As I perhaps hinted at, we have pretty much skipped past 1981 and 1982 – on the face of it, odd to miss out the years when I was first buying albums in great numbers, but as I’ve hinted already, there wasn’t a huge amount of variety in those albums, and while I regard some of them fondly, and others in a kind of ‘what was I thinking?’ kind of way, I’m still aiming for variety and to attract the passing reader who really doesn’t want to hear my thoughts on Angelwitch, Magnum or April Wine.
I told you; what was I thinking?
Oh, and Magnum were actually pretty good for a while there.
But I digress. Living in Edinburgh in the early 1980s, it was impossible not to be aware of the music I otherwise wasn’t listening to. There were posters everywhere advertising the ‘Sound of Young Scotland’, and although it took me a while to come round, I did eventually get there, and opened my ears to what was going on around me.
This was partly due to peer pressure and mainly to the fact that Edinburgh in 1983 was just about the perfect place to be young, interested in buying as many albums as possible, and in possession of a student grant (ah, those were the days…)
The memory of Edinburgh’s record shops can still cause me to go all misty-eyed, although I’m not aware that any of them still exist (and would be delighted to be proved wrong). I had my regulars – the ones I walked past daily, or were close enough to where I was studying that a trip to check out the new releases wasn’t exactly out of my way, and there were several others I rarely visited, mainly because Edinburgh is built on several extinct volcanos, and is still the only place I’ve lived where everywhere seemed to be uphill from everywhere else.
My regular, and favourite for those first couple of years, was Phoenix on the High Street. Close enough to be easy to nip out to between lectures, it was biased towards the kind of music I was listening to (although not exclusively; I remember picking up Van Morrison albums in there, too). I joined a lineup outside Phoenix one day, discovering after a few minutes that we were queueing to meet Ian Gillan and have him autograph something. The fact that I was entirely unprepared, and didn’t have anything for him to autograph didn’t stop me – while all around me, people were handing over their treasured copies of Made in Japan or Clear Air Turbulence, I sheepishly presented him with the back of an envelope I had stuffed in my pocket. Treasured it for years, I did, although I don’t think it still exists.
Round the corner from Phoenix was the mysterious GI Records in Cockburn Street. It was the place to go for the hippy sound – they always seemed to be playing Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus or Forever Changes, and I know it’s where I bought that overpriced Japanese import Mountain live album with the 20-minute version of Nantucket Sleighride on it. GI didn’t sell singles, but made an exception for Laurie Anderson’s O Superman, which I bought purely to be able to say I bought a single from GI.
Well, also because it was terrific, but mainly for the first reason.
Back up on the High Street, The Other Record Shop was on the other side, further down the hill. It was similar to, but bigger than, the Aberdeen branch, but had a huge second-hand department upstairs, where many a past-its-prime bargain was to be had.
Back up the hill, and turning left on South Bridge, Ripping Records was the place where punk went to not die (the window was always full of Dead Kennedys, Exploited and Crass singles), and also had a superb second-hand department upstairs.
Coming out of Ripping, if I was going back to halls, I’d pass the Record Exchange (which I don’t remember ever buying anything in), next to a strange second-hand book shop which kept me in cheap but seemingly previously unread thrillers whenever I was finding the actual reading I was supposed to be doing too much.
The other shop I spent a lot of time in wasn’t a shop at all – Ezy Rider was actually a stall in Greyfriars Market, and stretched the meaning of the word ‘eclectic’ to its limits. Everything in Ezy Rider was cheap, probably second-hand, but most of it was things you’d never heard of. I rarely bought anything in Ezy Rider, but that was mainly because I had no idea what most of it was. I could easily spend a whole afternoon in there, though, just staring at stuff.
The New Town had its share of great record shops, too – including the multiple branches of Bruce’s – and it was over there, in the less-frequented half of town, that I was gradually turned on to what this ‘Sound of Young Scotland’ thing was all about.
You were wondering when I’d get round to Aztec Camera, weren’t you? So was I, to be honest – I could write about Edinburgh’s record shops for days.
When I ventured over to Bruce’s, or Listen, or any of the others – some whose names I’ve forgotten, to my shame – it seemed that they played a different kind of record while I browsed. 1983 was full of pop music – see next entry for confirmation – but some of the ‘jangle pop’ you heard in Bruce’s wasn’t the same as the stuff on the radio. This was the Scottish version – bands like Josef K, Fire Engines and Orange Juice; and of course, Aztec Camera.
The first time I heard Aztec Camera, I likely dismissed it as being just like all the others. I read about Roddy Frame – who, for all practical purposes was Aztec Camera, and sighed to discover that he was younger than me (still is, as far as I know) and endlessly more talented.
I don’t know at what point I was stopped in my tracks by the guitar parts in an Aztec Camera song, but it was likely in Bruce’s, and it was definitely something from this album (I’m pretty sure I know which song, but we’ll get there in good time). I don’t claim that my life and musical taste flipped around at that precise moment – it took some months for me to admit to the change – but something shifted in me.
I’d been dividing music into ‘album bands I like’ and ‘pop music I tolerate because it’s on the radio a lot’. Aztec Camera convinced me that one did not exclude the other, and when I finally gave in and listened to the whole of High Land, Hard Rain, I really did experience a shift in attitude and understanding. It was another Airyhall Library album, and I’m almost convinced that the other side of the tape I copied it to was Orange Juice’s Rip It Up, but if it was, this was the side I played on repeat.
I didn’t own a copy of this until I bought it on CD many years later, but I played my poorly recorded tape version so much that I can remember every little nuance – even the ones I couldn’t quite hear. If you’re going to listen along with me to this one – and you should – keep in mind that Roddy Frame is 19 years old when this comes out; it’s supernatural what he was doing.
I remember Oblivious as having been the big single from this – it was certainly a track I already knew, but it wasn’t until I properly listened to the whole thing that I was struck by the audacity of the thing – there’s a fabulous one-note guitar solo, for example, and what 19-year old comes up with lines like “they call us lonely when we’re really just alone”?
At the end of Oblivious, my brain does that thing where it starts the next track just ahead of me hearing it; a sign of an album which has thoroughly wormed its way into my brain. The Boy Wonders has a delicious double meaning, expertly unpacked in the chorus while I’m trying to work out – now just as much as forty years ago when I first heard it – how the hell he does that thing with the acoustic guitar where he’s simultaneously playing rhythm and lead.
Walk Out to Winter may, for some reason, be the best-known song on this album (I’m going by Spotify plays, which may not be the best measure ) it’s certainly the song I think of first, and one of the ones which I can just sing along to without thinking about it. I’m already in danger of just rhapsodising about the guitar work on every song, but just listen to the instrumental break, and how a whole new melody appears and develops quite apart form the vocal line…
The Bugle Sounds Again is the song I was thinking of earlier – it sounds simple; an ode to the creative muse and the writer’s relationship with it, strummed gently or not on open of those big, fat-sounding acoustic guitars, but when I once looked up the chords to see if I could play along, there were literally dozens of them I’d never heard of, and several I’m sure my fingers couldn’t form. And while all these diminished and augmented chords are are pushing the rhythm along, there’s a finger left over to pick out a solo line; it’s not clear just how extraordinary it is until you try to do it yourself.
The last track on side one (it’s a short album) is melancholy, slightly slower than what’s gone before, and with a layer of classical, Spanish-sounding guitar all over the middle eight which a lesser band would have electrified, followed by what the young folk call a breakdown which emphasises the final lines without changing the feel or message of the song. We Could Send Letters is one of my favourites, perhaps because it does sound a little less cheerful and upbeat than the others.
Who am I kidding; every one of these tracks is one of my favourites.
Take Pillar to Post, for example – it’s in the ‘hit single goes here’ spot; track one on side two – I don’t think it was a single, but it’s designed to sound like one – all early eighties production and electronic drum sounds, but you can’t hide the quality of the songwriting. It may have been a shameless attempt to climb the pop charts, but it works just as well as an uplifting, cheery album track, right until you find yourself wondering just exactly what ‘these bitter tokens are worthless to me’ is really saying.
Release doesn’t hide those spacy jazz-inflected chords – it leads with them, framing a slow, careful introduction during which we’re encouraged to notice that Frame’s voice is as good as his guitar playing. Each chorus adds more instrumentation and more tempo until the plaintive ballad of the first verse is completely forgotten in the rush to the finish – it crash lands in a pile of those same chords, overcome by its own momentum.
One of the strengths of this whole album is that it often takes a simple-sounding melody, and a straightforward lyric, and build into something quite intricate and complex with arrangements which somehow never overwhelm or obscure the message at the heart of the song. Lost Outside the Tunnel is a perfect example: there’s a lot going on, from the extra percussion sounds all the way to the spectacular guitar line which ends it, but none of what’s going on ever diverts attention from the melody line of the chorus in particular, which I’ll be humming for days now I’ve listened to it a couple of times.
Back on Board might just be the best of all these melodies; it’s literally and metaphorically uplifting, doing what it says it’s doing, pulling us all up with grace, before – for the first time – a song is extended beyond it’s natural end so Frame can show off some of his influences with an extended piece of close-harmony girl group singing, which eventually dissolves into a straightforward singer-songwriter solo song – has there ever been a better one-take song then Down the Dip about going to the pub?
It’s the perfect ending to a near-perfect album, although the version I linked to up there, and the version I owned for years on CD has three more tracks. All three are rough and ready, demo-sounding songs which would happily have sat on the original with a bit more production. But they weren’t on the original version, and I’m not reviewing them, not even the coruscating Queen’s Tattoos.
You should listen to them, though – there’s no such thing as too much Aztec Camera.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
All of them, to be honest, from the over-produced Knife via the crowd-leasing Love to the astounding Dreamland (still my favourite, despite the memories this evokes). You should listen to Roddy Frame’s solo work too; it’s all great. He’s an artist who never compromised; just did things his own way, and as a result, his work is always interesting and rewarding to listen to.
Compilations to consider?
The Best of Aztec Camera is terrific, and the only place I’m aware of where you can hear his version of Van Halen’s Jump – but, honestly, buy all the albums; they’re great.
Sadly not, but if Roddy should ever be playing near you, you should go and see him, because he’s just as good as you’d imagine he would be. Editing my own copy as I go; I discover that there are a couple of Roddy Frame solo live albums, so you should check those out – I’m certainly going to.
There was – and I’m delighted to say, still is – a great fan website called Killermont Street. If you dig hard enough, you’ll find an essay I wrote about how Belle of the Ball from Dreamland is the perfect song… The website doesn’t seem to have been updated in a while, but I’m glad it’s still there.