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Divine Symmetry | 2 | Gary Numan’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”

I was not expecting this to be the second song in my Divine Symmetry series, but I’m still slowly making my way through Adam Steiner’s book about Scary Monsters, which is called Silhouettes and Shadows, and I got to the chapter on “Teenage Wildlife.” Like most of the songs on Scary Monsters, the lyrics of “Teenage Wildlife” don’t make for straight-to-the point, easy understanding. Somewhere in there, though, is a critique of Bowie’s imitators— to me, the most memorable line is, “Same old thing in brand new drag; comes sweeping into view.”

The line, in the context of the lines immediately before and after, fits into the song like this:

A broken nosed mogul, are you one of the New Wave boys?
Same old thing in brand new drag
Comes sweeping into view, oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh
As ugly as a teenage millionaire
Pretending it’s a whizz kid world
You’ll take me aside, and say
“Well, David, what shall I do? They wait for me in the hallway”

Steiner writes almost as if the song is a reaction to Gary Numan. If you remember Gary Numan, you probably remember the song, “Cars,” which I almost posted for this video before finding, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric,” which was an earlier British hit for his then-band, Tubeway Army. I don’t remember ever hearing the song before, but the similarities of what Bowie had been doing in earlier years is immediately evident.

First, Numan looks like Bowie, dresses like Bowie from around that time, sounds like he’s imitating Bowie and moves like Bowie sometimes moved (I’m thinking of his robotic delivery of “The Man Who Sold The World” on Saturday Night Live in 1979, the same year “Are ‘Friend’ Electric” was released. Beyond the look, the song’s title uses quotation marks, like “Heroes,” relies heavily on synthesizers, like “Heroes” and Low, and is about isolation, with a science fiction frame.

Though his phraseology is reminiscent of a generic Bowie song, Numan doesn’t make any direct references, so far as I can tell. But Bowie himself might have left clues within “Teenage Wildlife” about the target of his scorn, in that last line I quoted from above. I read the sequence as the pretender coming to him (in a rare moment of direct self-reference), asking “what shall I do?” as “they wait for me in the hallway.” The line after that has Bowie responding, “Don’t ask me, I don’t know any hallways.” What is this about?

Well, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” has this stanza:

So I open the door
It’s the ‘friend’ that I’d left in the hallway
‘Please sit down’
A candlelit shadow on a wall near the bed

Keep in mind that Scary Monsters came after this song, but packed within this stanza are several words and phrases that appear throughout Bowie’s album. Think, for instance, the line from the title track, “She opened strange doors that we’d never close again;” or, from “It’s No Game,” “Silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution,” which is the line from which Steiner gets his book’s title.

But the image of an imitator asking “David” for advice as “they wait for me in the hallway” seems as if Bowie is describing what’s happening on the other side of the door that Numan is describing in his song. I think there’s a good chance that this is not at all a coincidence but actually a direct reference.

Steiner relays a story about Bowie having Numan ejected from the studio before he taped a segment for the Kenny Everett Christmas Special in 1979 (click on the bolded words to link), after Numan taped his own segment. Steiner relays an unsubstantiated report that Bowie complained that Numan had “stolen his look.” Numan was dejected but much later expressed understanding, “As the years have gone by, I understood far more the way he saw things then. He was still a young man, with ups and downs of his own career, and I think he saw people like me as little upstarts.”

I have to admit that I am not the first person to note the connection between “Teenage Wildlife” and “Are ‘Friends’ Electric,” Steiner, for instance notes that Bowie blogger Chris O’Leary “hears a nod” to Numan’s song (though I can’t find O’Leary’s precise quote on the topic). But that kind of comment wouldn’t have made much sense before I heard the song.

Two final notes— while probably less deliberate, I think this song sounds liminal to Iggy Pop’s “Dum Dum Boys,” from The Idiot, which Bowie had a hand in during the Berlin period.

Finally, copycat or not, I have to say I like the song!

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