In the early history of Elton John, the soundtrack that he and Bernie Taupin wrote for the little-remembered film Friends holds an unusual place. When its title track appeared early in 1971, Elton had finally just made his singles chart breakthrough on either side of the Atlantic with ‘Your Song.’ The now-immortal ballad spent no fewer than four weeks at No. 8 on the Hot 100 in January and February, simultaneously reaching No. 7 in the UK.
The song ‘Friends’ was released in America as a swift follow-up single by the Uni label, and while it didn’t come close to repeating the success of ‘Your Song,’ it did give him his second top 40 appearance. The track climbed to No. 34 on the Billboard chart in April 1971, and stayed there a second week.
In Britain, where singles were at the time released at the end of the week, ‘Friends’ came out as a 45 on Friday, 23 April 1971. But, in spite of the ‘Your Song’ success, it failed to make the charts at all.
There was a similar contrast in the fortunes of the soundtrack album, which missed the British bestsellers, but climbed to No. 36 in the US, had a 19-week chart run and was soon certified gold. The film was directed by London-born Lewis Gilbert, who had made one James Bond film at this point, You Only Live Twice, and would direct two more, The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977 and Moonraker two years later.
Produced (as usual for Elton) by Gus Dudgeon, the film score album was recorded in September 1970, some six months after the completion of the third Elton John long player Tumbleweed Connection. The Friends collection featured Elton’s regular band, with performances by Caleb Quaye, Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson and orchestral arrangements by Paul Buckmaster; it also had backing vocals by session regulars Madeleine Bell, Lesley Duncan and Kay Garner.
The LP’s lack of British success was partly due to the public indifference to the film (“the controversial love story featuring Elton John’s hit soundtrack,” as the poster said). It starred Sean Bury and Anicée Alvina in a love story that would now be regarded as socially and morally unacceptable to many, about two under-age “friends” who run away to Paris together, simulate a marriage ceremony and have a baby.
The ‘Friends’ single and album didn’t want for British publicity, though: on 3 April, Elton had been the subject of a Saturday night Aquarius special on ITV, featuring him “at home, at rehearsal, in concert.” Then, the 10 April edition of the New Musical Express had him sharing the front cover with Elvis Presley — Elton being photographed in his new Nudie suit, bought from the famous American designer for a princely £300, as the caption told us.
More huge British success for Elton John was just around the corner, but while he made Friends overseas, the film soundtrack is, to many, his lost British album. Now deleted, its songs are available on his 1992 Rare Masters collection.