|How Road Rage Inspired the New Wave Hit "Cars"
After an attack in London, musician Gary Numan realized he felt safest of all locked inside his
As punk rock crested in 1978 an the more refined New Wave emerged, European artists began experimenting
with synthesizers. "Cars," by British musician Gary Numan, was among electronic pop's early hits. Inspired by a
London road-rage incident, the song peaked at No. 9 on Billboard's pop chart in June 1980.
Recently, Mr. Numan - the song's composer, singer, keyboardist and producer - and keyboardist Chris Payne
looked back at the hit's evolution.
In August 1978, I discovered the synthesizer quite by accident. I was at Spaceward Studios in Cambridge, England,
to record the debut album of my band Tubeway Army. We had just signed with Beggars Banquet Records.
At the time, I didn't like electronic music. During the 1970's, I was aware of Kraftwerk's albums and what Brian Eno
was doing. I also thought the second side of David Bowie's "Low" album was pretty cool. But I didn't enjoy electronic
music enough to change my interest in the guitar. I hadn't heard anything that made me think electronic music was
anything more than slightly off the wall.
At Spaceward Studios, while my drummer and bass player unloaded their gear from the car, I went in to say hello
to our engineer, Mike Kemp. In the control room, I told Mike what we planned to record over the next few days. As we
spoke, I looked into the studio and saw a small keyboard with wires, switches and dials. It was a Minimoog.
Mike let me have a go. Lucky for me, whoever used the Mini and pressed a key, a massive roar came out. I'd never
heard anything like it. The sound blew me away. Rather than record a punk album on my guitar, I was going to use the
Minimoog. All the staccato punk things I had worked out would be played on the synthesizer. It would still sound basic and crude, just more electronic.
When I took the finished album tapes to Beggars Banquet, an argument began over whether they would release it. The label had its own vision of what they
wanted me to be. They seemed to view me as a punk-pop crossover. I didn't agree, I told them that electronic music was the next big thing. Finally, the label
executives said "OK, we'll put out the album and see what happens."
Once "Tubeway Army" was released in November 1978, the album failed to chart. By then, I had another album's worth of songs that I had written on my guitar
and home piano, which I taught myself to play. "Replicas," our second Tubeway Army album, came out in April 1979 and went to No. 1 in the U.K. in mid-1979. By
then, the plan was for me to record my third album under my own name.
Since childhood, I've had Asperger's syndrome. It's a developmental disorder that makes social interactions difficult. If you have it , you see the world differently
than most people, and you react to it differently. I never felt like I fit in, and I had no idea why. I also tended to upset people but was never quite sure what I had done
to cause that. As a result, I became cautious and reserved. From a creative perspective, I've always viewed Asperger's as a bonus, It gave me an emotional
cocoon that I could hide in, and it deflected everything. I was isolated and insulated.
Saved By a Little Ford Cortina
The idea for "Cars" first came to me in my car in 1977. I was driving my Ford Cortina in West London when traffic came to a halt. For some reason, two men in
the van ahead of me got out and walked toward my car. They looked angry. As they approached, I assumed I must have done something to them. Maybe I cut
them off or they thought I was someone else, Because of my Asperger's, I had no clue. Whey they reached my car, they shouted, banged on the hood and tried to
open my door. They even attempted to smash my window. To get away, I drove up onto the sidewalk.
Fortunately, the pavement was quite wide. I drove along, with people leaping to one side. Finally, I reached a cross street and drove off. I never did find out what
the fuss was about. I always dreaded crowds, yet I'm noticeably relaxed in a car. I come down several notches in there. A locked car is a quiet, controlled
environment. I feel safe from crowds.
A few months after the road-rage incident, I was in London with a friend to buy an electric bass. I bought a Shergold Modulator and brought it home. My parents
lived in the Ravensbury suburbs of London. I went into a side room where our piano stood. After I plugged in everything and put the bass on my lap, the first four
notes I played sounded good. They would become the opening notes to "Cars." As I played, the road-rage incident was still fresh in my mind and how fortunate I
had been that day. I began to think of the car as a tank for civilians. The lyrics came in a rush: "Here in my car / I feel safest of all / I can lock all my doors / it's the
only way to live / In cars." "Here in my car / Where the image breaks down / Will you visit me please / If I open my doors / In cars."
From opening the bass's case to writing the out the lyrics on a pad, the song took me roughly 30 minutes. It was the quickest song I ever wrote. I had no grooves
in mind or anything. That would come later. I was just lucky that my fingers had chosen those four notes for the melody. In mid-1979, I decided to record "Cars" for
"The Pleasure Principal," my first solo album. We recorded a demo of the song at London's Free Range Studios using synthesizers, bass and drums. The song's
humming beehive-y opening was created with an MXR Phaser pedal hooked up to a Polymoog synthesizer, I put the device on full speed. It have the notes a
I played to song;s melody line on the Minimoog. It was perfect for that low-end bass sound. I wanted something that had some bite to it. The high-frequency
strings were created on the Polymoog using a "Vox Humana" setting.
With the synthesizers and the atmosphere that Gary created, the album's demos sounded futuristic, But "Cars" was different than the other material we had
recorded. It was very upbeat.
Gary played the Minimoog and I played the Polymoog. We just messed around and used our ears. As I recall, Gary and I both played bass lines on the Mini and
the Poly. Then bassist, Paul Gardiner overdubbed his bass part by following what we had done.
Cedric Sharpley was an amazing drummer. He wasn't about being mechanical or robotic. His rhythms were firm but warm.
When it was time to record his vocal, Gary doubled-tracked his voice and blasted through the song. Once we had demos of "Cars" and the rest of the album, we
went to London's Marcus Music AB Studios in May 1979 to record.
When I had overdubbed the Polymoog's strings on the demo, I began by holding just one note. That wasn't planned. That one long note and the few notes that
followed weren't meant to be a counter-melody. I was struck and couldn't think of anything to play. Listening back to the demo later, I actually liked what I had heard.
So I recreated it a Marcus Music, where I modified the notes slightly and recorded it properly. I was just feeling my way along. I never had music lessons or vocal
lessons. I didn't know how to read or write music.
LA Is Perfect for Gary
Today, my wife Gemma and I live in the San Fernando Valley , north of Los Angeles. Where we live, you have to get in your car just to go to a local store. But I'm
happy in traffic, just not around crowds of people. The buildings are low in L.A., and I'm always aware of the big blue sky while driving, even when struck in traffic.
There's no sense of claustrophobia. My feeling safe in a car has never gone away.
Take a ride with Gary Numan in his little Ford Cortina in "Cars" . . . .