Gary Numan and Mary Vango: how we made Are 'Friends' Electric?

Singer-songwriter Gary Numan and makeup artist Mary Vango remember getting a song about a robot prostitute to No 1 without anyone realising

Gary Numan, singer-songwriter

In 1978, I was fronting a three-piece punk band called Tubeway Army. We'd had a couple of unsuccessful singles, but our record company still wanted us to do an album, so they put us in a studio to record it. That was when I saw my first ever synthesiser, a Minimoog. When I turned it on, the sound blew me away. In that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

I converted all our guitar-based punk songs into electro-punk numbers. Because I had blond hair, the record company saw me as a pretty-boy, punk-pop crossover act. When I came back with this weird electronic stuff, they were furious. One actually squared up to me in the office. I'm only little, but I was so passionate I leapt out of my seat as well – we were going to have a fight. When it all calmed down, and because there was no budget left to rerecord anything, they released the album.

By the time it was in the shops, I'd written another track called Are "Friends" Electric? I wrote it on an old pub piano my mum and dad bought, which I didn't realise 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 synthesiser 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.

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.

Mary Vango, makeup artist

When I was commissioned to do Gary's makeup for the sleeve of Are "Friends" Electric?, I started off by listening to the music. Gary had caught the zeitgeist, the new mood for electronic sounds, but was doing his own thing with it. I worked with a lot of musicians in the 1970s and 80s, but Gary always stood out: he seemed the most unreachable. Where David Bowie was theatrical, Gary was more otherworldly – remote, but not aloof or arrogant. He was terribly shy and couldn't make eye contact. We spent an entire day in the dressing room, and I don't remember a single bit of conversation.

I imagined him as someone who never saw the sun – not because of lots of partying, but because he seemed so disconnected from nature. I wanted his skin to look pallid, so used a very light base. To make him look weary, I put on lots of dark, heavy kohl. He had to seem like a very complicated character: dark and remote, but not sinister, just cut off from his emotions.

At the back of my mind was a Stanley Kubrick film I'd been really taken with, Barry Lyndon, which was set in the 18th century and shot in candlelight. I'd been wanting to use that look on someone for ages – then Gary came along.

• Gary Numan's new single, I Am Dust, is out on Mortal on 3 March. He plays live later this year. Details: numan.co.uk.

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Interview by Dave Simpson

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