442. ‘Cars’, by Gary Numan

Gary Numan returns to the top of the singles chart, after doing so alongside his Tubeway Army a few weeks back, with another outsider anthem.

Cars, by Gary Numan (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 16th – 23rd September 1979

Here in my car, I feel safest of all… He’s locking the modern world away behind four doors and a boot. It’s the only way to live, In cars… It’s another memorable electronic riff: still clanking and industrial, but a little perkier than ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric’, poppier even. Numan’s vocals are have lost the conversational tones of his earlier #1, and are full-on Kraftwerk-robot chic.

Here in my car, I can only receive… Is this, maybe, a little bit of a novelty? Is Numan hamming up the extra-terrestrial image he had seen grow around his live performances of ‘Friends’? I don’t know – perhaps that feels harsh. He was inspired to write this song after some unsavoury types had tried to drag him from his car… Had ‘Cars’ come first then maybe it’d sound just as ground-breaking. But… if you were to write a piss-take of a song by Gary Numan, it might sound a lot like this record.

As in ‘Friends’, there are variations on the main riff throughout the song. One is the grinding, clanking trip through a car factory without noise-cancelling headphones. One is a high-pitched counterpoint to this; that one sounds as if you’re speeding down a motorway at night. And then there’s the disco bit, the riff that reminds me of ‘Funkytown’, by Lipps Inc (which wasn’t released until November ’79 – maybe they’d heard ‘Cars’ while recording…)

This record is actually two-thirds instrumental. Once Numan has intoned his way through three verses (no choruses here), the synths take over and you just got to let them wash over you, man. I want to like this more; but with each listen I find my attention wandering by the end. Who am I to judge, though? ‘Cars’ has charted three times in the UK, and remains a staple of adverts, Best Ofs, and Numan’s live shows to this day. And it’s certainly a fine addition to the rich tapestry that is 1979’s chart-toppers.

This is credited to Numan, solo, but still features half of the Tubeway Army on the record. You could argue that both of his quick-fire #1s could be credited to either Numan or his Army, but hey. He remains active to this day, a synth pop legend, and many of the acts who will make this the sound of the early eighties owe him a debt. And if that’s not cool enough for you, how about the fact that, after helping invent synth-pop, he got his pilots’ license and set up own airline, Numanair, in 1981…


9 thoughts on “442. ‘Cars’, by Gary Numan

  1. I preferred Are ‘Friends’ Electric to Cars, but only to the extent that the former topped my charts and I bought it, and the latter peaked at 3 in my charts and I still bought it. I came back from my very first 2-week marathon driving holiday in the USA (California/Nevada/arizona) with uni friends to find this newly-minted, fresh, futuristic, poppy and huge. And a big USA hit before long too as they got introduced to the Sound of the 80’s… 🙂

  2. In the US, Gary Numan is largely known as a one-hit-wonder thanks to “Cars” which took a little longer to make its chart impact here peaking at #9 in June 1980 a week when “Funkytown” was at #1. For us, this type of weird and nerdy synth-pop was still a bit of a novelty without an MTV to give this type of music greater exposure. So the fact that “Cars” was able to go Top 10 at this time is a big accomplishment and well deserved too. It’s a song that can seem boring with Numan’s monotone delivery and how it’s mostly instrumental but Numan and his people make “Cars” sound interesting with all the synth sounds and the catchy delivery of Numan’s lyrics. Also, hearing “Cars” makes me think of this:

  3. Ok this one I really love. I was in 6th grade…(Vic is way older than I am lol) and when I think of 6th grade I think of this song. Even with the Synths its a great song.

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