Peter Frampton forgets about those silly love songs

Peter Frampton’s latest offering, “Thank You Mr. Churchill,” takes on a very personal theme. Photo by Gregg Roth

By Peter Lindblad

An album like “Thank You, Mr. Churchill,” Peter Frampton’s latest solo venture, can only be made at a certain point in the life of an artist.

When Frampton was a young, up-and-coming guitar slinger, thoughts of exploring the father-son relationship and other family matters were out of sight, out of mind.

That was a time for songs about girls and falling in love and having your heart broken. That was a time for songs about being young and having fun, rebelling against society … whatever it is that fuels the fires of youth.

But Frampton is no longer the teen hotshot whose dynamic guitar work with Humble Pie belied his years. And so, as he approaches 60, it’s time for Frampton to ponder existential questions, like how he got to this point in his life, while crafting some of the best songs of his career and playing really powerful, fluid guitar parts that simply astound.

“I think it’s just the years are adding up now,” says Frampton. “My children are growing up. I’ve got from a teenager to adult. Mum and dad are gone. It’s all down to me now (laughs). I think it’s been a reflective time. I think being sober — I’m in my eighth year … all these things, that being a very powerful one, add up to me being reflective, sideways, backwards and forwards, all around me and hopefully looking into the future a little bit.”

Tomorrow can wait, though. Now is Frampton’s time to get some things off his chest. And that means sharing his thoughts on all sorts of issues, from 9/11 to the exploitation of children and the crushing impact that has on families and other issues — all of which are explored on Thank You, Mr. Churchill, the title track being a paean to the former British Prime Minister for bringing Frampton’s father home from World War II in one piece. Otherwise, Frampton wouldn’t be here.

“[I’m] always sort of wrapped up in my music and wrapped up and wrapped up, and now still wrapped up, but [I’m] more open to the world, with the little amount of wisdom one hopefully has at this point,” explains Frampton. “I’ve felt a responsibility to leave my mark as a human being.”

Peter Frampton's solo career cracked wide open with the live album “Frampton Comes Alive” in 1976.

Many would argue he already has. The almost unparalleled success of 1976’s “Frampton Comes Alive!” ensured his place among rock’s immortals. The best-selling album of that year, “Frampton Comes Alive!” has sold more than six million copies in the U.S. alone, having spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on the LP charts.

It clung to the charts with a kung-fu grip, remaining on them for 97 weeks. Oddly enough, leading up to that triumph, however, Frampton’s solo career wasn’t generating much steam — at least in terms of album sales. Still, initially, he had high hopes for “Frampton Comes Alive!” He had no idea how big it would become.

We thought audiences were not getting us on record, but they were getting us live,” offers Frampton, who had a hunch the album would go gold. “So we thought gold, 500,000. It sort of did that the first week. I felt like I was in a jet fighter with the canopy off. It was pretty intense.”

With his golden locks, Frampton not only sounded the part of a rock star, but he had the looks, as well. But, like anyone who soars to such heights so quickly, it caught him off guard.

Still, Frampton knew there was some magic in the live recording that made up most of “Frampton Comes Alive!”
“I remember the [show] at [the] Winterland [Arena in San Francisco],” says Frampton. “I’d say 75 or 80 percent comes from that one night. It was a very special evening, because it was first time I headlined in San Francisco or anywhere. Up to that point, I was opening or in the middle spot.”

Getting top billing meant Frampton and his band, which included newcomers Bob Mayo on keyboards and rhythm guitar and Stanley Sheldon on bass, would have to expand their repertoire.

“We had 15 minutes of material, so we had to stretch it up,” recalls Frampton. “We put the acoustic spot in — hadn’t done that at all. I think that was the first time we performed acoustically at all. There was so much to think about that I couldn’t think about anything. It just sort of came out, and we had fun in the end. The ovation was so amazing, and it put us so at ease. It was one of these special nights where you go, jeez, I wish we’d recorded that. Well, we did.”

Of course, even though it might not seem that way, Frampton did have a life before “Frampton Comes Alive!” The son of a school teacher, Frampton grew up in a lower middle-class household.

“We had enough for us to go on vacation,” says Frampton. “We never wanted for anything.”

Like father, like son, Frampton’s dad was, as he says, “a workaholic.”

“That was whether it was during the day teaching, and then at night designing fabric, wallpaper … whatever, he would sell designs,” says Frampton. “They’d pay far too little, but would pay to go wherever we wanted on summer vacation in England. When I got my first guitar — I guess it was written I should play (laughs). [Dad was] always encouraging. I’m sure I was exasperating, my workaholic ways. Dad would be like, ‘Shut up and go to bed.’”

Not only did Frampton’s father bring home the bacon, but he also watched out for his talented boy.

“When the band I was in wanted to go professional, they were 16 and I was 12,” Frampton relates. “Dad said, ‘No.’ That was the only time he put his foot down. I was 16 when I joined the band The Herd. He made sure that I got paid the minimum wage, so he did my first deal. In fact, it’s a funny story. A lot of weeks, they couldn’t afford to pay themselves — 16 pounds a week. Lot of weeks, they couldn’t afford to pay themselves that.”

Eventually, Frampton’s guitar prowess would command a bigger price. At 18, he left The Herd to form Humble Pie with Small Faces’ expatriate Steve Marriott in early 1969. It was Marriott who really saw in Frampton more substance as a guitar player than flashy licks.

“I have to credit Steve with seeing that I was developing a guitar style that was a little different than others during that period, where it wasn’t purely blues-rock based,” says Frampton. “It was more lyrical, jazz-rock based. Jerry Shirley was writing a book, the definitive Humble Pie book, and he said when Steve first told him about me, he said ‘He’s good, because he doesn’t play like everybody else,’ which is a great compliment I find all these years later.”

Over the span of five albums, Humble Pie unleashed a gritty, rough-and-tumble blues-rock that took no prisoners.

“I was so proud of Humble Pie,” Frampton says. “To get to play with Steve was amazing. Betweeen the two of us, his more angular, blues-rock side, tinged with R&B … an R&B singer over rock riffs, combined with my more lyrical, jazz side, my melodic side. It was so different, but it fit really well together. Then Jerry, the perfect drummer, in the Kenney Jones-style from The Faces … it’s hard to put into words what made it Humble Pie.”

Frampton went off on his own in 1971, leaving Humble Pie just as their “Rockin’ The Fillmore”powered up the charts. He would gig hard for three years with former Herd keyboardist Andy Bown, Rick Wills on bass and American drummer John Siomos. However, solo albums like “Wind of Change” in 1972, “Frampton’s Camel” in 1973, “Something’s Happening” in 1974 and the 1975 “Frampton” album didn’t make much of an impact on the charts.

“Frampton Comes Alive!” changed everything, but he was never able to duplicate its single-minded march to the top. With his latest album, sales figures don’t matter much. Instead, Frampton accomplished a couple things. He got to show off his love of Motown with the song “Invisible Man,” and he was able to address issues that were important to him, like protecting children, which he addresses in “Asleep At The Wheel.”

“You can’t change everything,” says Frampton, who, nearing 60, has a 14-year-old daughter now. “I probably can’t change anything, but I do my best to try. Occasionally, I’ll shoot my mouth off on Facebook; some agree with me, some absolutely do not agree. I’ve come to a point in my life where I have an opinion. I don’t think because I have an audience I have to use it. It’s just when there’s something I feel strongly about, I speak my mind. That should be the world’s Constitution, that one can speak one’s mind.”

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