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45 at 33: Aztec Camera’s Oblivious

“They say we’re lonely but we’re really just alone.”

Along with New Zealand’s Finn Brothers and his Manchester label mates Manchester’s Morrissey and Marr, crying Scotsman Roddy Frame, the brainchild of Aztec Camera, was one of the lodestars of the Eighties generation of melancholic yet fearless British Empire popsmiths.

Though Frame made an outstanding case for himself as one of the decade’s great pop music auteurs, Aztec Camera has never achieved the recognition that propelled The Smiths and Crowded House to the pop stratosphere.

Talking of which, here’s a real gem: Roddy and Graham Gouldman of 10cc guesting with Neil Finn in London for the In The Round Songwriters Circle series.

A Kiwi, a Mancunian and a Scot walk into a bar and we’re all the better for it.

The interpersonal dynamics and the courtesies of sharing a stage alone are fascinating, never mind that Fall At Your Feet is unquestionably one of Crowded House’s greatest tunes. In temperament, Frame is much closer to the Finns than Morrissey/Marr. His handsome boyish wonder, only occasionally leavened by nostalgia or regret, makes for a sort of anti-Mozza.

If The Smiths provide sweet melodies only to make the medicine go down, Aztec Camera, like Crowded House, can be almost pure saccharine. While it may not be as nourishing or effective as the real meds, it never fails to leave you with a smile on your face and an acute longing for more.

In 1983, Frame was one of the critical darlings of the year with the debut Aztec Camera album High Land, Hard Rain, which was filled with clever songwriting both lyrically and musically. A fact which didn’t fail to escape the attentions of Johnny Marr, who cheekily purloined the famed jangle pop riff of the Smiths’ breakthrough single straight from his Rough Trade comrade, as the guitarist readily admits:

“A couple of days before I wrote This Charming Man I’d heard Walk Out To Winter* by Aztec Camera and I felt a little jealous. My competitive urges kicked in. I felt that we needed something up-beat and in a major key for Rough Trade to get behind. That’s why I wrote it in the key of G.”

It worked… for the Mancunians at least. Inexplicably, despite striking a chord with contemporary young miserables, Walk Out To Winter froze at 64 in June 1983. Summer, as if you didn’t know. Though its status as a seasonal cult classic did prompt Rough Trade, the darling of the indie labels, to reissue the Camera’s single from earlier in the year. 

It’s obvious I’m talking about Oblivious.

Dynamic, funky and very very spunky, Oblivious attains its success through Frame’s sublime construction around an unabashedly erudite sensibility that many well-respected songwriters twice his age had never managed to build. This was maximal, accessible, unabashedly warm and fuzzy pop music not only shirking off any tangible debt to punk but also steering far clear of the swelling tide of the icy synth-wave. 

Amongst the ingredients in the song’s stew are swells of smooth organ, rich backing vocal accents and that utterly irresistible flamenco acoustic guitar. Also, Roddy’s exquisitely rendered Django-fied solo is the astounding work of a man who had been playing guitar for over a decade and was still a teenager. Indeed, the sophistication of the music is particularly striking considering Frame was 15 when he started writing the track, and 18 when he started recording it. And bloody hell, he looks it here.

Frame’s voice is engaging, and it’s also well-assured and in total synch with the record as a whole. Take a listen… remind you of anyone? Oblivious is the song that Haircut 100’s Nick Heyward would have hocked his favourite shirts to record.

Obvious reached No.18 in the winter of December 1983 (the timing of his seasonal singles is a bit off, clearly), and would be only be surpassed in commercial terms by the No.3 placing of the oh-so-slick Somewhere In My Heart (“the runt of the litter,” Frame later dismissed it as) in 1988. But creatively, one of the reasons why Frame has never managed to top the early Aztec Camera material is that his voice sounded better when he was still a kid more or less. He quickly lost the boyishness of those early recordings, and while his considerably more mature voice may be more skilled, it still lacks the charm of the early days.

Plus, obviously, he no longer writes songs like Oblivious and Walk Out To Winter. Doh. 

I freely admit I lost touch with Roddy Frame after that. Indeed, when I found myself in a BBC television studio with him in 1995 — on an episode of Later With Jools Holland with Oasis and David Bowie — the thing that struck me most was not his latest output, but that he was gracious and unstarry enough to applaud Bowie, unlike the Neanderthal Gallagher brothers. Ooh.

A well-mannered and all round decent chap then. It’s obvious.

Steve Pafford

*Frame went on record as admitting that Walk Out To Winter wasn’t without a bit of borrowing anyway: ”The chords to the song are from (Motown’s Marvin Gaye/Diana Ross classic) Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. We were really striving to have a proper rhythm section and make records that had some kind of groove.” 

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