Friends Again

 

The bands lineage dated back at least as far as the moment when the 15-year-old Thomson began writing songs in the bedroom of his family home midway between Uddingston and Bothwell. A year later, returning from a trip to Glasgow’s Listen Records, Thomson bumped into fellow Uddingston Grammar pupil and budding keyboardist Paul McGeechan. “He had an armful of Bowie LPs,” remembers McGeechan, “which he’d bought using cash he’d earned from a summer job working on the roads.” Together the pair hatched a plan for a band. Recruiting bassist Neil Cunningham from among their classmates, they formed a punk band. The Craniums, featuring Thomson on guitar and vocals. “At that stage I only ever operated the bottom two strings on the guitar,” he recalls. “Neil and I didn’t even know how to tune our instruments.” The Craniums soon metamorphosed into the more post-punk oriented A Choir Holy, which itself was followed by Future Daze. As the band’s style evolved, so did their choice in cover versions, from songs by The Clash to Bowie (Hang Onto Yourself was a favourite), The Velvet Underground and even Fischer Z’s Pretty Paracetamol. ​ 

The teenagers rehearsed in a derelict outbuilding at the bottom of the Cunningham family garden. By coincidence, in a similarly dilapidated pile round the corner a band called Raw Deal - featuring locals Ken McLuskey and his brother David - were fashioning what would become their own assault on the charts. “They were a bit ahead of us,” remembers Thomson, “and of course eventually went on to have success in The Bluebells. But the fact they were so close meant there was a little bit of friendly competition.”

Eventually, as the 1980s arrived blinking in the sunlight, the band found themselves operating under a new name Friends Again. By now Stuart Kerr - whose spectral falsetto became such an integral part of the the band’s sound - was handling drum duties. Another friend, Andrew McGurk, played guitar. Thomson, an avid reader who devoured paperback editions of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Camus, Kafka and Nabokov, found a kindred spirit in the guitarist, who had a taste for Keats, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Gerard Manley Hopkins. But their putative literary partnership dissolved in the aftermath of a gig at Glasgow’s Mayfair - with The French Impressionists - when a falling out with their manager, a friend of McGurk’s, proved terminal.  

In Glasgow’s Castlemilk, meanwhile, teenage virtuoso James Grant was plotting his next move. Thanks to the Youth Opportunities Scheme, he had found work at the Washington Street Arts Centre, writing music for plays and even doing some acting. “I had an Equity card,” he recalls. At the time he came into the Friends Again orbit, he was appearing in a play about an alcoholic musician. It was called Guttered.

“We met at Café Gandolfi in Glasgow’s Merchant City,” remembers Grant. “I’d seen them play before and heard, through a friend, that they were looking for a guitarist. I’d played in three or four bands by that time and I was ready to be in another. What sealed the deal for me was that they said they had a support slot with Cuban Heels at the Marquee the following month. That felt like the big time.”

For the audition, Grant travelled out to Bothwell. He jammed along to a cover of The Velvet Underground’s Sweet Jane. But the song that stood out for him was a Thomson composition called State Of Art. “It felt very familiar,” remembers Grant, “and I was very struck by it. It had words - like ‘protectorate’ - in it that were mysterious and baffling to me. I kind of fell in love with it.”

Soon the outhouse in Bothwell became Grant’s second home. “I’d get up at 6.30 in the morning, go through to Edinburgh to rehearse the play then head out to Bothwell to rehearse with the band. Yet I don’t ever remember feeling tired. I was so immersed in what we were doing.”

By chance, McGeechan spotted an advert in the magazine International Musician. “It was for a 16-track studio in Edinburgh,” he explains, “and it charged just £10 an hour. I saw it and thought: ‘That’s the place for us.’”

 

Though they’d recorded some songs with Andrew McGurk at the Hellfire Club, where Orange Juice had done some early demos, the tracks they worked on in Edinburgh’s Palladium Studio underlined how fast the band had evolved. Turner, who’d played keyboards with Demis Roussos (his wife Anne had been one of the Greek chart icon’s backing singers), owned an impressive array of synthesisers, which appealed to the electronics-obsessed McGeechan. However Turner also had an intuitive understanding of the creative process and proved adept at delivering the vision of a diverse number of acts including Endgames, The Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. The two songs Turner helped them record - Honey At The Core and Sunkissed - had that indefinable something. Honey At The Core even featured Grant playing a bass solo inspired by Heaven 17’s underground hit (We Don’t Need That) Fascist Groove Thang.

“A few days later,” remembers McGeechan, “we took the No.56 bus into Glasgow. Radio Clyde was at Anderston Cross at the time. We headed straight there and asked at reception if we could leave a tape for Billy Sloan. He was already something of a legend to local bands at the time because his show was where you’d hear the latest new music and a lot of it was coming out of Scotland.” As it turned out, the DJ was actually in the building at the time. He came out to say hello, wish them luck and, more importantly, take the cassette.

“We were round at a friends the next week when Billy’s show came on the radio,” explains Grant. “And he played one of our songs. We were jumping around like we’d just scored a No.1 hit. It was a really important moment. It felt like we were on our way.”

Glasgow was a magnet for record industry A&R men at the time and Sloan’s radio show was an important conduit to them. Within weeks, Friends Again were a hot property. Another mate, Dave Scott - then entertainments convener at Strathclyde University - took the songs to Ian Surrey at the publishers April Music who quickly inked a deal. Meanwhile, at Phonogram Records, A&R man Ashley Goodall had also seen the band’s potential. He moved fast enough to beat a number of other interested labels and, in late 1982, Friends Again signed to Phonogram in exchange for a £40,000 advance. The signing took place at Bothwell’s 13th century castle - which features in Thomson’s lyric for Honey At The Core. “My dad was a stonemason,” explains McGeechan, “and he was heavily involved in the restoration of the castle. He was a fan of the band but gave Chris a hard time for the line that says: ‘Bothwell Castle is falling down.’” Predictably, McGeechan gave up his electronics course at college to focus full-time on fame and fortune. Thomson also quit his English Literature studies at Strathclyde University.

Paired with a new Thomson/Grant composition Lucky Star, the Palladium recording of Honey At The Core was released as a single on the band’s own Moonboot label. Ostensibly an independent, the imprint was actually financed by Phonogram. The strategy worked and after the debut garnered positive press, Sunkissed was released as a follow-up. Meanwhile the band kept travelling through to Edinburgh to do more recordings with Jon Turner at Palladium. Those demos formed the body of work that would finally translate into Trapped & Unwrapped. “Jon doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the work he did with a lot of Scottish bands,” says McGeechan. “He was the equivalent of someone like Martin Hannett, who helped so many of the Manchester bands realise their sound. And though only a couple of things ended up on the album, he was an integral part of shaping the Friends Again sound.”

Equipped with demos made at Palladium, the band were soon installed at RAK Studios in London’s St John’s Wood with producer Bob Sargeant.“Bob was very a very traditional, old school record producer,” says Thomson. “While his own influences were things like Little Feat and The Band, he liked things to be engineered properly and played with the right attitude. He was very into authentic sound - things like great-sounding acoustic guitars - which wasn’t always the case in the 1980s. The result was these lovely-sounding, classic recordings.”

“Bob was a very strict taskmaster,” remembers McGeechan. “He was a huge fan of Steely Dan producer Gary Katz and I guess that came through in his focus on performance and timing particularly. After a day in the studio, I used to go back to the apartment where we were staying and practise my parts for four or five hours to make sure I was ready for the next day’s recording. It was pretty intense.” “He definitely put you through your paces,” agrees Thomson. “But as well as that steely professionalism he was also a great person to be in the studio with and we were very fond of him.”

Legendary arranger Paul Buckmaster - who created the orchestrations on such classic rock cornerstones as David Bowie’s Space Oddity, Elton John’s Tiny Dancer and the Stones’ Moonlight Mile (as well as playing a pivotal role in Miles Davis’s On The Corner) - was brought in to work on State Of Art. Decorated with Grant’s exquisite guitar lines and released as a single in 1983, Phonogram believed it would give Friends Again their first hit. But while sales figures were encouraging, the regional weighting used by chart compilers Gallup discounted huge numbers bought in Scotland. As a result, State Of Art didn’t breach the Top 40 and plans to release the album immediately were shelved. Remixes were also commissioned from Iggy Pop/Robert Plant producer Pat Moran.

Friends Again went on tour and then travelled back to Edinburgh to complete more recording at Palladium. Television’s Tom Verlaine was also brought in to act as producer on new song Swallows In The Rain, which was recorded at London’s Townhouse. “Neil and I were big fans of Television,” recalls Thomson, “so for us it was an interesting experience. Before we went into the studio, Tom came to see us rehearse. We already had the basics of the song but he helped us lay out the verses a bit more.”

“I expected that one to be quite a radical session,” adds Grant, who memorably went on to perform with Verlaine for an appearance on TV show The Tube. “But in fact Tom was quite a traditional producer compared to the more Eno-esque approach I thought he’d have. We ended up in a room playing the track through for six or seven hours until he was satisfied it was ready to record. There is one wee bit of guitar in the verses, just a really cool single note thing, that he played after we’d left the studio. That was his gift to us I think.”

Back at Palladium, Jon Turner remixed Lullaby No.2 and, together with some new tracks (Wand You Wave, Thank You For Being An Angel) and remixes (Sunkissed, State Of Art) it was issued as the Friends Again EP just as the band embarked on a summer tour with The Bluebells. Though sales were again promising, Gallup’s regional weighting sank its chart chances.

A memorable residency at London’s Marquee Club ended with Slade’s Noddy Holder and Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister accompanying the band back to their base at the Columbia Hotel in Bayswater. The rock veterans loved the band but hated their clean-cut image. Instead they proposed an outlandish revamp involving buffalo horns. Friends Again politely demurred. “We did sit up all night listening to Noddy’s stories,” remembers McGeechan. “It was one of those pinch- me moments. When we were kids, there was no bigger act than Slade.”

A final attempt at a hit single, South Of Love, was recorded with the much-missed Bobby Henry at Palladium. Blessed with a killer chorus and Henry’s ear-popping production touches, it re- energised a band already beginning to creak at the seams. “We were getting fed up with how long it was taking to get the album out,” remembers Thomson. “It wasn’t great for the band in terms of morale.”

For Grant, however, the wait proved too long. On tour he’d been assuming more and more of the traditional duties of a frontman, engaging in banter with audiences and clearly showing signs of restlessness. “I’d been singing backing vocals with some friends of mine who were in the band Hipsway,” he remembers. “They wanted me to join them and some other people were telling me I should do my own thing. In terms of my influences, I was caught somewhere between Led Zeppelin and Chic and that obviously wasn’t where Chris wanted to be.” He called a band meeting, without Thomson, and - over coffees in the Equi cafe on Sauchiehall Street - laid out his plan.

In a fateful phone call, Grant called the singer with news. “Hey man,” the guitarist told him, “I’ve got something heavy to lay on you - I’m leaving the band.” As Thomson soaked up the gut punch, Grant hit him the cross. “And by the way, the other guys are leaving too ...”

“It all worked out for the best,” explains Thomson today. “James had a burning desire to go for the commercial jugular and that obviously wasn’t happening with Friends Again. Yet while the split wasn’t great for me in personal terms, creatively it was really good.” Grant agrees. “Chris flourished doing his own thing,” he says. “I’d have done his head in if we’d stayed together.”

In November 1984, a few brief weeks after the band’s break-up, the pristine grooves of Trapped & Unwrapped arrived in record shops. Sheathed in gorgeous artwork by former Glasgow School of Art pupil Fraser Taylor, it looked every bit as good as it sounded. As part of the creative group The Cloth (which also included David Band, Helen Manning and Brian Bolger), Taylor had been involved in creating sleeves for Altered Images, Spandau Ballet and Aztec Camera. He’d also done the sleeves for the Friends Again EP and South Of Love. Phonogram clearly had confidence in the record but there was no longer an act to promote it. Deprived of the traditional means to draw attention to it, the label let the release slowly sink and turned their attentions to more easily marketable projects. Thomson set to work on launching The Bathers and quickly made his peace with Grant, who performed on the band’s Unusual Places To Die debut. Along with McGeechan, Kerr and, briefly, Cunningham, Grant went on to critical and commercial success under the name Love & Money including 1988’s peerless Strange Kind Of Love album.

Thirty-five years on, Trapped & Unwrapped still sounds effervescent and original. It’s a record in which it is endlessly summertime though Thomson’s dark existential undertones still lurk, ready to spring surprises. Grant’s virtuoso guitar work - often performed on the honey-coloured Gibson 347 he bought in Chappell’s music shop, underneath the Phonogram offices, soon after signing the deal - is a sterling reminder of exactly how talented a 22-year-old can be. “There are a lot of influences crammed in there,” he grins. “It’s an album we’re very proud of,” adds McGeechan. “And for me, particularly, I think working with Bob Sargeant had a huge influence on my career as a professional musician.” Thomson - who most recently worked with McGeechan on the Starless project - remembers the making of the album with a great deal of fondness. “It was an amazing experience, at a time when we were all still very young, to have that camaraderie and to share so many special moments. We were very fortunate.”

Now reunited with original mixes by both Bob Sergeant and Jon Turner, this reissue also includes unreleased recordings (including The Reader Decides, If You Can’t Love Her Madly and Caller from the final Friends Again recording sessions in the autumn of 1984), b-sides and remixes. It’s a collection that offers a bitter-sweet reminder of a time when pop could be smart, knowing and beautiful.

© Tim Barr - 2019