All the boy wonders grow up eventually. Even perpetually youthful-
looking ones like Roddy Frame. In 1980, as the 15-year-old leader of East Kilbride's
Aztec Camera, he was winning over hard-bitten men twice his age with beautiful,
poignant songs. What was even more remarkable was that he lived up to his early
promise, producing an outstanding series of records that shows no signs of drying up.
A decade ago, Frame was knocking back offers to make a Best of Aztec Camera, insisting
that it was too early, but after finally breaking out as a solo artist with last year's
The North Star, he now feels the time is right to look back.
So let's start at the very beginning, or at the end, as Frame has positioned his
earliest landmark at the close of the album. "We Could Send Letters comes last,
because that was a defining moment of Aztec Camera," he says. "It was the B-side
of the first Postcard single and it ended up being one of the big songs that I think
we'll be remembered for among the diehards. I wrote it when I was 16 and, looking
back, I think it's kind of extraordinary that someone of that age could have written a
song like that, if I do say so myself. It was the first time that the whole thing had
kind of gelled for me the definable Aztec Camera sound. It's got all the major 7th
chords, the acoustic guitars, the bittersweet lyrics, all the elements that I went on
High Land, Hard Rain, released in 1983, in many ways defined its time, when jangling
was rife and a generation of songwriters like The Go-Betweens, Orange Juice and
Prefab Sprout were being hailed as the future. From Postcard Records in Glasgow,
Frame moved to London's Rough Trade for the album with a couple of cracking new
songs under his belt.
"I wrote Oblivious in London, because I remember getting on the bus and going down
to Rough Trade, playing it to [label head] Geoff Travis and saying, 'I think this could
be a single'. That was when Rough Trade was taking the pop scene into account,
switching from being an introverted indie label and I like to think that we helped put
that on the map."
From the beginning, Frame understood how an image could become a straitjacket and
even before his first album was in the shops was subverting his own. Hiring Mark
Knopfler to produce the second album, was a defiant gesture to sections of the
press and public who didn't want their nice little bands to dirty their hands by
working with multi-platinum- selling rock stars. Having got that out of the way, Knife
turned out quite nicely, as shown by the two tracks included on the new compilation,
The Birth of the True and All I Need is Everything.
"When we were out with Elvis Costello, I met a nice woman and stayed in New
Orleans and wrote the Knife album mostly there on a four-track with a borrowed
guitar. It was a nice way to write, believe me ... The Birth of the True followed on
from Down the Dip on the first album, and it set the tone for pretty much always
having an acoustic song ending the album. One of the rules about doing Best Ofs is
that you always have your best-known singles on there and I wanted to counter
that by putting on the more singer-songwritery side. All I Need is Everything is when
we stepped up and started working in proper studios, with proper arrangements. It's
a pretty good indication of what's on that album. It is about arrangements, about
getting into using effects and stuff like that."
Working with Mark Knopfler is one sign you've arrived, but Frame's breakthrough
came with the Love album in 1987. At the time, he was captivated by the classy R&B
of Anita Baker and Alexander O'Neal, and Love had a sheen and propulsion like no
previous Aztec Camera record. The sessions for the album marked the first time,
Frame says, that he made up his mind to "willfully experiment with lots of different
people" including drumming legend Steve Gadd and Miles Davis collaborator Marcus
Early on, with only a few songs written, Frame recorded a new tune called
Somewhere in My Heart which, good as it was, just didn't seem to fit. "We weren't
even going to put that song on the album. Ironically, that's the one that went on to
be the big hit and sell the album and everything. But I always felt like it rubbed
against the grain of the rest of the album, because it's quite a white soul-type
album, isn't it? It's my Young Americans. We put out all this classy stuff like How Men
Are and Working in a Goldmine, and then eventually we released Somewhere in My
Heart as a single, it went to radio and that was it.
"That little song went through so much. It was going to be on, it was going to be off
... on ... off. And eventually it came through for everyone, so I've got a lot of
respect for that song."
The following album, Stray, raised a few eyebrows. Wary of retreading the ground
he'd covered on Love, Frame dyed his hair black and made his most diverse and
erratic record yet. "At the time, all I really wanted to do was reflect my record
collection on one album. It's quite easy to hear where each song comes from. Over
My Head comes from Wes Montgomery and Chet Baker. Good Morning Britain is
obviously from listening to The Clash and hanging out with Mick Jones, that was a big
dream come true for me, because I went to see them at The Apollo when I was 13,
and The Crying Scene has got that Johnny Thunders guitar solo on it. It's an album
about my favourite guitarists, really, if you think about it. A little nod of the head to
all those guys.
Three years were to pass before the more reassuring textures of Dreamland. This one
was produced by Ruyichi Sakamoto, who brought international attention to the
Japanese music scene as a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra and has done rather
well as a soundtrack composer for films like Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and The
"More than any other record, I think that was a true collaboration. That's when I
consciously tried to hand over the reins a bit. It kind of backfired in a way, I
suppose, because he wanted to make a record that sounded like High Land, Hard
Rain and I wanted to make one that sounded like Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. We
worked it out somehow, but he took a lot of persuading to plug the keyboards in and
I took a lot of persuading to bang on the acoustic guitar again. For me, the tracks
where it works best are things like Spanish Horses, which was completely
experimental, just sampling handclaps and flamenco records and layering my guitar on
top of it."
Aztec Camera's last record for Warner Brothers was the coolly-received Frestonia,
which doesn't contribute anything to the Best Of, though Frame still stands by it.
And there the story would have ended had the normal contractual red tape not been
lifted and Frame allowed to add Reason For Living from his solo album on the
Independiente label to bring it up to date.
But before going, Frame gets a reminder that he once declared that his ultimate
ambition was to write a song called I Love You, which would be the simplest and
greatest thing he'd ever written. He remembers saying that, he admits, and adds:
"I'm still trying to write it. I think that's about the best thing you can say with your
music, when all is said and done. I've been trying to write the same song since I was
15. I'm getting there."