Aztec Camera were a Scottish pop/new wave band formed by Roddy Frame, the group’s singer, songwriter, and only consistent member. Formed in 1980, Aztec Camera released a total of six albums: High Land, Hard Rain (1983), Knife (1984), Love (1987), Stray (1990), Dreamland (1993) and Frestonia (1995). The band garnered popular success for the songs “Oblivious”, “Somewhere in My Heart” and “Good Morning Britain” (a duet with former Clash guitarist Mick Jones).
Aztec Camera first appeared on a Glasgow cassette-only compilation of local unsigned bands on the Pungent Records label, affiliated with the Fumes Fanzine run by Danny Easson and John Gilhooly. Fumes and Pungent Records championed several Glasgow bands before they achieved popular success.
The band’s first United Kingdom (UK) single release was sold in a 7″ format by Postcard Records—a Glasgow-based independent record label cofounded by Edwyn Collins and Alan Horne—in 1981. The single featured the song “Just Like Gold” and a B-side entitled “We Could Send Letters”; an acoustic version of the latter song appeared on a compilation album, entitled C81, that was released on cassette in 1981 through a partnership between NME magazine and Rough Trade Records. Frame, aged 16 years, met Collins for the first time during the Postcard period when the latter was 21 years old.
A second single, also released in 1981, featured the songs “Mattress Of Wire” and “Lost Outside The Tunnel”. Following the two 7″ releases with Postcard, the group signed with Rough Trade Records in the UK and Sire Records in the United States (US) for their debut album. At this point, the band was officially a quartet: Roddy Frame (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Bernie Clark (piano, organ), Campbell Owens (bass) and Dave Ruffy (drums, percussion).
Aztec Camera’s debut album, High Land, Hard Rain was produced by John Brand and Bernie Clarke for the Rough Trade record label. The album was released in April 1983 and was distributed in different formats on Domino Recording Co. Ltd. in the US (in addition to Sire); WEA and Celluloid in France; Nuevos Medios, Nuevos Medios in Spain; Powderworks in Australia; MVM Records in Portugal; and WEA for a general European release. The album was successful, garnering significant critical acclaim, and peaked at number 129 on the Billboard 200. Frame later revealed that the song “Oblivious” was consciously written as a Top of the Pops-type pop song and received a corresponding degree of popularity.
During the recording process for the album, Frame used a different guitar for every song. For the song “Orchid Girl”, Frame explained in 2013—during the 30th anniversary tour—that he was attempting to merge the influences of his favorite guitarist at the time, Wes Montgomery, and punk rock icon Joe Strummer. In a late 1990s television interview, Frame explained that a “boy” image was associated with him during this era, and that he was annoyed by it at the time, as he was taking his music very seriously—”you don’t want to be called ‘boy’; especially when you’re listening to Joy Division”—but he eventually stopped caring about it.
After High Land Hard Rain, Bernie Clarke left the band, and was replaced by Malcolm Ross on second guitar and backing vocals. Aztec Camera changed record labels once again for the release of their second album, Knife, which was released through WEA (Warner Music Group).
Frame revealed in a May 2014 BBC radio interview that he was not informed of the ownership arrangements of the record deal, stating that he was unaware as an 18-year-old that the record company would own the rights to all of his corresponding recordings. After High Land, Hard Rain, Frame spent a significant amount of time living in New Orleans, United States (US), listening to Bob Dylan’s album Infidels. Upon reading that Dire Straits‘ guitarist and singer Mark Knopfler produced the album, Frame began writing songs based on a sound that he thought Knopfler could work with.
Frame signed the band to the WEA record label—at the time his manager was Rob Johnson and secured Knopfler as the producer for Aztec Camera’s second album, Knife, which was released in 1984; Frame explained in 1988 that Knopfler was “professional” and efficient during the recording process. Frame’s experimental mindset in relation to music emerged on Knife, as the duration of the titular song is nearly nine minutes and synthesizers appear throughout the album. Prior to the album’s release, the band previewed a selection of songs as part of a performance for the BBC television show Rock Around The Clock and the song “All I Need is Everything” received radio airplay subsequent to release.
In a 2007 interview alongside Collins, Frame explained further-
He’s [Knopfler] a great guitarist. Mark Knopfler’s recording techniques were great—you [Collins] would have liked him, ‘cos that was … then, it was quite a thing. ‘Cos everyone was going digital, and going MIDI and all that, and his thing was all about using the right microphone. If you use the right microphone, then you don’t have to use too much EQ and all that stuff, and it was all about that. Yeah, I kinda liked that—the right mic[rophone], the right amp[lifier], the right kind of board and stuff.
At the time that the band’s third album Love (1987) was created, Frame was the only original member of the band involved with the project; Love and future Aztec Camera albums were written and recorded by Frame under the “Aztec Camera” moniker, and session musicians recorded with Frame on a track-by-track basis.
Frame explained in August 2014 that he contemplated the conception of Love during a three-year hiatus following the release of Knife. Frame said that he moved even further away from the British “indie ethic” and was listening to the “pop end of hip hop”, including artists such as Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Cherrelle, the Force MDs and Alexander O’Neill. Frame wanted to make a record based on such influences and “Working In A Goldmine” was the first song to achieve this aspiration.
Frame relocated to the US to record the album—”pretty much against the wishes of Warner Brothers”, who were unsure of his decision-making at the time—and was primarily based in Boston, Massachusetts, and New York. Frame recorded with American session musicians, like Marcus Miller and David Franke, and explained that his audience was “mystified” by the transformation of the band, but he was “too far gone” to care and just wanted to do his “own thing” by that stage. Due to the significant change of musical direction, the album’s first three singles did not make a strong impression in the marketplace.
The Love album produced the popular song “Somewhere In My Heart”, recorded by Frame with dance, R&B and pop producer Michael Jonzun in Boston. Frame said in 2014 that the song has been “great” for him, but at the time of creating the album, the song was not “in keeping” with the rest of Love. Frame revealed in a radio interview with the “Soho Social” program, presented by Dan Gray, that he considered “Somewhere In My Heart” an odd song and initially thought it would be best as a B-side. Frame concluded, “I can’t pick them [the successful songs].”
Frame was asked during a television interview, following the release of Love, about the new sound of the album, and he referenced artists like Anita Baker and Luther Vandross. When asked if the album could be labelled “Middle of the road (MOR)”, Frame replied: “Call it what you like. I don’t really mind.”
On 21 January 1985, alongside Orange Juice, Wooden Tops and Everything But The Girl, Aztec Camera raised an estimated £18,000 for the striking miners of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) through a fundraising event at the Brixton Academy—the year-long strike concluded six weeks later.
Following the release of the Love album, the band was invited to perform at a benefit concert for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) organisation in the late 1980s. Frame explained in a television interview prior to the concert that he was merely the entertainment and would not deliver any speeches.
In 1990, Aztec Camera contributed the song “Do I Love You?” to the Cole Porter tribute album Red Hot + Blue that was produced by the Red Hot Organization. The proceeds from the album benefited HIV/AIDS research.
The band’s album Love was among the nominations for “Best British Album” at the 1989 BRIT Awards. “Somewhere in My Heart”, the second single from Love, was the band’s biggest hit, reaching No. 3 on the UK Singles Chart. Following the release of the Stray album, “Good Morning Britain” was considered to be a comeback for Frame, as the preceding single “The Crying Scene” had only reached No. 70 in the UK.
Frame changed the band’s line-up numerous times over the course of its existence and, in a 1988 interview, Frame explained that the changes were underpinned by a desire to continually improve the quality of their music; however, he differentiated this desire from “blind ambition”, whereby popular success is constantly sought after. Early members included Owens (bass) and Mulholland (drums). Gannon was a member from 1983 to 1984 before joining The Smiths, while guitarist Malcolm Ross (formerly of Josef K and Orange Juice) joined the band in 1984 and played on the Knife album.
- High Land, Hard Rain (1983)
- Knife (1984)
- Love (1987)
- Stray (1990)
- Dreamland (1993)
- Frestonia (1995)