Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time
"Cars" - Gary Numan
Written by Gary Numan
From The Pleasure Principle (Beggars Banquet/Atco, 1979)
According to the Wikipedia entry for Gary Numan, the famously dark-viewed British new-waver has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. In the article, a quote attributed to Numan indicates that he feels his longtime difficulties in relating to others, the subtext of much of his work, may be directly related to this syndrome.
That gossipy tidbit may reflect the whole truth, a kernel of truth, or no truth at all, but one thing is definitely certain: no other artist in rock and roll has so thoroughly mined the subject of emotional alienation in the modern, computerized world. Numan's brittle-broken vocal style, ice-cold synthesizer lines, herky-jerky beats, and dread-filled lyrics all contribute to a challenging and compelling aesthetic, one that is still undervalued by many music lovers but cherished by millions of dark-clad misfits worldwide.
"Cars" is Numan's most well-known tune (reaching #1 on the UK charts in 1979 and #9 in the US in 1980), and it's not hard to discern why. It's got an unstoppable dreadnought of a hook in the bass line (which also serves as the default verse vocal melody), a bonus hook in the instrumental bridge, spaced-out futuristic synth decorations, and a strangely passive-seeming-yet-passionate vocal. Numan's androgynous-android image in the video for "Cars", where he is seen singing and preening from the inside of a triangle-shaped exo-structure, presumably also played a part in the song's appeal to the mainstream; the whole experience likely served as a timely and adequately palatable introduction to New Wave for many Top 40 revelers.
"Cars" was indeed an ideal breakout single for Numan, since it served as a perfect representation of his sound and vision at the time. Sonically, it's very consistent with the rest of The Pleasure Principle album, which is arguably one of Numan's most "pop" records. Lyrically and vocally, it also encapsulates Numan's chilly worldview precisely. The gist of the song is that the protagonist feels "safest of all, in car(s)", alone with his machine, and not interfacing with anyone else ("Here in my car / I can only receive / I can listen to you"). It's curious to note that at first, it is not totally clear whether the vocalist is lamenting this condition or celebrating it. As a matter of fact, Numan's vocal makes it sound like he's merely reporting this particular set of circumstances, which adds to the existential claustrophobia of the piece.
The second verse however, takes on a slightly different tone, and it seems as if he is now asking for company, or even possibly looking to escape the confines of his safe car: "Here in my car / Where the image breaks down / Will you visit me please? / If I open my door / In cars."
Pop songs about the potential damage which machines and computers can do to interpersonal relations are fairly commonplace now; not so much in 1979. Numan was definitely ahead of his time in his lyrical exploits, which often delve into the worrisome aspects and emotional insularity of a machine and computer-run future. His heady alchemization of heavy-duty funk beats, futuristic lyrical themes, and spacey, layered synthesizers was also forward-looking. Afrika Bambaataa and other hip-hop and electro-funk folks have testified to Gary Numan's influence on their work, and Numan's harmonic and rhythmic sense can also be heard in the work of Prince, Nine Inch Nails, and countless others. Though some hardcore fans might dismiss "Cars" as a novelty hit that possesses little of the depth or pathos of Numan's more obscure songs, I happen to feel it's a great introduction to his work. From "Cars", interested listeners can make an easy jump backwards to the raw, punkish 1978 Tubeway Army album or forward to the slowed-down proto-electronica of 1981's Dance and Numan's other work. The recent re-mastered releases of his albums feature lots of bonus tracks and instrumentals which are worth the re-purchase.
Now living in the future he once wrote about, Gary Numan continues to release records, tour, and examine the lonelier corners of human existence through song.
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For further research:
Pianist and DJ Terre Thaemlitz released Replicas Rubato, Piano Interpretations of Gary Numan Titles, a difficult-to-find Numan tribute album of sorts in 1999, which consisted of solo piano arrangements of Numan songs, with extensive accompanying text. Info on the album and the liner note text can be found here.