I first heard Are `Friends’ Electric while sitting in a field.
That’s only significant because of the contrast between the starkly unsettling electronica and subject matter of the track and the gently bucolic nature of my surroundings at the time.
I could have heard it literally anywhere and had the same stunned reaction.
I was 13 at the time and still casting around for a musical direction of my own. Older friends used to play me their heavy rock albums, punk was two years too early for me to be a genuine follower despite buying the records and, as I didn’t frequent discos at that age, it would be a few years later before I truly appreciated the genius of Chic.
However, Tubeway Army arrived – for me – out of nowhere and life was never the same again.
A week after hearing the song on a tinny transistor radio I saw the band’s Top of the Pops performance and the effect was no less dramatic.
Gary Numan’s pallor, the band’s black outfits, the slightly robotic sounding vocals and, of course, those killer synth melodies combined to open my eyes and ears.
Plus this was also a strange tale lyrically, inspired by sci-fi writer Philip K Dick, and probably the first song about robot escorts to hit the charts.
Numan had discovered his winning sound almost by accident, coming across a Minimoog synthesiser in the studio and being blown away by its power. This, he decided quickly, was the way to go.
He wasn’t the first to be playing around with synths, of course, but no-one had written something quite as immediately affecting as this a record which swept to number one within weeks.
Plus he managed to repeat the trick a few months later with the equally staggering Cars, this time under his own name but with pretty much the same musicians.
Generationally I think everybody needs something to differentiate themselves from what’s gone before and this record helped define a synth-pop future that wouldn’t primarily involve men with guitars – at least for a couple of years.
Numan opened the floodgates for a whole host of bands and the charts were soon awash with outfits like Ultravox, Human League, OMD, Depeche Mode and many more enjoying success to a greater or lesser degree.
The rock orthodoxy of the time quickly set its face against this interloper, with the music press deriding his efforts, claims that this wasn’t `real’ music, or decrying him as a poor man’s Bowie.
But time has been kinder to him and now both Are ‘Friends’ Electric and Cars are rightly regarded as British classics and a major influence on another generation – particularly the likes of Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails who has never been slow in acknowledging Numan’s pioneering work.
And while its longevity benefited from Richard X’s inspired mash-up with Adeva’s Freak Like Me, it was essentially the strength of Numan’s original track that made it work so well and help Sugababes reach number one.
It’s now 40 years this month since Are ‘Friends’ Electric was released but it’s stood the test of time incredibly well, managing to still sound like the future while coming from the past.