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Aztec Camera

+ {Roddy Frame}

In the case of then school-leaver, singer-songwriter Roddy Frame, AZTEC CAMERA were not just “The Sound of Young Scotland”, but the sound of pubescent Scotland. One of a triumvirate of Postcard Records bands to emerge at the turn of the 80s, alongside ORANGE JUICE and JOSEF K, East Kilbride’s AZTEC CAMERA were, to many, the soft touch in the pack of three. While not exactly twee and gentle, Roddy’s boy-next-door looks and bright-as-a-button lyrical acumen, fitted delicately into an ever-evolving 80s that toasted several fly-by-night newbie genres that Roddy easily swept under the musical map.
The year was 1980 and precocious 16-year-old Frame was looking to find an outlet for his post-new wave, ELVIS COSTELLO-type songs. With the help of drummer Dave Mulholland and bassist Campbell Owens, AZTEC CAMERA’s first break came when they, and other west of Scotland acts, were invited to cut a track each for a cassette-only compilation on Pungent Records, run by John Gilhooly and Danny Easson of Fumes fanzine. Any copies out there?
This led the trio to the door of Alan Horne, a budding entrepreneur and boss of the Glasgow-based Postcard independent. Having already established the label with the two other you-know-who indie-pop scenesters, the fresh-faced Roddy and AZTEC CAMERA delivered their debut single, `Just Like Gold’; an acoustic take of flip-side, `We Could Send Letters’, represented the label on NME’s C81 brigade of emerging acts. Sadly, `Mattress Of Wire’, was the imprint’s swansong release, however Rough Trade Records had been keen admirers of Frame’s potential.
By mid-’82, Mulholland had moved over for seasoned RUTS sticksman, Dave Ruffy, while a new keyboards role was given to temporary member, Bernie Clarke, in time for third 45 `Pillar To Post’. Early the following year, Roddy and Co were atop the indie charts (and Top 50 nationally) with `Oblivious’. The lead-off track was one of the many highlights on their Top 30 debut album, HIGH LAND, HARD RAIN (1983) {*8}, a largely acoustic-based affair combining folk-ish flights of fancy, Latin/Motown rhythms and an incisive lyrical flair with stunning results. `Walk Out To Winter’ also explored the lower regions of the Top 75, while of the non-single tracks, `The Boy Wonders’ (the album title sprayed out in the chorus) and `The Bugle Sounds Again’, were just gorgeous. When Rough Trade discovered The SMITHS, boss Geoff Travis was only too happy to duly unload the mild-mannered lush sounds of the ‘Camera to WEA/Warners. `Oblivious’ was almost immediately re-issued later that year on the back of the album’s success (their first of a few singles to crack the Top 20), while in the States supporting ELVIS COSTELLO, he lied about his age (nineteen) to get a visa into the country.
Roddy, and now stalwart Ruffy, brought in a new cast of musicians for 1984’s MARK KNOPFLER-produced KNIFE {*6} set, including seasoned Caledonian players Craig Gannon (from The BLUEBELLS) and Malcolm Ross (from both JOSEF K and ORANGE JUICE). A more upbeat and polished offering, the Top 20 record had its highlights in the Top 40, `All I Need Is Everything’ (twinned with a non-LP version of VAN HALEN’s `Jump’), `Still On Fire’, the jangly `Just Like The USA’ and the title track.
After a world tour, Frame and Co laid low for more than two years, penning material for the Russ Titelman/Tommy LiPuma-produced LOVE (1987) {*5}, the most overtly-commercially album of his career. Initially something of a non-starter, this session-friendly, yet affecting record, eventually dented the Top 10 almost a year after its release, following the massive Top 3 success of the plaintive but precious `Somewhere In My Heart’ single. Sadly, the record’s mellowing-out backfired, although there were instant buyers for hits `How Men Are’ and `Working In A Goldmine’, but not `Deep & Wide & Tall’.
Despite courting the pop mainstream, Roddy’s next effort (without Ruffy), STRAY (1990) {*6}, veered off into slightly more eclectic territory, the celebratory Top 20 hit, `Good Morning Britain’, featuring Mick Jones of BIG AUDIO DYNAMITE/CLASH fame. Connecting to a rock-orientated listener/audience for once through `How It Is’ and `The Crying Scene’, while the lengthy CHET ATKINS-styled lounge pieces, `Over My Head’ and `Notting Hill Blues’, gave shape to an album that was hard to pigeonhole.
The mid-90s witnessed Roddy developing his earlier style, exampled on two sophisti-pop-styled albums: the RYUICHI SAKAMOTO-produced DREAMLAND (1993) {*5} and the poor-selling, non-charting FRESTONIA (1995) {*5}. Acting as if 30 was the new 50 in terms of experience and years on the planet, Roddy and the name of AZTEC CAMERA had now sunk to the level of 90s nostalgia. Had it only been a decade or so since his dynamic “High Land…” set? Over the years, the Aztecs covered many a fine tune, including The BEATLES’ `In My Life’, CYNDI LAUPER’s `True Colours’, Cole Porter’s `Do I Love You?’ and The BLUE ORCHIDS’ `Bad Education’.
Come 1998, “veteran” RODDY FRAME had signed a solo deal to Independiente Records, releasing `Reason For Living’, a minor hit which accompanied the relatively low-key pop-rock album, THE NORTH STAR {*6}. Charming and poetical as ever, there was no mistaking Roddy’s urge to get back to his roots, but all-too-often, the wistful and bitter/sugar-sweet ditties had their say on the likes of the derivative, `Bigger Brighter Better’, `Here Comes The Ocean’ and the title track.
FRAME was back in the… er… frame in 2002 with SURF {*7}, his most unassuming and intricate delivery to date – and that’s counting AZTEC C’s body of work. Stripped back to the bare bones of vocals and acoustic guitar, the record proved that the Scotsman’s astute, shrewdly-observed and lovingly-crafted material needed little or no sonic froth to get its point across. More likely to be playing Ronnie Scott’s or the Cambridge Folk Festival than rock venues these days, the 40-something FRAME mellowed out with his third solo set, WESTERN SKIES (2006) {*7}, its title track originating in a one-off link-up with Radio One DJ, Rob Da Bank.
Several years down the line (although he did tour Britain in 2011), FRAME had been content to take a back seat from the biz, then out of the blue arrived SEVEN DIALS (2014) {*7}. Denting the Top 50 by way of fanbase adoration or certain curiosity, Roddy and his wee backing band (EDWYN COLLINS and Seb Lewsley took on the production), mirrored melancholy in a style similar to his Postcard days to Laurel Canyon soft-rock. Deep and wide and taut, the troubadour blended sophistication and a veneer into best touches `The Other Side’, `From A Train’ and the poignantly-titled `Postcard’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Jun2013-May2014

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