Released: 6th February 2006
Writers: Dave Stewart / Martin Kierszenbaum
Peak position: #48
Chart run: 48
t.A.T.u. will always be defined in a wider sense by the media storm surrounding their controversial debut single All The Things She Said. But even once the duo’s lesbianism had been debunked (Julia’s pregnancy in 2004 soon put paid to that), they continued to have a volatile relationship with the media and, apparently, each other. By 2006, speculation was rife that far from being intimately involved, Lena and Julia didn’t even like each other. Good timing then, to release a song called Friend Or Foe.
Although t.A.T.u. were no longer making headlines in the way they once had done, there was never anything less than a morbid fascination in them from the media who had been quick to denounce the duo as a gimmick who sold their music using shock tactics. And certainly, you get the sense that t.A.T.u. revelled in a cat-and-mouse game that kept everybody guessing. Make no mistake; these girls played the media like pros and were never less than a step ahead of everyone. However, maintaining an aura of mystique and unpredictability alone won’t sustain people’s interest. What did that – and what t.A.T.u. don’t get so much credit for – is basing their act around a very credible body of music. Indeed, Friend Or Foe boasts a respectable roster of talent; Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame co-wrote the track, it features Sting on bass and the cover art was shot by Bryan Adams.
Despite that – and the fact it’s an absolute bop – you do sense that the real driving force behind Friend Or Foe as single was the underlying narrative that went along with it. Rumours were swirling of growing tension within t.A.T.u. and that the duo’s professional relationship was, well, just that. As it happens, this was fairly close to the truth. Yet, far from being a scandal, both Lena and Julia have spoken openly about the fact that they don’t always – if ever – see eye-to-eye and haven’t remained in contact with one another. Back in 2006, though, it was unthinkable that t.A.T.u. – or indeed any pop group – could so brazenly acknowledge their existence as little more than a business venture. However, Lena and Julia did more than that; they accepted it and once again found themselves firmly in control. Friend Or Foe isn’t a gritty expose of the inner workings of t.A.T.u., but it knowingly stokes the fire of speculation surrounding what might be happening behind-the-scenes.
The track neatly draws together the two main strands of the duo’s sound and delivers them in a single package. Just before that, though, is an intro of frantic synth stabs that implies Friend Or Foe is going in an entirely different direction altogether. It doesn’t, and instead settles on a brooding, atmospheric tone reminiscent of the verses from Not Gonna Get Us. t.A.T.u. were so good at this; Lena’s high-pitched, aloof delivery complement the sparsity to create a real sense of coldness and isolation as she picks over the remnants of something very broken: “Is it too late, nothing to salvage; you look away, clear all the damage”. Then, without an ounce of hesitation, Friend Or Foe warms up and switches gear for its chorus, which is delivered in t.A.T.u.’s trademark half-sung, half-chanted manner: “We used to love one another, give to each other, lie under covers so, are you friend or foe”. It might be a relatively simple lyrical composition, but it’s utterly loaded, such is the intensity with which Julia and Lena deliver their performance.
Friend Or Foe is further elevated by the production surrounding it. The post-second chorus breakdown with its aggressive guitar kicks sounds utterly cataclysmic as it tosses around a disembodied “We used to…” vocal track and then drops into a slick synth-tinged instrumental. It’s a dizzying, euphoric rush which assuredly dismisses any notion that t.A.T.u. existed purely to shock. Here, they are delivering something that is just about as entertaining as pop music could be. And despite the high-profile acts involved in helping put the song together, the production still retains a certain degree of raw charm. Friend Or Foe subsequently powers home, dropping some high-pitched, filtered: “‘Cos I used to know, are you friend or foe?” ad-libs over the chorus. It’s a short, sweet hit that packs a heck of a lot into three minutes.
The accompanying visuals for Friend Or Foe were notable, although not quite in the same way. This was the first time we saw t.A.T.u. doing a “normal” music video. By which we mean, one that didn’t require censoring or cuts to be shown on television. Presumably, it’s supposed to pick up where All About Us left off, with t.A.T.u. having driven into the desert – although conveniently (for the video budget, at least) we join them at the very end of their escape. The video for Friend Or Foe isn’t bad by any means, but for a group whose visual repertoire included a point-blank shooting, a bombing and a hit-and-run in an HGV, there was a certain expectation attached. The biggest surprise, as it turns out, is that there aren’t any surprises at all, unless you count the addition of a dramatic piano interlude by Julia. Instead, the video largely consists of t.A.T.u. performing the song to a rather enthusiastic crowd. Not the most exciting concept by their standards, but it’s shot in an uncomfortably claustrophobic manner that accentuates the intensity of the lyrics.
Friend Or Foe was a masterstroke that saw t.A.T.u. continue to own their narrative and subvert expectations by releasing a single that veered away from heightened sensationalism. It was flawlessly executed in almost every respect, but there was one thing they couldn’t contingency plan for: people simply weren’t paying attention anymore. The single debuted and peaked at #48 in the UK, before promptly exiting the chart the following week. That’s no reflection on the quality of the song, but perhaps an indication that the general public judged t.A.T.u. more on their image – which in this case was entirely unremarkable – and less on their music, despite the critical plaudits they’d garnered.
Friend Or Foe was the duo’s final single to chart in the UK. A third album (Waste Management) was released in 2009 but failed to make any impact and t.A.T.u. subsequently split up. They’ve reunited for several live appearances in the years since, although it now appears that Lena and Julia have no further intention – or desire – to work together. Although if we’ve learnt one thing from t.A.T.u., it’s that you can never anticipate their next move.