Old music: Gary Numan – Cars

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

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I'm not a Numanist. In fact, some of my best friends are Numanoids. It's a tough job to assess Gary Numan's place in British pop. He has been seen as everything from little more than a Bowie-aping joke to a vital influence on music as varied as the early hip-hop of Afrika Bambaataa and the restless experimentalism of Damon Albarn.

One thing hard to dispute is that he has made some music that will live long and prosper. His earliest work with Tubeway Army, with whom he found chart success in early 1979 with the No 1 single Are "Friends" Electric? and the band's second album, Replicas, was followed a few months later by his first solo album, The Pleasure Principle. On that was one of the mightiest, grandest, most enigmatic songs ever to reach No 1 in the UK: Cars.

Listening to The Pleasure Principle now it is hard not to feel sorry for Gary. Every song is dripping in paranoia and neuroses. Each lyric is a tale of claustrophobia and/or agoraphobia. He seems afraid of pretty much everything. His stage persona – caked in makeup – reflected this, too. He would hide his face like a gawky teenage android who has been scolded by his parents. But that only tells half the story of Cars, one of the greatest singles in the history of pop.

Firstly, Cars has an electro riff that would not be out of place on Jimmy Page's Les Paul. This is backed up by the powerful drumming of the late Cedric Sharpley. Secondly, the force of the multi-layered Moog synthesiser parts is almost overwhelming. Using effects usually associated with heavy guitars – reverb, flanging and phasers – Numan drenched the gliding synth lines so they flow over you like wave after wave of ice water. These build throughout the song until the fantastical 1'30" fadeout, during which the Polymoogs – used as elements of a string section – are folded on top of each other in hypnotic harmonies that reinforce the song's sense of eerie dystopia.

The synth-pop brigade looked to JG Ballard for images of the near future, and many now seem merely quaint, like old espisodes of Tomorrow's World. But Cars contains a bit of futurology that was rather sophisticated. Numan positions the car not as a mode of mechanical transport, but as a fetishised, abstract interface with the rest of the world. This is – in a pop form – what the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard had been writing about a few years earlier. To be fair to Numan, this notion of the car in relation to individuals and society has only deepened in the decades since.

The Pleasure Principle has many other great tracks on it, especially Metal and M.E. (the basis of Basement Jaxx's Where's Your Head At), but Cars is literally something else.


George Chesterton

The GuardianTramp

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