Song #36: “Cars” — Gary Numan (1979)
Barry: “You wouldn’t know our influences, they’re mostly German.”
Rob: “Try me. Falco? Kraftwerk? Hasselhoff?”— High Fidelity
I was always more New Wave than Punk. Not that I fit into either camp comfortably at the time, but give me a skinny tie, a DX-7 and too much hair gel any day. Whatever else I was listening to, I kept finding myself drawn back to Devo, Kraftwerk, Flock of Seagulls, The Vapors, The Flying Lizards and — Gary Numan.
Gary Numan arrived on the U.S. charts fully formed as a solo artist with “The Pleasure Principle” and it’s sole hit single, so we Americans completely missed out on the earlier, darker works of his British band Tubeway Army. Then again, “Cars” was designed to be a hit, tailor made to catch the lighter New Wave that had superseded punk, and heralding the arrival of technopop. It certainly didn’t sound like anything else on the radio. As blooger D. C. F. Pegritz put it:
…the Polymoog lead in “Cars” was the first truly alien, truly synthetic sound I ever remember hearing in popular music. It literally sounded like nothing else on Earth. The song was really quite basic, almost minimalistic…but it was built from shiny silver parts of seemingly alien manufacture. …. “Cars” was indicative of a kind of music that seemed to come from a place much further away in space and time than England. Gary Numan was some kind of time-traveller from a bizarre, machine-dominated future cast adrift in the late 20th Century, but he’d brought back with him instruments from his own millennium.
Leaving a party at a nearby friend’s house one night, buzzed from drinking malt duck (that unfortunate beverage of choice of high schoolers at the time), “Cars” came on the radio just as I started up the Tank, and accompanied me on the short drive home. I blasted it out of my shitty, blown-out speakers with gusto, but I also knew I was listening to it in the wrong vehicle — I should have been driving this. “Cars” was from a universe I knew I’d never be allowed to live in, but could visit while the song was on.