Addicted To Vinyl Musical thoughts from the open road, with headphones on

11Aug/097

Cage Match: Berlin vs. Gary Numan

First things first, an introduction: I’m the new kid on the block here at Addicted to Vinyl, but not new to Cleveland. Although I’m now based in St. Louis and run the A to Z music blog at the Riverfront Times, I wrote for the Plain Dealer, Free Times and Scene for years. (You probably did not see my work in the Rocky River High School publication The Pirate Press. That’s likely okay.) Thanks to Matt for ceding his digital platform to me so I can torture Addicted to Vinyl readers with my prose.

But enough about me; let’s talk about transportation. More specifically: how the ‘80s were obsessed with transportation and movement. Part of this stems from the decade’s futuristic music – which dovetailed nicely with our long-standing obsession with space-age ways to travel (cf. the Jetsons’ hover cars, space walks and Star Trek’s teleportation pixilation).

More than likely, though, the transportation fascination stemmed from the decade’s love affair with dance music, sequencers and the drum machine – components perfect for any limb-loosening tune or Jazzercise soundtrack. You can’t help but move to new-wave, whether you’re doing the Molly Ringwald or pretending like you’re Belinda Carlisle.

Even the artists liked to move. Missing Persons went walking in L.A. Lionel Richie magically danced on the ceiling. Michael Jackson moonwalked. Billy Ocean asked -- nay, commanded – that we get out of his dreams and get into his car. Even REO Speedwagon threw away its oars. Forever.

This wordy, rambling introduction, of course, sets up the mother of all new-wave transportation battles:

Berlin “The Metro” vs. Gary Numan, “Cars.”

This competition works on several levels. First, there’s the ideological battle between the public-transportation-riding, eco-conscious environmental lovers -- some might say “hippies” – versus those that are methodically destroying our planet by draining it of limited natural resources. (I say “hippies” with love, because I rode the T in Boston for years – JFK/UMASS stop FTW.)

However, when you’re talking about essential new-wave singles, it doesn’t get much better than this pair. The synth line snaking its way through “The Metro” is paranoid and urgent; it’s a tangible manifestation of urban anxiety and having your well-being be completely in the mercy of another. Numan’s “Cars” is just as paranoid, but its angst is much slower and sinister, the soundtrack of a boogeyman wandering around looking for prey.

Berlin, "The Metro"

Lyrically, “Cars,” kind of matches the tone – Numan alternately feels comforted and suffocated by the confines of his vehicle. “The Metro,” in contrast, is all about regret – the song looks back on a painful break-up, where memories of happier times devolved into “searching for the perfect word” to try to make things better.

“The Metro" only reached #58 on the pop charts in 1983, although "Cars" hit #9 in 1980. In later years, each song also spawned a secondary battle, that of one between modern rock semi-hits. System of a Down tackled Berlin and made it into a herky-jerky pastiche of 311 and Green Day (it’s no System of a Lego, sad to say), while Fear Factory coaxed Numan himself to sing on a cover of the tune. And both tunes have permeated other genres: Dark-punks Alkaline Trio and Blink 182 side project +44 both covered the tune, while hipster electro upstart Amanda Blank rapped over the synth line when I saw her live in June. “Cars,” meanwhile, was sampled on Armand Van Helden’s “Koochy” and covered by Kool G. Rap, Britpop novelty Shampoo and college-rockers Judybats.

Gary Numan, "Cars"

Berlin formed in Orange County, and first found fame (and controversy) with the kittenish, explicit “Sex (I’m a…).” The band’s later singles – including “No More Words” and the Top Gun prom slow jam “Take My Breath Away” – displayed a toned-down attitude. Although Berlin reunited for VH1 a few years ago (and a version of the group featuring Terri Nunn still does occasional dates), Nunn’s two-toned hair -- which came back into fashion in a big way in recent years -- has seemed to become Berlin’s greatest legacy.

Gary Numan basically invented synthpop, first with his band Tubeway Army and later as a solo artist. The missing link between Bowie, Roxy Music, T. Rex and post-punk and new-wave, the Brit concocted seminal singles such as “Are Friends Electric?” “Me! I Disconnect From You” and “Down In the Park,” based around themes of digital alienation and how technology isolates. (Prescient one, that Numan.) He’s also continued to tour – in fact, I saw him a few years ago – and recently appeared onstage with Nine Inch Nails in London.

Berlin and Gary Numan - One will stay, and one will take the lonely bus ride out of town, bound for Loserville. Cast your vote in the comments!

  • Stacy

    Going with Gary Numan. He's all that and a pilot who's been arrested under suspicion of spying. Now that's cool.

  • ferris

    That is a tough one. Without taking anything away from Numan, I vote Berlin.

    How about Sigue Sigue Sputnik mix of “Metro” vs. Fear Factory cover of “Cars”? Once again, I vote Metro.

  • MellieMel

    “The Metro”!!! This song was a natural segue into loving dance music when I was younger.

    Man, I have memories of listening to this Berlin album (ahem, tape) in my aunt's car when it came out too. She was most def the “Cool Aunt.” I miss her… and her music taste.

  • http://www.theclevelandcaper.blogspot.com/ emily

    I just realized that the chick on the mat looks like ashlee simpson. that's awesome.

  • Matt

    is that your secret way of saying that you're voting for Berlin?

  • Matt

    I've never been a Gary Numan fan, and I've liked the covers of Cars even less. On the flip side, I've always been quite a fan of Terri Nunn and Berlin. Gotta give it to Berlin on this one!

  • Matt

    I've never been a Gary Numan fan, and I've liked the covers of Cars even less. On the flip side, I've always been quite a fan of Terri Nunn and Berlin. Gotta give it to Berlin on this one!