If you’re a Gary Numan fan, I suspect you’ll want to tell me about how he invented popular music; how he was the first person to ever play the synthesizer; how he developed the art of “singing”; and a whole lot more. I get the impression, probably from entirely unfair sources, that this is what Numan fans are like.
For me, he’s always just been a pop star with a pilot’s licence. Occasionally a very good pop star, undeniably, but just a pop star nonetheless. He owes a lot to his own influences, and really if he did anything, it was to help popularise electronic music by borrowing other people’s ideas and making them his own.
None of which is even remotely a reason to dislike him, and actually the truth is that despite a bit of general respect for one of the forefathers of electronic music, I know relatively little about Numan. So here’s a review of my second ever listen to his second ever album Replicas, at which point he was still part of a band called Tubeway Army.
Replicas kicks off with a pleasant but largely meaningless track called Me! I Disconnect from You, which I can’t help but feel like Dude (Looks Like a Lady) has the emphasis in the wrong place in the title. But it’s a good enough track, and it’s also a far sight better than some of what would follow, both in Numan’s career and also on this very album.
It’s tempting to wonder if the oddly emphasised titles are an intentional theme, as the wonderful Are ‘Friends’ Electric? follows. This is where Gary Numan is at his finest, and it’s difficult to deny how excellent it is. It would also be very difficult to deny the influence of a certain Düsseldorf-based quartet, and I think it’s probably fair to say that it’s not quite up to their standards. Never did Kraftwerk have to deny on real bassists and drummers! But minor quibbles aside, Are ‘Friends’ Electric? is, of course, one of the most important tracks in the history of electronic music, and is also absolutely brilliant.
After this moment of groundbreaking electronica, anything was going to be an anticlimax, and so it is with the pleasant but dull rhythmic rock of The Machman. This is, unfortunately, a theme which continues into the equally dull but pleasant Praying to the Aliens, although by this point Numan’s squeaky semi-spoken voice is starting to become just a little bit annoying.
Down in the Park is a considerable improvement. It’s always a little tempting with an album like this to wonder how much of it was organically created and how much was written to try and fill the space or make some kind of point. This track is definitely the former, and turns out to be very pleasant after all. And with this, for all its faults, half the album has passed already.
Side B kicks off with another pleasant-but-meaningless track You are in My Vision, and this is followed by the title track Replicas, which is another slower track. The general theme of fairly grizzly synth sounds mixed with Numan’s snappy, intentionally almost inhuman vocals continues. This album was a UK number 1 in early 1979, and it’s fascinating to try to think about what else was going on in the world of music at this point. While Sheffield was already overflowing with artists doing this kind of thing, there really can’t have been much of it at the top end of the charts.
I’m particularly intrigued by the artwork, in which an almost vampire-like Numan stands by the window, accompanied by someone who clearly isn’t his reflection, looking out over a moonlit view of “the park”, with its neon sign. It would be fascinating to know what the world was that Numan was trying to create with this album.
It Must Have Been Years is another more 70s-styled rock track, which was probably pretty contemporary back then, but sounds extremely dated now. I’ll doff my cap to the bassist though, who carries this track more than anyone else.
The instrumental When the Machines Rock is a nice idea, but seems to struggle somewhat with its identity, and leads us into the final track I Nearly Married a Human, surprisingly another instrumental, and a rather pleasant one too.
Buy the remastered version, and you get another side of vinyl’s worth of bonus tracks, although I’m not sure I was blown away by any of them. We Have a Technical, although a little too long for its own good, was probably the best of the bunch.
All told, despite my uncertainty about the idol-worship that Gary Numan always seems to get, I tried to approach this album with a relatively open mind, and in so doing I’ve actually found it extremely rewarding. It was definitely early days for electronic pop music, but in this case that was no bad thing.
If you’re looking to make a purchase, the correct version of this album would be this one.