A thin man stands at a window, face whitened, hair bleached, nails painted black wearing a silky black shirt and tie, tight black trousers and a belt with a double row of chrome fixings. The light from the bare bulb hanging just in front of him is stark, unsympathetic, increasing his pallor from unhealthy to disquieting. But it’s okay he’s just staring out the window into a park, how nice.
Before I bought Tubeway Army Replicas I’d always dismissed Gary Numan as a bit of a wannabe Bowie, mostly because I’d heard someone else say it once and I just copied them*. Wrong, as always! This is an excellent album, a dark one too. Tubeway Army morphed out of punk wannabe’s The Lasers after Gary Numan’s chance encounter with a Minimoog in a recording studio and his revelation that he could make the synth a really powerful main instrument in his own music, rather than just as an embellishment; okay so I’ve simplified things a bit, but then so did Numan who as singer, guitarist, Minimoog-er and sole song writer moved on to putting out records in his own name after Replicas in 1979, albeit with the same band in situ.
So the android chic may look a little hackneyed to our 21st century visual receptors, but it really worked within the context of this, dare I say it, concept album based on an unfinished book of Numan’s and heavily indebted to Philip K Dick, about a dystopian future (is there any other kind?). Before we start in on and mention my fave film Blade Runner, let’s remember that Replicas came out 3 years before it AND in the source story Philip K. Dick never uses the term ‘replicants’ in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Maybe someone was listening to Tubeway Army? I wonder … check out the eyes.
Did I mention just how seedy this all is? How seedy do you want? Well we have a world run by the sinister bureaucratic grey men*^, ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’** is about a robot prostitute (‘Mine’s broke down / And now I’ve no-one to love’), the machmen are scary killer robot dudes and at ‘Zom Zoms’ restaurant you can dine whilst watching the machmen killing and raping humans in the park whilst you have a good time. That’s pretty damn seedy.
The music cleverly marries bits of Kraftwerk to a very clean-sounding new wave chassis here. The synth sounds, and drum machine on ‘I Nearly Married A Human’ (great title), are endearingly primitive and old school, of course they are it’s all they had. Whilst Numan is great at creating textures and the right-things-in-right-places type of playing, he’s certainly no keyboard virtuoso and this works so well here. In fact I believe that simplicity is the watchword, we have a great collection of really rather simple, but excellent doomy pop tunes without huge amounts of elaboration; it’s those punk values keeping the many-tentacled prog beast at bay.
It starts with an absolute killer 1 – 2 punch with ‘Me! I Disconnect From You’ and ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’. On the former the heavily treated guitars churn underneath the chirruping synth and Numan’s dispassionate but engaging vocals take the high road. There’s enough here to connect with a new wave audience and we’re speeding in a futuristic car, heading out to some glacial peaks in the distance, then ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ comes crashing in with those pulsing waves of chords. Those synths! So simply played and yet so good, the only parallel I’ve got is Van Halen ‘Jump’. It’s even got a cool talking bit near the end (please don’t make me tell you how much I like talking bits again!!) – I have absolutely no hesitation in declaring it my all time #1 hit record about robot prostitution and that’s not the sort of accolade I go around scattering on any old shit. No chorus, no hook, over 5 minutes long – what an obvious #1 hit single!! Take a bow singles buyers from 1979 for taking this one to your hearts.
After a couple of atmospheric tracks we get ‘Down In The Park’, beloved and covered by Foo Fighters and Marilyn Manson alike. This is where it gets really dark and gloomy, just like the park – this is where all the nasty stuff happens at night.
Down in the park
Where the chant is ‘death, death, death’
Until the sun cries morning
The numb, disconnected vocals really serve well here in this tale of casually regarded horrors. It is gloomy, pessimistic, excellence. ‘You Are In My Vision’ is the most conventionally new wave track hereabouts, as well as being the most spritely moment on the album, it really works for me, especially as it tees up two absolute belters in the shape of ‘Replicas’ and ‘It Must Have Been Years’. You want to feel the grimy, dystopia close up and personal? well, this is your stop then. The latter is particularly good and prompted me to dance in a jerky asexual manner just now^, there is some excellent guitar and bass on this track too. Kraftwerk’s ‘Neon Lights’ is a good reference point for the pair of instrumental album closers.
Throughout Replicas as a whole, behind the sci-fi touches the theme is mostly about alienation, distance, separation and societal dissonance. Knowing that Numan has in later life identified himself as having Aspergers syndrome puts an interesting spin on things as you can see all these themes and motifs as his own issues being projected outwards onto a wider world, imaginary or not. Well, that’s the kind of thing that interests me, anyway!
But whether you see Replicas as being a slice of dystopian futurama, an Aspergic creation, or just a cool remnant of a time when possessing a synthesiser and wearing a black shirt and tie made you look like an android, none of that matters when you spin it. Replicas stands as a fully realized, tuneful attempt to push synth pop/rock forwards into a future time, whose influence resonated throughout the 80’s mainstream and alternative fields.
Plus robots are cool. Like really cool.
*being the fiercely independent, intellectually rigorous chap I am.
**No, that isn’t a cover of Sugababes ‘Freak Like Me’ !! (which I think is a brilliant track too).
*^pretty sure they were also the baddies in one of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat books too – Christ they were great, but it has to be 30 years since I read them, which is scarier than I can possibly convey through the medium of words.
^it’s okay everyone else is asleep and can’t interfere with my androgynous android boogie.