It Took Gary Numan 30 Minutes To Write “Cars”
When Gary Numan first discovered electronic music at the end of 1978, it wasn’t by design. Numan, then a member of the punk band Tubeway Army, was on his way to the studio to record their Tubeway Army debut when he discovered an instrument that would forever change his career. “There was a Minimoog synthesizer in the corner of the control room waiting to be collected by a hire company, which, lucky for me, never turned up, and I was able to use it for two or three days. I’d never seen one before and I loved it,” Numan said in Jonathan Bernstein and Lori Majewski’s book Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s.
As luck would have it, the synth’s previous user had adjusted the settings to create a perfect, bottom-end heavy sound that piqued his interest. Without these ideal settings Numan isn’t sure he would’ve done much with the instrument. “I wouldn’t have known how to get that sound; I didn’t know anything about synthesizers. They were just a bunch of dials to me,” he said.
Numan spent the next few days messing around with the machine and was soon obsessed with the unique sonic quality of the Minimoog. It wasn’t long before it became a central part of his recording process. “I developed a massive passion for electronic musically practically overnight. I very hastily converted my pure punk songs into electronic songs,” he said. When he showed up at the label offices of Beggars Banquet with Tubeway Army, which he described as a “pseudo-electronic punk album”, they weren’t thrilled. One of the label’s directors was so pissed off by the unorthodox sound that he tried to fight Numan during the albums unveiling.
“I wouldn’t have known how to get that sound; I didn’t know anything about synthesizers. They were just a bunch of dials to me.”- Gary Numan
The folks at Numan’s label were forced to eat humble pie as Tubeway Army charted in the UK and exceeded everyone’s commercial expectations. Putting aside their initial reservations, Beggars Banquet asked the band to start working on a sophomore effort. If modest success of the band’s first album was a pleasant surprise, the reception of their Replicas follow-up was a complete shock to both Tubeway Army and their label. Replicas and the single “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” both reached #1 on the UK charts in 1979.
As Tubeway Army reached peak success Numan wanted out of the band so he could embark on a solo career and give himself full creative control of his music. While working on solo material he developed an interest in learning bass and purchased an inexpensive Shergold Modulator bass guitar. The first thing he played on the Modulator were the opening four notes of “Cars”. The catchy bass riff set the stage for an explosive creative outburst from Numan. “Honest to God, “Cars” took me 10 minutes — all the parts, all the arrangements. Another 20, and the lyrics were done,” he said in Mad World. “It was the most productive 30 minutes of my life.”
Numan’s half-hour creation became a #1 record in the UK and a charting hit in the US. Released in August of 1979, “Cars” gave him his second #1 song in one year. This may sound like the stuff of dreams for an aspiring musician, but Numan found his voyage from total obscurity to selling close to 50,000 singles a day in the United Kingdom overwhelming. Interview requests were constant and technology magazines who saw him as some kind of synth wizard wanted his insight, not realizing that Numan himself still didn’t have a great understanding of the instrument. “They were asking me about envelopes and fills and boffin shit. I just blagged and bullshitted my way through it,” he said.
“If I have any talent at all — and I know that is questionable, depending on who you talk to — but if there is anything that I can do that sets me apart, it’s putting noises together.”- Gary Numan
Beyond their initial sales and success, both “Cars” and the Pleasure Principle had wide-reaching influence on various artists and genres of music. “Cars” is considered by many to be one of the seminal new wave/synth pop records of the late-70s and 80s. The sounds of Pleasure Principle also influenced Chicago house, early Detroit techno, and inspired artists like Lady Gaga (see “Paparazzi”) and Nine Inch Nails.
Despite respect and admiration from some elite music industry peers and a mild critical and commercial success with 2013's Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind), Numan seems to have a very modest opinion of himself. “I can play guitar, obviously, bass, keyboards, and a little bit of drums, but not very well,” he told the website KAOS2000 in 20001. “I don’t really play anything very well. If I have any talent at all — and I know that is questionable, depending on who you talk to — but if there is anything that I can do that sets me apart, it’s putting noises together.”