Tubeway Army – “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”

(Re-posted from Freaky Trigger’s Popular)

afe-ta“I don’t think it mean anything to you.”

This song’s four-week stay at Number One coincided with the first (and second, third, fourth, fifth…) occasions where my passions were – at least in the strictly physical sense – requited. He was fair, athletic, pretty-boy handsome, and frankly well out of my league in the normal scheme of things – but in the cloistered all-male confines of the English public school, one took one’s pleasures where one found them, and I took considerable pains to signal my availability.

Darkened hallways, knocks on doors, cigarettes, shadows on bedside walls, sly touches, white lies – these were the symbols of our encounters, which eventually and inevitably brought far more suffering than pleasure.

Running simultaneously with all of this nocturnal furtiveness, my daytime existence had never been happier. Once our A-levels were over, our school in Cambridge became transformed from prison to boarding camp. Seemingly endless days were spent lounging by the river, or drinking in The Anchor, The Mill, The Fountain and The Granta, where we pumped our pennies into the jukeboxes, soundtracking our first tastes of freedom and independence with selections from the best singles chart since… well, since the last time I was in the senior year, five summers earlier.

For all of these reasons, the singles charts of June and July 1979 remain my absolute favourites. Dance Away, Boogie Wonderland, Pop Muzik, Shine A Little Love, Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now, Boys Keep Swinging, Hot Stuff, Number One Song In Heaven, We Are Family, HAPPY Radio, Masquerade, Roxanne, Up The Junction, The Lone Ranger, Say When, I Want You To Want Me, I Fought The Law, Love Song, Accidents Will Happen, Light My Fire/137 Disco Heaven, Silly Games, Babylon Burning, Space Bass, C’mon Everybody, Good Times, Girls Talk, Born To Be Alive, Breakfast In America, Bad Girls, My Sharona, Chuck E’s In Love, Death Disco, Playground Twist, Can’t Stand Losing You, If I Had You, Voulez-Vous, Beat The Clock, The Diary of Horace Wimp, Kid, Morning Dance, Harmony In My Head, Reasons To Be Cheerful, After The Love Has Gone… hell, even the also-rans such as the Beach Boys’ “Lady Lynda” and (most especially) Voyager’s “Halfway Hotel”… I’d challenge anyone to find a better soundtrack to teenage life, love, laughter and longing.

And topping them all: only Tubeway Bloody Army, if you please! Having previously dismissed them as bunch of third-rate fag-end-of-punk chancers who had been lucky to get a Peel session, nothing could have prepared me for the template-setting WTF Future Shock of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”, whose length and lack of chorus didn’t stop it from being THE defining pop record of that early summer. Everyone I knew loved it, a good half of them owned it, and you couldn’t spend more than a few minutes walking our corridors without hearing it (or its excellent B-side “We Are So Fragile”) booming out of somebody’s study.

Of course, and like most of us, my interest in Gary Numan rapidly waned – and it took a full 29 years and a freelance assignment for me to re-assess both the man and AFE’s parent album Replicas. Numan turned out to be one of my favourite interviewees: frank, forthcoming, perceptive and grounded, the worst of his demons long since laid to rest, happy to see his influence finally acknowledged, and – on the eve of his fiftieth birthday and his thirtieth anniversary in the music business, profoundly grateful for his survival within that business.

By way of a thank-you to his fanbase, Numan broke his anti-nostalgia rule and toured the Replicas album this spring. I had never seen him live before, and was astonished by his performance. As for his rendition of AFE, “ambushed by unexpected emotion” scarcely begins to cover it, as the the symbolic significance of those lyrics coupled with the overall mood of alienated longing hit harder than they had done in decades.

“It meant everything to me.”

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