Aztec Camera: Backwards And Forwards
Released 27th August 2021
Subtitled The WEA Recordings (1984-1995), this nine-CD set includes the five albums the Roddy Frame-led outfit recorded for the label, plus a plethora of bonuses, including live sets, remixes and rare tracks. Ian Canty snaps it right up…
After releasing the Just Like Gold/We Could Send Letters and Mattress Of Wire/Lost Outside The Tunnel singles on Postcard Records in 1981, East Kilbride’s Aztec Camera opted to switch to the bigger Rough Trade label. The move to London that accompanied this resulted in only band leader Roddy Frame, pianist Bernie Clark and bassist Campbell Owens making the journey south. When ensconced in the capital, they picked up Ruts drummer Dave Ruffy and guitarist Craig Gannon to fill out the band’s line-up.
They then recorded a further three singles and their debut LP, High Land, Hard Rain, which made a dent on the UK pop charts. The reasonable commercial success of High Land, Hard Rain and its associated 45s was a welcome step forward, but also gave Roddy Frame much to ponder. For some time, he had become disenchanted with the UK independent scene that his band had become such a big part of and in 1984, he and AC signed to WEA.
With nine CDs to look at, we had better get on with what will have to be a whistle-stop tour through Backwards And Forwards. Ex-Josef K guitarist, Malcolm Ross had replaced Craig Gannon and Bernie Clark had also left by the time of WEA debut LP Knife. It was always going to be a difficult task to follow up High Land, Hard Rain and though the sleeve note suggests the new LP was well received, I can recall more than a few dissenting voices at the time. Determined to get away from the “indie sound” of his recent past, Frame had enlisted Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler as producer, having been impressed by his work on the Bob Dylan album Infidels. Fashion-conscious music press hacks could be heard choking on their lattes.
Originally, the LP consisted of seven longish tracks and the shorter, acoustic chug of The Birth Of The True. The unusual, laid-back cover of Van Halen’s Jump became popular when released as the B-side for All I Need Is Everything and was added to the album later. Knife springs from the traps with the post-punk funk of Still On Fire. This was the second single extracted from the LP and disappointingly missed the top 75 in the UK altogether, which is a shame, because aside from a couple of dated 1980s sonic quirks, it’s a lively and fun opener. Just Like The USA is not bad, if perhaps not quite as convincing, but Frame being in good voice helps. Then Back Door To Heaven fights gamely to transcend a rather plodding rhythm base and All I Need Is Everything was really a natural single with a real thrust to it, despite again the production being a typically faddy 80s sound.
A touch of flamenco guitar plucking is added to the sweet Backwards And Forwards and the album climaxes in the epic slow build of the title track. The bonuses on this disc are two versions of Jump and the 7″ Edit and Latin Mix of All I Need Is Everything. It had been a long time since I last heard Knife, but listening again, I felt the record has endured somewhat better than I would have thought. Though the album performed well on the UK albums chart, its singles struggled to build on the success of the re-release of Oblivious.
Disc two has twelve tracks from live shows at Glasgow Barrowlands and London from 1984. The selection works as a sort of early greatest hits, taking in Oblivious, Walk Out To Winter, We Could Send Letters, plus some songs from Knife in The Birth Of The True, All I Need Is Everything and Backwards And Forwards itself. We even get Mattress Of Wire, from that second Postcard single. Introducing Aztec Camera’s drummer as Dave “Velvet Underground” Ruffy, Roddy seems to be up for it for the Glasgow show and the crowd are boisterous and appreciative. There are even some screams! The five songs from London also sound very good and all things considered, this is a nice memento of the band live, early on in their WEA tenure.
It would be three years before the next Aztec Camera collection arrived, but when Love finally was issued, it set about arresting the decline in their commercial situation. Love, which emerged in November 1987, found the band at their chart peak and it makes up disc three of this set, along with two B-sides: the excellent Blue Orchids cover, Bad Education and a dramatic setting of The Red Flag. It was their biggest selling album and included the single Somewhere In My Heart, which reached as high as number three in the UK listings. It also included three other hit 7-inchers, all of which charted to varying degrees of success. Frame indulged his love for the then-current craze in the US for slick R&B rhythms, aka slow jams, but the key to the LP rested as always on some acutely-observed songs.
Starting out with the very soul-influenced Deep & Wide & Tall, which was the first single taken from the LP, the difference in sound and approach from the 1983 debut is tangible. Synth washes and syncopated rhythms date this record slightly, but the songs are so well written, it is a minor complaint. The backing vocals really shine on this record too. The gently acidic How Men Are is a great Roddy lyric and More Than A Law is coolly chilled. Apparently, Somewhere In My Heart was a last-minute addition. Frame didn’t feel it belonged on the album and was possibly only really a B-side. The song was put on the LP as a last resort with no other material available, but it is inspired and truly anthemic. The single raced up the charts, pushing Love further up the long player lists as a result, despite sitting slightly uneasily on the album.
One the second side of the record, Working In A Goldmine is laid-back blue-eyed soul par excellence, with One And One more a straight-up electro-funk duet with Carroll Thompson. But just when you think Frame has centred himself solely on the USA, he flips right back to his Scottish roots with touching set closer Killermont Street. Love is a conundrum in that it isn’t many fans’ idea of what an Aztec Camera album should sound like, but it was far and away the best selling one. On reflection, it is a strong collection of songs that totally deserved to sell by the bucket load. The strangest thing about it is that, despite being the Aztec Camera album made in and for America, it only made a very limited impact in the United States itself.
The fourth disc rounds up remixes of the Love LP material and some contemporaneous live recordings. The mixes are ok for what they are; I personally wouldn’t choose them over the original versions and they unavoidably sound a bit dated in 2021, like so many 1980s’ 12-inch takes. But they aren’t that bad either. For instance, the Breakdown mix of Deep & Wide & Tall is nice and the convincing soul stomp of Everybody Is A Number One motors along swimmingly.
The live cuts are of interest too. Killermont Street, from an L.A. gig, shines and a piano and vocal only How Men Are really benefits from the sparse arrangement. Live in Glasgow, a bright Pillar To Post is followed by Jump. Aztec Camera also cover Bob Dylan’s I Threw It All Away, which is followed by a brief interview with Frame that concludes this disc, with the conversation touching upon AC’s roots, the Love LP, Hip Hop and Glasgow’s neds.
Stray, which makes up the bulk of disc five of Backwards And Forwards, was released in the summer of 1990. It must have been a thrill for Clash fan Roddy to cut Good Morning Britain with Mick Jones. The song a kind of update on Complete Control on one level, replete with the “worry about it later” tag. The result was a reasonably-sized hit single, bringing Aztec Camera back to the UK top 40. In a repeat of the Love/Somewhere In Your Heart situation, this second 7-inch from the LP helped to power the collection up the charts to number 22.
The album starts with the wistful and chilled title track and is followed by the jangly then riffy pop/rock of The Crying Scene, the first single taken from Stray. It failed as a 7-inch, but is punchy and upbeat in a carefree way. Stray the album is one of variety – the Clash-style antics of Good Morning Britain and a punky Get Outta London rub shoulders along with more tender material like Over My Head. The latter has a solitary, late-night jazz feel, which made me think of old standard A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.
Notwithstanding the diverse contents, Stray hangs together cohesively to reveal itself as one of Frame’s best long players. How It Is lunges forward with a Faces-style swagger and The Gentle Kind is effectively a soulful look back to the band circa the last LP, Love. Stray ends with the dreamlike drift of Notting Hill Blues and the acoustic strum of Song For A Friend. This disc also includes the other tracks from The Crying Scene EP, Salvation and True Colours. The former skips along sweetly in a golden indie-pop fashion of yore, it is a real treat and deserved far better than being on the flip of a minor hit single. The latter track one may be more familiar with in its Cyndi Lauper hit guise.
Then we come to disc six, which is another assortment of oddities, live tracks and remixes, this time unsurprisingly taken from around the Stray era. It kicks off with Aztec Camera’s contribution to the Red, Hot And Blue AIDS benefit compilation album, a sparkling interpretation of the Cole Porter song Do I Love You?, before flying through a whole six versions of Good Morning Britain. The Laylow Posse mixes are pretty inventive and work around the theme to keep things reasonably fresh.
Also included is also a live version of Orange Juice’s Consolation Prize, with guest Edwyn Collins in fine voice from a Glasgow show, before finally the disc takes its leave with yet another Good Morning Britain. This time it is a live cut with Mick Jones, taken from the same Glasgow gig.
Platter number seven of Backwards And Forwards features an ‘up close and personal’ live gig at London’s Ronnie Scott’s in 1991. Aztec Camera, at this point, only featured Frame on vocals and guitar plus Gary Sanctuary on piano and sax. The pared-down approach favoured Camera more than most bands, with Roddy’s voice big enough to make the songs come to life with minimal accompaniment. Excerpts from this gig were previously issued as a series of singles, but the full set is brought together here.
A smart version of Birth Of The True gets things underway and straightaway, I got the feeling Frame was in an easy-going but focused mood. A beautiful Killermont Street and Spanish Horses, which would feature as the first single drawn from the band’s next LP Dreamland, gives Sanctuary’s sax a chance to flourish. Stray naturally lends itself to the low-key piano-led treatment, as does The Bugle Sounds Again. The gig has a natural flow to it, its course mapping out a potted history of Aztec Camera up to this point in time.
On its way, it takes in early Camera tunes like Mattress Of Wire and Rough Trade B-side Orchid Girl, plus newer material such as Sister Ann, which uses rhythm box percussion and Let Your Love Decide. How Men Are sounds particularly great and a radically rejigged Good Morning Britain works well. Let Your Love Decide and Orchid Girl combine to give the set a thrilling denouement. This disc was a highlight of the set for me – an atmospheric, relaxed performance that is wonderfully accomplished.
May 1993 gave us Dreamland, the fifth Aztec Camera album and along with a couple of B-sides and a version of Amen Corner’s (If Paradise Is) Half As Nice, which was donated to the NME Ruby Trax compilation, it makes up disc number eight of Backwards And Forwards. The record was co-produced by Frame and Ryuichi Sakamoto, ex-Yellow Magic Orchestra synth boffin and featured a number of guests, ranging from ex-Vibrators and Adam And The Ants bassist, Gary Tibbs to former Voyage lead singer, Sylvia Mason-James.
As the album begins with the floating dance beats of Birds, it is clear that this is a lush but different sound for Aztec Camera; unfortunately it is one that doesn’t always work. I felt, on listening again, that the LP was on the whole a slightly disappointing, rather safe follow-up to the spunky Stray, even if Frame’s songs are (as always) worth a listen.
However, Safe In Sorrow is the kind of great big ballad Roddy always did well and both Black Lucia and Dream Sweet Dreams threaten to conjure up the giddy pop of past incarnations of the Camera. Let Your Love Decide is probably the best track on the whole album, a truly gorgeous slow number that tugs at the heartstrings. Spanish Horses, a minor hit single, probably worked better in its Ronnie Scott live version on the previous disc and you could say the same of Sister Ann too, even though it has some fine backing vocals in its Dreamland form. After this, the album starts to peter out with a couple of well-produced, well-performed but ultimately not that memorable efforts in Vertigo and Valium Summer. Thankfully, The Belle Of The Ball gives Frame a chance to put his words centre stage, with fitting accompaniment from gliding, gospel-tinged keys.
Dreamland just beat Stray in its UK chart performance, getting as high as number 21, but in all other respects, it represented a bit of a backwards step. A nice, if straightforward reading of (If Paradise Is) Half As Nice, a very good live take of Knife’s Just Like The USA and an edited version of Let Your Love Decide finish off this penultimate disc.
The final Aztec Camera album, Frestonia, came out towards the end of 1995. This collection took its name from the incredible and inspiring 1977 counter culture uprising around Freston Road in London. The GLC had marked down for demolition houses that were filled with squatters who defied the Council and as a result the area become a free state independent from the UK, named Frestonia – a real life Passport To Pimlico. The album was recorded in the studio of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, which was near to Freston Road. Along with Frame, the pair also produced the LP, which makes up the last disc, along with four live offerings from the Phoenix Festival.
The downbeat introduction of Rainy Season ushers in Frestonia and immediately the clear, full production serves Aztec Camera better. This one builds elegantly and with a lucid energy that was lacking on Dreamland. It is great to hear Roddy let his guitar cut loose throughout this album. The record continues with the spirited Sun, complete with a cool echo drop-out section. It was released as a single and didn’t make any headway, but arguably deserved a better fate.
On The Avenue is very pretty and the long lope of Debutante is delicately accomplished. Phenomenal World, with barking guitars that recalled The Clash, shapes up as a show-stopping rocker and Method Of Love ensues with a genuine louche beauty. The last Aztec Camera LP resolves itself with the bright self-analysis with string accompaniment that is Sunset.
The four Phoenix Festival tracks are drawn one each from Frestonia, Dreamland, Stray and High Land, Hard Rain. A spiky run through of The Crying Scene and the solid rendering of We Could Send Letters are my picks, but all round, these bonus tracks find Aztec Camera in fine live fettle so near to the end of the line. All things considered, and despite making no impression on the public at large, Frestonia was a good way to go out, a vibrant and agreeable effort. Afterwards, Frame retired the Aztec Camera moniker, choosing instead to issue new material under his own name in the future. A host more fine songs were to come, but that is another story
Backwards and Forwards is a necessarily bulky collection; it needs to be to capture almost everything that Aztec Camera did, bar those early independent waxings. Frame and his many cohorts dip into a lot of different musical areas throughout this boxset, but there is never really a sense that he yielded to any commercial pressures, choosing always to take his own path. There’s a direct line in the quality, lyrical viewpoint and observational guile of the songs, if not the music itself.
There is a detailed sleeve note by Tim Barr and the musical extras included in this set are mostly very good and complement each album. In particular, the two live discs are both excellent and well worth hearing. Stray is probably my favourite Aztec Camera album, apart from the debut, but each LP by the band has at least something to recommend about it. Even Dreamland has some good songs on it, that somehow manage to fight their way through the thick production style.
Listening to nine Aztec Camera CDs wasn’t a chore in any way. I thoroughly enjoyed the vast majority of Backwards And Forwards and will, no doubt, go back to the live sets and Knife, which has aged well, plus Frestonia, a forgotten gem. All of this forms a commendable tribute to one of the UK’s best songsmiths ever.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here