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“Video Flash Tracks”: Revisiting Aztec Camera’s songs about love, loss and vulnerability
In this episode of Night Flight’s “Video Flash Tracks” — which originally aired on September 16, 1988 — our loyal viewers were treated to three videos by Scottish indie band Aztec Camera, led by their boyish frontman and fearless leader, Roddy Frame. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus!
Roddy Frame was just seventeen years old when he released his first single under the band name Aztec Camera in 1980, although eventually it was understood that they were a band in name only and clearly the handsome lead singer was always going to be their main focal point.
Originally Aztec Camera were indeed a band who formed in East Kilbride, Scotland (the same town that birthed the Jesus and Mary Chain) after Frame’s punk band, the Forensics, were declared all but dead, but over the years their revolving-door cast of session players, with Frame remaining the only constant (they cycled through approximately 25 members over its lifespan), would mean that more and more it was clear that Frame was completely in charge, no matter what Aztec Camera’s personnel were listed on the backs of their albums or singles.
Their original lineup consisted of the charming and guileless Frame on vocals/guitar, Alan Welsh on bass (soon to be replaced by Campbell Owens, in the late ’80s, before the band had released any recordings) and Dave Mullholland on drums.
At the time of their inception, Aztec Camera were considered the leading post-punk Scottish act at the edge of the next wave of UK pop, signed to Alan Horne’s Glasgow-based indie label Postcard Records label just a few days after he’d seen them open for the Revillos at the famed Bungalow Bar in Paisley.
The Paisley pub — located in the historic county of Renfrewshire, near Glasgow — was the very same locale where bands like the Fall, the Skids, the Buzzcocks, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Jam, and the Clash had previously graced the same stage.
It’s interesting to note that the Clash were a band that Roddy Frame was clearly inspired by, early on, covering their songs with an early band of his called Neutral Blue when he was just fifteen years old, and he would later cite bands like the Slits and the Fall and 1977-era punk bands as being his biggest influences, although clearly Aztec Camera sound nothing like either band.
Early in 1981, the band’s debut single, “Just Like Gold,” caught the ear of UK journalists, who began to forecast that the soon-to-be critic’s darlings were a band to watch (the single climbed to #10 on the UK Indie charts), showing that Frame’s songwriting owed much to American West Coast rock bands of the 1960s, like the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Arthur Lee’s Love, while musically they were as much a folk fusion of jazz chords and bossa nova rhythms as they were a Scottish indie/new wave band with jangly guitars.
Another fine Postcard single followed (“Mattress of Wire,” #8 UK Indie), but it was clear to Frame (and Postcard’s Horne) that the band weren’t long for the floundering label.
Later it seemed to all who looked close enough that Horne had signed the band to strengthen his imprint’s claim to represent “the sound of young Scotland” (Postcard had hoped to be the Scottish equivalent of Detroit’s celebrated Motown label), although “Mattress of Wire” turned out to be the final Postcard offering before they closed up shop.
Aztec Camera relocated to London, and underwent the first of what would prove to be many lineup changes, with drummer Mulholland being replaced by former Ruts drummer Dave Ruffy, and the band also added a keyboard player, Bernie Clark.
It was with this invigorated new lineup that Frame would record the band’s Rough Trade debut, 1983’s High Land, Hard Rain, which is still considered by many to be their masterpiece, described as “a remarkably assured collection of songs about love, loss and vulnerability with Frame exhibiting a maturity way beyond his adolescent years.”
The album acknowledged that Frame and the band, while rejecting the synthesizers, fancy clothes and lip gloss prevalent in the charts at the time, had managed to incorporate seemingly disparate genres and playing styles — including American pop, Latin, gospel, and a triad of Sixties jazz sub-genres (bossa nova, West Coast and flamenco jazz) — into a unique melding that was unlike any other band.
The first single from the album, released in January ’83, was the sunny and spirited “Oblivious,” which is one of the videos we featured in our Video Flash Tracks episode.
The single — with its ringing acoustic guitars it definitely stood out from the general doom and gloom vibe of the early 80s UK alternative scene at the time — charted at #1 on the UK Indie charts, and #47 on the UK single charts (later a reissue of the single charted at #18 UK), and clearly defined where Frame did his best work, walking a fine line somewhere between hopeful and mopey.
High Land, Hard Rain — released on Rough Trade in the UK, Sire Records in the States — charted at #22 in the UK, and at #1 on the UK Indie chart (#129 in the U.S.).
In 1982, the band underwent another line-up change, with only drummer Ruffy remaining from the first album’s lineup; joining the band were two comrades from Frame’s Postcard days, bassist Craig Gannon (ex-Bluebells) and guitarist Malcolm Ross (ex-Orange Juice/Josef K), along with keyboardist Guy Fletcher.
Their next album, 1984’s Knife — produced by Dire Straits‘ Mark Knopfler — revealed that Frame was paying more attention to the clever wordplay and clear lyrical influence of Elvis Costello, who since the release of Armed Forces had become a noted rock wordsmith and a commercial force to be reckoned with.
Knife (#175 U.S., #14 UK) was a fine sophomore album and clearly a much more commercial-sounding effort overall (it has been described as sounding “introverted yet over-produced,” if you can imagine that), but Frame’s newly re-organized Aztec Camera was clearly overshadowed by other UK acts of the day, including bands like the Smiths, who were able to balance the hopeful/mopey lyrics and songs rife with jingle-jangle guitars in a much more palatable sound which would ultimately outshine what Frame had intended to do with his own songs (Frame was later rumored to be Johnny Marr’s replacement in the band at one point).
Next came a live EP — Backwards and Forwards (#181 U.S.) — featuring a buoyant cover of Van Halen‘s “Jump,” followed by more personnel changes, with Ruffy once again being the only surviving member (besides Frame, of course) left from that first (second?) lineup: joining them were bassist Marcus Miller, guitarist Steve Jordan, and keyboardist David Frank.
No new albums would arrive from the band until 1987, with the Sire release of Love (#10 UK, #193 U.S.), which signaled a more blatant attempt to please the ears of American listeners (particularly the ones possessed by the people who worked at the powerful FM stations across the country), but it failed to connect as Frame had hoped.
The album’s calculated new direction — toward a more blue-eyed soul sound with lots of Wes Montgomery-style jazzy guitar runs and jubilant arpeggios — ended up alienating a lot of their fanbase. One of the videos featured in our 1988 Video Flash Tracks was a track from that album, “Deep & Wide & Tall,” which failed to chart altogether.
Also featured was “Somewhere in My Heart,” which did substantially better (although that track affirms that Frame was by now removing nearly any trace of his own guitar playing from their songs), charting at #3 UK, generating late interest in the album Love, and along with a couple of other singles released in the Spring of 1988, there was suddenly renewed interest in a band that had been all but forgotten for a time (Love would end up climbing into the Top Ten in the UK in June of ’88, some eight months after it had be released).
A re-issue of their “Deep & Wide & Tall” surprised everyone with its second-chance charting at #55 UK, and the band would soon find themselves playing two sold-out shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall, around the same time that our Video Flash Tracks show aired.
While they never quite were as well known as they perhaps should have been, Aztec Camera and Roddy Frame would go on to foreshadow and likely even influence bands — like the Style Council and Everything But The Girl — who also would embrace jazz flourishes and try to sound optimistic and uplifting while so many bands around them were mired down in a dark existential muck, and for that they should not only be remembered fondly, but celebrated.