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RETRO CHART 1979: No chorus, no hook...an unlikely number one from electronic pioneer Gary Numan

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Gary Numan performing "Are 'Friends' Electric?" on TOTP.

Gary Numan performing "Are 'Friends' Electric?" on TOTP.

"Are 'Friends' Electric?" was released as a picture disc, adding to its appeal.

"Are 'Friends' Electric?" was released as a picture disc, adding to its appeal.

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Gary Numan performing "Are 'Friends' Electric?" on TOTP.

1 Are ‘Friends’ Electric? Tubeway Army

2 Ring My Bell Anita Ward

3 Up The Junction Squeeze

4 Boogie Wonderland Earth Wind and Fire with The Emotions

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5 The Lone Ranger Quantum Jump

6 Dance Away Roxy Music

7 Sunday Girl Blondie

8 Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now McFadden and Whitehead

9 H.A.P.P.Y. Radio Edwin Starr

10 Night Own Gerry Rafferty

Gary Numan has said that “if the BBC had known what [Are ‘Friends’ Electric?] was about they would never have played it”.

In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, he explained:

“All my early songs were about being alone or misunderstood. 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, JG 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 neighbours 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.”

Are ‘Friends’ Electric? was the final single from Tubeway Army before songwriter and frontman Numan dropped the name in favour of solo releases.

The single was released on May 4, 1979 and initially made slow progress in the lower reaches of the UK charts. After a Top Of The Pops appearance on May 28, when Are ‘Friends’ Electric? was then at No. 48, it finally entered the Top 30, before reaching number one on June 26 (ousting Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell), where it stayed for four weeks.

BBC radio DJ John Peel had broadcast Tubeway Army’s second session the night before, famously predicting that Are ‘Friends’ Electric? would not make the No.1 spot. It was eventually replaced at the top by the Boomtown Rats’ I Don’t Like Mondays.

John Peel’s belief that the song would not reach the top of the charts was understandable. In an era of 3-minute singles, Are ‘Friends’ Electric? was over five minutes long and had, in the words of the writer himself, “no recognisable hook-line whatsoever”.

Dark and laden with Moog synthesiser riffs and some spoken lines, both the song and Numan’s robotic stage performing drew criticism and downright hostility in some quarters. Writing for Smash Hits in 1979, Cliff White described “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” as “a dark, threatening wall of synthesised sound” which “throbbed ominously behind a gloomy song of paranoia and loneliness”.

But Numan has since come to be regarded as a pioneer of electronic music, with songs such as “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and “Cars”, his second No. 1 of 1979, now considered era-defining tracks.


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