“Grab that Gretsch before the truth hits town”
The man who grabbed that classic guitar was East Kilbride, Scotland born Roddy Frame, and the truth that hit town was that his debut album under the name Aztec Camera, High Land, Hard Rain was a piece of jazzy guitar pop that had class, smarts and teeth. Frame was famously part of the now cultish Postcard label family that included Orange Juice, Josef K and the Go-Betweens, but Aztec Camera was just too promising of a band not to be signed to a label, and so they were for their full-length debut. His backing band left him just before the album’s release, leaving Frame all by his lonesome, which, judging by the content of the forlorn love songs, and also by the continued quality of his future Aztec Camera and solo material, didn’t really matter. High Land, Hard Rain is one of those absolutely brilliant debuts, one that showcases an artist with both immediate musical genius and limitless potential. It’s quite rare that I use the term `guitar god,’ as I find it too often thrown about without merit, but Frame, at only 19 when High Land, Hard Rain was released, truly deserves the title. His acoustic stylings go from jazz to pop to Spanish flavors with each song, and each note is intricately played and placed. His lyrics were smart enough to be considered second only to Elvis Costello. His voice was deep, slightly nasal and with just a little Scottish accent, years before Britpop would become the mode du jour. Along with Paul Weller, Frame can be somewhat considered the godfather of Britpop, but in 1983, High Land, Hard Rain stood in a class by itself.
The album is best known for its opening song, the sublimely elaborate pop classic, “Oblivious.” This opening salvo says everything about Roddy Frame in one song. While the New Romantic and New Wave movements were full steam ahead with Roland keyboards drowning out the competition, Roddy Frame opens his debut album with a pop song based in flamenco guitar. Lines like “I see you crying and I want to kill your friends,” and “They’ll call us lonely when we’re really just alone” resonate with anguish that hadn’t been touched since Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. The song has everything. It’s complex yet catchy, erudite yet accessible, smart and poppy. “Walk Out to Winter,” another single from the album, while maybe not the equal to “Oblivious,” is another piece of pop genius. Again with soulful backup vocals, and inimitable jazz guitar sheen, Frame proves he can write timeless pop classics in any style. He also throws in a coy reference to the Clash as he sings, “Faces of Strummer that fell from your wall.” “The Bugle Sounds Again” and “We Could Send Letters,” the latter being one of his first Postcard releases, ache with anguished love, but none hit as hard as the exquisite “Release.” “I wanted the word, and all I could get to was a gun or a girl,” he sings, before namedropping Keats, three years before “Cemetry Gates.” Frame also shows his wittiness in the catchy, somewhat rockabilly song, “Queen’s Tattoos,” echoing Iggy Pop as he sings, “Here come a million Johnny Yens again.” He then goes on to diss Martin Fry, the lead singer of ABC, and Mills and Boone, trashy romance writers, who all seem to echo the same kind of schmaltzy love stories over and over.
With High Land, Hard Rain, Roddy Frame made himself the subject of many critics’ praise, calling him the heir to Costello and even Dylan. Although he might not have been as popular on this side of the Atlantic as in his native Scotland, his style of music would be just as influential here as there. Other guitar heroes would follow in Frame’s footsteps, virtuosos such as Johnny Marr and Peter Buck, but no one quite captured the genre-hopping acoustic genius of Aztec Camera’s debut album. For those who think that genius might be too strong a word, I point you to the great song, “The Boy Wonders,” in which Frame sings, “I felt the rain and called it genius, called it genius” to which I reply, `me too, Roddy, me too.’
The Smiths – The Smiths
Orange Juice – You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever
The Style Council – Café Bleu