Aztec Camera…..After The Fall

FLICKING THROUGH the yellow faded pages of a 1913 storybook entitled Happy Rhymes And Funny Times, you come to a page with a picture of a kitten sitting on the floor banging a drum. It says beneath in botched print: WHEN ONE WEE KITTEN’S IN THE HOUSE IT’S ALL QUIET AS A MOUSE; WHEN TWO ARE THERE IT’S NOT SO QUIET, BUT ENOUGH TO CALL A RIOT!

It is cute and very Trumpton Green. And the image that Alan Horne, a figure himself not a million yellow faded pages away from a cuddly wee kitten, chose for Postcard Records’ emblem. Strange, but not so strange. It (hey!) means something! So does the fact that once dowdy, in fact still dowdy, Postcard Records offices in Glasgow have a front door now where a few months and an Orange Juice/Josef K article back, they did not. They are going up in the world, in a way.

Tomorrow Horne tells me the new, magnificent Orange Juice single will be played on Radio Clyde. People are taking notice. The unreal world is coming to the real. Postcard Records Of Scotland (note also the proud, cheeky chauvinistic addition!) have a front door now on which to stick their impertinent, subversively Trumpton Greenesque stickers.

And, suddenly, like a miracle I suppose, a third rather brilliant new Postcard signing to brag about, with a name that disguises all: Aztec Camera.

The kitten in the storybook drums faster. WHEN THREE ARE THERE THEY MAKE A NOISE, ALMOST LIKE A SCHOOLROOM FULL OF BOYS!

ONE FRIDAY afternoon I felt like discovering another brilliant Scots band so I got my tinny cassette recorder on the desk where I write under which my feet tapped approvingly at many post-JD/post-Fall attempts at flight, but which never struck home as anything more. Then I found a Horne letter in the desk where I write. The superlatives flew, his pen dashed around in excitement. The band he had found were Aztec Camera. I had their cassette somewhere. I found it and put it on. No noise! New noise! Now noise!

With a guitar sound like Television but a combined effect that is otherwise genuinely innovative, Aztec Camera write songs about the real world. And they are very, very soft. Soft and supple, a sound that bends and weaves through a commerciality that is folk orientated. Perhaps Teardrop Explodes realised, perhaps the missing link between Joy Division and the Eagles, perhaps genuine Sons Of Marquee Moon (all thoughts that amused me on a cold day in Glasgow), but more.

And because of their lyricist and mainspring, a small and pale complexioned sixteen year old called Roddie Frame who writes a lyric like nobody else around.

Those images! Images of the past, surreal and ghostly and once or twice moving in a real and new sense. Images that refuse to unstick: ‘All those Americans died for me’‘Waiting for the snows to come’; ‘Smothered in your sympathy’; ‘You’re free to push me and I’m free to fall, so if we weaken we can call it stress, you’ve got my trust I’ve got your home address.’

Roddie is just 16; Campbell Owens the bassist is 20; David Mulholland the drummer is 19. Aztec Camera are the only band I have ever asked their age and that’s significant somewhere. The songs bulge and almost topple over with a weight of EXPERIENCE. But how? At 16 Roddie writes them all with just David’s occasional help. But how?

Suddenly we are in the Interview Situation. The three new Postcards (they had only known Horne a week) sit trembling before me almost as much as I tremble. They each smoke with a fixity of purpose that creates a strange symmetrical unity of smoke clouds. Their cigarette ends topple over on to the carpet without them knowing it. I laugh half in nerves too but half in excitement of recognition: this band is great and young and they don’t yet know it! I trespass on their germs of thought. It’s an interesting world when you’re frightened…

The first interesting thing they say comes from Roddie and it’s about the Fall.

“I was into this ‘new Puritan’ thing where you don’t touch girls… I like those lyrics of Mark Smith’s a lot. I used to be against drugs and drink, that sort of thing. I think I’m softening up towards them now though. I don’t know so much if I’m against them now…”

The other two like/have liked the Fall as well. An obvious inspiration. I notice they have donned would-be flash trousers for the day but the lack of commitment shows how deep the early Fall ideals have stung them. (Later Campbell says he’d like to go ‘dressing like you want to dress’. Without an image.)

The other superficially worthwhile thing that came out was the effect, almost hidden in case of sounding clichéd, that the softer, more melodic, Velvet Underground has had on the overall style of Aztec Camera. Roddie Frame has made the loopy, frightening doll’s-house melodies of a ‘There She Goes Again’ or a ‘Femme Fatale’ his own.

He’s also (though whisper it in case he blushed) had fleeting affairs with Dylan. Which, considering those crazy cartwheeling lyrics, often wandering into straight didacticism (‘you know its true that…’) is more relevant, more wonderful than you initially think. This is a strange boy. A very strange boy.

“SOMETIMES I think that Mark Smith should go and kill himself if he feels that way. He’s so cynical. I try to be more optimistic, I think…”

The cassette barely picks up his voice, it is so tremulous and uncaring. Roddie doesn’t know what he is doing. He doesn’t know its effect, I think he’s soon going to be very surprised. He tells me not to mention he is 16.

“I hate being thought of as a child prodigy. Because I don’t feel that young. It’s like, when you play places in Glasgow, they treat you like a wee boy. ‘O, he’s got a wee guitar for Christmas, let’s see what he can do wiv it!’…”

Roddie started guitar and writing during punk ’77. He played the rama lama stuff and then moved to strait-jacket Joy Divisionish material, which seemingly equally inevitably, he was advised by other people to stop before it became plagiarism. “I wanted to form my own identity anyway.”

The identity he found was doubtless aided by, when he left school last Christmas, getting into Colin Wilson and Sartre, especially in the latter’s case, The Age Of Reason. In connection with that Roddie talks of ‘not succumbing’, of not giving in to social pressures. He believes the individual can be strong ‘before the snow comes’, as he says in one song, ‘Remember The Docks’.

Those lyrics are typical. They long to go somewhere else; they are someplace else, which to some shall make them appear ‘trippy’ or (even worse tag, and more useless) ‘psychedelic’. Roddie is a dreamer.

“I think things should be better. I think there should be a better place. I don’t think anyone should be bored at all. I think it’s just that people lose touch and fall into boredom. I used to be bored at school. But then I left and discovered interesting things like reading.”

Why do you think it’s important that I’m young? he asked in a daring, even paler complexioned moment.

Because it represents Hope? I garbled, losing myself somewhere along the thought. But nearly a truth. Aztec Camera are top of a pile as a post-Fall band. From the Fall they have gleaned a realism and a sense of adventure and to that they have added a naturalism of their own (no doubt environmental, although it takes some arguing) design. Naturalism is the key.

Like the equally quixotic Orange Juice, the Aztecs seem to have calmly forgotten about 20 years of depressing r’n’r history. They wear Jim-Bob shirts! And sensible Sensible Shoes! And it is unaffected, natural. Aztec Camera deserve, in fact need to be separate from the whirly world of mainstream r’n’r, the world of fat men and big signings, of ill-conceivedness and arbitrariness. Roddie, despite his inescapable naivete, talks of how good it would be if Orange Juice were on TOTP and still a Postcard act.

“I used to read Enid Blyton just to get a sense of adventure!” I sense Roddie Frame is replacing that with the riotous plans of the staunch Alan Horne, who is giving him the chance to grow up without being gobbled up. I sense too that Horne sees Frame as a vague come-to-(real)-life Vic Godard (still his big hero) for whom he will do anything to provide the mind room that Godard perhaps has lacked.

Roddie Frame is fragile by nature but strong in spirit. Very strong.

AGE WAS one theme, love somehow unavoidably another of what we talked about. I asked them again and again about love! The most personal questions too… but I was saturated in their songs and it was relevant again. And thoughts (my thoughts) wandered after a while to a climax of sorts.

Aztec Camera’s songs destroy, as Godard tried perhaps to destroy, the trash pop view of love as a simple thing. Love or hate, good or bad, win or lose, happy or sad, love shall or love shan’t!: they are all unceremoniously kicked out the door marked ‘Easy Cliché’ by Frame. His attitude in all the songs is that love is complicated, confused, difficult to comprehend but the important thing.

Certainly, if Aztec Camera released a song as accurate as ‘We Could Write Letters’ now it would, I’d bet, equal the success of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ because it would automatically strike an unstruck chord in the pop sensibility that’s so far and for so long been fed spurious, confusing, at times irresponsible idle garbage from the unloving pop-business view of love.

I talked to the Aztecs separately (too shy together…) and it arose again and again: love. First David, thin and gangling who out of the blue said he missed the company of the other two to go out at night BECAUSE THEY HAVE GIRLFRIENDS! And he hasn’t. Though he does like Al Green and his eyes are starry and love-lost. There is an empty feeling there somewhere!

Campbell, the most confident as well as the oldest, was amazing. We talked first about N. Ireland and he said after a while that his parents would kill him if he ever married a Catholic girl.

“The bigotry is everywhere in Glasgow…”

He asked me more questions than I asked him about love. Is it? Is it? covers the cassette. He is still finding out about love.

“Does that feeling really exist? It does?” I almost heard a ‘whoopee’ there at the end. “I don’t really understand the term, but I think it would be great to be in love.” He coughs nervously. “Of course I don’t really understand the term…” Oh yeah?

This is all leading up to something vital about Aztec Camera and why I sense they are very special. I cracked it with Roddie, who came last, when I asked him did he think he had a lot of the feminine in him.

He recognised it immediately. “Yeah, I think I have a bit. It’s a running joke between me and my friends… all those beer swilling guys in East Kilbride! I hate sport! I hate football! And I’m not gay! I’m more romantic, I suppose.”

Aztec Camera are a welcome feminisation of a rock band. They have male and female in even quantities in them. It is what makes them sound soft, their guitar sound liquid and delicate. It comes chiefly though not solely from Frame, as it was with Verlaine in the in many ways parallel Television, who thus share a sense of prodigy, a newness, a detachedness through being able to see the real world through balanced eyes. Just some thoughts… you push me and I’m free to fall.

A CHRISTMAS circus whirs metallically behind us. For some reason (insecurity?) I have chosen, like Alan, a lemon drink to pretend to sit and enjoy in the haven of an awful cafeteria in the Kelvin Hall. Alan Horne still hasn’t slotted into the minor-role of a wily businessman. But he’s trying. He and Edwyn Orange Juice and Malcolm Josef K all decided that Aztec Camera were the right ones for Postcard on first seeing them. Immediate singles and an album deal were soon concluded, though he’s intending the band to be low lying until just after the start of the New Year.

We talk about the upsurge of Glasgow bands, particularly the number of good ones, though Alan’s strategic-cynicism dictates that he says, “I’d wipe away every one of them, in fact every band in the country and leave behind an Orange Juice or an Aztec…”

I am loathe to say that environment affects; but sound certainly does. That Glasgow, like Belfast and N. Ireland, has a heavily country and western orientated radio airplay is maybe significant to the Aztec’s unfrenzied approach. They have (perversely) seen the worth of gaps, space, burlesque even, like Orange Juice. Also the repressed musical (no gigs, bad bands, much HM) conditions has maybe willed or dared Something Alternative. And not in the obvious way. I think Postcard will be more significant now than I did the last time I visited them (and, first fruits of independent staunchness, a Josef K album is just around the corner).

Aztec Camera make music for solitary listening, though, despite Roddie’s fears, you can dance to it and it makes great pop. But, I still had to ask, why is it so removed from the attention-grabbing frenzy that you’d expect of an unknown quantity?

Roddie: “I like gentle music. And there’s the fact that I do most of my writing at about four in the morning, so I can only use an acoustic guitar in case I annoy people “

Roddie Frame at 16, 17 or any age will never have a photograph taken of himself in a toilet, you can bet on that. Unless, of course, he is hiding there.

I LOOKED up at the planes as they swept in through the night, at the edge of Heathrow, with (photographer) Paul Slattery’s engine humming in the background, waiting for the ice to melt on his windscreen. Every half a minute they came with their lights creating little puffed-out clouds of white dust around them, frightening and terrible. The man-made world; take me away from all this worldliness! But I liked it with a perverse fascination. Aztec Camera will take on those lights in the sky, the monolithic world and win, I thought.

And then the ice melted, Slats shouted and I got back in the car. And the cuddly kitten kept drumming on for all his worth. I THINK THE BEST THING HE CAN DO IS SEND ALL THREE TO SCHOOL, DON’T YOU?

© Dave McCulloughSounds, 3 January 1981

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