By Mike Greenblatt
As a teenager, Peter Frampton was the proverbial “beautiful boy” that female dreams are made of. The ’80s “boy band” concept had nothin’ on The Herd. Frampton, with his long, curly hair and angelic face, was the lead singer and played some kind of mean teenage lead guitar in 1966 ... and it was rock ’n’ roll so good he got to open for The Who within a year. He was 17. And the girls were already screaming.
“I was afraid of Keith Moon,” Peter Frampton admits now, 44 years later.
He had good reason to be. Once, in the dressing room a few stories up, Moon and fellow partner-in-pranks John Entwistle held a petrified Frampton out of the window upside-down, by his legs, just to hear the screams of the dozens of girls camped outside waiting for a fleeting glimpse of a rock star.
By 18, he had started Humble Pie with Steve Marriott of The Small Faces. By 20, Frampton was without a band, scuffling under the radar for six tough years, inexorably getting closer to 30 and not getting anywhere. Still, he made some damn fine music during that down period. Managed by the legendary Dee Anthony (1926-2009), his solo debut in 1972, the aptly-titled “Wind Of Change,” featured Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Klaus Voorman and members of Spooky Tooth and The Herd. He knew these guys and a lot of others, because while with Humble Pie, he also became a session man, playing guitar in the studio with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Harry Nilsson and George Harrison (on “All Things Must Pass” where he learned his signature “talk-box” effect). “Frampton’s Camel” (1973), “Somethin’s Happening” (1974) and “Frampton” (1975) all preceded something so big, it altered the landscape of his life as well as the direction of rock ’n’ roll itself.
In 1976, he recorded “Frampton Comes Alive,” a live double-album recorded primarily at Winterland in San Francisco that stayed No. 1 in America for an unprecedented 10 weeks in a row and hung around the charts for the next 97 weeks. It has sold more than 6 million copies and continues to sell today. Ten years ago, a 25th Anniversary edition included four new songs left off the original release: “Just The Time of Year,” “Nowhere’s Too Far For My Baby,” “White Sugar” and “Day’s Dawning.” Most telling in listening to it today are the screams of sexual tension (thankfully low in the mix, but certainly audible) when he soulfully croons “I don’t care if they cut my hair, all I want to be is by your side, yeah.” With the release of “Frampton Comes Alive,” now being celebrated in its 35th Anniversary by a worldwide year-long tour, people forgot the studio musician, the hard-rocking Humble Pie guitarist, only to focus on Peter Frampton, the super-duper-larger-than-life sex idol.
It was a role he was uncomfortable with from the start.
“My credibility as an artist was lost because of ‘Frampton Comes Alive,’” says the 61-year-old today. “People assumed I was just a teenybopper! I was this person who went No. 1, so all of a sudden, my past history of being a session player, of being in Humble Pie with Steve Marriott, of performing with so many different people, that all went out the window. The general public had no idea! I was thrust into this position as the boy singer. OK, so I did have a couple of well-placed bad career moves, as well. I’ve said it before but this is the crux of the whole thing: It’s that if you are regarded as a teen idol, your career is about 18 months long. If you’re regarded as a musician, it’s a lifetime.”
Frampton is hard-pressed to analyze just what it was about “Comes Alive” (as he calls it) that struck such a nerve. When pressed, he pauses.
“I, uh, don’t really know. No one ever really knows,” he philosophically answers. “When we first listened to the tapes a few days later in Los Angeles at Wally Heider’s studio, I just looked at [keyboardist /guitarist] Bob Mayo (1951-2004), and he looked back at me, and we both knew it wasn’t just volume, there was an energy emanating out of the speakers. What I knew straightaway was that it was the culmination of the best of six years’ work. Look at all the albums that were done in the previous five years! If you take the best two tracks off each, and put them on a stage, you’d have, as we had, almost a live best-of at that point. So I think that there’s that energy that comes off that album that you can’t help but feel it. It’s indescribable. There isn’t a word for it. Some people have said the word ‘magical,’ but I just think that the joy in our passion of playing comes across. It’s something addictive, totally addictive! And that’s been proven by how many generations are still buying that album. I feel blessed and totally grateful.”
Frampton plays the entire album on tour these days — and so much more. The shows have now stretched out to almost four hours a night, which includes a 20-minute intermission. “‘Comes Alive’ is only about an hour and 45 minutes,” he patiently explains, “so we do another complete set, as well. We do the entire album plus the three numbers that wouldn’t fit on the album at that time because it was vinyl. So we do what is known now as the deluxe edition of the album with the three extra songs. And then we take the 20-minute break before doing another hour and 10 minutes or so of whatever, the new, the old, and, of course, covers (George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” The Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash,” Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”). The two sets are reversible. Sometimes, we start with ‘Comes Alive,’ sometimes we don’t. We’re trying to let people know that you better get there at the beginning, because you don’t know what you’re going to miss.
When asked about the mammoth size, scope and geography of the tour, Frampton Comes Alive: “Yeah! And it might be longer still! We’re not sure yet. The response has been really great so we are doing 90 shows — I think it is — up until November, then take Christmas off, then we’ll be starting up again in Australia, New Zealand and points east for a month, I’m sure. We’re working on that right now. Then we’ll come back and do probably another two or three weeks in South America and Mexico. Then we might finish it off by next summer, which would make it over a year solid on the road! Then I am done with ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ for a while!”
For the record, the musicians he’s surrounded himself with night after night are keyboardist-guitarist-vocalist Rob Arthur, bassist Stanley Sheldon, drummer Dan Wojciechowski and guitarist Adam Lester. They’re a crack unit. Tight. Dramatic. Able to jam out tall buildings at a single leap, yet tasty with nary a wasted note. Hey, you wouldn’t think Frampton, after playing for more than half a century, would pick some jamokes off the street, would you? Let us not forget, this is the same boy who, at 7 years old, picked up his grandmother’s ukulele (it was actually a banjolele) and by 8 had taught himself to also play guitar and piano. At school, he jammed with classmate David Bowie on Buddy Holly songs. His first band, at age 10, The Little Ravens, would share stages with Bowie’s first band, George & The Dragons. So this kid grew up in the tradition, so to speak, and now is touring the world with some of the finest musicians around. Got it?
There’s an obvious difference, though, these days.
“People have to carry me around everywhere we go due to my old age,” he jokes. “No, I’m kidding. No drugs. That’s the difference between touring now and back in the day. No drugs, man. That’s the answer to your question. In the old days, we used to rush off the stage after ‘Do You Feel Like We Do,’ get high, come back, play three more numbers, and play them very, very fast! Now, we don’t do that. We all work out. I actually have a personal trainer when I’m away from home via Skype. I have all my bands and ankle bracelets and things, as much as I can travel with, and I won’t do it unless she comes on the screen and tells me to do it. As far as drugs today? Yeah, we do ’em. Only they’re prescription drugs, basically Flomax and Viagra.”
With that, he lets out a hearty laugh, one borne of a healthy appreciation of what he’s been through and what he’s accomplishing every day of his life right now … one day at a time.
“I’ve seen too many of my colleagues die,” he says softly, “yeah, too many,” he repeats almost to himself. “It’s so unfortunate. Rock ’n’ roll, y’ know, was always a genre of music for me, not a lifestyle. Well, uh, I guess, maybe apart for about a year of my life during ‘Comes Alive,’ because you tend to get dragged into all sorts of stuff. Hey, I’m no angel. I think that music itself has been my lifestyle. Anything else would get me to a point of being out of control; then I’d see that I’m doing stuff that’s going to take my music away from me. That is my passion, and it’s what comes first. It’s the most important thing. But it was only 10 years ago now that I made that final realization and sobered up. It gave me, to this day, a feeling of safety. Really. I feel safer about myself. I mean, I’ll never feel totally safe, because I’m still recovering, but it’s definitely a confidence that I get knowing that I don’t drink and I’m not going to do something that would be embarrassing to me and that would hurt other people. That’s the main thing, y’ know? The mornings I would wake up and have to be told I hurt somebody else via car or whatever, I think that was the final thing that woke me up. I think of myself as a caring person and I was not being very caring when I got out of my mind.”
The perception of Peter Frampton The Pop Star into Peter Frampton The Musician came to the fore upon the 2006 release of the all-instrumental Grammy-winning “Fingerprints” album. He’s always been such a damn fine lead guitarist, but for years that got lost in his stardom. “Fingerprints” cemented the deal for him as a respected guitarist. It was the first project he’d ever done sober. It was the first Grammy Award he’d ever won. (“Frampton Comes Alive” lost to “Hotel California.”) He’s joked in the past that “I finally got an award, and it was for not singing.
“Getting a Grammy for ‘Fingerprints,’ for me, definitely, gave me the validation as a musician and not just a pop star,” he says today.
Last year, “Thank You Mr. Churchill” found an even more mature singer-songwriter-guitarist in a philosophical mode of melodic invention, thoughtful lyrics, tasty almost Mark Knopfler-styled understated electric and acoustic guitar playing that he co-produced and is rightfully very proud of.
It’s been a long, strange trip, as the saying goes, and it’s not over yet. After the epic worldwide trek is finally over, there’s talk of a new studio album and possibly a book. Life looks good for the former “beautiful boy” with the long golden locks of hair. The drugs are gone. The hair is gone. But he’s playing guitar better than he ever has in his whole life. And his voice, remarkably enough considering the problematic vocal travails of his peers, is holding up amazingly well. He still sounds like that teen idol being hung from his feet outside a window by that bad boy drummer.