. In his private life, Numan married Gemma O'Neill in 1997 and the couple have three daughters.

Although "Are ‘Friends’ Electric?" is an iconic hit of the new age era, in the real world, the last thing we would want is for friends to be electrified, in terms of suffering an electric shock! Coruba's electrical rubber matting or switchboard matting is used for health and safety reasons to protect employees from the risks of electrical shocks at work - plant rooms, switchboards and control rooms can all be at risk. Please contact us for further details.

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