Aztec Camera

TrackAlbum
ObliviousHigh Land, Hard Rain
We Could Send LettersHigh Land, Hard Rain
Down The DipHigh Land, Hard Rain
The Birth Of The TrueKnife
Working In A Gold MineLove
Somewhere In My HeartLove
Killermont StreetLive At Ronnie Scott's
The Gentle KindStray
Dream Sweet DreamsDreamland
On The AvenueFrestonia

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Aztec Camera photo 1

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

As the driving force in Aztec Camera, Roddy Frame first appeared on the British music scene in the early 1980s. He was then a prodigiously gifted teenager (a ‘boy wonder’ to paraphrase the title of one of his own songs). Indeed, to use Bob Dylan’s phrase, he was the quintessential ‘triple threat’ – a superbly gifted guitarist, an excellent songwriter and a very fine singer. Like his close friend and one time label-mate, Edwyn Collins, he was also extremely eclectic in the range of his musical influences. These included artists like the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, David Bowie and Jonathan Richman, but they also extended to classic 1960s folk-rock, country-rock and pop music. Frame had a particular fondness for such late-60s bands as Love and Buffalo Springfield. He also shared Collins’ interest in soul music, particularly Tamla Motown. Among contemporary bands, he was also a keen fan of the Clash, Echo and the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes.

Along with these enthusiasms, Frame also keenly admired some of the great jazz guitarists, most notably Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery. Both of these great musicians were to be key influences on his later style. Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens later described Frame as “the most accomplished guitarist” he had ever seen. He also described “his fingers swooping up and down the guitar neck picking out single notes, to freeze in a tangled-figured chord” that Forster had “to squint to decode”. According to Forster, the “tonal tinge” that made Frame’s songwriting “so distinctive came from those jazz-style chords that he would strum with a wrist-snapping flourish”. Later in his career, the influence of jazz-style balladry would also become more central in Frame’s music, most notably in the beautiful Over My Head on Aztec Camera’s fourth album, Stray, and as a key element running throughout his solo masterpiece, Surf.

Born into a musical family, Frame began playing guitar at a very young age. Indeed, his natural aptitude for it became apparent very quickly and by the time he was ten he was already sitting in as a backing musician with much older and more established local musicians. At fifteen, he joined his first fully fledged band, the punk-influenced Neutral Blue. Three years later he formed Aztec Camera, along with Campbell Owens on bass and David Mulholland on drums. From the outset, how
ever, it was clear that Frame was the principal artistic force behind the band and the others were there primarily to aid him in realising his musical vision. This early version of the band recorded a number of completely independent demos, which demonstrate a strong Joy Division/early Cure influence. Indeed, they are markedly different in character from the group’s later work with Postcard Records. Here’s Real Tears and Remember The Docks both from 1980.

As we saw in a previous Toppermost, Alan Horne, the Svengali figure behind the creation of the great Scottish independent label, Postcard Records, was determined that he should have a range of quality artists in his stable. This was despite the fact that, in its early stages, it was principally designed to further the career of his initial signing to the label, the excellent and innovative band, Orange Juice. As a result, when he heard from Malcolm Ross, the guitarist with another Postcard band, Josef K, that he had seen an excellent young local band support the Teardrop Explodes at Valentino’s in Edinburgh, Horne was immediately interested. A few nights later, he went to see them for himself bringing along both Ross and Edwyn Collins. All three were hugely impressed and the result was that soon afterwards Aztec Camera signed to the Postcard label.

Postcard logo

Although their time with the label was relatively short-lived, Frame has credited Horne with giving him greater “self-confidence” and instilling in him a “healthy cynicism” about the workings of the music industry. During his time with the label, his song-writing also reached a new standard of excellence. This was demonstrated in the two superb singles he produced during that time: the first the brilliantly original Just Like Gold (as Frame himself later claimed he put a great deal of effort into making it as “unclichéd” as possible. There was “no chorus in it, nothing’s repeated”; the second was the almost equally accomplished Mattress Of Wire with its direct quote from Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep Mountain High.

The problem for Postcard lay in the fact that while its sales levels were quite good for a small independent label, ultimately it did not have the capacity to push its acts into the pop charts.

In the early days of the label this had been both Horne and Edwyn Collins’ major aim and Frame very much shared their ambitions in this regard. The eventual upshot of this was that Aztec Camera signed with Rough Trade records. While it was also an independent label, it had far greater commercial muscle than Postcard had possessed. The change in label also led to a change in the line-up of the band with Dave Ruffy replacing David Mulholland on drums. At the same time, Bernie Clark joined the group on piano and organ.

In my opinion Aztec Camera’s first album on that label, the classic High Land, Hard Rain ranks very high among the best debut albums ever recorded by a British band. Indeed, what makes its excellence even more extraordinary is the fact that Frame was still a teenager when it was released in April 1983. Indeed, the songs on the record are so consistently excellent that it was very difficult to decide which ones to exclude from this list. In the end, my choice was based on selecting those tracks which gave a good representation of the qualities of the album as a whole. Oblivious, the first selection, is three minutes of Latin-flavoured pop perfection, with a typically brilliant and blistering guitar solo by Roddy (anyone doubting his extreme youth at this stage should watch this near-contemporary performance for BBC TV):

One of the other striking aspects of High Land was the striking maturity of the lyrics, especially given the fact that someone so young had written them. Given his youth, it was probably unsurprising that most of the songs on it were ‘love’ songs. However, the relationships described in those songs were never simple ones. Indeed, they ranged from complex to close-to-tortured ones.

My next choice, We Could Send Letters is a perfect example of this. From its extraordinary opening lines (You said you’re free for me, that says it all/ You’re free to push me and I’m free to fall/ So if we weaken, we can call it stress/ You’ve got my trust, I’ve got your home address), it portrayed what was evidently an already doomed relationship. Its superb lyric combined with its beautiful melody makes it one of the finest songs that Frame has ever written. It can be heard here while for comparison sake this is the almost equally good earlier version which appeared on the joint Rough Trade/NME C81 cassette.

There is also yet another version of the song which was released as the B-side to the band’s Postcard single, Just Like Gold, and is well worth checking out. And how ridiculously young does Frame look in this live version on Scottish TV in 1983:

Another central theme of the first album was the tension between Frame’s ties to home and friends and his desire to escape what he saw as the parochial limitations of East Kilbride, the largely working class ‘new’ town near Glasgow where he had grown up. He was also keenly aware that if he was going to achieve his musical ambitions, it would be necessary for him to leave town.

My last pick from High Land, Hard Rain is Down The Dip; it reflects the ambivalence which he felt about some aspects of life there (the ‘Dip’ in the song refers to the local pub, The Diplomat). The song also clearly demonstrates the folk influences which were a key aspect of Frame’s style, and also shows his ability (like Dylan did early in his career) to sound far older than his years. Here’s a recent live solo performance of the song which segues into Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding:

Such is the quality of Hard Rain that on another day, songs such as Pillar To Post, Walk Out To Winter or The Bugle Sounds Again could easily have made the cut in this list. This, however, is today’s selection. Indeed, the album was so impressive that it quickly established Frame as one of the leading rock musicians in Britain. His growing reputation also led to an invitation to tour with Elvis Costello, who described Frame at this time as “the best songwriter in Britain”.

In these circumstances, it would have been understandable if Frame had decided to produce a High Land, Hard Rain mark 2 as the group’s next album. In the event, he produced something entirely different. In doing so, he also set a pattern which was to be repeated with almost all of the band’s subsequent albums; that they would receive a very mixed response from both music critics and the group’s fans. Indeed, many members of both of these circles seemed to take it as a personal affront when Frame produced material which did not fit their idea of the type of music that he should be recording.

With Knife, Aztec Camera’s second album, one of their main gripes was the fact that Frame recruited Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits to produce the record. Some admirers of their first album saw this as proof that the band was abandoning its indie credentials and ‘selling out’ (as it were) to commercial and corporate interests. What this view failed to recognise, was that musical eclecticism had always been a key part of the Postcard philosophy. Indeed, the desire to produce high quality pop music had also been central to that label’s way of thinking from the very outset. Also, Frame had been drawn to Knopfler through his production work on Bob Dylan’s album, Infidels, rather than through his recordings with Dire Straits. In more recent times, Frame has also stressed the fact that he was very young at this time and intent on experimenting and pushing his musical boundaries.

In the event, while Knife was a good record, it lacked the emotional punch which had made the band’s debut album so outstanding. Nevertheless, the best songs on the record were very good ones (these included the poppy All I Need Is Everything and the lovely country-ish Backwards And Forwards). However, I have selected my favourite of them, the superb folk-influenced ballad The Birth Of The True for inclusion. Here’s a live version of the song along with an interview about the making of the album with a still very young Frame:

Aztec Camera’s next album, Love, is one of the most controversial of their career. There is a school of thought which views it as over-produced, overly commercial, and far too slick for its own good. I have some sympathy with that position and a few of the tracks on it do suffer from the 80s disease of the overuse of the synth and of studio trickery. At the same time, however, the album also includes two of Frame’s most sublime pop songs. I have picked both of them here; the first the classic ‘summer song’ Somewhere In My Heart and the second the magnificently catchy Working In A Gold Mine. ‘Gold Mine’ also features one of Frame’s most inspired solos, one which reminds me of George Benson in his jazz-guitar heyday.

It is also important to set the album’s sound in the context of Frame’s ambition to produce what he described at the time as “a Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis” type of record. At that time, they were best known for producing slick R&B (in the contemporary sense) hits for artists like Janet Jackson. He was also listening to a good deal of Anita Baker at the time and that slick commercial approach clearly affected his approach on the record.

The one song which would clearly have benefited most from a sparer production than it receives on the album, was the classic emigration song, Killermont Street. The street referenced in the title was the location of the bus station from which Scottish emigrants took the coach down south to London. While the album version was good, the song took on a whole new resonance when Frame performed it live. For that reason, I have chosen the rendition of it from the Live At Ronnie Scott’s album, recorded on 23rd June 1991 and released as the bonus CD on the Edsel/Rhino reissue of Aztec Camera’s fifth album, Dreamland. Here’s another live version of the song:

Aztec Camera’s next album, Stray, was again entirely different from its predecessor. Indeed, in some ways it could be seen as Frame’s equivalent to the Beatles’ White Album. On it, Frame embraces a wide diversity of musical styles and, as with the Beatles’ album, re-engaged with most of the influences which had shaped his own style up to that point. For example, it includes Clash-style political anthems (in Get Outta London and Good Morning Britain – the latter a duet with Mick Jones), a jazz ballad (in Over My Head), and the beautiful folk/folk-rock influenced Song For A Friend. After a long time debating the issue – and having gone through frequent changes of mind – I eventually picked the suitably gentle funk-soul ballad with a hint of Al Green-esque slinkiness, The Gentle Kind, for inclusion.

By this point, Aztec Camera had essentially ceased to be a band in the conventional sense of the term and had become Frame himself and whichever group of session musicians he was working with at the time. This process had begun with Love but reached a new level with the band’s last two albums, Dreamland (1993) and Frestonia (1995). In retrospect, both appear to be transitional records, as Frame moved towards beginning a solo career.

Both have a lush romantic quality (in Dreamland’s case this is reinforced by the dreamy production by Ryuichi Sakamoto). There is also a new depth to some of Frame’s lyrics, which appear to refer at times to some of the personal problems which he had confronted due to his rapid ascent in the music business. Critics have tended to seriously undervalue both records. This may be because, unlike the earlier Aztec Camera records, they are ‘growers’ and their real quality only becomes apparent after repeated listenings. They also contain some of Frame’s most beautiful songs (notably Birds, the opening track on Dreamland, and The Rainy Season, its counterpart on Frestonia. My selections from these two albums, however, are the jangle-pop classic, Dream Sweet Dreams, and the fine piano-driven ballad, On The Avenue.

After the relative commercial failure of Frestonia, Roddy Frame decided to retire the Aztec Camera title. Since then, his albums have been released under his own name. By this point, he had already established himself as one of the very best songwriters to have emerged in the wake of the musical explosion that had been triggered by the Sex Pistols. The questions that remained were what musical direction would Frame follow in his solo career and how would he go about making the transition from one-time wunderkind to elder statesman (as it were). To find out the answers to these questions, you will need to stay tuned to this particular station

 

NOTES

1. During his time with Aztec Camera, Frame also recorded some excellent slightly left-field cover versions. Perhaps the best known of these is this classic rendition of Van Halen’s Jump. And, in a similar vein, this is their version of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors. My favourite of their cover versions, though, is this one.

2. While researching this piece I discovered an unlikely connection between Aztec Camera and Willie Clancy, the subject of another of my recent Toppermosts. In an interview from 1999, Roddy described his father as “a great singer”. He liked Mario Lanza. On New Year’s Eve, everyone would get up and sing, and he’d sing Dark Lochnagar. Coincidentally, I had chosen Willie Clancy’s version of Dark Lochnagar (on the uilleann pipes) as one of my choices in that list.

3. Should also mention Craig Gannon here who played with Aztec Camera in 1983-84 and then went on to join the Smiths in 1986. This gave him the enviable distinction of having played in two of the greatest indie bands of his time. He talks about his experiences in both bands here.

 

 

Aztec Camera photo 2

 

Roddy Frame official website

Killermont Street: archived site on Roddy Frame and Aztec Camera

Aztec Camera lyrics

Roddy Frame Toppermost #775

Aztec Camera biography (iTunes)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Buffalo Springfield, Clash, Cure, Go-Betweens, Joy Division, Mark Knopfler, Love, Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, Sex Pistols, Smiths, Teardrop Explodes, Ike & Tina Turner, Velvet Underground

TopperPost #772

6 Comments

  1. Tony Mulraney
    Mar 11, 2019

    Excellent read, hard to argue with any of your picks. All I need now is my second hand copy of Knife to arrive from the Netherlands some time soon.

  2. Joyce Gibson
    Mar 11, 2019

    Great article on the boy wonder, who has written so many great tunes. I can’t disagree with your picks at all.
    Like Roddy, I’m also from East Kilbride, and unlike him, I still live there. Although only a few months separate us in age, I never knew him, as he was from the other side of town to me; the Westwood he name checked in Somewhere In My Heart. I also loved how he called a song Killermont Street; back in the 70s the buses from East Kilbride all terminated there, before Buchanan Street Bus Station opened close by.

  3. Esther Y
    Mar 12, 2019

    Great read. Interesting details that shed light on some of his musical decisions, plus I was not aware of those demos! Glad a snippet of my favorite AC song Deep, Wide and Tall (with one of his best guitar solos), appears as an advert at the end of the Working in a Goldmine video. All good picks, especially the live versions. Will stay tuned for your post on his solo work.

  4. Gary
    Mar 12, 2019

    I love that version of ‘I threw it all away’ and was there at the Colmore Hall during this recording. Lazy, hazy days…..

  5. Carolyn Petrie
    Mar 13, 2019

    Very good read. Just a wee note: Roddy was 15 when he joined Neutral Blue in June of 1979 (the band splitting in the October of that year). I know, I was there and took photos of the band.

  6. Andrew Shields
    Mar 13, 2019

    Tony, Joyce, Esther, Gary and Carolyn –
    Thanks for your comments and the kind words..
    Joyce – One of the things I most admire about Roddy is the sense of place in his songs – East Kilbride and Glasgow in his early work and London in his more recent.
    Esther – Agree that “Deep And Wide And Tall’ is a great song, but then Roddy has written so many.
    Gary – All I can say is lucky you.
    Carolyn – Thanks for the correction.

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