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Aztec Relics
from The Scotsman, July 17, 1999
by Alistair Mabbott

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 to explore."

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 Miller.

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 Last Emperor.

"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."   

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