Friends Again: Trapped And Unwrapped: Released – 1984.

THE introductory letter I received from Chris Thomson was brief and to the point.

On this occasion, the man who would go on to write some of the most vivid lyrics in Scottish music history was deliberately economical with his words.

It read:

“Dear Billy Sloan, The single won’t actually be in the shops for 2/3 weeks yet but here is a white label copy. It will come out on our own label, Moonboot Records … not CBS according to Steph, whoever he is.”

This information was scrawled in block capitals, on the sleeve of Honey At The Core, the 1984 debut single by Friends Again.

Thomson had also listed himself on vocals and guitar with James Grant (guitars), Neil Cunningham (bass), Paul McGeechan (keyboards) and Stuart Kerr (drums, bongos, backing vocals).

He had also crudely scribbled over an additional credit for Cunningham, which said … “humming”.

Whether this was an appraisal of his vocal talents or a comment on something else altogether remains a mystery. And I never did discover who Steph was.

Honey At The Core felt like a breath of fresh air, grabbing the baton passed on by Postcard Records three years previously.

I’d been given a preview of the song several weeks earlier, when the band had favoured a more

route one approach.

“We got the No. 56 from Uddingston straight into Anderston bus station, then made our way to Radio Clyde to hand a tape in,” recalled Paul.

“We thought there was a very small chance you might like it. The following week, we sat around the radio as you played it. It was a massive moment.

“And that became inspirational in itself because we’d made a piece of music which was now on the radio. It gave us the impetus to think, we CAN make a proper record. Let’s go and do some more.”

Thomson has a similar recollection. He said:

“We thought it sounded fantastic. There was a confidence there. Our attitude was … this is brilliant, the world MUST hear it.”

The pair, pupils at Uddingston Grammar, were brought together by diverse record collections which embraced a range of music from prog rock to punk.

In 1979, Thomson had a summer job working on the M8 motorway. He put his first wage packet to good use.

“I bumped into Chris who’d bought a pile of Bowie albums,” recalled Paul.

“He had them under his arm so that got us talking with a bit more of a musical currency.”

Soon they formed punk band, The Craniums, recruiting another school friend Neil Cunningham on bass.

“Our first gig in 1980 was a self-promoted show in a local scout hall,” revealed Chris.

“I played guitar using only the bottom two of the six strings. We also didn’t know how to tune the bass. That was an alien concept.

“While we were shamed by that first concert, at least we had the balls to get up and do a show.

“Halfway through our set – which included covers of Clash City Rockers and Bowie’s, Hang On To Yourself – two guys from another local band called Raw Deal asked if they could come up for a jam.

“It was Ken and David McCluskey, later of The Bluebells. They were such good players. Like masters of their craft compared to us.

“So it was back to the drawing board. A real case of having to learn on the job.”

Their apprenticeship continued through two more bands, A Choir Holy and Future Daze.

The Cunningham home in Bothwell had an outbuilding in the garden. It became their gang hut.

“We were fortunate we had a space to rehearse in,” said Paul.

“We spent so much time in there, Neil’s mum installed an electricity meter to help to pay the bills.”

The first Friends Again line-up featured Stuart Kerr on drums with Andrew McGurk on lead guitar. But when the latter dropped out, his place was taken by emerging musician James Grant, who’d found work at a Glasgow arts centre.

“I’d seen them play and heard they were looking for a guitarist,” James told writer Tim Barr in the sleeve notes of the 2019 album re-issue.

“What sealed the deal was they had a support with The Cuban Heels at the Marquee the following month. That felt like the big time.”

The guitarist was further impressed by State Of Art, written by Thomson.

“I remember James saying: ‘Whose song is that … I don’t know that one?’” recalled Paul.

“He was surprised when Chris said: ‘It’s mine’. He thought it was amazing. He was really impressed he’d written it.”

Grant was also instantly drawn to the singer’s early lyrical prowess. He said:

“It felt very familiar and I was struck by it. It had words like ‘protectorate’ in it that was mysterious and baffling to me. I fell in love with it.”

The band recorded demos with David Henderson at Glasgow’s Hellfire Club in 1980, before going on to work with Jon Turner at Palladium Studios in Edinburgh, on tracks that would form the foundation of the album.

Soon several major labels, including Phonogram, were knocking on their door.

“It was Glasgow’s time,” said Paul. “There was a real energy about the city thanks to Postcard.

“We played a gig supporting The Monochrome Set at Night Moves and Ashley Goodall from Phonogram came to see us.

“When we went on, there wasn’t a huge audience, but we got our girlfriends to go down the front and start screaming. And he fell for it.”

The band began recording at RAK Studios in London with producer Bob Sargeant.

“All the songs were written including Sunkissed, Tomboy, Old Flame and Vaguely Yours,” Chris recalled.

“We were still maybe lacking a little bit in confidence, simply because making an album was a new experience, so we relied on Bob to guide us.

“He was very into Little Feat and Crosby, Stills and Nash … all quite organic stuff with great acoustic sounding guitars.

“The sessions were very intense. Bob really put us through our paces. He was demanding a Little Feat-level of ability that only James had.

“But our melodic ideas were very sophisticated, so we kind of got there to an extent. Even though we still weren’t quite ready.”

Sargeant drafted in Paul Buckmaster to do a string arrangement for State Of Art. His studio sessions included such classics as Space Oddity by David Bowie and Moonlight Mile by The Rolling Stones.

“Bob said: ‘I think I hear big strings on this’. So he brought a 20-piece string section into the studio,” revealed Chris.

“When a guy of Paul Buckmaster’s pedigree walks in, you’re almost saved by your own naivety. Even though I knew what he’d done previously, I was kind of frozen in the moment. But what he did with the song was amazing.”

Trapped And Unwrapped hit record shops in November 1984. But Phonogram’s decision to delay its release several times, until the band had chalked up a big chart single, took its toll.

By the time the album hit record shops, the band had split.

They remain rightly proud of their achievement, however.

“It’s one of those records where you meet people even now, and they say: ‘I love that album’,” said Paul.

“It’s easy to forget that a lot of people DID buy the record. But we had just fizzled out before it was released. By then, the band didn’t exist. We’d killed it off.

“Had the record company put it out three months earlier it might have been a different story.”

And Thomson has no lasting regrets. He said:

“There was a lot of goodwill towards the band.

“We’d built up a strong fan base even though we’d fallen out of favour with the music papers, as you do.

“In 82-83 we’d got some good reviews, followed by some iffy reviews, and when you’re still only 20 that kind of thing is going to get to you.

“There have been times over the years when I’ve felt we maybe squandered an opportunity in lots of small ways.

“Trapped And Unwrapped is still very much a part of us. We were all so young and fortunate to share some special moments. It was an amazing experience and I think it’s STILL a great record.”

WHEN Friends Again clinched their £40,000 record deal with Phonogram, the location was fitting.

The band signed the contract at Bothwell Castle, which they’d referenced in the lyrics of Honey At The Core.

Their increasing popularity, particularly on home soil, would prove to be their undoing.

Phonogram released State Of Art confident it would crack the Top 40.

But Gallup, who compiled the charts, “weighted” the single … discounting huge numbers of records bought north of the border. As a result, it peaked at No. 93.

“I was maybe too close to the single, but I knew it was a good song,” said Chris.

“We were disappointed, but not as disappointed as the label. Even so, there was a feeling of … we’ll get there in the end.”

Two further singles – Sunkissed and The Friends Again EP – also failed to hit the target. After a huge marketing push, the latter was again “weighted” and got to No. 59. South Of Love was their fifth and final single.

Then guitarist James Grant dropped a depth charge. Growing increasingly frustrated, he called a meeting with McGeechan, Cunningham and Kerr and told them he was forming his own band, Love And Money … and would they like to join him.

He then phoned Thomson to relay the news.

“James called out of the blue and said: ‘I’ve got something heavy to lay on you’. That was the phrase he used,” recalled Chris.

“It was a bit like a girlfriend dumping you. I wasn’t privy to the fact James was thinking of forming a breakout thing. It was a bombshell to me.”

In a further twist, the Phonogram promo team had secured the band an appearance on The Tube. It could have changed their fortunes overnight.

“The sensible, mature thing to do was go ahead and appear on the programme,” recalled Chris.

“We conspired to keep the news we’d split under wraps from our manager and agent.

“But somehow they got to know and cancelled our appearance. They felt we’d behaved like idiots, which we had.”

Over the years, Thomson, Grant and McGeechan have collaborated on other music projects. But there are no plans for a reunion.

“I think it is what it is,” said Chris, “but it’s important the songs still get an airing.

“Whether that’s with Paul’s project, Starless, or my band The Bathers or if me and James do a little bit of Friends Again from time to time.

“It helps breathe new life into them and keeps them alive.”

* THE Billy Sloan Show is on BBC Radio Scotland every Saturday at 10pm.