This is the 22nd post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Gary Numan only had one hit in the US: “Cars,” in 1979, off the album “The Pleasure Principle.” It spent 17 weeks on the American Top 40, where it peaked at Number 9.
But Numan was much more popular in his native England, where he’s known for much more than just “Cars.” “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” a song he released when he was fronting the post-punk band Tubeway Army, was Number 1 on the UK Singles Chart for four weeks and has been a staple on tours.
Nothing about that song indicates it would be a sure hit. “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” is five minutes, has no chorus and much of it spoken, not sung, over slow synthesizers. But that hook is infectious, right from the beginning, and Numan’s cadence — not singing, but not spoken — fit perfectly with the tempo.
Numan said that riff, like much of the song, happened by accident. In an interview with Dave Simpson for The Guardian’s “How We Made” series, Numan said:
I wrote it on an old pub piano my mum and dad bought, which I didn’t realize was out of tune. It was initially two different songs, which is why it’s over five minutes long. I had a verse from one, the chorus from the other, and was struggling to mix them together. I got so fed up, one day I played them one after another and suddenly they sounded right. So the song is a combination – of me not being able to write songs, and not being able to play them either. The main melody is one note sharp, since I hit a wrong note on the old piano, and it sounded better. I ended up recording it on a Polymoog synthesizer played with one finger. It sounded very different and futuristic, but there was still some bass and drums in there, so people had something familiar to connect with.
“Futuristic” is apt for the sound of the keyboards, but also for the theme of the song. Numan said he was inspired by the science fiction writers Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard, whose works he read voraciously as a teenager. Numan, who had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, said he saw the world differently and thus all his early songs “were about being alone or misunderstood.”
Numan said that the lyrics for “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” came from short stories he had written about a London 30 years in the future. In that same Guardian interview, Numan said the premise was that “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 Number 1 single with a song about a robot prostitute and no one knew.”
“Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” appeared on “Replicas,” the second and final Tubeway Army album. The members continued to play together, but they dropped the name and opted to go by Numan’s name, as he had been the sole songwriter and producer.
The covers of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” — of which there at least two dozen — serve as an homage not just to Numan, but to the synth-driven music he helped pioneer. It was one of the first synthpop hits, and thus any success keyboard-heavy bands have is thanks in large part to the path blazed by people like Numan. Some covers do a better job of reinventing the song, recasting the lyrics to convey the alienation in Numan’s lyrics. But even the covers that sound rather faithful to the Tubeway Army version, and there are a few, are noteworthy in that they highlight how synthesizer technology has advanced and evolved since 1979.
Soon after he left Tool, bassist Paul D’Amour formed the band Replicants with touring Tool musician Chris Pitman and Failure members Greg Edwards and Ken Andrews. The name, while a nod to the class of androids in the movie “Blade Runner,” was also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that the band only played cover songs. The band’s only album, released in 1995, focused mainly on the ’70s and ’80s, including takes on John Lennon, T. Rex, Wings, and The Cars. Like many of the songs on the album, Repicants’ “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” was not dramatically different from the original. Numan’s arrangement remained intact, albeit with heavy drums and with D’Amour’s distinct “Hey, that sounds like Tool” bass.
That same year, neo-glam Britpop band Nancy Boy released a cover of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” for its album “Promosexual.” Nancy Boy’s rendition didn’t reinvent the song any more than Replicants did, as both versions were essentially ’90s updates of the original. Nancy Boy lead singer Donovan Leitch sounded more dramatic than the deadpan Numan, as if he were aping Pete Burns of Dead Or Alive. More noteworthy about Nancy Boy’s cover were the connections among the band’s lineup: Leitch was son of ’60s singer Donovan, and guitarist Jason Nesmith was son of Mike Nesmith of The Monkees.
Humo’s Rock Rally is a biannual Belgian contest for rock bands, produced by the Dutch-language magazine HUMO. An Pierlé rose to the top of the field of the 1996 competition with her operatic vocal skills, which were on display in her ornate piano version of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” the song that got her into the competition. She did not win, but the song became a hit on Belgian radio, and within a few years, she signed a record deal and recorded her first album. She has been called the “Belgian Tori Amos,” a description that fits her hauntingly bare cover. The song ended up on a few compilation albums, including the 1997 Gary Numan tribute album, “Random.”
“Random” also included two more covers of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” Dance pop duo Moloko imbued the song with trip-hop beats and spooky “Twilight Zone” sound effects. Weird as that might seem, the sped up version was even more danceable than the Tubeway Army’s version. Beyond the backing track, it was singer Róisín Murphy’s soulful voice that gave the song a distinct funk vibe, a la Rufus.
The third and final version of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” that appeared on the “Random” compilation was by alternative dance band, Republica. Of the three versions on the tribute album, Republica’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” sounded the closest to the original. The band, best known for “Ready to Go” and “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” delivered “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” more brashly than Numan, as if singer Saffron was not sad or lonely but just annoyed and pissed off.
Information Society, which had a synthpop/freestyle hit with 1988’s “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy)”, covered “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” for its 1997 album, “Don’t Be Afraid.” The track, like the rest of the album, was more industrial than the band’s previous work, though it retained the airy (and somewhat cheesy) synths that had defined “Pure Energy.” Singer Kurt Harland, like Numan, alternated between singing and speaking, and yet sounded less earnest than Numan. Numan sang the song with a haunting loneliness, whereas Harland projected an almost aggressive tone, as if he were too jaded to be sad.
British garage punk band Armitage Shanks, named after British manufacturer of bathroom fixtures and plumbing supplies, covered “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” for its 1998 album, “25 Golden Showers.” The gritty, lo-fi version featured no keyboards, with the iconic riff played on a guitar instead. That style only helped bring the song’s punk-friendly themes of loneliness and alienation into focus, and the Ian Dury-like affectations in the vocals added an extra plaintive, desperate layer to the song.
The tribute album that featured Pierlé, Moloko, and Republica in 1997 had a second installment a year later. “Random, Vol. 2 – A Gary Numan Tribute” was more of a remix album than a covers album, and as such, many of the songs sounded like far flung samples rather than covers resembling the source material. Liberator DJs’ “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” was driven by drum machines and bass, with the only resemblance to the original being a recurring loop of the first two notes of Numan’s signature riff and an autotuned sample of “I hate to ask/Are ‘friends’ electric?”
Blues singer/songwriter Chris Whitley recorded a version of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” with his band, Chris Whitley & The Bastard Club, on his 11th and final studio album, “Reiter In.” Whitley and his band recast the synthpop song into a guitar-driven rocker, with Whitley sounding like an old blues man having a back-and-forth chat with his audience. In the care of Whitley’s band, Numan’s medley became more a more nuanced riff, sounding like something Jerry Cantrell would have played on an Alice In Chains album.
English electronic duo Groove Armada recorded a cover of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” for a 2008 installment of the “Late Night Tales” compilation series. The track was mostly instrumental, save for a reworked sampling of the lyrics:
Mine’s broke down
And now I’ve got no one to love
So I found out your reasons
For the phone calls and smiles
And it hurts and I’m lonely
And I should never have tried
And I missed you tonight
You see it meant everything to me
So it’s time to leave
Otherwise, the track was all instrumental, with a pounding bass that carried on till the song faded out into a quiet piano track.
Weezer released a live version of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” in 2008. It appeared as the B-side to its single, “Pork and Beans,” from the band’s sixth studio album, known colloquially as “The Red Album.” The version was recorded in 2005, on Weezer’s “Make Believe” tour. Weezer is not a band one would associate with keyboards or synthesizers, which makes the premise of the band covering Gary Numan immediately intriguing. Weezer’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” was more faithful to the original than one would expect, but what made it interesting was how atypical it was of Weezer. Rivers Cuomo has sung lead vocals on the majority of the band’s songs, but this version featured Brian Bell and Patrick Wilson on lead vocals in Cuomo’s place. Instead, Cuomo played the Moog. The Moog was subtle — might take a few listens to pick it out — but that’s what made it work so well with Weezer’s sound.
Supergroup The Dead Weather — comprising Alison Mosshart of The Kills and Discount, Jack White of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs, Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age and Jack Lawrence of The Raconteurs, The Greenhornes, and City and Colour — released a cover of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” as a B-side to the band’s single, “Hang You from the Heavens.” The traditional Jack White polish to sound unpolished. The Dead Weather’s cover of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” had that, pairing fuzzy guitars and messy drums with the signature keyboard riff. The distorted, noisy sound went beyond the instrumentation, a singer Alison Mosshart, whose deep voice sounded reminiscent of PJ Harvey and Patti Smith, sounded like she was singing on the other end of a barrel. Whereas An Pierlé’s version communicated the loneliness of Numan’s lyrics through an absence of heavy instrumentation, The Dead Weather used a golconda of textured sounds. The song’s production cast the loneliness as not an absence of instruments but an oppressive assault of them.
Singer Patrick Dineen recorded “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” for his 2010 album, “Love In Vain.” Alternating between pianos and synthesizers, the track built up the riff until it had an orchestral, string-like quality, sounding like The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.” Despite the majestic backing track, what stood out the most was Dineen himself, who channeled both Ian Curtis and Ian McCulloch with vocals that were just shy of sounding like an over-the-top cheesy crooner.
And these are just some of the covers recorded in the last 37 years. There are plenty more interpretations, on Spotify and YouTube alike. The original “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” drew power from what made it different: it was five minutes, had no chorus and much of it spoken, not sung, and it highlighted the as-of-then untapped potential of synthesizers. All these years later, it still holds up, despite all the advances made in electronic music. And it has held up much better than some of the synthpop and new wave songs it inspired, in large part because Numan’s lyrics were not throw-away filler words. Otherwise, An Pierlé’s piano rendition would have no bite, right?
Those twin strengths — haunting lyrics and a strong riff that’s genre-agnostic — have been the hallmarks of some of the most enduring songs we’ve looked at in this series, particularly “Tears Of A Clown,” “Running Up That Hill,” “Tainted Love,” “Suspicious Minds,” and “I Only Want To Be With You.” And just as it is hard to imagine a genre where those songs wouldn’t be good, it’s hard to imagine a style of music that could make “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” sound bad. It would take a ska band comprising high schoolers to attempt to ruin this classic, and even then, we’d still be singing it hours later.
You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.