❉ This is as comprehensive an Aztec Camera overview as you could hope for, writes Stuart Douglas.
Generally, if you were to be asked to write a review of a nine-disc career retrospective of Aztec Camera, you’d begin by talking about the music scene in early 1983, just before the release of their seminal debut album High Land, Hard Rain. Something about the Smiths, probably, and the fact that the impact of the first time you heard the jaunty guitar intro to This Charming Man was only matched by the first time you heard the two note bass tap and jangly guitar which kicks off Roddy Frame’s Oblivious.
By a trick of release label, however, this otherwise superb box set from Cherry Red omits that debut album, which appeared on Rough Trade, and not WEA (and this is the WEA Recordings after all). It’s not a big deal, really – anyone buying this will already have a copy of High Land, Hard Rain, and if they don’t… Well, get yourself to a record shop and pick up a copy.
But there’s still plenty – and more – to love in this chunky clamshell box. Featuring all five of Aztec Camera’s WEA studio albums, from Knife in 1984 to Frestonia in 1995, as well as two live albums (pleasingly from different ends of their career, and with different approaches – the 1984 Glasgow and London tracks showcase the band’s early work, including an unexpected version of Mattress of Wire from their Postcard single days, while the 1991 Ronnie Scott gig is a much more minimalist affair, with Frame playing guitar alongside Gary Sanctuary on piano and sax, including another, different Mattress of Wire). There’s also a couple of discs of rarities, B-sides, remixes and general oddities, much of which is actually fairly essential (though you may possibly not want to listen to all of the various versions of Good Morning Britain, glorious though the song is).
That’s obviously too much music to go into in huge amounts of detail, but every disc has something to recommend it…
Knife had the unenviable task of following up the classic, pop tune laden High Land, Hard Rain, and at the time, it was viewed as, if not a failure, at least not quite up to the standard of that stunning debut. Described unfairly by Rolling Stone as ‘mostly a drag’, it’s been re-evaluated in the years since, helped to some extent by the inclusion in later pressings of the still wonderful cover version of Van Halen’s Jump (originally a single b-side).
But even without Jump, this is still a cracking record. All I need is Everything, Birth of the Blues, Backwards and Forwards and the titular Knife itself are songs worthy of gracing any album of the period, and it there’s nothing quite as good as Oblivious, well, you could say that about 99% of all records.
Love, which came out a full three years after Knife, had no such critical problems. Somewhere in my Heart was a pop song good enough to banish the ghost of Oblivious, reached number three in the charts and is, perhaps, the song most casual listeners would name if asked about the band. Now with added funk and soul, Working in a Goldmine, How Men Are and especially the gentle Killermont Street are standouts on an album which manages to combine huge commercial success with real artistic merit (bonus points too, for the inclusion of a couple of bonus tracks – a cracking cover of Bad Education by the Blue Orchids, and perennial Labour Party favourite, The Red Flag).
Next up was Stray (one word titles now being the norm for Frame), and it continued the positive upswing in Aztec Camera’s fortunes, with The Clash/Big Audio Dynamite’s Mick Jones producing and adding a bit of bite (and vocals) to tracks like Good Morning Britain and Get Outta London, but not so much that slower, smoother tracks like Over my Head and Song for a Friend are overwhelmed. It’s a fine album, with a variety of different styles on show, which is perhaps both a strength and a weakness from a critical point of view, but there’s no doubting the quality of the songs.
It’s here that I largely wandered away from Aztec Camera, and so the final two albums are basically new to me. Dreamland from 1993 was produced by Ryuichi Sakamoto, of all people, the Japanese Yellow Magic Orchestra/Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence electronic genius but, unlike Mick Jones on Stray, his influence on the album isn’t all that apparent. Perhaps it’s a grower, but on the first few listens, this is minor Aztec Camera, with some decent tracks (Let Your Love Decide and Spanish Horses being standouts for me), and some less essential (Vertigo and Valium Summer, especially). It’s not a record you’d ever regret owning, but neither are you likely to be pulling it out and putting it on all that often.
Rounding off the studio albums is Frestonia from 1995, and this one is a genuine revelation, a crisp, sweet set of Roddy Frame songs which could go toe to toe with anything since the very first album. Produced by famed Madness producers Langer and Winstanley, Frame’s guitar is to the fore, and his singing is as strong as ever, with an energy and brio missing from Dreamland. Highlights for me include Sun and Phenomenal World but there’s not a weak track on here). Also unlike Dreamland, this is an album which will be getting repeated plays in the upcoming weeks.
Making up the rest of the set are two discs of rarities and b-sides which, as is always the way with these sorts of collections, makes for a pretty hit and miss affair. Having the various charity covers the band did is obviously great, as is the live version of Orange Juice’s Consolation Prize, complete with Edwyn Collins on guest vocals, but the plethora of 12” remixes are probably best listened to once and then forgotten about.
All in all, this is as good and comprehensive an Aztec Camera overview as you could hope for (with the obvious caveat that also need to pick up the first album – if you don’t have that, and you decide to be a completist on the back of this set, go for the 30th anniversary reissue from 2014, which is packed with extras). If you’ve any interest in the British indie pop of the early to mid ‘80s and beyond, this is an essential purchase; frankly, even if you’ve only a passing interest, you could do worse than pick it up.
❉ Aztec Camera: ‘Backwards And Forwards – The WEA Recordings 1984-1995’ 9CD Box Set (Cherry Red Records QCRCDBOX112) is available from Cherry Red Records, RRP £44.99.
❉ Stuart Douglas is an author, and editor and owner of the publisher Obverse Books. He has written four Sherlock Holmes novels and can be found on twitter at @stuartamdouglas