As founder, musical leader, and sometimes sole member of Aztec Camera, Scottish-born Roddy Frame has created soothing pop songs that have created a long-standing niche in the indie music world, where bands and performer’s careers are often shortlived. A somewhat confessional songwriter, Frame is known as a competent poetic craftsman, if at times a bit too idealistic in outlook and naive in imagery, with a particular penchant for love songs. While never a huge success in the U.S. as compared to the UK, Frame and company have been making music since 1980.
Born in East Kilbride, Scotland on January 29, 1964, Frame had his musical introduction at the age of 15 with a punk band called the Neutral Blue, which he left to create Aztec Camera. He modeled the band after the Byrds and the Velvet Underground. After signing with the independent label Postcard in 1981, they started playing in local pubs and began to kindle the flames of success. The first step to becoming successful was leaving the Postcard label. “On Postcard, the whole charm was the groups couldn’t tune their own guitars,” sniffed Frame to Melody Makers Steve Sutherland. “I didn’t see that as charming—I thought it was crap.”
The next year the band relocated to London and signed with Rough Trade Records. Drummer Dave Ruffy replaced Mulholland and with the addition of Bernie Clarke on keyboards, the band set out to record their debut album, High Land, Hard Rain, in 1983. The first endeavor won Aztec Camera critical praise and the album made it to number 22 on the U.K. charts. It also attracted the attention of Sire Records, who signed the band to a U.S. contract, and Elvis Costello, who praised Frame’s songwriting and invited the band to open for him on an eight-week tour of America. Frame, only 19 years-old at the time, often had to lie about his age in states where the band performed.
Aztec Camera’s second album, Knife, was released in 1984 and was produced by Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler. More polished and enhanced then the debut album, the addition of horns and studio musicians lent a different quality to Frame’s delicate lyrics, a sound that Frame is both proud of and ambivalent towards. “I would have preferred it to sound much more like the original demos, sparser, with more room to breathe,” Frame admitted to Paul Mathur of Melody Maker. “But it was interesting to come at things from a totally different perspective.” Peter Anderson of London’s New Musical Express echoed Frame declaring,” Knife has good songwriting, Roddy’s best, the dashes of brilliance that are the mark of one with real talent, but it’s all too smooth, too polished.” Shortly thereafter, the band then began an extensive world tour to support the album.
Members have included Roddy Frame , (born January 29, 1964, Scotland) guitarist, lyricist, and singer; Tommy Barlow (1987), saxophone; Yolanda Charles (1995—), bass; Bernie Clarke (1982), keyboards; Mark Edwards (1993—), keyboards; Craig Gannon (1983), guitar; Ruby James (1987) vocals Sylvia James (1987), vocals; Clare Kenny (1989–-93), bass; Eddie Kulak (1984–-89) keyboards; Dave Mulholland (1980–-82), drums; Campbell Owens (1981–-86), bass, Paul Powell (1987–-89), bass; Malcolm Ross (1984–-85), guitar; Dave Ruffy (1982–-88), drums; Gary Sanford (1987–-93), guitar; Gary Sanctuary (1989–-91), keyboards; Steve Sidelnyk (1987–-93), percussion; Jeremy Stacy (1995—), drums; Frank Tontoh (1989–-93), drums; Alan Welsh (1980–-81), bass.
Formed in Scotland in 1980; first single, “Just Like Gold,” released on Glasgow independent label, Postcard, 1981; signed to Sire Records in the U.S., released High Land, Hard Rain, 1983, Knife, 1984, Aztec Camera (EP), 1985, Backwards and Forward (EP), 1985, Love, 1987, Stray, 1990, and Dreamland, 1993; signed multi-album contract with WEA records in the UK, 1983, released New, Live and Rare, 1995; records version of Cole Porter’s “Do I Love You?” for the AIDS awareness album, Red Hot + Blue, 1990.
By 1986 Aztec Camera was almost completely a solo endeavor by Frame, backed by hired hands instead of full-fledged band members. The rotating roster of musicians in Aztec Camera has had much to do with the rather mercurial temper of Frame. “I find it quite hard to get along with people for a long time,” he explained to Sutherland. “Some people are a bit stupid. Just to be around them, in a dressing room, in a hotel with them … they have to go.” In whatever incarnation, it took three years for Frame to release the third album, Love, and it was this record which received the greatest commercial attention. The album also boasted many well known producers including Tommy LiPuma, David Frank, and Russ Titelman. Some seven months after the album’s release, the single “Somewhere In My Heart” reached to number three in the U.K. and re-ignited interest in the album, which reached number ten in the U.K. and gained platinum certification.
“In a half-light [Love] could slip past the to pass itself off as Contemporary Rockfodder,” Mathur wrote “but whip away the false beard and you ’re left with an admirably naked celebration.” For Frame, the record was a highly personal one, written with an open, albeit guarded, heart. “There’s words on the record that I look at and they seem really naive,” he confessed to Mathur, “but at the same time, it was the way I was feeling when I wrote it. There had to be an honesty there to make it worth doing…. If someone hears the record, they know something about me, but not everything, not by a long way.”
After spending time in America in an ill-fated attempt to write new songs, Frame returned to London where the tunes came quickly. The result was the 1990 eclectic album, Stray. A mix of jazz, pop, soul, and punk, Frame told Scott Isler of Musician that the record, “is the most spontaneous album I’ve ever made. A lot of songs I didn’t even demo. I would just play them in rehearsal or in the studio; we’d change them as we went along, and then put them down.” Frame calls the album one of bewilderment with a little anger thrown in, a decidedly different tone than his previous albums.
The record also has a lotto do with his adopted country. “When I looked at the lyrics to this album, it occurred to me it was all about Britain,” Frame told Sutherland, “but I didn’t want to call it Good Morning, Britain [a song on the album], because that’s a stupid name. So I just decided to call it Stray because that’s what it is really, just a kind of stray through all kinds of musical territories and different vibes.” The song Frame mentions, “Good Morning Britain,” was, in fact, a raucous feature of the album, a full-blown politically-irate punk duet with Mick Jones of the Clash and Big Audio Dynamite. Frame also found time to contribute the Cole Porter classic, “Do I Love You,” for the Red Hot + Blue AIDS awareness album.
Following a tour to support Stray, Frame again took some time off to write and do occasional shows. In 1993, Frame emerged with Dreamland, a collaboration with composer/musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, creating a pairing that raised more than a few eyebrows. “The record company thought [Ryuichi] was going to be some kind of academic professor of electronic music,” Frame explained to Billboard ’s Craig Rosen. “But his approach was incredibly human. It’s a strange pairing. I like to think of it as country and Eastern.”
Frame also explained to Rosen his insistence on continuing to use the group name although he is essentially the only member. “The band isn’t basically me,” he told Rosen. “When I make records with other people, it’s a collaboration. As soon as I get around other people it’s a democracy.” Besides, he says, Aztec Camera is, “a nice kind of umbrella. I like to think of it as kind of a brand name, but we’re not as tight as Levi’s and not as sweet as Coca-Cola.”
In 1995 Frame released the sixth Aztec Camera album, Frestonia, to somewhat mixed reviews. In a review that celebrated Frame’s long-standing career, Paul Lester of Melody Maker decided that while Frestonia has few surprises, he’s not about to write off Frame, who has spent, “a decade and a half celebrating the romance of pain and the pain of romance.” Scott Schinder of Pulse! echoed Lester, claiming Frame undercuts his smooth vocals and compassionate songwriting with “too-smooth studio technique.” One rave was from David Roberts of Q, who declared, “Frame has put the soul back into the heart of his music … with glorious melodies, subtly superb fretwork, and lyrics of instant, effortless articulacy—all sung in a voice which has lost none of its quiet poignancy.”
After a short tour to support Frestonia, Frame learned that WEA had opted not to renew his recording contract. As he set off to write a new album and search for a new label—his new record is due in 1998—it’s clear that Frame will continue on in the same way he’s had since he was a 16 year-old Scottish kid who started a band. “Y’know, I don’t really have the answers to anything but what I do have, I think is the power to express myself,” he told Sutherland in 1990. “I hope I’ve got the power to put something on a record that can be sent off around the world and actually touch people. And maybe the things that I write in my bedroom can touch someone in their bedroom in Tokyo. That’s the bottom line really.”
High Land, Hard Rain, Sire, 1983.
Knife, Sire, 1984.
Aztec Camera (EP), Sire, 1985.
Backwards and Forward (EP), Sire, 1985.
Love, Sire, 1987.
Stray, Sire, 1990.
Dreamland, Sire, 1993.
New, Live and Rare, WEA, 1995.
Live on the Test, Windsong, 1995.
Frestonia, Reprise, 1995.
Hardy, Phil and David Laing, eds. Encyclopedia of Rock, MacDonald, 1987.
Rhyss, Dafydd and Compton. Luke, eds. Encyclopedia of Rock Stars, DK Publishing, New York, 1996.
Billboard, June 19, 1993.
Chicago Tribune, June 20, 1993.
Melody Maker, August 22, 1981; October 31, 1981; September 4, 1982; October 13, 1984; February 13, 1988; June 9, 1990; November 11, 1995.
Musician, November 1990.
New Musical Express, October 20, 1984.
Pulse, December 1995.
Q, November, 1995.
Rolling Stone, September 1, 1983; September 30, 1993.
—Gretchen A. Monette
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