As far as iconic 1970's rock images go, it's hard to beat the album cover of Frampton Comes Alive!, Peter Frampton's massively successful 1976 double live concert album. Curly blonde hair spilling onto his shoulders, awash in hazy stage lights and grasping a Gibson Les Paul, the British Adonis looks off in the distance, lost in the musical moment, and blissfully unaware that he's about to make rock 'n' roll history.
But while a picture paints a thousand words, it was the music on Frampton Comes Alive! that thrilled millions of listeners around the world when it was released on January 6, 1976. It debuted on the charts at 191. Within weeks it reached #1 on the Billboard 200 and held the top spot for a total of 10 weeks. It was the best-selling album of 1976, selling over 6 million copies in the US and becoming one of the best-selling live albums to date with worldwide sales of over 16 million. It turned Peter Frampton into a huge star.
Three songs from the album, "Show Me the Way," "Baby I Love Your Way" and "Do You Feel Like We Do," were released as singles. They became ubiquitous songs of the era, and to this day they continue to receive an incredible amount of airplay on classic rock radio. Ironically, for songs that were so reminiscent of their time, they have truly stood the test of time and continue to reach newer fans across the generations.
What perhaps many don't see in the image of Peter Frampton on that famous album cover, is the passionate, driven guitarist from Beckenham, England who had been working hard at his craft for well over a decade before his breakout success. He began taking classical guitar lessons at eight years old and was performing professionally in rock bands by his early teens. In 1966 he became a successful singer and lead guitarist in The Herd, which scored a bunch of British pop hits. Then in 1969, when he was 18 years old, he joined with Steve Marriott of The Small Faces to form Humble Pie.
While playing with Humble Pie, Frampton's masterful and unique guitar playing began to gain greater exposure throughout the music industry. This lead to session work with other artists, including Harry Nilsson, Jerry Lee Lewis and George Harrison (for the former Beatle's solo album, All Things Must Pass in 1970). Notably, it was during the Harrison session that Frampton discovered the "talk box," which he would later immortalize on Frampton Comes Alive!, making it one of his trademark sounds.
After recording several albums and touring with Humble Pie, Frampton set off on his own. While recording and releasing four albums, including his eventual breakthrough 1975 Frampton album, he developed into an incredible live performer with a loyal and growing fan base. By the time he recorded Frampton Comes Alive!, the bulk of which was recorded at San Francisco's Winterland Arena, he had the songs, the chops, the aura, the following and the right team behind him to become a major star. His appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone after the album came out sealed the deal.
In the years that followed, while the success of Frampton Comes Alive! was a hard act to follow, Peter Frampton focused on what he loved the most – playing his guitar and performing for audiences in a variety of ways. He continued to record throughout the 1980's, but he also began working with other kindred spirits in the music world. He united with David Bowie to collaborate and play on Bowie's 1987 album Never Let Me Down and then joined Bowie's Glass Spider world tour. He later recorded and toured with Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings and Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band.
While he has long been famous for being "Peter Frampton," including sending up his celebrity by appearing as an animated version of himself on both The Simpsons and Family Guy, in 2006 he made the bold decision to release an instrumental album focused solely on his distinctive guitar skills. When Fingerprints won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album, it was an important personal achievement for Frampton.
On the heels of releasing his 14th studio album, last year's Thank You Mr. Churchill, this year Frampton is marking the 35th anniversary of the release of Frampton Comes Alive! with a world tour that features him playing exactly the songs played on that famous night in San Francisco where the album was recorded. 2011 also marks the 35th anniversary of Peter Frampton as an ASCAP member. On a recent break from his tour (which is now being extended due to popular demand), Frampton talked to Playback about his incredible and enduring career and what inspires him most today.
You started taking classical music lessons as a kid. When did the passion to make music come into play?
It's all about addiction and passion in my life [LAUGHS]. They're intertwined. It started when I was about seven or eight — there's actually a song about it on my last album called "Vaudeville Nanna and the Banjolele." I was in the attic with my father getting down suitcases for our family vacation - which would have been 1957 — and I found this little case that obviously had something inside. I asked my Dad, "What is this?" And he said, "Oh, Nanna gave me her banjolele the other day and said we should keep this. 'Maybe Peter will want to play it one day. You can show him a few chords,'" because my Dad played some guitar.
I said, "Well, can we take it down and have a look?" So he taught me a couple of songs on that and I found that not only did I enjoy playing it, but I enjoyed the attention that I now got from my family.
So, the two things sort of came at once and I've been going after people's attention ever since I guess [LAUGHS].
So once you caught the bug to perform, what interested you?
I started listening to the rock and pop music of the time in England. Anything that had an electric guitar on it was all of a sudden extremely interesting to me. We're talking about the beginning of guitars being electrified - obviously it started in the 30's and 40's, but in the 50's it was something that you could actually get hold of. The Stratocaster was started I believe in '55 so it wasn't long before it exploded.
Was it an expensive instrument for you at the time?
God, yeah. My father being a teacher, it was way beyond our standard of living.
Who were some of the first musicians you loved?
The Shadows— they were like the English instrumental Beatles. They were huge. And also The Ventures from America.
In 1958, Cliff Richard and the Shadows started, and by this time I had an acoustic guitar upon which I put a pick-up, and I knew, that's all I wanna do.
I'd come in from school and I wouldn't even say Hi to Mum and Dad; I'd just go upstairs, into my room, shut the door and pick up my guitar. I'd play until my mother would bang on the ceiling of the kitchen with a broom handle and say, "Enough. Bed. That's it." I drove them crazy 'cause it just never stopped.
So that was it. I just wanted to be the best guitarist in the world. It all sort of happened really quickly for me.
The whole youth movement in England was electrified by the new rock music at this time, and with your musicianship, you were able to seize the moment. Talk a little bit about getting into your first bands because you really did succeed in your early groups. Did you want to be a pop star?
No. It was always about being a good player. I got into this band that had the original drummer for the Rolling Stones in it, Tony Chapman. He had been best friends with Bill Wyman, who had always wanted to do Tony a favor. Tony was then in a band called The Preachers and it was made up of some of the best people from some of the top bands that had broken up or whatever. And they asked me. I was the youngest and they'd found me in a music store on a Saturday. They played everything, from Roland Kirk to Otis Redding. We had brass - sax and trumpet - and keyboards, bass, drums and me on guitar. I had to learn all this jazz, blues, pop, rock, everything. It was a wonderful and very stressful, but having to learn all this stuff just opened my eyes to all sorts of different music. So The Preachers were the beginning.
I guess from then on you started becoming well-known for your guitar skills.
Yes. While I was with The Preachers and still at school, The Herd, which was a very popular local band in South London, saw me playing – I was about 14 or 15 years old - and asked me to sit in with them for the summer to replace somebody.
And so I did and I thought this was just a temporary position, but just before I went back to school, they asked me to join the band permanently. And that's when I went to my father who was a teacher and tried to convince him that I should not go back to school and not go to college. It was a hard sell, let me tell you. Eventually my mother -dear old Mum - talked him into it ,and so I joined a rock bank at 16. Within a year we were on TV and we were starting to have hits and everything. So that was the real beginning of this early success.
Did you see it as a dream job?
I've never worked a day in my life [LAUGHS]. I'm proud to say that. I am one of the luckiest people on the planet because if you have a passion for something, whether it be writing or photography or acting or horse riding — whatever it is, a passion for something is a gift. I don't think that the playing and the doing is the gift, I think the passion to want to do it is the gift. And I was very blessed with that, so it's never been work to me. I mean, maybe on a really long bus ride when you're like "Oh God, when are we gonna get there?" [LAUGHS], But it's always been unbelievable to get to the other end of wherever you're going. All my life, there's always been another trip somewhere else and I get to go on stage and enjoy myself. So it's phenomenal.
You joined Humble Pie for a few years and then launched a solo career. I think one of the great themes of your career is that persistence and determination pay off. Before Frampton Comes Alive! became a massive success, you worked hard, recorded and toured for nearly a decade. What was your career strategy in those years?
I'd already seen how the process worked with Humble Pie. They had a tried and tested crew of people who knew how to do it. At that point we were in the FM period of radio so singles weren't as important. It was more about album-oriented rock.
The way to do it we found out was to make the best records we could make that year, or two a year in those days, then go out on tour. We would open for as many huge acts as we could get on the bill with, and with the clout we had, with the management and agency at that point, it was great. So I basically copied that whole strategy, being with the same crew, even after I left Humble Pie.
When you go out and tour, and I'm proving it again, it's the most powerful thing. It's even more so nowadays because word of mouth is not just word of mouth, it's word of mouth on the Internet.
So while anyone can tell you until they are blue in the face that this artist or this film is great, you gotta go see it, until you see it yourself you don't really know. But when your friends tell you, in person or online, to go see someone or something, that's the most powerful thing. We've been doing this Comes Alive anniversary tour and it's definitely the longest tour I've done in decades. We've had to extend it into next year in the U.S. And I think that is largely due to great word of mouth.
It's amazing. If you keep going out there word of mouth is the thing that's always going to give you a boost. You can have a hit single and that's one thing, but to actually go out and play live and make your reputation like that is the best kind of success, and that's what I've always done.
Leading up to the recording of the Frampton Comes Alive! album, you developed yourself as a tremendous live performer, but you also wrote some great songs, a few of which have become timeless classics. What is your approach to songwriting?
I've never been the most prolific songwriter. I know people that just churn them out, you know? I have to wait until I get inspired for whatever reason. I have no idea where inspiration really comes from. I wrote something yesterday, not the lyrics but the music, and it's one of those pieces that starts me on a new journey of writing more songs.
I've been inspired by all the great songwriters and bands and stuff like that, and it all goes in and one day you sit down and you write something that sounds like you. But it's not easy to write a good song and I throw away ideas and whole songs very quickly if they don't turn me on.
I have to get this feeling in my stomach that it's really something special. It's all a gut thing with me. I feel that on every decision that I've made, right or wrong, my gut comes into it.
I've made mistakes, you know, by not listening to my gut. But with songwriting, you just feel "Wow, I really like this." And you become a fan of yourself for that moment, you know, and think, "Well, you did good on this one." If I can't please myself I'm never going to please anybody else. So it's always for me that I write the song, not for anybody else.
Tell me a little bit about the anticipation for the Frampton Comes Alive! album. Was the success that came out of that album a shock to everyone or did everyone feel like it was a moment for you and your career and that it was going to be big?
It was a shock. We didn't expect it to be that huge. We didn't. We were just following the same template as Humble Pie, which had almost the same amount of studio records. With Humble Pie, the audiences seemed to be more interested in us than our record sales were showing, so there was no correlation between the two.
We had been building the word of mouth and the live album, Rockin' the Fillmore, for Humble Pie became our first gold record. It sold 500,000. That was huge for us.
So when we did Frampton Comes Alive!, we thought if this thing did what the Humble Pie live album did, we could have a Gold record. And, of course, it hit that mark in the first week just about. It was a huge shock. No one — least of all me — was prepared for what was to come.
You joined ASCAP as a writer member the same year Frampton Comes Alive! was released. The songs that become popular from that album, "Baby I Love Your Way," "Show Me the Way," "Do You Feel Like We Do," in addition to being monumental classic rock radio staples, have also been used extensively in film, TV and advertising. How does it feel to have your work become part of the fabric of the culture for so many years?
I feel I'm very lucky when people want to use them in films or on TV or whatever, because people know them and it's a memory that people have of a certain time. For these songs to still be used in the media and in films, it's just a testament to how indelible they've been over the years — which still blows me away.
The massive success of Frampton Comes Alive! wasn't an easy act to follow. How did you maintain your perspective as you pursued your career in the years that followed? Well, I took a period off from about '82 to '92, a decade where I didn't really do too much myself. I toured with David Bowie during that period—which was wonderful and that sort of stimulated me back into wanting to do more, and get going again. But, yeah, I think once you've been through something as enormous as Frampton Comes Alive! and the aftermath of it, which held certain drawbacks for me and my career, you have to understand that a pretty face is a pretty face. That doesn't really last that long. I got turned into a pop star with Frampton Comes Alive!. I say this all the time but, it's true: A pop star's career is 18 months to two years and a musician's career is a lifetime.
It was depressing for me that I hadn't done much to help that situation – or stop it. But one picture can turn you into a pop star, and unfortunately there were quite a few pictures of me out there at the time, and I looked good. What can I tell you? It's hard when you're a serious musician but you look good.
In 2006 you won a Grammy for your instrumental album, Fingerprints, which seems like a vindication of everything we've been talking about – staying focused on the passion of making music. What did that award mean to you at the time?
Before that record came out I got signed by my original label, A&M, which Frampton Come Alive! is on, and Universal. And Bruce Resnikoff, the President, said "So, what have you got planned for us?" I said, "Well I'm not sure you're going to actually want me to ink the page here when I tell you… but I'm going to do an instrumental album. They went, "Oh!" [LAUGHS]. Then there was a moment of silence and he went "Yeah, we'd love it. Great. All right." So it wasn't what they were expecting and it was something that I had to do for me. It was a labor of love and I didn't really care whether it sold one record. Well, I knew that Mum would buy one so... [LAUGHS].
So you saw it through...
Then lo and behold… I'm now accepted back as a musician as I was in Humble Pie and all those sessions I did and I'm not the pop star any more. I got two nominations, one for the track, "Black Hole Sun," and one for the whole album. I didn't think I'd get the whole album. But I did. You know, when I went up to receive it I said 30 years ago I got nominated for another one, I didn't get that one. And everybody laughed. They knew it was Frampton Comes Alive!.
But I said I'm very glad to accept this not as the pop star but as the musician. And Larry Carlton came up to me afterward, with his wife. I had met him and played with him in Nashville, and he's pretty much like God when it comes to guitar playing. And he was the first person to congratulate me and gave me a huge hug and I think that said it right there.
It was what I had been hoping might happen. Not a Grammy necessarily, but the perceptions of me getting back in line with who I am. That really did it for me personally. I'm not big on awards but that's a huge one.