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.
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.
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.