NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hey, Cuz! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs. And today, it’s Gary Numan taking us for a spin.
Can I take a moment to talk about Podcast Republic? They have been listing this show as a Featured show since I was just a baby podcaster—no kidding, the show may have still been no more than a couple of months old—and I was just too excited to learn about it, since it was the podcast app that I’d been using from about the time I first started listening to podcasts. Think about that—they serve up over a million podcasts and a half billion episodes, and I’m among their top ten. Podcast Republic, to me, is notable for the fact that when some other apps start announcing all the cool new bells and whistles they’ve got, I wonder what the big deal is because I usually have that feature already. Go look for Podcast Republic in the Google Play Store.
It’s Trivia Time, and I think I’ve got a stumper for ye today. Name the 1959 hit song that started out as a poem written by the artist’s mother and was originally titled “Rock and Roll Baby.” It didn’t work out with that title, so a little reworking was done and the song became one of eight hit singles for the artist. Name the song and the artist. I’ll have that answer and a little more near the end of the show.
Gary Numan was at the forefront of a punk band called Tubeway Army at the age of 19 back in 1977. It wasn’t long after that, in 1979, that the band appeared on the show Top of the Pops. Numan said in an interview with Billboard Magazine that the appearance was a fluke. Top of the Pops had a regular feature during which they showcased bands that were up and coming, and during the week in question it was between them and Simple Minds. According to Numan, Tubeway Army was selected because it was a more interesting band name than Simple Minds. But the appearance led to the band’s song “Are Friends Electric?”—which is what you’re hearing now—going to Number One on the UK pop charts and stayed there for four weeks. It was also Top 10 in Ireland and the Netherlands, and Top 20 in Australia and several countries in Europe. And I know what you’re thinking, because I thought much the same thing. You’re thinking that this sounds more like New Wave than punk, you’d be kind of right and kind of not. See, here in the US we have this image of punk music being all rapidfire hard chords and lyrical content that advocates spitting on your mother or some such. But acts like Patti Smith, The Ramones, The Runaways and I’d even include early Joe Jackson were all part of the Punk movement as well. So while Tubeway Army had a little bit more synth to it, it was still a punk band.
That said, Numan did want to move away from punk and into more of a pop-slash-new wave kind of sound, so he jettisoned the rest of the band and began working on a solo album.
When Numan began work on what became The Pleasure Principle, he said his intention was to write a whole bunch of throwaway pop stuff for it, because the previous album was just so heavy. Numan said in a 2008 interview with Mojo Magazine that the song was inspired by road rage. Not his, other people’s. He was in London and a couple of guys started peeking in his windows and for whatever reason took a dislike to him, so he had to take evasive action. He locked the doors, swerved up onto the sidewalk, scattering people everywhere, and made his escape. From that incident it occurred to him that when you’re in your car in the modern world, you feel somehow safe. He said in a 2001 interview that (quote) “When you’re in it, your whole mentality is different, in car. It’s your own little personal empire with four wheels on it.” So while on its surface it sounds like an ode to people getting around, it’s really got a little bit of a darker intent to it. It’s a feeling of isolation created by being in the vehicle.
In retrospect, Gary Numan has said that he doesn’t really know why the song has done so well over the years. He wrote it on a bass guitar, he says, and it took him about ten minutes to compose. The keyboard parts came later, but he had the main melody and arrangement locked in pretty quickly. Numan said in that same 2001 interview that he really couldn’t even play bass, so he bought a bass guitar in order to learn how to play it properly. He never did get very good at the bass, he says, but those opening notes of “Cars” was among the first things he played.
Numan did make a video for this, of course, because 1979, but it’s actually kind of hard to watch because of the video effects he used, which are a little on the silly side nowadays, but were cutting edge then. But when MTV launched in the summer of 1980, they didn’t have a lot of videos in their library, so this one got a lot of airplay early on, so its popularity kind of endured in the United States.
The record was released in August of 1979 and it went to the top of the charts in the UK and Canada. It was a Number Nine record in Australia and on the Billboard Hot 100 chart here in the US, and a top 40 record in a few other European countries. The song has re-charted a few times over the years in the UK because of remixes being released.
Now, over the years Numan has updated a lot of his older material, but “Cars” seems to resist that kind of treatment, He said he’s tried to update it but it doesn’t sound any better to him. So when the heavy metal band Fear Factory approached him in 1998 about doing a remix-slash-update, he was getting a little paranoid about having that 1980s tag hung on him. Fear Factory had been playing the song in shows since 1996, so they sought his input. Numan said the experience was quite positive and he learned a lot from it. The Fear Factory version is a little more guitar-heavy—which makes sense, since there aren’t any guitars on the original version—and in some verses Numan’s voice has been allowed to bubble up a little more prominently. And yet, at the same time, it’s a weirdly bright recording considering Fear Factory’s usual material. The album as a whole is one of their best sellers, and the single did OK on the UK singles chart, but managed to reach Number 16 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart and Number 38 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. And yes, there is a video, and it’s a little easier on the eyes than the 1979 version.
The experience with Fear Factory probably also gave Numan the personal freedom to do a commercial in 2010 for Die Hard Batteries. Here’s a short clip from the ad, and I’ll link to the whole thing at the website:
The original version was also used in a Walmart commercial that debuted during the 2019 Super Bowl. Numan himself doesn’t appear in it but the ad features the song and a bunch of famous cars from TV and movies.
And now it’s time to answer our trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you to identify the song that started out as a poem called “Rock and Roll Baby,” written by the mother of the artist who eventually made it a hit.
Well, if you look at the label for “Tallahassee Lassie,” you’ll see that the writing credit goes to Crewe, Slay, and Piciarello. The first two are Bob Crewe and Frank Slay. And while Frederick Piciarello is Freddy Cannon’s real name, the “Piciarello” in this case is actually Freddie’s mother. When they couldn’t make “Rock and Roll Baby” quite work, they reworked it into “Tallahassee Lassie” and cut a demo, which despite 50 takes, nobody was liking how it came out. They shopped the demo to a bunch of labels in New York, all of whom said No Thank You. A few months later they brought ti to Swan Records in Philadelphia. Now, one of the owners of Swan was Dick Clark. He liked the song but suggested that the bridge, the part that opens with the booming drum and the line “she dances to the bop” be played twice instead of just once. Well, they weren’t willing to re-record the song, so they just spliced a copy of the bridge back into the recording and that’s the version we hear today. And you know, the funny thing is that this isn’t the first time I’ve heard a story about Dick Clark suggesting a relatively simple change that turns a decent song into a big hit. But that’s a tale for another day.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we check out James Taylor’s first hit.
Thanks for listening, I’ll talk to you next time.