It isn’t hard to see what Roddy Frame’s maths teacher meant, 35 years ago, when he accused him of “parading around my class like a recalcitrant navvy.” As the sometime Aztec Camera frontman walks towards the National Portrait Gallery, something about his rolling gait remains unchanged since, aged just 16, he walked out of school in the Scottish new town of East Kilbride and onto Glasgow’s legendary Postcard label alongside Orange Juice and Josef K. Now two decades free of alcohol, Frame may be a fresh-faced, smartly-dressed 50, but when he turns around you still half expect to see a catapult sticking out of his back pocket.
If you define pop stardom by recent hits and unscheduled autograph stops, Frame might no longer meet the criteria. Amused as our waitress is by the singer’s request that she set aside “the most romantic table” for his rendezvous with Q, she’ll be too young to remember the summer of 1988, when Somewhere In My Heart colonised the airwaves and gave Aztec Camera their only top five hit. But to music fans of a certain generation and sensibility, Frame’s iconic status was forever sealed in the spring of 1983, when his group released High Land Hard Rain. Spawning the indie disco perennial Oblivious, the group’s breathtaking debut album coolly delivered on the promise of the group’s early Postcard singles. For many, Frame’s penchant for suede jackets and Ray-Bans merely formalised what songs like Release and Back On Board seemed to be hinting at. The “new Dylan” epithets came thick and fast. But within those songs, Frame had also seeded hints that he couldn’t be trusted to carry the weight of anyone’s hopes and dreams. “I’ve got all the love and beauty in the spirit of the night/And I’m holding my ticket tight” he sang on the album’s plaintive closer, “Stupidity and suffering are on that ticket too/And I’m going down the dip with you.” Stupidity and suffering are also in evidence on the songs that comprise Roddy Frame’s life-affirming new album Seven Dials – albeit refracted through the gaze of a protagonist who has finally come to an accommodation with his more destructive extremes. “I’m racking up a few break-up songs, aren’t I?” he says, when challenged on the specifics of The Other Side and English Garden. The latter, he says, is “a song about heartbreak, about leaving the city and hoping that the vastness of nature will put the tininess of your troubles into proper perspective. He is, by his own admission, a world-class procrastinator. Seven Dials has been eight years in the making and it might not have appeared at all had he not signed to his friend Edwyn Collins’ AED imprint and promised to deliver ten new songs at the beginning of this year. It is, he says, a function of his innate contrarianism that “when someone says to me, ‘We need this record by such-and-such a date’, I feel that’s a slight imposition.”
Whether he likes it or not, that same contrarianism is a trait that seems to run through Roddy Frame’s entire career, possibly one he picked up from his first label boss. Self-styled thorn in the side of the music industry, the flamboyant Alan Horne was 21 when he signed Aztec Camera to his Postcard label. “He was my Andy Warhol,” explains Frame. “His whole thing was, ‘Why shouldn’t you be on Top of the Pops?” By the time High Land Hard Rain appeared, Postcard had folded and Aztec Camera were signed to Rough Trade, but Frame kept Horne’s rhetoric foremost in his thoughts. “By the time I came down to London, I was full of the ambition that Alan had instilled in me. I remember one of the guys at Rough Trade taking me into a room, like the headmaster’s office – this ex-public school boy – and told me, ‘I hear you’ve been slagging off Rough Trade.’ I think I’d said something about their distribution in an interview. He went, ‘Well, we’re not in the business of making pop stars here.’ And I said, ‘I’ve noticed.’ I was arrogant enough to think that my stuff was too good to be buried.”
In fairness, he had a point. In the wake of High Land Hard Rain’s release, Frame saw more black American Express cards – the 80s A&R man’s currency of choice – than he could keep count of. At one Aztec Camera gig, he directly addressed a scout from Polydor. A year previously, the label had signed Orange Juice, so they must have fancied their chances with Aztec Camera. Frame, however, had other ideas. Addressing the Polydor scout from the stage the singer declared, “When you do something [commercially successful] with Orange Juice, we might consider signing with you.” Picking at his lamb and chorizo stew, he admits, “That sounds like exactly the kind of thing I would have said.” After warding off every other label in Britain to secure Frame’s signature, WEA ratified his arrival into a stable of great songwriters by giving him a welcome present: Jackson Browne’s entire back catalogue. In an interview a few weeks later, he said he went home and threw the whole lot out of the window.
Had Arctic Monkeys’ not snapped it up for their debut album, Arthur Seaton’s quote in Saturday Night Sunday Morning would have been a perfect fit for the young Roddy Frame: whatever anyone said he was, that’s what he wasn’t. What was his problem, exactly? His “problem” was youth. Four years is practically the blink of an eye to most 50 year-olds. By contrast, however, what sort of 19 year-old would want to associate with his 15 year-old self? The emotionally arresting highlights of High Land Hard Rain – We Could Send Letters, Lost Outside the Tunnel – may have seemed preternaturally mature to people hearing them in 1983 for the first time. To Frame though, they were ancient history. “Lost Outside The Tunnel had really been an attempt to do a Joy Division type song,” he explains, “The first time we got to play it was in 1980 on the day that Ian Curtis died. We sent a demo to The Teardrop Explodes’ label [Zoo Records] and we ended up supporting them. It was Julian [Cope] who broke the news about Ian Curtis. We were in shock.”
Beating The Smiths to it by a week, Aztec Camera debuted on Top of the Pops in November 1983 with a reissued Oblivious, but Roddy Frame felt that he was "over indie.” He didn’t say it explicitly, but then he didn’t need to. For Knife – Aztec Camera’s feverishly anticipated successor to High Land Hard Rain – Frame enlisted the services of Mark Knopfler. Fresh from producing Bob Dylan’s Infidels (Frame: “I totally loved that record”), the Dire Straits frontman set about applying a blinding sheen to the album’s eight songs – among them, a nine minute title track which owed more than a little to Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross. In the aftermath of Knife, Frame recalls “a lot of sitting around” in his newly-acquired Notting Hill house, and no great sense of urgency. On the day of Live Aid, I remember [Aztec Camera guitarist] Malcolm Ross decided to throw a party. We all loved Queen, who were amazing. But the general vibe was a bit sanctimonious, though. Not really our scene.”
Quite what scene Aztec Camera belonged to in a post-Live Aid climate was unclear. “Basically, I made a second album that didn’t do that great. And how did I react to that? I spent three years sitting around smoking dope and listening to soul music thinking, ‘I’m not going to write any songs this week – I’m not feeling it. Then, ‘Let’s go to the record company and get some more money. We seem to be running out.’ So off my manager goes to the label, and they’re like, ‘Can we hear anything? It’s been a couple of years.’ And we’re going, ‘Not quite yet. Have you got any money?’ Looking back at that period, I think, ‘Jesus, I was lucky to get away with that.’”
Yet, it isn’t hard to see how Frame did get away with it. As he swiftly admits, his label’s fear of dropping him only to see another record company cash in on all that early potential left him in a charmed position. And when the time finally did come to make another record, Frame couldn’t have deviated further from WEA’s masterplan for him. Obsessed with albums by Anita Baker and The Jonzun Crew, Frame headed to New York and recorded his third album. At its best – on standouts like Working In A Goldmine and How Men Are – Love saw Frame come came close achieving his implausibly lofty goal: to record an album of modern soul tunes that could hold a candle to Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing. Three years previously, Scritti Politti’s Green had pulled off a similarly unlikely coup, breaking America with the blue-eyed meta-soul of hits like Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin) and Perfect Way. Years later, Green reflected that the process of recording with “shit-hot” American session musicians precipitated a full-on confidence crisis, leaving him feeling like “an imposter.”
Frame seems momentarily chastened when this is relayed to him. “Is that true? But the records [Scritti Politti] made there were amazing and beautiful. I was really just copying him when I went to America.” Presumably, Frame wasn’t similarly beset by feelings of inadequacy? If he was, it’s fair to say that they manifested themselves in a different way. “Certainly, I felt an inner revulsion whenever I had to deal with the record company in America, but I imagine it came across as arrogance. And ultimately that killed off my prospects there.”
Frame may have met with a similar fate in Britain were it not for one small twist of fate. The song from Love that gave them their biggest hit was a rocky leftover from a series of aborted early sessions. In fact, Frame had fought against including it on the album. A few months prior to the release of Somewhere In My Heart, Margaret Thatcher infamously killed the career of hotly-tipped combo Thrashing Doves by appearing on BBC1’s Saturday Superstore and giving their new single a resounding thumbs up. Was Frame worried when the Michael Gove of his day – Secretary of State for Education Kenneth Baker – did the same for Somewhere In My Heart, comparing Aztec Camera’s frontman to “a young Eddie Cochran”? Not really: “I used to get a kick out of that stuff. I find that indie thing so grudgeful and small and petty.”
As the late 80s blurred into the early 90s, the lack of hits – just a modest number 19 placing for the Mick Jones-abetted Good Morning Britain – yielded by two further Aztec Camera albums Stray and Dreamland freed the group’s singer to enjoy the spoils afforded by that brief burst of pop stardom. “Acid house had exploded by that point,” he recalls, “And our introduction to it came by way of a TV show we did in Ibiza. That was the first time I took ecstasy. What was it like? Um, great. For me though, the best thing about it was seeing Happy Mondays emerge with this succession of hypnotic, amazing records. When I was a teenager, these were the sorts of guys I grew up with. Within working class culture you had that diversity of characters that, with the possible exception of Shane Meadows, you don’t see represented in fiction: you could go to a football match and there’d be a guy with a copy of the Loyalist News or something, stood next to a guy who just had the new Fall album and might be hoping to go to uni.”
Perhaps it was with a view to emulating Happy Mondays that Roddy Frame spent much of his late 20s, hanging around and occasionally playing with new best mate Echo & The Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch. “I just spent most of the time crying with laughter. I remember one time we were sitting around at my place and Bill Drummond came over. We all started playing chords. Then suddenly, Bill declares, ‘This sounds so good we have to record it.’ So we put all the equipment on the back of Bill’s pick-up truck and book some big studio. This is midnight. We get around there, spend an hour on the go organising everything, sending these engineers running around getting stuff. Then, by the time we get in the studio, we’ve all forgotten what it is that we were playing. So he puts all the stuff back on the truck and drives back to mine at six in the morning!”
Asked what precipitated his decision to check himself into rehab in 1994, Roddy Frame swerves the specifics for fear that he’ll have to go over them in every ensuing interview. In truth, he doesn’t need to go into detail. Something of a lost masterpiece in his canon, Aztec Camera’s final album Frestonia chronicles the most fragile of awakenings, played out over a series of big, redemptive pop songs. Clean for the first time in over a decade, that this was the point at which all the insecurities that had beset his peers finally penetrated Frame. Without alcohol to keep them at bay, Frame says he was “shell-shocked. It was the first time I’d approached writing and recording sober since I was a teenager.”
Surely it must have felt incredible to listen back to these songs and realise that he could draw upon something other than dutch courage? “It [ital] was [ital] incredible. The first time you go and play [sober], it’s scary because you just think that if you just had that genie... That the magic is in the bottle.” It’s terrifying for any artist to believe that there isn’t a prop that can fast-track them writing a great song. Isn’t that why so many artists are superstitious? “Yes. Absolutely. [ital] Absolutely. [ital] That never goes away.” Frame goes on to tell a story about a recent festival in which he couldn’t walk on stage because the guitar tech who usually hands him his guitar had momentarily disappeared. “It’s silly, I know. And yet I realise that it really comes from that same obsessive place,” he says.
For Roddy Frame, letting go of Aztec Camera has been a maturing of sorts. Nevertheless, as he pointed out earlier, there’s no getting around the sheer proliferation of love-gone-awry songs that have populated his four solo albums. With In Orbit – arguably Seven Dials’ best moment – comes the sense that his faith in true love is at loggerheads with the fatalism borne of previous affairs. On the achingly raw title track of 2002’s Surf, Frame slips into the vernacular of the pop songs he grew up listening to, pop songs that can no longer adequately explain his predicament to him: “When I was young the radio played just for me, it saved me/And now I don’t want anyone who wants me, baby.” Pushing down his cappuccino froth with a spoon, he explains, “Records were my education. It was where I found out about Andy Warhol, Nietzsche, Burroughs. And records are how you expect life to be.”
So, as he enters his sixth decade, it seems that Roddy Frame still hasn’t found the one. You wonder if his lifelong aversion to other people’s expectations extends to his personal liaisons, but this, of course, remains a matter of conjecture. In other areas of his life, however, a mellowing can be perceived. Hilariously, he’s cagier when asked about his new-found love of horse-riding than any inquiry about drugs or alcohol. The closest Frame comes to misting over is when he talks about the generosity of his friends. But when it comes to generosity, it seems that he’s no slouch either. In the wake of Edwyn Collins’ stroke, Frame was a central character in his friend’s rehabilitation. With a vigilance that extended beyond frequent hospital visits, it was Frame who helped mastermind Collins’ astonishing return to live performance. “I remember when Edwyn was just starting to walk again,” he recalls, “and Malcolm [Ross] and I took him out to Pizza Express. It took us a very long time to get there, and when we arrived, Edwyn said, ‘It would be great to do a gig again.’ Malcolm said, ‘Let’s see,’ but we didn’t really expect it to happen.”
When the time came, it was Frame who took on his friend’s guitar parts. “I felt as though I know Edwyn’s songs and the Orange Juice ethos better than anyone else. And finally playing all these lines, it was a conflation of emotions.” Frame says that when he took on the job, his focus extended no further than aiding his friend’s recuperation. However, by stepping into Collins’ shoes and, for the first time, “really getting a sense of this extraordinary thing that we had once been a part of,” Frame found himself reappraising his own story. “You have to remember,” he says, “I was 16 when Edwyn was 20. He was the trailblazer. Everything I would have hoped to do, he did first. He went to London first. He was on Top of the Pops first.”
So last year, after three decades of resisting the outside world’s attempts to typecast him, Roddy Frame finally ceded a little ground and gave his fans a present they had long since stopped expecting. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the first of last year’s magical High Land Hard Rain shows was the gradual transformation that overcame Frame as he played Aztec Camera’s first album. Recalcitrant navvy walk still intact, he launched into Oblivious wholly, well… oblivious to the reaction he was about to meet. By the halfway point, the inter-song quips began to dry up and gave way to a sense that ghosts were finally being laid to rest. Perhaps that had something to do with the realisation that these songs had so accurately portended the travails that lay ahead of him. “We rehearsed and we rehearsed,” concurs the man at the centre of it all, “and yet, I was wholly unprepared.”
And if the 50 year-old could go back in time and give his teenage self one piece of advice, what would it be? He gazes across the rooftops that separate the dining room from Trafalgar Square and considers his answer.
“It’s a waste of time,” says Roddy Frame. “He isn’t listening.”