Aztec Camera: Four Golden Greats

Aztec-camera-roddy-frameIt all came back to me recently when I heard some church bells in Totnes ringing out the opening bass melody from ‘We Could Send Letters’. Although always one of my AC favourites, I hadn’t heard the song in years.

Cue a period of rediscovery and a realisation that Roddy Frame penned four or five stand-out songs of the ’80s. The guy had it all – intelligent lyrics, guitar chops, classic songcraft, good looks. Arguably the only thing missing was the classic album that his talent warranted.

But no matter: there were plenty of treats anyway. Here are a few:

4. We Could Send Letters (1983)

The low-key beginning builds into an epic, love-lorn pop gem, oddly never released as a single. Though dated by its Syndrum fills and airy production, the song however is water-tight with that lovely hike up into the chorus. An ’80s break-up classic.

3. Oblivious (1983)

Summery, Flamenco-tinged pop gem that reached number 18 in the UK singles chart. Frame works the minor/major thing beautifully (minor-key verse, major chorus), nails a very tricky acoustic guitar part and also pulls off the seldom-achieved trick of writing something that manages to be perennially catchy without being annoying.

2. Deep And Wide And Tall (1987)

Openly states the pressing question perhaps underlying all great pop music: are we going to live together? Roddy and producer Russ Titelman achieve the Scritti groove sought throughout the Love album. A mixture of spine-tingling backing vocals and major-seventh chords fuse to gorgeous effect. Inexplicably reached a lowly number 87 in the UK charts.

1. Working In A Goldmine (1987)

Roddy’s ‘blue-eyed-soul’ period wasn’t an outright success but this shimmering ballad with its fine Rob Mounsey arrangement is a standout. Seemingly about the unknowability of one’s lover (‘We love/What shines/Before our eyes/Why can’t we learn/What hides?’) , it features one of the most sublime middle-eights (or, more accurately, middle-sixes) of late-’80s pop.

Sheila E In Romance 1600: 30 Years Old Today

sheila ePaisley Park/Warner Bros, released 26th August 1985

Bought: Goldhawk Road Record and Tape Exchange, 1989?

8/10

The music biz is littered with successful solo artists who were tempted out from behind the drum kit. Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, Phil Collins, Karen Carpenter, Dave Grohl, Frank Zappa and Iggy Pop all graduated from the engine room to centre stage, and while Sheila has never been on that level in terms of record sales or cultural impact (though trumps all of them in terms of drumming chops), her transition from sidewoman to frontwoman led to a couple of really infectious, interesting albums in the mid-’80s.

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She had an enviable CV long before going solo, including percussion work with Billy Cobham, Herbie Hancock, Marvin, George Duke and Diana Ross. Prince and Sheila were a similar age and had followed each other’s careers since the late-’70s. When he tasted his first mainstream success and was looking to mentor new artists, she was top of the list.

Their first collaboration was the superb B-side ‘Erotic City’, swiftly followed by Sheila’s debut album The Glamorous Life, a hit. But its follow-up, Sheila E In Romance 1600, was a far more expansive and experimental piece, even though recording sessions were squeezed in on days off during the Purple Rain Tour between December 1984 and January 1985.

Despite Sheila’s obvious musical pedigree, Romance 1600‘s liner notes and song credits are misleading – this is a Prince album in all but name. According to biographer Per Nilsen (and as listed at the ASCAP offices), he wrote all the tracks here bar one (kicking Latin/fusion instrumental ‘Merci For The Speed Of A Clown In Summer’) and played all instruments except drums, percussion and sax.

But lucky for us, Romance 1600 was recorded smack-bang in the middle of his golden period and features some of Prince’s finest performances as a musician. His guitar solos on ‘Dear Michelangelo’ and ‘A Love Bizarre’ are simply tremendous, the latter throwing in some ridiculous bass too.

But Sheila also brings out the best in him. There’s much more humour here than on his own albums of the period. She turns in some hilariously hammy vocal performances on ‘Sister Fate’, ‘Toy Box‘ and dramatic ballad ‘Bedtime Story’. Sheila and Prince were having a lot of fun and you can hear the results. Sometimes the rushed nature of the recording shows, though – the mix is very murky and the album is short of a few memorable pop hooks.

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Prince’s ‘movie’ concept was in full effect here. He was leaving behind the ‘street’ style of Vanity 6/Purple Rain/The Time and embracing a romantic, ‘Amadeus’-influenced image which also crossed over into The Family project and his Parade album. Thinking of Romance 1600 as a movie also opened up the album musically, allowing Sheila and Prince to embrace jazz (‘Yellow’), fusion, wacky synth-pop (the title track), Latin and even Third Stream. This eclectic outlook was no doubt also influenced by his Revolution bandmates Wendy and Lisa.

Sheila E In Romance 1600 was a reasonable hit, going gold in the US and reaching number 50 on the Billboard chart, no doubt helped by the success of the ‘Love Bizarre’ single (US number 11). Sheila toured the US for the second time in two years and was even joined onstage by Prince for a few storming versions of ‘Love Bizarre’ – one classic has sadly just been removed from Youtube.

She followed up Romance 1600 with a disappointingly bland self-titled album in 1987, which featured far less contribution from Prince. More successfully, she played some fantastic drums on the Sign ‘O’ The Times and Lovesexy tours – much more on them to come.

Sondheim Meets Springsteen: Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park To Memphis

prefabKitchenware/CBS Records, released 14th March 1988

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1988

9/10

Prefab go Pop. There are big-name guest spots (Stevie Wonder, Pete Townshend), gospel choirs, an orchestra and Deacon Blue’s producer. The lengthy recording period and increased budget certainly paid off; synths and strings glisten, Paddy McAloon and Wendy Smith sound like they’re singing in the room with you and one can hear every nuance of Neil Conti’s tasty drumming.

Steve McQueen producer Thomas Dolby could only find the time to oversee four out of the ten tracks; of these, only ‘Knock On Wood’ sounds like trademark TD. Apparently, once McAloon learned that Dolby would be unavailable for much of the recording, he flirted with the idea of using a different producer for each song. The notion was quickly abandoned but it reinforced the idea that this would be Paddy’s most collaborative project so far.

At the time of its release, Paddy publicly declared that he hated the sound of records being made in the late ’80s and in response seems to have looked for songwriting inspiration from pre-rock’n’roll forms – Gershwin, Berlin, Cole Porter and Broadway musicals. He had also by now made big strides in his keyboard playing, writing all but two From Langley Park tracks on piano.

Consequently, McAloon’s melodies are incredibly daring and original, but there’s arguably a fair degree of musical ‘schmaltz’ in the arrangements too, particularly on ‘Hey Manhattan’, ‘Nightingales’, ‘Nancy’ and ‘The Venus of the Soup Kitchen’, but it’s Stephen Sondheim schmaltz rather than Disney schmaltz. The wonderful ‘Nightingales’ sounds like the score from some kind of futuristic Broadway musical (and the 12″ single is worth tracking down for exquisite B-side ‘Bearpark’).

prefab stevieCBS obviously had high hopes for the album and their faith was paid off in the shape of a hit single, ‘King of Rock & Roll’, and one near-hit, ‘Cars And Girls’, though one wonders how McAloon views those now – I’ll wager with a degree of sheepishness. But I remember being extremely excited to see the video for ‘Cars And Girls’ popping up on ‘The Chart Show’.

Listening back after all this time, it’s From Langley‘s minor, more understated tracks that really stand the test of time. ‘Knock On Wood’ and ‘Enchanted’ could have come from Steve McQueen. The former features a simple, unusually direct lyric from Paddy over a surreal, subtle pot-pourri of percussion and synth effects from Dolby. One wonders what McAloon’s demo sounded like. It’s slight and simple but no worse for that.

Nancy’ is gorgeous, a ‘Brief Encounter’esque tale of unrequited romance in the workplace, possibly inspired by McAloon’s relationship with his fellow Sprout (it doesn’t take a huge effort to imagine the word ‘Wendy’ in place of ‘Nancy’). ‘I Remember That’ sees McAloon in full-on crooner mode, emoting over MOR strings and weirdly-stilted gospel backing vocals. Paddy pokes fun at Springsteen’s obsessions on ‘Cars And Girls’, but then hilariously attempts a four-on-the-floor, Springsteenish rocker ‘The Golden Calf’ which doesn’t quite come off.

It’s hard to overstate the weirdness of the closing ‘Venus Of The Soup Kitchen’, a collision of slick Steely Dan drums, wonky Farfisa organ, distinctly-unfunky vocals from the Andrae Crouch singers and some amusing cocktail guitar from McAloon. It unnerves in a way I’m sure was intended, coming over like a Ken Loach tale told in Broadway-musical style. For better or worse, there’s nothing else remotely like it in the Prefab output.

So, an important, big-selling album for Prefab (reaching number 5 in the UK album charts) and another hugely impressive chunk of songwriting from McAloon. He was in a bullish mood, talking to the media about chart placings and competing with Michael Jackson and Prince, and his purple patch led to an even more cogent and powerful piece of work in the extraordinary Jordan The Comeback, of which more later.

Great Brit Swearing: Ian Dury, David Bowie & Up Yaws

487px-Ian_Dury_1Those of a nervous or sensitive disposition, look away now/cover your ears…

But I must confess: I’ve always had a penchant for good swearing in music. And long before those Parental Advisory stickers, there were some real humdingers.

Ian Dury’s oeuvre was of course an early landmark – his ‘Plaistow Patricia‘ became a kind of forbidden, blasphemous classic as did Marianne Faithful’s coruscating ‘Why D’Ya Do It‘. They both sounded like they really meant it.

David Bowie’s ‘It’s No Game (Part 2)‘ would also have us in stitches. His rather random four-letter word, sung in Iggyish baritone, enlivened many a dull afternoon. Cue the violins…

But then my uncle (it’s always uncles) passed me the following curio and the world of muso swearing was never quite the same again. Initially coming on like a first-rate pastiche of early-’80s UK jazz/funk as played by the likes of Shakatak, its gradual insertion of four-letter words, delivered Barry White-style, never fails to provoke a titter.

It’s puerile, silly and childish, and I absolutely defend it as a valid piece of music… Rumours abound as to who’s responsible – the most likely candidates have emerged as sundry members of The Damned.

And then there’s the whole sub-genre of bands-getting-it-wrong-in-the-studio-and-swearing-alot. The Troggs Tapes are of course the industry standard, but a Culture Club outtake from 1983 recently came to light on a career-spanning box set. We join our four heroes (plus poor pianist Phil Pickett) trying to record ‘Victims’ with the underlying pressures of expensive studio costs, an out-of-tune fretless bass and Boy George/Jon Moss’s corrosive love affair.

Suffice it to say, things don’t go too well. But imagine trying to produce this lot. Come to think of it, producer Steve Levine is possibly the one voice we don’t hear in this clip. Had he given up the ghost or was he all-too-aware of not getting involved and spoiling an audio verite ‘classic’?

(Ed’s note: In their infinite wisdom, YouTube have removed this video. It was obviously too ‘offensive’ for public ears…)