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:


Interview by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Gary Numan | Pop review

Brighton Dome
Perhaps uniquely among his 80s contemporaries, Gary Numan's fans seem less interested in his past than his present, writes Alexis Petridis

Alexis Petridis

18, Nov, 2009 @10:45 PM

Article image
Gary Numan
By the time he wheels out Cars and Are "Friends" Electric? to pandemonium, you start to wonder if this really is the Numan of 30 years ago, writes Dave Simpson

Dave Simpson

16, Sep, 2011 @4:53 PM

Article image
Gary Numan: how the Billboard charts told him his tracks aren't electric
Despite 95% of the instrumentation on Numan’s new album being electronic, the US chart company says it does not qualify for their dance/electronic countdown

Dave Simpson

08, Oct, 2017 @3:00 PM

Portrait of the artist: Gary Numan, musician

'In 1992, I looked rubbish, couldn't sell tickets and made an LP that was garbage'

Interview by Laura Barnett

18, Mar, 2008 @12:09 AM

Article image
When Gary Numan met Little Boots

He arrived in 1979, bringing synthpop to the masses. She is part of the bold new wave reinventing the genre for the 21st century. So what happened when Gary Numan met Little Boots, asks Paul Lester

Paul Lester

03, Dec, 2009 @9:35 PM

Old music: Gary Numan – Cars

George Chesterton: It's one of the greatest singles in pop history – and unlike many of its contemporaries, it has aged well

George Chesterton

05, Jul, 2012 @8:00 AM

Article image
Gary Numan answers your questions

The electronic music pioneer came online to answer questions from readers – here's what he said

Adam Boult

30, Nov, 2012 @2:32 PM

Article image
Gary Numan: 'Critics said I was wooden on stage – I think it's true!'

The 80s electronic star on overcoming stage fright, surviving a midlife crisis and why he'll never do revivals tours

Michael Hann

10, Oct, 2013 @2:46 PM

Article image
Gary Numan: Android in La La Land review – electronic music pioneer in sparky doc
Steve Reed and Rob Alexander’s film follows the tortured star in the run-up to the release of his latest album Splinter

Peter Bradshaw

25, Aug, 2016 @9:00 PM

Article image
Gary Numan: Savage (Songs from a Broken World) review – pop gleams amid the dystopian gloom

Dave Simpson

14, Sep, 2017 @9:30 PM