Tag Archives: 1987

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

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It must be amongst the most unsettling of feelings… spending your life wanting to be a pop star and then you actually become one. None of the rehearsals or sleeping in the back of a van or trying desperately to get a deal can prepare you for what it would actually be like to see your record flying up the charts.

Many wish for it but few attain it.

Roddy Frame managed it when he was just nineteen years old. But his band was no TV-vote conglomerate or bunch of choreographed clothes-horses but instigators of one of the great debut albums “High Land And Hard Rain” in 1983. Their jangling guitars and beautifully constructed melodies were obviously influenced by the Byrds and “Rubber Soul” at a time when synthesizers and sequencers were the thing but this emerging indie-pop sound was a refreshing blast of proper musicianship and skilled songwriting.

It was counter-cultural and raw without being overly threatening. A bloodless revolution.

Of course, at the same time as all these bands broke through, major record labels became interested – and so Orange Juice go to Polydor and Prefab Sprout join CBS. Aztec Camera are taken in with open arms by WEA who see a wonderful new talent in the band and especially their charismatic and good-looking singer and songwriter, Roddy Frame.

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The only problem is that despite plenty of promotion and multi-format marketing, they still never really break through in terms of sales. They never lose the critics’ admiration nor their super-loyal fanbase but for WEA, their second album “Knife” though more rocky – thanks to production from Mark Knopfler and its Dylan influences – does not propel the band (or their investment) forward much further than their initial impact with “Oblivious”.

So in 1987, Frame sets off to America – undoubtedly with the intention of becoming “big” there – with his latest portfolio of songs and a new found interest in hip-hop and r’n’b from producers such as Jam and Lewis. Remember he’s still only 23 and like all of us at that age still exploring – he just happens to have two critically acclaimed albums under his belt.

Strangely, while the Americans were trying desperately to find a way to mimic their MTV-hogging British cousins, in Britain there appeared a movement to try and make everything as smooth as late 70s AOR from across the Atlantic. China Crisis began by using Steely Dan’s Walter Becker for their excellent “Flaunt The Imperfection” album but the effect was not of copying but of taking the somewhat quirky but nevertheless indefinable side of that band and ally it to the more experimental sonic leanings of their producer.

Now, I’m going to say it…

Roddy Frame took one of the most intense and most interesting portfolios of songs and just about wrecked it.

The choice of expert producers such as Tommy Lipuma and Russ Titelman, who had overseen the silky sounds of George Benson and Barbra Streisand together with long-time Steely Dan collaborator, Rob Mounsey, overlaid and weighed down and mismatched some of the most endearing lyrics it is possible to hear.

There’s brass sections and soulful backing vocalists, Synth basses and vocal sequencers. All manner of paraphernalia is wheeled out to make it sound as 1987 as possible and so make a bold attempt at shattering the subtlety and fragility that makes Aztec Camera (although then it was really only Roddy himself) such a national treasure.

Honestly, I loved this album at the time – not least because any Aztec Camera work was as rare as hen’s teeth – but now I would love to hear it all (with a couple of exceptions – of which more later) played in the more simple style that he now chooses these days. Hence, the clips largely post-date the album. It would be a very different and far more appreciated work.

Perhaps the best place to start is the first of the hits, “How Men Are” which is a remarkably sensitive and thoughtful song with nods to its soul ancestors with its P-E-R-S-P-E-C-T-I-V-E refrain giving the song an authenticity and depth not normally associated in an author so young. However, the syrupy production (doubtless borrowed from a sanitary protection commercial) renders the song less sincere and less enduring. But in a solo live context, all its heartfelt tenderness is on display, laid bare.

Actually, the first single and album opener, “Deep And Wide And Tall” would really give you every indication that all was well as it stylistically seemed to follow naturally from “Knife” and it’s terrific second single “Still On Fire” – like its predecessor “Deep And Wide And Tall” it had the misfortune to bypass the British record buying public entirely- and again on reissue – but it’s a shame as it is another beautiful pop song laden with melodies and sentiment and still had the very local feel of its precursors.

Of course, the follow-up single is the big one, the staple of every Tesco CD’s summer compilation (together with the Boo Radleys’ “Wake Up Boo”) “Somewhere In My Heart”. It’s a great pop song and actually a more natural successor to “Oblivious” than anything else. It has the same poppy drive and sticky chorus with hook piled on hook piled on hook. However, whilst this was handed over to Michael Jonzun, it still loses part of the obvious intelligence within its peppy production.

Although the superior and more enigmatic “Deep And Wide And Tall” might have been a preferable legacy, it’s a great 45 even now and, while performing it across the pop shows of Europe, this must have been the moment when Roddy thought he’d cracked it at last as it went bounding towards the Top 5. Coincidentally, CBS had put Prefab Sprout through a similar spurt for sales and they were also celebrating their only Top 10 hit simultaneously with “The King Of Rock N Roll” (a moment in their history I find indescribable) from the equally over-elaborate hit-hunting “From Langley Park To Memphis”. For the record, their album comes off only marginally better than “Love” as “Hey Manhattan” et al still manage to carry some of McAloon’s more ironic touches without being lost in the production – not least because they had always been a band more interested in the experimentation of the studio. However,  the original version of “Cars And Girls” for instance from the shelved “Protest Songs” sessions three years earlier was much more interesting and timely.

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I suspect both look back as an experience worth having but not with the songs with which they would most like to be remembered – especially when I would consider them two of the country’s greatest (and obviously) unsung songwriters.

“One And One” is a truly unmentionable aberration with sequencing and a soul duet, it is a real kick in the goolies for those who had waited three and a half years for new Frame material. “Everybody Is A Number One” is just too nakedly attempting to be a hit (especially in its remixed form) that it likewise seems unrecognizable for a man who had given us such delicate pieces in the past. “More Than A Law” and “Paradise” whilst interesting and incisive songs, both suffer from their intent being swamped by over-production.

However, one song seems to have been tailor-made for the world it was being thrust into – the majestic “Working In A Goldmine” which has tempo-changes, mood-swings and a lyrical sentiment that seems designed to fit into this multi-layered production. It has a guitar solo worthy of any Larry Carlton classic for Steely Dan and seems to be the only song on the album to be really comfortable in its own skin.

Which leaves a final thought for the finest song on the album and maybe Frame’s finest song “Killermont Street”. It has all the quality of a fine fine folk song – it is obviously deeply personal and paints a vivid picture in the unlikely setting  of Glasgow’s bus station, of all places.

It is sparse and utterly lovely and might well be one of the greatest songs you’ve never really listened to properly before – Frame fans aside. We may never have been to Killermont Street but we all know somewhere like it. Not even the production of “Love” can kill this song but it is so much better in its unadulterated form.

As I read this all back I feel guilty.

Guilty that I have been so critical of such a fine selection of songs (largely) and of one of the artists I have so admired for so many years but like “From Langley Park To Memphis”, “Love” was turned too much into a product of its times and of its ultimate corporate lords and masters. Like many decisions I myself took in 1987 – especially in the fashion stakes-  it probably all seemed like a good idea at the time.

And I really did adore it back then but I didn’t realise that it represented such a pact with the devil. I hope you all still like it but at least now can spend the time to appreciate that buried underneath some fretless bass noodling are some truly exceptional songs and tunes.

It just should and could have been so much better and as such, be better remembered.

Because for the four or five classics on this album when heard pure and clear in his wonderful vocal style -which manages to sound proud and fragile in equal measure -you will be hard pressed to find many better.grey-aztec-camera-strap-1

BRAVE CHOICES

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Somewhere along the way, music has rather lost its sense that it could change the world. There seems an incredible sense of fatigue from charity ensembles either in the recording studio or in large scale gatherings (like Live Aid or even Woodstock). Protest of one sort or another seems not to feature as much of a spur to hitmakers in a way that geo-political situations or philosophical extremism have in the past.

And yet now we could probably do with the world rallying together in an attempt to alleviate some of the madness into the chasm of which we seem daily now to stare.

Which is why I was so impressed with the action a couple of weeks ago of Bruce Springsteen to cancel his concert in North Carolina in protest against the State’s legislation and position on the rights of the LGBT communities. In his statement, he wrote,

“Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them. It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards”.

It seems strange on first glance that it should be this embodiment of the American Everyman who takes this stance. The beer-drinking, sports-loving, hot-rod riding Bruce that should be the one taking the stance (the fact that Bryan Adams followed suit a few days later says all you need to know about the comparative stature of Bruce and Bryan Adams).

Yet we should never forget that Bruce has had a long history of speaking out on causes both at home and abroad. He was a key part of the Human Rights Tour of the late 80s, the Artists Against Apartheid, No Nukes and a series of local New Jersey initiatives as that state’s favorite son. Of course, he has been a great supporter of the Democratic cause and opened up Obama’s inauguration with “The Rising”.

Certainly, his particular support of this community can probably be traced back to his startling but enormously effective contribution of the title track for “Philadelphia” – the piercingly emotional “Streets Of Philadelphia”, a song with an astonishing power to move even without its accompanying movie narrative..

Living proof that blue collar does not necessarily hide a red neck. In this increasingly hostile world, we need the likes of Springsteen to see how backward some of us are looking.

As ever, Springsteen is a man who is capable of making big and brave decisions about his career which led me to go back and revisit my favorite of all his albums – the sometimes over-looked (including in his live set) – 1987’s “Tunnel Of Love” album.

The irony of this record is that one of the most important tracks on it was “Cautious Man” – the tale of Bill Horton, a man who finds love late in life and fears his commitment – because this was a magnificently brave recording.

In 1985, Springsteen was on top of the world; “Born In The USA” had sold by the truckload, his concerts had sold out everywhere and he had finally achieved the kind of audience attention his career had always threatened but now unleashed from the confines of just North America. “BROOOOCE” was the cry echoing around stadia all over the world as he and the E Street Band were the #1 attraction.

So with all of this success around, what does he do?

He withdraws into his home recording studio and makes an album largely on his own which ditches most of his band and many of the conventional themes with which he had been largely concerned.

For many who had been introduced to this now-major artist through his cavorting on stage with a teenage Courtney Cox in “Dancing In The Dark”, this must have come across as virtually unrecognizable. Instead “Tunnel Of Love” is an intensely individual record, with Bruce playing many of the instruments on his own.

Curiously, slightly earlier, though released later, one of my other favorite writers (and labelmate of Springsteen) Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout (a man who can do very little wrong in my eyes) had written “Cars And Girls” which was an uncharacteristically savage attack on Springsteen’s so-called lyrical obsessions – “Brucie dreams life’s a highway, too many roads go past my way”. It’s an unfair observation even before this album – “Born In The USA” had been a bitter commentary on the world for war veterans turned into some form of gung-ho anthem, the opposite of its intention – but made even more so when looked at with the contemporary release of “Tunnel Of Love”.

Springsteen had produced darker material before – particularly “Nebraska” – and would again with “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” and “Devils And Dust” but in these the settings are almost like little dark movies filled with unfulfilled characters not the singer himself. This album is profoundly personal and so feels as if it comes from a very different place. Try “Walk Like A Man” which is a very poignant review of his relationship with his father.

Ironically, “Cars And Girls”, despite its original intention, is regularly featured on all manner of “Driving” or “Highway” compilations – again the antithesis of that particular author’s vision.

I remember at the time virtually every review of this album talked about how it was Springsteen coming to terms with his new-found married status – his wedding to Julianne Philips had taken place at the height of his success in 1985. They picked up on the edginess of commitment for a man married comparatively late at 37 (like I would know anything about that) but felt the closing track “Valentines Day” intimated at the artist’s certainty that all would work out in the end.

It all seemed very neat… but inaccurate.

Yet, their new marriage was dropping to pieces almost immediately and the fear that comes across in so many of the tracks, especially “Cautious Man”, as well as the sheer difficulty of the relationships, “One Step Up” for example, weigh heavily on him.

Every character he paints, like the afore-mentioned Bill Horton or Bobby in “Spare Parts” – a song that seems definitely to have been influenced by Steve Earle then doing good box office with “Copperhead Road” – seems to be permanently running scared. Of course this a theme that we’ve seen before in songs such as “Hungry Heart” but it has always felt as if it was one of his regular short stories or mini-screenplays.

But when you are faced with, for me still the highlight of the album, the excellent but strenuously sinister title track, “Tunnel Of Love”  our hero seems riddled with foreboding and uncertainty about the state of his relationships. The unusual instrumentation (he was largely playing everything himself, remember) seems to emphasize the awkwardness of the whole situation.

And then there are the painful themes of disappointment and recrimination that feel as if they have come from Springsteen on the most uncertain of all his journeys – this is his own crisis.

The misunderstanding that exists in his relationship is brought front and centre also on more than one occasion – “Two Faces” is the more obvious case but it is in the claustrophobia of “Brilliant Disguise” that is Springsteen at his finest. Here the instrumentation builds but feels permanently constricted and the intensity of the vocal grows and grows.

We are witnessing a man truly conflicted. And, incidentally as promo films go I think this one is nigh on perfect.

And this is not all that keeps him awake at night.

The acapella opening track, “Ain’t Got You”, now seems fairly innocuous and is performed more jokily in reply to the question of what it feels to be The Boss. However, for America’s hero of the working man to be talking about the problems of having “a house full of Rembrandt and priceless art” was a brave and potentially alienating move. His long-term collaborator Miami Steve Van Zandt certainly thought so and told him unequivocally.

Yet this was an honest attempt to voice the uncertainty he now felt as probably the most famous man on the planet at the time. His success seemed to sit uneasily with him and so brought the need to withdraw from his band, from his marriage and seeming  pre-ordained path to success> he seems genuinely to have been prepared to gamble on his audience too.

Mercifully, most of them and certainly the longer-term ones knew better.

What is it to be a boss?

If you want it to be your nickname you need to live up to it.

It’s not a popularity contest that’s for sure. There are inevitably difficult decisions to be made – sometimes at odds with conventional or popular opinion. You have to know yourself and your boundaries. You need to be prepared to take chances. It can be lonely and it can be hard. And often you simply have to do it yourself, to do it right.

This is a recording that is entirely individual, unexpected and personally courageous and has always been my favourite of his catalogue. I imagine it features less in his sets nowadays simply because unlike so many other classics, much of the work still has the power to rip the Band Aid off a wound.

No work more than “Tunnel Of Love” shows why The Boss is the Boss and why even now when music has perhaps lost its power to stun inertia into action, he still remains able to do so.

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