I Wrote That - Gary Numan, Are Friends Electric?

In 1979 Gary Numan recorded Are Friends Electric? with his band Tubeway Army on a shoestring, creating one of British pop’s finest moments and influencing a generation of musicians from Juan Atkins to Kanye West. Here, Gary remembers how the song came about...

Paul Nichols
  • By Paul Nichols
  • 27 Dec 2013
  • min read
Quintessential eighties pop icon Gary Numan first cut his teeth when a synthesiser would set you back two months’ pay and drum machines only had ‘samba’, ‘mambo’ and ‘polka’ presets. In 1979 he recorded Are Friends Electric? with his band Tubeway Army on a shoestring, creating one of British pop’s finest moments and influencing a generation of musicians from Juan Atkins to Kanye West. Here, Gary remembers how the song came about.

I vividly remember writing Are Friends Electric? It was actually two songs to begin with. I had a verse that I didn’t know what to do with because I couldn’t find a chorus to fit. I also had another song with a really cool chorus but I couldn’t think of a verse for that. One day I was playing one part and immediately jumped onto the other and realised they actually worked together.

The funny thing was, I’d been working on both songs for a few weeks, but by jumping from one to another without a cup of tea in between I’d figured out the fit. It’s why the song is so long - at five and a quarter minutes it was way too long for a single.

The atmosphere of the track was much more like a ballad at the start, but I hit a wrong note when I was playing it once – because I’m not a very good pianist – and I thought, ‘Fuck, that sounds loads better!’ So I kept it. So, it’s actually a mixture of not being able to play very well and not being able to finish songs properly! It’s not as if I took a great deal of pride from it.

My mum and dad had only bought me the old pub piano a month or two before, so I was still teaching myself to play. All the songs I wrote around then were just me fiddling around trying to get my fingers to work in the right way. And, because I didn’t have any synthesisers at home, I wasn’t really able to sit and practice all the noises I wanted. It had to be done on the fly with the equipment we had in the studio.

For Replicas, the album that Are Friends Electric? came from, we could only afford five days in a little basement demo studio with a 16-track recorder in Chinatown, London. I had access to a rented Minimoog and a Polymoog for the first three days. I couldn’t afford the full five days rental for the synths so had to get all of them recorded first.

The studio also had a thing called an ARP 2000, with a hole drilled through it and a huge chain cemented to the wall to stop people nicking it! I remember thinking, ‘What kind of a place is this?!’ So, that’s how we did it. The synths would turn up and I would have to find the sounds that suited very quickly. We were recording and finishing three or four songs a day.

Are Friends Electric? went on to be a big single and I think any big track like that goes on to define your career for a while. People start to associate that sound with you. But soon after that, Cars came out and it’s arguable which one is more memorable now. Certainly in America it’s Cars, but in England and Europe it’s a toss up between which one people think defines me and my sound.

Gary’s 20th studio album Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind) was released by Cooking Vinyl on 14 October.

Over the last 35 years, Gary’s discography has grown to include an impressive 20 studio albums, while his influence on electronic and industrial music has gone from strength to strength.

Following a stint of UK dates in November, Gary’s international tour kicks of in February and includes a performance at US industry showcase South by South West in March.