The first time I heard an Aztec Camera song, it wasn’t being performed by Aztec Camera. It was Eddie Holmes, absently singing the chorus of Oblivious as we filed into class on a January morning. Between Eddie’s ability to carry a tune and Roddy Frame’s ability to write one, my interest was piqued enough to ask Eddie what he was singing. In a Birmingham school where the girls had Duran Duran scrawled on their pencil cases and the boys wanted to be in Madness, it was pretty impressive that Eddie Holmes – cock of the walk, with his green bomber jacket, fat tie and trousers tailored to skinhead specifications – had heard Aztec Camera.
Aged 13, all I knew about Aztec Camera was that they had once been on the same label as Orange Juice, who were currently in the Top 10 with Rip It Up. Back at home, Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes records were billowing out of my brother’s bedroom. This was all having an effect, creating a vacuum which would be ultimately filled by a band I could believe in as much as my brother believed in his bands. And because there was a rivalry there, it very much did feel as they were his bands. Still, it didn’t do any harm if I borrowed them for a while. On the inside flap of my French exercise book, I’d written all the words of The Teardrop Explodes’ Sleeping Gas. I referenced The Doors in a bid to create distance between myself and my classmates. Really, I should have been the one absently singing Aztec Camera lyrics during registration. But Eddie called it first, even before me; before even Warner Brothers who, by the end of the year, would sign Aztec Camera and finally give Oblivious the push it needed to become the group’s first proper hit.
For the time being though, Aztec Camera were nothing more than a Post-It note in my brain. Dexys Midnight Runners ruled the ledger in which I made note of every record I played, but a band as huge as Dexys could never truly feel like they were mine and mine alone. I kept looking, not entirely conscious of the fact that I was looking. In a pre-internet age, this searching amounted to scrutinising cover art in record shops, the reviews in Smash Hits and sitting poised by the record button during any TV show where music might be played. TV-AM’s newly-launched breakfast show on ITV featured a pop video slot at 7.55, introduced at one end by Nick Owen and Anne Diamond before leading at the other into waiting weathergirl Wincey Willis. That mental Post-It Note probably determined the speed with which I pressed play and record when Aztec Camera’s name bounced from the autocue and back into my front room.
You could always tell if Wincey liked today’s song by the exuberance of her bopping as the video faded back into her. She wasn’t crazy about Walk Out To Winter, and with hindsight, neither am I – well, not that version, at any rate. After Oblivious failed to become a hit, the second catchiest song on the recently released High Land Hard Rain had been sacrificed to a remix. Tony Mansfield’s retooling of which the song was a dog’s dinner of Fairlight stabs and crashing snare drums. But at that moment, it didn’t matter. I hadn’t heard the original version of Walk Out To Winter, so this one would do just fine. A trip-switch went off, activating a strange and immediate trust in the lank-haired surrogate older brother wandering a seaside town beneath overcast skies. In 1983, I’d never seen a fringed suede jacket or hair of that length on a contemporary musician. The only other pop star I’d seen wearing Ray-Bans was Edwyn Collins, back in January. These were the details that mattered most immediately to me.
Watching me rewind that bit of videotape for the 300th time, my own brother hit me where it hurts. Using psychic sibling superpowers, he casually zoned in on his target: “I bet you’re planning to go to Kensington Market and get a fringed jacket just like that aren’t you? Well, don’t bother. EVERYONE will laugh at you.” I told him to get lost, but he was right. My mortified blushing told him that: (a) I had started saving up for the jacket; (b) this could now never happen or be spoken of again. All I wanted was for Roddy to reach out of the TV screen and teach me how to be as cool as him. But Christ, he wouldn’t have half had his work cut out. Every garment I owned had been bought by my mother. I was too terrified to choose my own clothes, lest someone think I was trying to entertain the notion that I could ever look… well, attractive.
Mustard cords and a polyester British Home Stores polo shirt thus forced me to turn my fear of change into an ideological stance. I was a sartorial objector, too school for cool – superciliously walking past the edgy kids smoking by fountain with eyes that said, “Go ahead. Throw your empty Choc Dips tub at me, superficial people.” Of course, there was a contradiction here. Roddy Frame probably had more in common with those edgy kids than me. Eddie Holmes owned the first Clash album – the one which featured Roddy’s favourite song of all time, Garageland. Roddy had left school in order to devote himself to being in a band. I would never have dreamed of doing something like that! Furthermore, Roddy smoked! And everyone knows that smoking’s for losers!! Somehow though, none of those considerations came into play when, in August 1983, shorty after my 14th birthday, I went into the tiny Virgin shop on Bull St and finally bought High Land Hard Rain. By actually buying an album – something that anyone of my age would have only done once or twice a year – I was making a leaping of faith. At £4.79, not finding something of worth in the grooves of High Land Hard Rain was simply not an option.
When I got home, it was Friday, which meant that my parents were both at work in their chippy. The house was empty. I removed the red inner sleeve from its blue cover, knelt at the Fidelity music centre and turned up the damp, acoustic beat-pop of Oblivious. The sweetness of that hook had stuck with me since I heard Eddie singing it at the beginning of the year. To hear chord sequences and instrumentation assembling themselves around it was a moment of almost synaesthetic clarity. But if the sense of deja vu with Oblivious and Walk Out To Winter could be explained away, the same couldn’t be said about the rest of the album. In interviews, Roddy Frame had cited Love and Django Reinhardt as formative influences. I taped Alone Again Or one night when Annie Nightingale played it on her show, and a few months later, I found Django Reinhardt’s 1961 album Django Reinhardt & Le Quintette Du Hot Club De France in Oxfam. Thirty years on, it’s hard not to hear the French guitar legend in stoned hot club licks of Release. Elsewhere on High Land Hard Rain, The Boy Wonders is exactly how Love would have sounded had they grown up in a Scottish new town. However, hearing both of these artists in the wake of the Aztec Camera record, I couldn’t even begin to make those connections. I put them away and saved them for a time when I might better understand.
Other songs, however, seemed familiar in a way that couldn’t be explained with reference to mere influences. Back On Board sounded less like it had been written than chiseled from the underside of my own subconscious. At the time, I wasn’t remotely equipped to articulate the power of lines such as, “So here we go digging through those dustbins/Giving things new names.” But actually, they spoke to me for the same reason that Kevin Rowland did a year previously on I’ll Show You, when he exhorted listeners to remember that the next down-and-out they walk past in the street was once a child. I was hearing Back On Board, Release and Down The Dip as fuck-up fantasies that might yet turn out to be episodes in my life. The more I listened, the less I wanted to see myself in these songs. And the more I saw myself in these songs, the greater my conviction that only the person who wrote them understood my pain.
Thirty years later, I feel some sympathy for my younger self, but not as much as I feel for poor Roddy. At 19, your life is barely more mapped out than it is at the age of 14. And the only burden of expectation I bore was that of my parents. Whatever accoutrements Roddy must have thought came with the job, I don’t imagine he would have thought beyond the charmed reception of a classic album that seemed to fall out of his brain almost by accident. But here he was adorning the front pages of music papers that would have once paid host to his formative influences – Bowie; The Clash, Neil Young, Joy Division – suddenly faced with the prospect of meeting not only his own expectations but those of his major-label paymasters and, of course, spenks like me. No pop star would ever choose to have fans like me.
And yet here we were. Connected. Him touring America with his band. Playing increasingly unhinged, electrified, elongated versions of songs which had once sounded so crisp and gentle on High Land Hard Rain (I know – I still have the bootlegs, although only once I had lost my virginity, taken drugs and developed a long unhealthy obsession with Neil Young’s Shots could I fully appreciate them). Me – Sleepless In Acocks Green, perched on my pouffe, reading the lyrics on the inner sleeve in real time and feeling something oddly chemical taking place. “I found some blood I wasn’t meant to find,” went We Could Send Letters, “I found some feelings that we’d left behind/But then some blood won’t mean that much to me/When I’ve been smothered in the sympathy you bleed.” By the end of September, a kind of temporary bipolarity kicked in and stayed there for about two years. I felt I had a special, supernatural connection to these songs, beyond that of anyone else. I had to tell someone. But, of course, there was only one person I could tell.
If I had access to a Tardis at this point, I’d fly back to that autumn in a beat and the story would end here. But it doesn’t. There was an address on the sleeve. God only knows what I wrote in those letters to Rainhill House – the fits-the-bill name given to Aztec Camera’s fan club. Well, actually, I wish God only knew – but there are details I remember. Everyone at school is too shallow to understand me. When you’re strange, faces come out of the rain. That sort of thing. No good ever came from opening a black envelope on which the address is written in a silver marker. Nevertheless, fan club secretary Trina kindly replied. Friendly, in the way that you invariably are to troubled teenagers whose next letter, for all you know, might be the one that police find next to the body. And that’s a letter you certainly don’t want to be mentioned in.
But no. I wasn’t suicidal. Far from it. With the reissued Oblivious about to chart and a Top Of The Pops performance inevitable, why on earth would I countenance such thoughts? Better still, the fan club had been given a number of free tickets for the band’s televised Rock Goes To College show at Aston University. “Over 18s!” said the accompanying letter, whilst the two tickets they sent me by return of post clearly stated: “N.U.S. CARDS MUST BE SHOWN.”
None of these warnings managed to penetrate my bubble of delirious teenage optimism. Rummaging in my brother’s draw, I found his old N.U.S. Card, ripped off his picture and stuck my own mugshot in its place. My parents were too busy running a chip shop to stop me from heading into town on the night of the show. All they asked was that I take a friend with me. That was fine. I knew just the person for the job. Imtiaz Ilahi was in a higher stream than me. We didn’t have a huge amount in common, but crucially, he was further into puberty than me. This much I knew because his face was partially obscured by downy weather fronts of fine hair. With his fluff and my cloak of invisibility (the mustard cords) we would surely outfox whatever security system Aston University had in place.
At school that day, I issued Imtiaz with clear instructions. If he had cords too, he should wear them. I was immoveable in my belief that cords were the default leg garment of all men (and quite a few women) in higher education. At the agreed time of 7.30pm (“DOORS OPEN 8.00 p.m. BAND ON STAGE 8.45 p.m.”) we met outside the student union, bewildered that there wasn’t a soul to be seen. Weren’t people excited about this momentous evening? What was going on? Were we even in the right place?
At about 8.15pm, the doors opened. The huge paved area surrounding the university buildings was still deserted, save for me, Imtiaz and three concrete planters filled with soil and litter. It was freezing. I broke a Blue Riband in two and gave the other half to Imtiaz, who I don’t actually recall saying a word all night. Did I look 18? Of course I didn’t. Did the listless student operative appointed to wave people in give a toss who I was, how old I looked or where I came from? Not really. Did his wan friend wearing a security jacket three sizes too big for him care either? Of course he didn’t. We ran across the empty union hall to the barrier, just behind a big BBC camera, and that was where we stayed all evening.
My memories of the evening have mostly merged with the videotaped programme that aired a couple of weeks later. The recollection of a rougher, janglier version of the just-written Head Is Happy (Hearts Insane) remains rooted in the specific events of that evening, as it never made the televised edit. On the night that BBC2 showed the concert, I noticed myself in a panning shot that immediately followed The Bugle Sounds Again. You couldn’t make out my face as such, but it was obviously me, because no-one else leaning against the barrier was wearing a padded cream Marks & Spencer jacket. In my mind, being on TV merely made loyalty towards Aztec Camera a matter of public record.
There’s a poignant irony in the fact that the first three rows at any gig are usually filled with the last people that the headlining act wants to see: the serial attenders; the b-side shouters; the gift throwers; and, in the case of Aztec Camera’s televised 1983 concert, the besotted pubescent gonk mouthing every lyric back at his hero in a bid to prove that no-one on the planet understood this music more than he did. These aren’t the fans you sign up for when you plan your route to immortality. No, these are the fans, I suspect, that hasten the sense of encroaching claustrophobia that comes with any measure of stardom.
Mercifully, whatever chemical tsunami Aztec Camera’s music had unleashed in me would start to dissipate, although not before the release of the next album. With a slick production from Mark Knopfler, 1984’s Knife encouraged a more grown-up response in those who heard it by sounding more grown-up itself. My response to Knife – to rub my favourite lyrics from the album onto the furniture in my bedroom using WHSmith transfer lettering probably wasn’t what Roddy had in mind. If he had emerged from the stage door after Aztec Camera’s Birmingham Odeon show in October 1984, he could have personally let me know. But from the blacked-out windows of the tour bus which ascended the ramp onto New Street, I had no sure way of telling him. That same month, Smash Hits ran a contest to coincide with the release of Knife – the winner of which would win a lithograph of the album’s sleeve. I attempted to maximise my chances of winning by sending in my answer on a postcard which I had painted fluorescent yellow, but the heartless fuckers didn’t take the bait.
Just as I took that personally, I also took the three year gap between Knife and Love much as you might take the extended silence from a girlfriend who moves out of town and ignores all your attempts to contact her. After a while, you get the message and move on. Hence, in 1987, when Love appeared and Somewhere In My Heart took up residency in the top three, I felt happy for Roddy, but also embarrassed. I’d just turned 18. I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with the 14 year-old who had written all those letters, lovingly bordered with hand-drawn fascimiles of the mountain and flower motifs that had adorned early Aztec Camera sleeves.
Like many teenagers who obsess over music to the exclusion of everything else, I ended up writing about it for a living. The irony wasn’t lost on me. Every time Roddy put out a new record, all I needed to do was cook up an angle for a piece, call his PR and arrange to interview him. But if truth be told, that was the last thing I wanted to do. I couldn’t go back in time and leave him alone in 1984, but I could at least do that now.
By 2003, the whole world had pretty much left Roddy alone. Aztec Camera had been consigned to the past and his profile was at its lowest in over 20 years. Timed to coincide with the release of his second solo album Surf, a three-night residency at the Borderline was announced. Had it not been for a call from his publicist on the day of the last show, I wouldn’t have countenanced the idea of going. But a place on the guest list and mere curiosity were enough to send me there.
However, I didn’t put up an argument when the doorman scanned his clipboard and told me that my name hadn’t made it onto the list. I mean, really. What had I been thinking of? Why had I even wanted to return to the scene of so much turbulence? Why do anything to revisit the years of such irredeemable buffoonery? No. This was fine. This was as it should be. “Sorry about that,” I said. “They must have forgotten to add my name.”
As I turned to leave, someone behind me chirped, “Is there a problem?” The doorman looked at me. I looked to see where the voice had come from. “Are you Pete?” he said. I nodded. “I’m Roddy,” said Roddy Frame. He was holding a guitar case with his left hand. His right extended outwards towards me. “Nice to meet you.” “Nice to meet you too,” I spluttered in bewilderment. Roddy turned to the doorman and exclaimed, “He’s alright. He’s with me.” As the doorman waved us both through, Roddy ran on ahead. The whole exchange had last maybe ten, fifteen seconds. But how on Earth did he know it was me? Months later, I asked a mutual friend to find out. “He saw your byline picture in a magazine and remembered it,” came the eventual response. That means that the first person – and there have probably only ever been about ten in total – ever to recognise me from my byline picture in a magazine was my teenage hero.
In that moment, the simmering mortification of decades years quietly died. If it took me a long time to get over what happened to me in 1983 and 1984, that night’s show told me that I wasn’t the only one. These new songs were quite unlike anything Roddy had written for a long time. Surf and Big Ben sounded like battle-scarred chronicles of the adversities portended by High Land Hard Rain. Then he played the old songs, and something I couldn’t have possibly understood at the time happened.
Unremarkable music doesn’t live for long. It doesn’t grow. It hardens in the light and remains exactly as it was when you first encountered it, if anything, perhaps contracting a little. The music you keep coming back to doesn’t do that. It stays alive. It does all the things you expect living things to do. It grows in stature and assumes new shapes with the passing of time. The truths it imparts seem a little more profound with every extra year. Its meanings change too. Sometimes its uses do. A few years ago, when I saw Cat Stevens – now, Yusuf Islam – play Father And Son after thirty years away from the public eye, he sang it “from the point of view of someone who has still a lot to learn from their children.” And indeed, he seemed to treat the song with a gratitude befitting of a gift from his younger self. The Emily that Joanna Newsom sings now is very different to the Emily that she’ll sing at 60. These days, Blur’s Tender is no more about the break-up of two musicians in West London than Hey Jude is about a young Julian Lennon. Both songs have somehow grown to accommodate the experiences of every person who has ever listened to them.
If you write the truest thing you know as a teenager and you write it well, it’ll be no less true three decades later. When Roddy Frame played those old songs, I remembered again why they swept me away. And yet somehow, they still refused to reveal all of their mysteries. I don’t expect Roddy himself will completely understand what prompted him to write We Could Send Letters aged 16; what unholy show of cocksure creativity saw him to play Dylan at his own game so consummately on Down The Dip; why you can hear Oblivious for half a lifetime and still not tire of it. And that’s as it should be.
In your teens, you compose fan letters and you read music papers and write fanzines thinking that you’ll merge with the music and then truly unlock its magic. As an adult, it’s enough to just age together, waiting to see what more there is to find out about each other. He encored with The Boy Wonders: “I even asked my best friend/But he could not explain/It hit me when I left him/I felt the rain and called it genius.”
I’m far from done with these songs yet.
On Sunday December 1, Roddy Frame performs High Land Hard Rain at London Theatre Royal.