The Concept Album That Didn’t Suck

I, Robot – Gary Numan appears more human than human on the cover of The Tubeway Army’s 1979 album, Replicas.

Replicas by The Tubeway Army should be a terrible record.  On paper, it’s got everything going against it: First, it’s a concept album.  The diabolical coupling of those two words brings about nauseadelic visions of Rick Wakeman’s King Aurther On Ice.  Not only is Replicas a concept album, it’s a sci-fi concept album.  As an avowed sci-fi fan, the very notion makes my forehead tingle as if I had just smelled sour milk. But wait, there’s more.  Suppose you find out, sound unheard, that the record in question was made by a 21-year-old obsessed with the then-new technology of portable synthesizers.  Any sensible person would go running back to the cold comfort of Tarkus.  Any wise man would bet against it and have a nap while waiting for the returns to roll in.  But in the world of concept albums, all bets are off.  Just ask Garth Brooks.

Released in 1979, The Tubeway Army’s second record did quite well in the U.K., with the single “Are Friends Electric” going all the way to number one.  By this time, Gary Numan had become the focal point of the band.  Subsequent reissues of the album were even relabeled as Gary Numan + Tubeway Army.  It was his bleak vision of a future world that combined elements of Phillip K. Dick and George Orwell that provided the framework for Replicas’ concept and it was Numan’s fascination with new synthesizers like the Mini Moog that shaped the eerie soundworld which suited the storyline.

Down on the stage with a friend called Mic.

Set in a Blade Runner-like future where where humans and technology have merged in uncomfortable ways, Replicas is is populated by “friends,” Machmen, Grey Men, and the occasional hapless human.  The “friends” seem to be the pleasure models, designed for human companionship.  The Machmen are some sort of cyborg police force.  The whole thing is watched over by the shadowy Grey Men, sinister figures who administer tests to see which humans are worthy of being kept alive.  Those deemed superfluous become fodder for the Machmen and rape machines to do with as they please.  Though the album is as dark and broody as a grounded teenager and the theme is one of helplessness in a situation of our own making– or perhaps our own negligence– there is no denying that this record rocks like a motherfucker.

Follow the jump for a track-by-track dissection of Replicas, including videos of several classic live performances.

As I said at the beginning, this should have been a terrible record.  But the way The Tubeway Army pulled it all together to create something that still sounds fresh more than 30 years later is breathtaking.  The band draws from obvious glam influences like David Bowie and T. Rex and couple it with the stark and icy keyboard-heavy sounds from contemporary bands like Ultravox and The Human League.  The result is a majestic, electric, swaggering slab of phat analog synths, heavily distorted, gated and flanged guitars, and Gary Numan at the front with his barely-human voice and disconcertedly paranoid musings and mutterings.

Save for the two closing instrumentals, the album is a case study in flawless sequencing.  The album has a flow that is as organic as the album’s sound is inorganic.  And it kicks off with the stellar opening track,  “Me! I Disconnect From You.”

I was walking up the stairs
Something moved in silence
I could feel his mind decaying
Only inches away from me

The above clip is taken from the 1979 concert film, The Touring Principle and is a bit less stark and a bit more full throated than the album version.  It’s a perfect way to start the album, immediately setting the scene sonically and thematically.  “Me! I Disconnect From You” is the album’s artistic statement and a crystallization of Replicas’ aesthetic.  The song’s relentless propulsion also an ingenious setup for the cool down of the next track.

You know I hate to ask
But are “friends” electric?
Only mine’s broke down
And now I’ve no one to love

It’s hard to believe there was a time when this song could make it to the top of the charts.  I thought maybe it was some kind of fluke, but a cursory glance at what was popular music in 1979 is instructive.  Even among all that really smooth music, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” stands out.  It spent more weeks at number one than The Village People, The Bee Gees, and Dr. Hook.

The live clip is taken from the venerable Old Grey Whistle Test and is a testament to the fact that bands did indeed used to play live on the air and it sounded different from the record and that wasn’t a bad thing.  Take a look at those charts again and listen to this song and consider just how different it is from the disco and yacht rock that dominates the U.S. charts.  On a more superficial level, consider how different the band’s look and stage presence was from other bands at the time.  It is evident we are dealing with an alien intruder here.  This is no Ziggy Stardust, worried he’s going to blow your mind with his almighty message of “let the children boogie.”  Numan is here from the future with a warning of impending doom.

There are no independents anymore
The tape is a circle, but who really cares?

“The Machman” is my favorite song on the record.  I cannot find any vintage live performances on the youtubes, so what you have here is the song unadulterated by the distraction of video, the way god intended.

The song steals the swagger of a T. Rex tune and assimilates it into a unique cyborg boogie that is both cold and funky.  After a brief intro, the band lurches into robotic groove with crunchy guitars and lockstep drumming that steer straight ahead into the chorus where they are met by the keening, glissando analog synth siren, suggestive of arrest and interrogation at the hands of the titular Machman.

Not only is “The Machmen” in the top rungs of Numan’s finest tunes, I think the song contains his best lyrics.  There are so many excellent lines here from “I would give it all up for you / I’d even be a number just for you / The strangest living boy you could ever wish to see / That’s me” to “I was standing outside your door / Waiting for the Grey Man to go / When my mind turned on me with a vengeance like I’d never known / My own.”  Fuck me.  I think it’s great.  And then there is the prophetic line quoted in the text above.  It’s not much of an award, but I think this is the best sci-fi rock tune of all time.

Slowly the thought
“There is no one to replace”
Came into view
And he began to cry

If there is a weak spot on the album, it is the fourth track, “Praying To The Aliens.”  The strange animated video above is purportedly taken from US television in 1980.  No further information is available, but I’m willing to grant you the interesting visuals because the song, while not at all bad, is only OK next to every other tune on the record.

There’s not much to say about the music, except that I do like the analog bird chirping.  What is of note here is the subject matter.  Though Numan has couched the song about police harassing homosexuals in the context of a dystopian future, “Praying to the Aliens” was very much of the moment.  Transgendered electronic musician Terre Thaemiltz, who recorded an album of piano versions of Numan songs writes:

During the 1970s, Great Britain (as with most Western nations) found itself in the midst of yet another sex panic. Culture was once again at the crossroads of decay, as seen in such symptoms as Glam’s fascination with gender-blending and Ambisexuality. In particular, the visibility of Gay male sexuality and cruising in public parks became a target of violent police actions aimed at entrapping and arresting Gay men.2 The potential for seduction by undercover police officers sympathetically soliciting sex from other men was captured in the opening lines to the first track of Numan’s premier, self-titled album with Tubeway Army.

It’s a bit of an awkward song, with Numan’s off-kilter delivery of the chorus that doesn’t quite resolve itself so much as it dissolves and fizzles out each time around.  But its placement here is another instance of genius sequencing.  Coming just after “The Machmen,” it’s a chance to recover your senses and get ready for the next transcendent moment.

Oh, look, there’s a rape machine
I’d go outside if it’d look the other way
You wouldn’t believe the things they do

“Down In The Park” is the bleakest, most sinister song on Replicas.  It casts the listener in the role of voyeur immersed the world of androids and you get to eavesdrop on the machines’ nonchalance toward the poor meatbags.  “Come to Zom Zom’s, a place to eat / Like it was built in one day / You can watch the humans trying to run.”

It’s the only song on the record with no guitar, a hint at what was to come on Numan’s next album, The Pleasure Principle, where he would not only drop the Tubeway Army moniker, but drop guitars entirely.  With a slow pulse and a wash of analog tones, Numan establishes a chilly atmosphere with shimmering sound bringing to mind the firing of synthetic synapses in your “friend’s” head.

For the video representation, I went with the live version from Urgh! A Music War because I must have watched it a hundred times when I was in high school.  It’s so deliciously ridiculous, what with Gary doddering around the stage in his gothic sci-fi Rascal.  Or maybe it’s a Jazzy.  Anyway, I am fond of the juxtaposition of the song’s dystopian lyrics and the absurdity of the visuals.  It’s very nearly Numan’s own Stonehenge moment.  But somehow, it just works.

“Down in the Park” has achieved a sort of bizarre mainstream-cult status with bands like Foo Fighters, Marylin Manson and Christian Death all turning in cover versions.  Of course none of them come close to touching the original.

The wreckage of a hero
Lies broken in the corner
And everyone pretends
We like to live that way

“You Are In My Vision” is the most straight-ahead rock song on Replicas.  The relentlessly repetitive two-note riff persists throughout and careens headlong to the end.  It’s probably the second-weakest song on the album, but once again, it’s not a dud and, once again, it owes quite a lot to the sequencing.  Coming in perfect counterpoint to “Down In The Park” and its oppressive atmosphere, “Vision” is a rocking breath of fresh air.  The song is also a counterpoint to the previous one in that it brings the guitar to the forefront and relegates the synths to a mere background whirr.

The subject matter is vaguely suggestive of some sort of virtual reality setup or perhaps it’s a bizarre fever dream of one of our android “friends.”  It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on, but it’s okay because within the context of the whole, the song is just a bridge to the next highlight.

It was hard to avoid
I suppose it was a shame
But they didn’t even try

The title track has us back in sinister territory again, though heavier this go round than “Down in the Park.”  Opening with a throbbing two-note pulse evocative of a persistent cyborg heartbeat, the exaggerated flanged reverb of the drums ratchets up the tension as we enter yet another ambiguous situation.  Are we hearing from one of the Grey Men here?  Is this perhaps “friend” who is a snitch for the Grey Men? Or is this a human who has turned on a group of “friends?”  Its disorienting point of view is heightened by a vaguely exotic guitar and keyboard cadence that serve as a chorus.  Then the keyboards start to go schizophrenic and stray out of tune toward the end, making you genuinely question what’s going on here.   It’s a marvelously effective way of creating tension that I think very few songs accomplish.

“Replicas” easily the strangest song on the record, and I think, one of the best.  The video is taken from a live performance on French television.

They want to relive all my memories
Give me the service daily
Maybe it was mother
I can’t seem to remember much at all these days

I probably listened to Replicas a dozen times before it dawned on me that “It Must Have Been Years” is the only song on the record with a guitar solo.  In fact, there are no solos of any kind on the record except this one.  The tune is another straight-up rocker, but more convincing and snarly than “You Are In My Vision.”  This is an angry song.  The feeling is undoubtedly that of a human being brutalized.

Knowing a bit about Numan’s early life, one can help but wonder just how autobiographical some of the lyrics are.  And though it is an angry song– strangely out of place yet perfectly in place at the same time– it is also triumphant.  For me, this has always been where Replicas ends, though there are two tracks left to the record.  To my mind, “It Must Have Been Years” is the perfect finale to an amazing eight-song record.

I’ll probably get a lot of shit for saying so, but the two instrumental tracks that close out the record are completely unnecessary.  “When The Machines Rock” is particularly lame.  It sounds like something that would be in a German car commercial.  I’ve listened to Replicas several hundred times in my life and I bet I haven’t played “When The Machines Rock” all the way through more than a dozen times.

The same could be said for “I Nearly Married A Human.”  Were I feeling generous, I’d say it is noteworthy for its similarity to some aspects of Vangelis’ score for Blade Runner, though it predates it by several years.  But that is perhaps being a bit too generous.  Mostly these instrumentals serve as a taste of what was to come later in the year, when Numan released The Pleasure Principle.  That album contained the ubiquitous single “Cars,” forever relegating Gary Numan to One-Hit-Wonderland in the U.S.  I think Replicas is a far superior album.  And for a sci-fi concept record made by a 21-year-old geek from Hammersmith, it’s fucking fantastic.

DISCLAIMER- This is a major overhaul of a review I did for Replicas in 2005 when I was Music Director at KSCR and added the CD to the station’s library of “The 50 albums all college stations should have.”  Though the original review has been updated and no longer has my name on it, I assure you, them words is mine.

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