This week JC is back with a tremendous review of an album that largely passed me by when it was first released way back in 1984. Then again I was nine at the time and I think I can be forgiven. When I was nine the only music I really cared about was by Nik Kershaw or Modern Romance. He has chosen ‘Trapped and Unwrapped’ the debut album by Glasgow jingle pop band Friends Again. It is a very good album, a decent listen, and well worth an hour of your time if you have never heard it before (like me). Anyway, here’s JC.
I’ll begin with an apology as this is a much longer piece than I had hoped, but the entire story leading up to the release of the album is very relevant.
It could be well argued that Glasgow was the centre of the musical universe between late 1982 through to 1984. Two of the Postcard label bands, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera, had experienced hit singles, and the likes of Altered Images, The Bluebells, Strawberry Switchblade and Lloyd Cole & The Commotions were no strangers to the Top of The Pops studios with their own brands of jingly-jangly guitar pop. Throw in the increasing success of Simple Minds and you can begin to understand why so many A&R men were flocking to the city every weekend, hoping to snare ‘the next big thing.’
The smart money, from those of us who were regulars around the local live circuit, was on Friends Again, a five-piece band who had released an absolute belter of a 7” single called ‘Honey At The Core’ on their own Moonboot Records, in May 1983. These guys were talented, handsome and, utterly cool. They were also ridiculously hard-working as they seemed to be either headlining or playing as a support act every other week.
The band seemed to be the perfect hybrid of all that was great about the Glasgow music scene. Chris Thomson was a fine singer and his lyrics were a cut above the ordinary or mundane, which was unsurprising given that he had, until becoming a full-time musician, studied English Literature. The guitarist, James Grant, seemed like a true virtuoso as indeed did Paul McGeechan on keyboards, while the rhythm section of Neil Cunningham (bass) and Stuart Kerr (drums) were as solid and dependable as you could ever wish for.
Word came that Phonogram Records had signed the band, and those of us who were fans waited on Friends Again achieving all their dreams of fortune and fame. The next single, ‘Sunkissed’ was pop perfection and to this day remains one of my all time favourite 45s. I was perplexed as to why it didn’t chart, but I consoled myself with the fact that Orange Juice hadn’t been an overnight success story and that these things can take some time.
Their third single, State of Art, was released in the autumn of 1983. It was yet another majestic 45 on which no expense seemed to have been spared. There were strings added to what was one of their best songs from the live shows, while production duties were handled by Bob Sargeant, who had been at the helm of the chart hits of Haircut 100. The promotional efforts included a video and the band undertaking their own headline tour, primarily of UK university venues. It was a real blow when it failed to chart, and the plan to issue the debut album in late 1983 was put on hold.
State of Art – Friends Again (1984, Phonogram Records)
The new year came, and with it, the first signs of panic among the record execs as a re-recorded version of ‘Honey At The Core’ was issued. Bob Sargeant was again tasked with production duties. He butchered the song, turning it into a near MOR-effort with the verses consisting of Chris singing over an overly-intrusive piano part, with James’s beautiful guitar parts replace by an awful sounding, session-musician style solo. Unsurprisingly, it flopped.
The next throw of the dice came in the summer with the release of the ‘Friends Again’ EP, across three different formats, including an expensive looking 2 x 7” pack, complete with a glossy booklet featuring a band bio and umpteen photos. The lead song was called ‘Lullaby No.2, Love On Board’. It didn’t sound like Friends Again as it was dominated by a horn section, and with the way James’s guitar parts were used, it felt as if Phonogram were trying to totally replicate the Orange Juice sound.
The EP did make the charts, albeit it peaked at #59.
Lullaby No. 2 – Friends Again (1984, Phonogram Records)
I saw the band play a gig at a college just outside Glasgow around this time, after which I spoke briefly to James who told me things weren’t as they should be in the Friends Again camp. A few weeks later, word reached us that the band had split up, and the debut album still wasn’t in the shops.
In November 1983, ‘Trapped and Unwrapped’ finally appeared. Friends Again were no more and it felt really strange going out to buy the record knowing that the songs wouldn’t be played again in the live setting. I’d seen the band on countless occasions, including travelling down to London, and I was genuinely devastated.
South of Love – Friends Again (1984, Phonogram Records)
The thing is, the album proved to be less than what I had hoped for. Friends Again had, from the outset through the early singles and live performances, been a band who could throw all sorts of music into their mix and sound amazing. The jingle-jangle pop was there, but so too was some funk/soul, while the quieter numbers had a touch of folk/country about them. ‘Trapped and Unwrapped’ felt as it had failed to capture all of this thanks to the record label wanting to throw all sorts of things to the wall in the hope that something would stick, in terms of a hit.
The search for the perfect formula had resulted in its twelve songs being worked on in three different studios with three different producers, while mixing duties were handled by two others. The original versions of ‘Honey At The Core’ and ‘Sunkissed’ were missing, and in the case of the latter, the horns and guitar parts on the new version were again, simply an Orange Juice rip-off.
The thing is, I’m willing, thanks to hindsight and the passing of almost 40 years, to argue that the album is nearly perfect. My reasoning being that Trapped and Unwrapped finally made available so many songs first heard some two years previously when watching the band play live, and without it, I’d have been reliant on hearing them nowadays only through poorly recorded bootlegs. If Phonogram had issued the album with the original versions of the early singles, and/or included a couple of what had been outstanding b-sides then I doubt I would have offered it up for this series as it would have been a 10/10 effort.
Indeed, the record company belatedly realised the folly of its ways when it came to issuing a CD version of the album in 2004 as it reinstated the early singles and threw in four extra songs that had previously been b-sides.
Dealing In Silver – Friends Again (1984, Phonogram Records)