The going could be rough enough down in Cork during the mid 1980s, but whenever you wanted to feel thoroughly out of your depth, you’d just remind yourself that Roddy Frame wrote and recorded the first, magical Aztec Camera album, ‘High Land, Hard Rain’ when he was still a teenager. Whatever about the power and blood in the music, and there’s plenty, it was his ability to turn a sharp phrase – ‘And breathless we talked. It was tongues’ – that really highlighted the gulf in class between us.
Roddy, more or less the same age as us and raised in what sounded like similar circumstances in Scotland, dealt with love and regret like he’d been on the international chancing circuit for decades, mixing with the kind of mysterious, ethereal women you only read about in books. Or may have seen, the odd time, parading up and down outside The Moderne during their lunchbreaks.
‘High Land, Hard Rain’, released invariably on the Rough Trade label, the imprint du jour in 1983, quickly become a staple for us and, with ‘Songs To Remember’ by Scritti Politti, Talking Heads’ ‘Remain In Light’ and the two Joy Division albums – all of which I bought, second-hand, in The Swop Shop on McCurtain Street – showed us the breadth of what was out there waiting for us, on the margins and off the beaten track. And the otherworldly singles that under-pinned it – ‘Oblivious’ and ‘Walk Out To Winter’ – were just as urgent to us as ‘Each And Every One’ by Everything But The Girl and ‘Don’t Sing’ by Prefab Sprout.
Indeed, with his battered suede jacket, unruly fringe, smart wordplays and strong, acoustic-powered sets, Roddy shared many basic traits with his peers from Witton Gilbert. And by so doing he provided us with many of our more fundamental reference points as we drove onwards, finding our way.
As soon as we fetched up in college, some of us made quickly for the most pretentious societies on the U.C.C. campus, where our love of good music, bad poetry, corduroy and general carousing was, we thought, bound to help settle us in. And, on paper at least, The English Literature Society lived up to every other cliché :- a powerful platform for emerging thinkers, writers, beard-strokers and lotharios. On full throttle, it was no place for the faint-hearted or the weak-livered.
But the readings, performances and recitals would eventually wind down and we’d head down to The Rock View for the after-show, where the fever of purple prose would engulf the bar and level the pitch a bit. And where, whenever the talk turned to the new, fledgling writers and poets, we’d refer back to Michael Stipe, Morrissey, McAloon and Roddy Frame to find common ground deep in the delirium. We barely knew any better or any differently.
A couple of years previously, Roddy Frame was snapped on the back of the second Aztec Camera album, ‘Knife’, wearing what appeared to be a cape. He’d clearly had, if not a full-body make-over then certainly a stylist’s upgrade and, caked in slap and with his considerable quiff swept up and pinned into order with pools of lacquer, looked for all the world like he’d moved over onto a major label and was now being groomed for, and by, a different market and a different class.
Produced by Mark Knopfler, Roddy’s first album for a major label [Warners], was a considered, bulked-up affair that, with an enhanced budget and very obviously made with more time and space, marked a line in the sand and a transition into adulthood. Both for the writer and for his audience. To those of us expecting another rash of frantic, lo-fi, love songs, it shocked our systems and, as I worked my way through the lyrics and the inlay, a small part of me faded quickly.
But I stuck with ‘Knife’ and I’m glad that I did. I listened to it for ages in tandem with Bob Dylan’s ‘Infidels’ album after Roddy, in one of the interviews he did to publicise his own record, suggested we might. Knopfler had also produced that elpee :- two years after the release of Dire Straits’ remarkable ‘Love Over Gold’, he’d been charged with pulling Dylan back in from the fringes following a run of records made after he’d converted to evangelical Christianity and that, critically, are among the most mixed of his long career.
Knopfler certainly succeeded in making ‘Infidels’ sound as much like a Dire Straits record as it did a Bob Dylan one. With Sly and Robbie in on drums and bass – and Mick Taylor adding guitar – five of the eight songs clock in at longer than five minutes and feature the producer cracking out a series of familiar lead licks. The presence of Dire Straits’ own Alan Clark on keyboards and Knopfler’s engineer of choice, Neil Dorfsman, manning the pumps, gave the record a velvety sheen and the likes of ‘Jokerman’ and ‘Sweetheart Like You’ even found favour with MTV. Five years later, Bob Dylan was a Traveling Wilbury.
Roddy Frame never graduated to the same league but has certainly been as restless in his own way as Dylan has been throughout his career. And this can be seen, on a most basic level, by the producers he’s chosen to work with en route who, as well as Knopfler, also include Eric Calvi, Riuchi Sakamoto, Tommy LiPuma and Langer and Winstanley.
I’ve stayed with him through the decades, producers, humours and hair-dos and I keep going back. Aztec Camera released six studio albums under the cover of the band name and our hero continues to record and issue under his own handle even if, in the great traditions, his audiences have certainly become more selective and its been decades since he’s troubled either the chart compilers or ticket touts.
Prefab Sprout fans know well how this story plays out ;- both bands have long been associated in the popular mind, often with good reason and sometimes not. In much the same way that ‘Steve McQueen’ – with its magnificent, ground-breaking Thomas Dolby production – cannoned Prefab Sprout forward out of the undergrowth and into the more considered end of the adult pop market, so too did Knopfler’s finishing help to move Aztec Camera up through the gears apace. And this was nowhere more obvious than on ‘Knife’s title cut, the album’s lengthy closer that, with its long low-key intro and steady meandering could easily have sat on ‘Love Over Gold’.
But there’s far more. In the same way that both acts started their careers as multi-part groups, history recalls them now as enhanced assemblies realizing one writer’s central vision and various ambitions. They’ve both enjoyed similar commercial trajectories too and, in spite of formidable bodies of work compiled over decades, are best known in the wider markets for a couple of early singles – ‘Somewhere In My Heart’ and ‘The King Of Rock And Roll’ – that are largely unrepresentative and that kick against almost all of their other, more involved material.
Aztec Camera and Prefab Sprout have both long been left behind by what was once a music industry, well and truly deemed commercially unattractive and irrelevant in the newer scheme of things. And yet, like the most stubborn husband, both Roddy and Paddy are still resolutely clinging to their own first instincts – maybe all, ultimately, that they know ? – and continue to knock out the wonder and hey, who knows, maybe preparing the ground for the next coming ?
In the meantime, much of Roddy’s recent work remains in the sidings, left pretty much to its own devices, where it plays to those long converted. And in there somewhere are some of his finest songs, at least three from ‘Frestonia’, his 1995 album and the last released on a major label, four or five from his 1998 elpee, ‘The North Star’ issued on Andy MacDonald’s Independiente label and another handful from his last long-player, 2014’s ‘Seven Dials’ which, had it sold to the same extent that it was critically received, might have burned for longer and more intensively than it did.
‘Seven Dials’, like the two albums, ‘Western Skies’ and ‘Surf’ that preceded it, can be difficult enough to locate too. Unlike the records he issued under the band name, there’s an illusiveness to Roddy’s fully-fledged solo output that only adds to the lustre of the work. Indeed I’d been looking for a while for a couple of those more recent records when I picked up five of the first six Aztec Camera elpees, sold as a cluster, for the price of a packet of twenty cigarettes, instead. It must be the fifth time I’ve bought ‘High Land, Hard Rain’ – in various guises – at this stage. Where do the years go ? Probably to the same place as most of my favourite records.
Perhaps the stars had just stage-managed themselves into order for a reason ? On the week of the sixteenth anniversary of the death of Joe Strummer – whose face fell from a wall on the early Aztec Camera single, ‘Walk Out To Winter’ and whose considerable influence is audible at regular intervals throughout Roddy’s work – it was just an unseen hand at work again ?
The Hi-B bar on the corner of Winthrop Street and Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork can be regarded variously as a quaint local speakeasy known for some of the best spontaneous floor shows in the country or as a holding area for some of the most shameless spoons in Cork. And very often it’s just a mix of both. When I drank there during the 80s and 90s, the sitting-room sized boozer, with its leather-seats salvaged from a vintage Volkswagen, was a genuine one-off. Like The Late Late Show at its peak, anything could happen – and often did – and you were never quite sure who was going to appear next. There was no autocue either and some of the patrons would regularly go off-script and break into song or belt out a verse of a poem from the floor.
To the bar’s credit, I can never remember the old television there ever actually being on, although some of the regulars assure me that, during Ireland’s penalty shoot-out at Italia ’90, it was briefly flickered into life. What I do know is that the unsuspecting post-grad who reached up from the car-seats one night and tried to switch it on to watch the final episode of Twin Peaks, was unceremoniously fucked from a height by Brian, the cranky owner, and presumably banned from The Hi-B for life?
Television and football would have been much too crude for a man of such sophisticated tastes as Brian, whose love of opera and light classical was matched only by his rudeness and the disdain he held for some of his more unsuspecting customers, hapless students usually. Indeed I was there one evening as he made his way out from behind the bar to perform an erratic version of ‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square’ for the handful of hardy locals before curling up on one of the leather seats and falling into a deep sleep.
The English Literature Society crowd were made to feel far more at home in The Hi-B and we were there one night when a poetry reading broke out around us. The material, like the poets themselves, was well-meaning but ultimately grim, brutal stuff, the sort of half-baked, badly-derivative word saladry you’d expect from locals playing to each other. It was after we asked to quieten down for the second time that we taught the better of it and made off.
As was practice, we took the short hop over to The Long Valley instead where, for the umpteenth time, we debated the merits of the finest poets and writers of our time. And where, long into the night, we summoned up the great works – ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’, ‘Rattlesnakes’, ‘The Queen Is Dead’, ‘The Joshua Tree’, ‘The Crossing’ and ‘High Land, Hard Rain’ – to drive our various points home.
It was in around the same part of Cork – upstairs at De Lacy House – where Roddy Frame played an ace solo support slot one night years later. ‘Do the Van Halen song’, someone shouted from down around the sound desk, hoping perhaps for the sweet cover of ‘Jump’ that Roddy had first included years previously on the back of the ‘All I Need Is Everything’ single. And Roddy took a moment, eye-balled the room and answered: – ‘I’m not doing ‘Hot For Teacher’ tonight.
And he didn’t, either.