“Cars” marked a departure in how people sang about cars. By 1979, we’d come a long way from The Beach Boys’ 409.
Never heard of Gary Numan? Sure you have. Off his first solo album after leaving Tubeway Army, The Pleasure Principle, here’s “Cars”:
And if you hadn’t heard “Cars” before, I have two things to tell you: One, you’ve been living under a rock (we’re over twenty years into the Information Age, there’s no excuse), and two, I hope you listened to the above clip.
“Cars” is an absolute masterpiece.
Ask a music snob about Numan and they might tell you the guy’s something of a fraud—an uncharismatic loser who, by swinging on David Bowie’s … laurels, somehow managed to be dubbed “the Grandfather of Electro” in one of music history’s most bizarre accidents. No, really, that’s the kind of thing that people say about Numan. There are a not insignificant number of critics who downright revile him.
Not before accusing Numan of “badly copying” David Bowie, DailyMail critic and GQ editor Dylan Jones had the following to say:
Numan has been treated with almost as much reverence as Bowie, which, frankly, is preposterous (and proof that some people haven’t studied their history). For evidence of the unwarranted nature of Numan’s position in the pop pantheon, you need only look at the cover of his 1979 album, The Pleasure Principle. He stands behind a shiny counter wearing a badly cut double-breasted suit, a convention-ready tie… and (obviously – d’oh!) eyeliner. And the way in which he tries to impart his enigmatic qualities, the way in which he attempts to semaphore his postmodern otherness, his colour-by-numbers existential angst?”
I challenge Jones to listen to “Cars” with a pair of high-quality headphones: there’s no denying the perfect electro-riff, Cedric Sharpley’s powerful drumming, the achievements of the multi-layered Moog synthesizer. “Cars” wasn’t pop—it definitely wasn’t synth pop, because that didn’t exist yet—and it wasn’t punk. It was New Wave. If Gary Numan wasn’t one of the foremen of New Wave, then I don’t know who would be left in his stead.
New Wave maintained punk’s anarchic ethos but never had the aggressive, mercurial intensity of punk rock. New Wave was experimental and sometimes amateur; robotic and agitated. The presence of the whole scene—the dancing, the artists on stage—was twitchy, buggy, spastic. There were other New Wave artists before, after, and contemporaneous to Gary Numan, but Numan’s “Cars” was among the first New Wave songs to gain mass appeal.
“Cars” was not only unique in its musical composition, but in its treatment of the titular subject matter. The car in “Cars” was not the Beach Boys’ 409 or little deuce coupe, nor was it a 1970’s muscle car, a symbol of masculinity or virility. It was more futuristic, sterile and protective, claustrophobic and revered.
“Cars” was a genre creator, but it was also prescient, particularly in the landscape of autonomous and connected vehicles.
Photo credit: Ed Fielding