SCARCE ON the ground these past months, Roddy Frame is the new Boy Wonder, a precocious 19 year old currently calling all the shots.
In his three year scramble as guiding light for Aztec Camera he has spurned trends, signed with three record companies, grown his hair long, seen America, made a firm LP with some genuine moments of flair and brilliance, larked around on TV and in 1983 finally found some recognition for his curious balance between old and new rock music.
Cocky and assured, he’s drawn to the romance and mystery of prime Dylan and Young, Kerouac’s intuition, and the adventure of The Sex Pistols. It’s a vice that occasionally leads him up musical cul-de-sacs, but it’s a challenge he relishes. Idleness is not for him.
“I always wanted to be a pop star. Like Roy Wood or something. I thought it was great.”
What kind of childhood did you have?
“Very like other people’s childhoods, probably. Quite secure and happy. Working class.”
“Well, at primary school there were one or two teachers who were okay, but school on the whole was horrible. I always wanted to leave. I only went to secondary school with the intention of leaving as soon as possible; I knew the day I could leave years before I did. The exact date.”
Why the hatred for it?
“It just had no interest for me. There was too much to think about without skill.”
What was more important to you at the time?
“Well, I was ploughing through my existentialist books and I couldn’t attach any importance to something like maths. I couldn’t see it at the time. It was really boring. The teachers were really stupid. I always thought I hope I never have to do anything as pathetic as being a teacher. A bad job.”
Were you good at making friends?
“I got on with everyone but I didn’t really have friends at school. Not until ’79. I was coming back on the bus from seeing Patrick Fitzgerald and I met this guy called Graham. He became my best friend. The other night he wouldn’t come into see me because he doesn’t think I love him anymore. It’s the hassle of being a pop star.”
RODDY FRAME enjoys playing around with interviews. Earlier this year, when he sensed his time was coming, he appeared in NME with long hair and quotes about Jackson Browne, The Eagles and West Coast producers. I wondered how anyone could be so sterile. It was the desired effect, Frame playing hard to get, refusing to pin himself down.
He cherishes the idea of constant movement, the ability to get up one morning and just leave. Similarly, in his music, he attempts to introduce new patterns, structures and methods to the simple complexity of pop. He could be termed a ‘progressive’ musician. His talent ranges from the kinetic power of ‘Oblivious’ to the overwrought and hurried ‘Release’. It’s a jarring mixture. But his fans and admirers have a word for him – potential. They all talk about Roddy Frame’s potential. I didn’t ask but I bet he thinks he’s past that stage already.
So what’s so good about Aztec Camera?
“Just seeing everyone at the Pavilion Theatre standing up and singing ‘Jingle Bells’ or something. It was really great, just like when I went to see groups in Glasgow. I went to see Don McLean and everyone stood up. We pulled as many people in Glasgow as Don McLean pulled in 1974.”
Ever thought it was a waste of time?
“Nah! Never. I’m probably quite cocky, a lot more so than most people think. I’m quite confident about what I do.”
What’s the most important thing about your songs?
“That they’re honest. Genuine. That they come over as having emotion and affect people.”
On ‘Walk Out To Winter’ you state that you’re not angry. How true is that?
“Yeah (nodding vigorously). Very true. I don’t feel part of a generation, I never have. I hate that whole idea of a generation or a movement. It’s just boring.”
But punk was that.
“Yeah, but I never thought of those other punks as being part of my generation. I just thought like everybody else about The Sex Pistols. They belonged to me and no-one else was even to like them. That’s the way I felt. Didn’t really feel, Oh great we’re all punks. Sham 69 felt that.”
It must be your existentialism rearing its head.
“Probably, yeah. I do feel quite removed from other people. But I get on quite well with them. I’m not going to jeopardise that. I’m not trying to be rude to other people because I feel out of touch. You can still have a good time with people, even if you don’t relate to them, existentially.”
He laughs. Loudly.
AZTEC CAMERA started last year on Rough Trade and finished up on WEA. Frame has no qualms about it. RT supremo Geoff Travis just didn’t have the resources to push the Aztecs into the major league and WEA did. And it worked, although with the new deal Rough Trade, through a special set up, still benefit financially. Everyone’s happy all round except Roddy, feeling awkward in the spotlight but feverishly desiring it too.
Caught in the balance, he’s up there with George and Gary and Simon and Andy and all the other faces. He feels uncomfortable in such company, but welcomes the attention and the reward for the skill and hard work he puts into his songs. He has that old attitude about pop success – it’s surface frivolity to him – and is keen to mock his contemporaries, both by deed and word.
“Success this year? I’m probably a bit more tired than I was last year”, he glibly replied. “I’m still really confident and that’s because it’s bound to do your ego a bit of good having a hit single. I’m glad it hasn’t made me go, Oh great, we must get another single out. You see, I’m not going to sit down and write something with the same beat so I can follow it up. I hate the idea of perpetuating something…I just like the idea of stopping. You probably won’t see Aztec Camera for a while. I think people are more interested in buying the next album anyway. I don’t think we have to keep people amused by putting out a single.”
Earlier this year, toying around with the hippy image, you tried to set yourself apart. I thought it was a bit hackneyed. It didn’t really work, did it?
“Nah, I don’t think I’m different than what’s gone before. I’m quite disappointed (laughs). But it’s not as if I’ve made any records where you can say, Oh that sounds like Love. I’ve never thought our records sounded like that. That’s where Weller and all those people fall down. Like Wham, what they do is so formularised. Rapping, Cockney rapping! That stupid rap about why did you get married when I’m your friend and you’re 19 and we’re both lads? ‘Young Guns Go For It’! (sneering harshly) I really hate Martin Fry also. He sings things, like that line about apple crumble. What is he? Is he tongue in cheek? If he has got a tongue in his cheek then it’s about time he took it out of his cheek and said something real. He’s just a bore.”
It’s his idea of entertainment. With the media you try the same things.
“But not in my songs. I don’t just go and sing songs that are tongue in cheek. I don’t go and say, I’m an entertainer, this is my song, it doesn’t really mean anything. I want to play songs that I really believe in.”
Presumably, they mean an awful lot.
“Of course! Their songs don’t. How can it mean anything? He spoils that song just by putting that line about apple crumble in. When he goes into the studio to do it, he’s got to sing it about ten times, that line. After the second time, if he had any imagination, he’d probably find it quite boring. He’d think it was rubbishy. All this tat for tat’s sake, I don’t like it.”
Songs are too precious to muck around with?
“You don’t have to be too precious about them. I don’t mind someone banging something out. I don’t mind Bob Dylan banging out a song just for the sake of it. But Martin Fry means it.”
How far do Aztec’s songs differ?
“I think I’m writing songs in a different way from a lot of people, even by the nature of the chord progressions and things that I use. It’s not always verse, chorus, verse, chorus, etc. I do use different little things.”
After three years, what’s it like to be on the current pop treadmill?
“I’m just doing what I’m doing really. I don’t know if my songs are a bit disruptive but I think, certainly, I’m making people think a little bit more with my songs than people like Spandau. That song ‘True’, it was such a disappointment. There was a lyric in that too, that went. “Why do I find it hard to write the next line?” Och! I don’t know how they get away with it. It’s a terrible line.”
Your song, ‘Back On Board’ is very similar to ‘True’?
“Well, Gary Kemp had a demo of it. (Quickly) But I like him. He’s a really nice guy, Gary Kemp. (Smiles) He always buys a round.”
ON FIRST hearing, Frame’s music is distinctly deceptive. Sometimes clumsy, meandering, an air of purposelessness about it, it’s only later that the strengths, the hidden melodies, the supple twists and turns, his determined vocal and ability to stay in control, become apparent. His High Land, Hard Rain LP (and make no mistake, it’s all him) is essentially a listening LP, a private exercise by Frame in articulation.
What robs Aztec Camera of making much more of an effect is their stubborness, their old-fashioned tastes. The live show, for instance, lacks drama, sparkle or action; it’s routine in its format and never subverted by its content. It has no style, and deliberately so. For Frame, style signals emptiness. He doesn’t understand that style, when used well, can add brilliantly to a group, that it’s not just clothes, but action and attitude.
Roddy Frame is a snob. He believes his songs are good enough to ride over these considerations. He reminds me of the mid-’70s and elitist distinctions between ‘serious’ and ‘shallow’. He wants Aztec Camera to be a “mainstream rock band”, and somehow I don’t think that’s enough.
Do you ever think that Aztecs will become the group punk has to replace?
(Pause) “It’s funny, I was kind of thinking that. I was thinking, acoustic guitars, maybe we’re really removed from punk and so far on from that again that it will replace us. But I don’t think so. I can’t see myself in the position that Pete Townshend was in. I think there’s still quite a lot of punk in what we do. The show last night, I thought it was quite punky. I don’t think it’s as laid back as something Lenny Waronker would produce.
“When we were saying those things to the papers about Jackson Browne, we thought it was quite funny. But then Warners gave me three Jackson Browne LPs, and I smashed them all, threw them out in the garden, along with all the free stuff we got in America too. That was all rubbish.”
How do you feel about High Land, Hard Rain, in retrospect?
“I think it’s great. I really like it. It’s great that Aztec Camera are putting an LP out. I really remember, vividly, recording it and staying up all night till about seven in the morning, going to bed and getting up again to start recording. It was great. I remember when I sang ‘Lost Outside The Tunnel’ and it was like the last vocals I was doing. We’d been working there solidly for a couple of weeks and the producer was going, it’s not right is it? And I was going, no, I’m not doing it properly. And then I was crying, just like a real wimp. It was great. Just standing there with tears on my face and them saying, anything wrong? It was really emotional. I was really crying. What a cliché! It must have been like that Neil Diamond movie, The Jazz Singer!”
With the LP and your movements this year, you’ve definitely removed yourself from the glossy surfaces of a lot of bands these days.
“I think we’re getting futher away from them. We’re never going to be the sort of band that’s going to churn out single after single. There is that big singles market out there so you should put out singles, good pop singles if you’re the sort of band who writes them. And I think we can. But I’d rather concentrate on doing an album next year. People must see us as slightly different.
“It’s always hard to see you as your audience sees you. Do those girls see you in the same way that they might see Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran? But I tend to give them more credit than that. If I’d been old enough to wait outside the Apollo for David Bowie when he was doing his Ziggy Stardust tour, I would have waited. But I wouldn’t have been waiting there for Marc Bolan because I thought he was pop and David Bowie wasn’t.”
Do you still make that distinction between bands?
“Yeah, I still think that, I’m still a bit snobby, a bit of that punk thing where I tend to think if something is too poppy I don’t like it. It’s a bit of a contradiction when you look at ‘Oblivious’. I sort of feel it. I don’t really think that way, just sometimes feel that way.”
Why so much emphasis on guitars in Aztec Camera. Isn’t that a bit limiting?
“Because I’m a guitarist and my ego says that the guitar will be the big thing in my band and keyboards are secondary. And I’m a good guitarist too! The thing is most pop groups don’t play guitars like that. They don’t use all those chords because it’s not in keeping with things. We use guitars in a different way to bands. Now, I don’t know if we use them in a different way from bands that have gone before and there are probably a lot of similarities with people like Nell Young.”
You’re quite taken with Neil Young.
“He wrote some great stuff. Neil Young was really punky. That guitar playing that I just copied, it’s all just jagged and really spastic. He just plays the guitar like a spastic. And then he’ll go into this wonderful heavy metal lick like Eddie Van Halen would do and at the end of it there will be a big bum note. It’s just great, it’s really emotional. And some of the lines he’s got, ‘Rolling down that ocean road and getting to the surf on time.’ He just hated all that West Coast stuff. And I do too. I just like some of the records.
“The Velvet Underground are much better than Love or anyone. That new song I played last night, ‘Head Is Happy’, it’s just pure Velvets. Everyone really loves it. The band love it too and that’s great. It’s really quite important to me that the band love the songs rather than the record companies.”
AS A ROMANTIC and a dreamer, a man infatuated with the myth of musician as someone immediately outside time, space or worldly concerns, Roddy Frame has cast himself as the archetypal artist. To a degree he has the talent to pull it off. If he can’t pen the arresting imagery that marked Dylan in his prime, his lyrics still speak with an encouraging rawness and occasional emotional flair. If he can’t conjure up the electric flashes of the new, he can still write an ‘Oblivious’ or an affecting ‘Down The Dip’, in its place.
At 19 he has the arrogance of one who knows he’s talented and sees no limit to that skill. Which is the way it should be. As an antidote to calculated mediocrity, he and Aztecs are more than welcome. But as a reminder of the ever increasing return to dull routinised rock music, with all its attendant faults, he’s constricting a genuine intelligence, selling himself short in a defunct area.
How moral are you Roddy?
“I can be quite moralistic but it’s more like a feeling rather than thinking it out. I quite like the idea of no set morality, just your own morality. But it should be a very intuitive thing. It shouldn’t be something you don’t do because of a social code. There shouldn’t be a thing that says don’t do this because…there should be a thing that says do this because it’s right. And if you’re doing that then you shouldn’t have to worry too much. You’re not the same person every day. I feel quite different today than from yesterday. It’s like having a million pairs of eyes.
What will you do next?
“I want to go to America for seven weeks and write there now, because I’m happier. My girlfriend lives there so I’ll be happy. (Boyish laugh) I maybe shouldn’t say this but everyone at Warners will say, the reason we like you is because of the whole intuitive thing behind the songs. And they love the idea of me reading Kerouac, they love the idea of me being kind of Beat. They love all those ideas. And then you just turn around and say, I’m fucking off to America for seven weeks and we’re not putting out any records for a while. Just like Kerouac would have done. He wouldn’t have stayed just to write a book, he would have got a car and gone somewhere, done something much more intuitive.
“If people want that they’re going to have to take that one hundred per cent really.”
Roddy Frame’s favourite expression is “It’s just great”, and when he says it, his eyes light up. He has a wonderful smile and a slightly mistrusting expression on his face most times. His perfect epitaph for Roddy Frame would be, “He’s an artist. And he don’t look back.”
© Paolo Hewitt, New Musical Express, 7 January 1984