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Frame at Last
from Vox, September 1992
by Alan Jackson

Is Roddy Frame the world's best-kept secret or just his record company's favoured son? The Aztec Camera refuses to focus...

Ten years after being hailed as the Next Big Thing, Roddy Frame retains the open smile and generous nature of an eager-to-please schoolboy. At 28, though, he is far too old to be wearing blazer and badge; and, as befits a labelmate of Madonna, Prince and REM, he's assumed an altogether more stylish Comme des Garcons uniform for his trip to the photographer's studio. But the megawatt grin remains undimmed by the prolonged responsibility of being the "man most likely to...". That's a rather handsome silk tie around the neck, not the weighty albatross of all those music press expectations.

At the London headquarters of his record company WEA, they talk about Roddy with almost parental pride. He is a favoured son, a maverick talent to be cherished and indulged. They don't even seem to mind that he doesn't always shift that many units.

"Roddy Frame makes the records he wants to make, and makes them at his own pace," says a spokesman. "We're simply here to help him when he wants our help. He is an Artist with a Capital A, and it's an honour and a privilege to have him on the label."

The Artist appreciates that luxury.

"They leave me alone - they really do," he smiles, cradling a glass of ruby-red Cabernet Sauvignon. "That's a pretty strange thing to be able to say in today's climate, I know. I don't even see them that often. It's not that I dislike them, but I'm not the sort of person to want to hang around the offices when there's no reason. I went in recently, to play the new album to chairman and numero uno Rob Dickens, though - and it was really cool.

"He said to me: 'You're the artist, we're only the company. You do what you want.' I came out thinking: 'There must be something fishy going on here!' Then, when I got home, I realised what a great position that was to be in. I feel respect for those people and I don't abuse their trust. After all, they've got to work the record. Would you like to go to Radio One each week with a bunch of new singles?"

Certainly not, given Roddy's erratic track record of chart achievement. Several light years removed from the dictates of the dancefloor posse or the marketing men, his wilfully idiosyncratic output remains one of mainstream pop's minor joys. Not every Aztec Camera release can be relied upon to send ponytailed Julians and Simons into paroxysms of delight, making them jump up and down on the office furniture as they crow: 'The boys down at the Beeb are going mad for it' - but so what?

"He's regarded as someone who always produces quality work, and maintains a lot of radio support," says WEA, a little defensively "You can't predict Radio One's reaction anyway. They look at every case individually."

Those who vaunted the Postcard-era Roddy as a potential Dylan or Costello can often be found nursing the grievance that he is an under-achiever, a young pretender who failed to embrace the destiny they predicted for him. To support this view, detractors point to his record sales: but when was the last time you saw a Bob or Elv track on yer average Now That's What 1 Call Music compilation? At the same time, though, it would be unfair to cast Aztec Camera as a loss leader, signed up to enhance the company profile while draining corporate coffers.

WEA are proud to point out that 1987's fine Love LP went platinum in the UK, with sales in excess of 300,000; that it earned a Brit nomination for Best Album; and that it included the Number Three single 'Somewhere In My Heart'. The stats for that album's successor, 1990's Stray, are less impressive, though; more guitar- orientated but lacking in cohesion, it managed a respectable but inevitably disappointing sale of 70,000 units, and its only hit-single spin-off, 'Good Morning Britain' (a raucous duet between Roddy and Mick Jones) had to be content with a Number 19 chart placing-something of a break in momentum.

Come 1992, the impetus seems to have been restored. The warm, Latin inflections of Aztec Camera's current 45, 'Spanish Horses', the first release from the forthcoming and as-yet-untitled LP; suggests a subtle change in direction, harking back towards the lusher, more consumer-friendly era of Love.

"Am I becoming more committed to my career?" repeats Roddy, puzzled, when asked if this implies a channelling of ambitions. "I appreciate the alliteration there, but what exactly do you mean?" Re-emphasising the importance of his songwriting and drafting in Ryuichi Sakamoto as producer was not, one thus deduces, a calculated move towards global chart domination.

That pairing arose by chance, as a result of mutual interest and respect. When the time came to consider a successor to Stray, Roddy had to debate whether to produce it himself or work with some established name from outside.

"I've always found it easier to defer to genius rather than arrogance," he says enigmatically, of past experiences with producers. But a visit to the Hammersmith Odeon, to see Sakamoto play as part of last year's 'Festival Of Japan' itinerary, sealed the issue.

"We'd actually met some time before, when we and everyone else who'd ever bought a guitar were playing a festival in Ibiza," explains Roddy. "I found myself doing the old 'You've never met me before, but I really admire your music' number on him, and to my astonishment he replied: 'Roddy! Aztec Camera!"

Sakamoto's willingness to spend the one spare month in his schedule producing the new Aztec Camera opus provoked hasty packing of the Frame suitcase, and relocation to New York's ritzy Right Track Studios. On his way through the door, Roddy grabbed just three cassettes for company: True Reality by Shabba Ranks, Bummed by the Happy Mondays, and Rapture by the sublime Anita Baker.

"As the only music I had in my room throughout my stay, they were my spiritual influences, providing the triangle within which the LP was conceived," he says. "Shabba and Shaun were kind of deities, while Anita was the goddess overseeing it all."

To prove the point, he bursts into the opening lines of 'Caught Up In The Rapture'. It's a bravura performance, which leaves one wondering how a Roddy so in love with both rude guitars and silken soul perceives his own position within the current spectrum of pop. This is an issue that the singer himself has been pondering.

"On the one hand, there seem to be a lot of people straddling their Les Pauls, sampling Led Zeppelin and singing about beating up their women and killing cops," he muses. "And on the other, you've got bands banging tambourines and talking about virtual reality. It's like the Nazis versus the Hare Krishnas, and I've no idea where I lie between the two."

Over-simplistic? Extreme?

"Well, there's definitely a proliferation of both kinds of acts on the showbiz scene at the moment," he says firmly.

There'll be no need for stickers warning would-be purchasers of any anti-social sentiments or pornographic imagery within his own album, Roddy promises. Nor will a shaven head and macrobiotic diet be necessary for its fullest enjoyment.

"Never mind virtual reality; this album deals with reality per se. No machine guns, no ecstasy, none of those nasty house beats that have been invading my space lately it's about loss and about love, the real deals."

Asked to assess the album against his previous works, Roddy shows exactly why he is to be cherished: "The best song I've ever written is 'How Men Are' from Love," he says emphatically. "Why? Because I nailed it, I said it. No one else had the guts to stand up and say 'Men are bastards'. They sat around and talked about it, but they didn't have the words to just say it. 'Cruel', 'The Word Girl'... beautiful, inspirational songs, and probably inspirational for 'How Men Are'. Even 'Try a Little Tenderness'. But I said it, I stood up and said 'All men are bastards' in a song."

He's smiling, but he means it. And there's more, too.

"Why should it take the tears of a woman to see how men are?" he quotes.

"That's just one of the best lines that's ever been written. I write intuitively, but I'm not stupid, so I know that's one of the best lines in British pop in the last 20 years, maybe since 'I want to hold your hand...'"

"Roddy Frame is timeless," says WEA. "His time is now, but it could equally be next week, next month, next year." Is there a wistfulness, a yearning for multi-platinum, behind the hyperbole? Roddy prefers not to stake his life on trashing the Nazis or the Hare Krishnas, and offers instead his own rationale on the dreaded c-word - 'career'.

"Basically, my favourite thing is playing the guitar," he says. "And though this isn't meant to sound like name-dropping, I've played guitar with Edwyn Collins, Malcolm Ross, Al Green, Andy Fairweather-Low, Martin Brammah... To me, that's everything: if I die tomorrow, I'll die content, because I've played with some beautiful musicians."

"Be a happy boy, won't you?" this man with the clear perspective entreats me as I leave. "Don't be a sad boy." As big as he is now, or as big as others might want him to be, it's all you'd want to tell him in return.   

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