Aztec Camera: High Land Hard Rain - 30 Years On

The Scottish band's debut is three decades old this year, but here's why Roddy Frame's Masterpiece never got the recognition it deserved at the time...
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I used to love John Peel’s Festive 50 shows. The highlight of the year radio wise; a chance to catch a great tune that you might otherwise have missed. And what a year 1982 was; Temptation, Ship Building, The Back Of Love, Revolutionary Spirit, Party Fears Two, Golden Brown, Story Of The Blues, songs I still play to this day.

Tucked in at number 24 that year was a tune by Aztec Camera called Pillar To Post that had me scratching my head, ‘How’d I miss that one?’ Sat in my granddad’s kitchen I wrote the title and band name, new to me, on the back of my geography homework next to Shambeko Say Wah! Remember and resigned myself to a tough week at school. Like a lot of kids I saved my dinner money for more important things like records and football.

Thursday evening I presented myself at the counter of Jumbo records where my request for the two singles was met with a warm smile and advice to purchase another Wah! Single, Seven Minutes To Midnight. They apologized profusely for not having a copy of the two earlier Aztec Camera singles, Matress Of Wire and Just Like Gold, two breathtaking tunes I’ve never been able to track down or afford. Stunned that Aztec Camera were (Postcard) label mates of Orange Juice it seemed all the more incredible that these cheeky scamps could get three singles out and jump to Rough Trade without me, a voracious reader of the music papers, even been aware of them. I’d obviously been paying too much attention to the likes of The Teardrop Explodes and The Bunnymen. I resolved to pay more attention to matters north of the boarder and quickly fell in love with two other guitar bands, Fire Engines and Josef K.

Fast forward to ’83 and while the rest of my school chums, alright, Dave and Jerome, were  falling in love with some two bob outfit from Manchester called The Smiths I constantly flipped my copy of Oblivious over and over (have you heard the B-Side?) while eagerly awaiting the release of Aztec Camera’s debut album High Land Hard Rain.  And what an album it turned out to be.

Anyone who’d heard the early singles knew that singer songwriter, guitarist, arranger Roddy Frame was a bit special; his guitar playing mature beyond his teenage years, his lyrics reading like stand-alone poetry. Even my old man reckoned Frame could ‘Play a bit,’ praise I’d only ever heard him lavish upon Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones. He wasn’t what you’d call easily impressed.

And so to the album, High Land Hard Rain, 30 years young this year which by my calculations makes Roddy Frame about 27.

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Track one is Oblivious, so good they released it twice. One of those songs that heralds the arrival of summer, makes you smile and sounds so simple, like most good pop songs. A bit like The La’s, There She Goes. Listen to it today and just think it’s the work of a young man not even out of his teens. The guitar break at around a minute and forty seconds in, bloody hell.

The Boy Wonders, unofficial title track, what with the High Land Hard Rain refrainFast paced guitars, perceptive lyrics ‘So come Hogmanay when love comes in slurs,’ and Dave Ruffy’s rolling drums.

Walk Out To Winter, the single that should have pushed them into the big time. It’s nothing short of a masterpiece of modern song writing. Again beautiful guitars, no one was playing a guitar even remotely like Roddy then. Aztec Camera had peers, Orange Juice, Prefab Sprout but that was possibly more to do with spirit than style. It wasn’t really until Lloyd Cole and The Commotions released Rattlesnakes that anything out there really sounded at least somewhat similar. And how could you fail with lines like, ‘Faces of Strummer that fell from your wall and nothing was left where they hung?’ Who knows but a chart placing of only 64 suggests the record buying public weren’t quite ready from such beauty. Extra points for turning up on Switch (thanks for the tip Mr Smith ;)) the band resplendent in full Tacchini tracksuits. Football hooligans everywhere scratched their heads.

Clandestine late night assignations, bare flesh and clichés acknowledged, The Bugle Sounds Again, strums along with flamenco like chord patterns and is, sadly, over before you know it.

On an album of such quality it’s hard to pick a high point but, possibly, the reworking of the earlier single B-side (listen to this one and try get your head around the fact it was initially a B-side. Ask your parents kids) We Could Send Letters is it. Roddy, unlike a lot of Scottish singers didn’t sing in an obvious American influenced voice, he had rawness, an honesty and possibly a bit of echo going on, it sounded marvelous whatever it was. Dreamlike haunting epic.

And then we come to Pillar To Post my introduction to the magical world of Roddy Frame. By God he must have had a rough time of it in his formative years, heart breaks and let downs. How can you sound so melancholy so young? I’m still not sure but it struck a chord.

Release pushed into jazz like territory yet still managed not to sound pretentious in spite of mentioning Keats and good few years before Morrissey probably ever even thought about it. And song that steadily builds, speeds and comes to a fantastic organ overloaded climax. Blimey.

Unlike some albums that peter out late on side two (ask your parents), by now they’re really finding their stride. Lost Outside The Tunnel has all sorts of good stuff in it. Percussion that you don’t immediately pick up on, assured bass playing by Campbell Owen (I wonder whatever happened to him?) and guitars that remind me of the great 60s band Love.

As much as early Aztec Camera was all about the guitars it’s the organ playing and gospel like backing singers that really take over on Get Me Back On Board. ‘Get me back onboard pull me up with grace,’sounds like something the Edwin Hawkins Singers might have released. Good, good stuff.

Rounding out the album is Down The Dip (apparently short for Diplomat, the name of an East Kilbride pub) a fine acoustic tune that Roddy would describe as one of his Neil Young tunes.

It’s a truly amazing album, criminally overlooked when magazines do those all-time top 100 album lists to fill pages without putting much effort in around Christmas time each year, worthy of your consideration and time. Right now Sabotage Times are running a special offer; buy the album and if you don’t like it mail your receipt to our office where we’ll refund the purchase price.

Heady praise indeed but I’d say the lyrics on this album rival anything Shane McGowan ever wrote and the guitar playing is matched probably only by Johnny Marr.

Roddy Frame will be touring, alright, playing three shows, with a full band to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of High Land Hard Rain. It might be a good idea to try go along if you like quality pop music.

* There’s a little white lie in there somewhere.

Listen to Walk Out to Winter:

...And We Could Send Letters:

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