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Thirty-five years after making the original, Frampton Comes Alive again

With an eight-time multiplatinum live album, three bands and endless studio and performance credits, Peter Frampton has squeezed a lot into his 45-year career. And he shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

By Lee Zimmerman

Few artists ever get the kind of big break that Peter Frampton did when his live double LP “Frampton Comes Alive” first shot up the charts in 1976, eventually earning eight-time multiplatinum sales status from the RIAA. Frampton has made the most of the opportunity, periodically revisiting the name and the spirit of the original, if not the songs themselves.

The most recent effort, “FCA! 35 Tour: An Evening With Peter Frampton,” was released on DVD, Blu-ray and CD formats by Eagle Rock Entertainment in November 2012. It capped a 13-month tour, performing 116 shows lasting at least three hours apiece in America, Canada and Europe.

Frampton Comes Alive

But even if “Frampton Comes Alive!” (and all of its accompanying benefits) had never come to pass, chances are good that Frampton could have retired a very wealthy man, had he chosen to do so. While still in his mid-teens, Frampton became a teenage heartthrob at the helm of the Herd. He gained rock ‘n’ roll credibility alongside bandmates Steve Marriott, Greg Ridley and Jerry Shirley in Humble Pie. After leaving that band, he produced an outstanding string of solo albums well before “Frampton Comes Alive” took off. Add to that a prolific studio career — including his contributions to George Harrison’s epic “All Things Must Pass” — and it quickly becomes clear that Peter Frampton was destined to acquire a place among rock and roll royalty.

Frampton's Guitar Circus

Never one to sit still for long, Frampton is gearing up for Frampton’s Guitar Circus Tour, a 12-date journey that will feature guests B.B. King, Robert Cray and Sonny Landreth. Come October, he’ll head out with Deep Purple for a European tour. Goldmine got Frampton to sit still just long enough for an interview, where he dissected “Frampton Comes Alive,” talked about a new project that involves ballet and explains why the last 20 years of his career have been so fulfilling.

GM: Why do you think ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ continues to resonate with music fans after all these years?
Peter Frampton: I don’t really know. We’ve all got our theories on specific things. For me, it’s just the fact that it’s the best of my solo material, including a couple of songs from Humble Pie. I also think that the ambiance of the performances comes across really well, and it also just captures a specific time period. However, the audience plays a big part of the record, too. It’s just a really exciting album to listen to. You can’t listen to it without smiling. I would never say I was prolific, but at that particular time, from Humble Pie through about five or six years, I wrote the entire album, and that was a good period for me. It was just the best of six albums, including one by Humble Pie, and four or five of mine.

GM: Your first solo albums were spectacular, but at that time, you had a kind of limited fan following. It seemed like it really took ‘Comes Alive’ to bring those albums to the public’s attention.
PF: I think it was a build. I think if we had released a studio record after [1975’s] “Frampton” — that was a 300,000 seller on its own — well, we figured that if I stayed on track, the next one would be even be bigger. But using the same template as Humble Pie had done was what we did. When [Humble Pie’s] “Rock On” came out [in 1971], it was almost on the same level as “Frampton,” sales-wise. We were just breaking through. So Humble Pie made a decision to do a live record after “Rock On,” and it worked. So we thought we’d use the same idea with my solo efforts and do a live record. We didn’t expect it to be as big as it was, but we knew it was going to be bigger than the previous record, and so we had a good feeling about that.

GM: To say it was big is quite an understatement. It became one of the biggest albums is music history. So how did it affect you personally? Here you were, this sort of journeyman musician, and all of a sudden you’re a phenomenon. That must have done quite a number on you, no?
PF: Well it was all a bit surreal, to be honest ... It’s something that very few people have experienced, and you can’t really put that into words. You kind of have to be there to know what that was like. Surreal is the right word. It’s almost like it’s not happening to you, and it’s happening to somebody else, because you haven’t changed, but the world has changed the way they think about you. Lots of people who didn’t know about you now know who you are, so notoriety on that level is a very strange thing (laughs).

GM: It’s got to be an incredible thing to suddenly see your face everywhere and know that now tens of thousands of people are coming to your shows and everybody’s buying your album. It must have been breathtaking.
PF: Absolutely. I was 25 years old when that record came out, and I was at my prime of growing up, basically. Your brain doesn’t stop growing until you’re 30 (laughs), so I was still developing a personality and who I was at that point, so it definitely had a major effect on me.

Peter Frampton Publicity photo by David Dobson

During his 45-year career, Peter Frampton has been in three bands, recorded an eight-times Platinum live album and collaborated with countless musicians. Photo courtesy of David Dobson

GM: So how long did it take before you could put it all in perspective and acclimate yourself to this new status you had attained? Even in the years after, you were being marketed as the Next Big Thing.
PF: Right. It took about three weeks. (laughs)

GM: Three weeks … well that was a quick acclimation period!
PF: No, no, no. I don’t really know. One gets used to the situation. It’s very hard to put into words. You just sort of assimilate into the situation. You really have to be there.

GM: You’ve played these songs for years. Do they continue to resonate for you? Do you still discover new things about them? Do you still enjoy performing them?
PF: Yes. The thing is, we haven’t been doing all the numbers. That’s why this is such a special record. I’ve never done “Something’s Happening” or “Doo Be Wah” with this band or “Nowhere’s Too Far” and things like that. We’ve never done the complete record since we first did it originally. In ’77, we stopped doing it because the next record had come out, and the set list changed. So it was a really great experience to go back and do it just like we did it back then.

GM: I’m curious about your relationship with Steve Marriott in his later years, because at one point, shortly before he died, the two of you tried to reunite and record a new project. According to what I’ve read, he was not in a great state and actually torpedoed the deal.
PF: Steve and I got back together in ’91. It was actually around the time of the first Gulf War. It was a very interesting period. I found Steve, and I went over to England, and we wrote a couple of things straight away in his little place down there. And then we decided he was going to move to California, where I was living at the time, and we’d write a few more and possibly put a band together and call it Marriott-Frampton. Not Humble Pie; everybody wanted us to call it Humble Pie, but that wasn’t what we were going to do. We did around six things, three of which had vocals. Those were finished, and they’re available on different releases that I’ve had. Steve had inner demons like we all do, but he couldn’t seem to put his to rest. As far as working together, I don’t care what anybody does when we’re not working, but when we’re working, I like to keep a clear head, and that was our major disagreement.

GM: Steve originally wanted you to be a part of the Small Faces, correct?
PF: Yeah, that’s right. In fact, that’s why he left in the end, because they didn’t want another guitar player in the band. They didn’t think it was necessary. So Steve left. It was during a period when I was actually doing a whole album with Johnny Hallyday in Paris with The Small Faces as an extra guitar player. Johnny wanted to do some Marriott-Lane songs, and so we went over to Paris for a week, and Glyn Johns, the engineer/producer, asked me to come, too, because Steve had suggested me. I did join the Small Faces for that week, and it was great. It was a phenomenal period for me, that experience. We all got along great. And then, of course, Steve came back from Paris and did one more show with The Small Faces, and then called me up and said, “I left.” And then the following day, the three remaining Small Faces — well Ronnie Lane, actually — called me up and said, “Can we come ’round and see you?” But I knew what was coming. So they came to my little dingy flat in Hammersmith and they said, “Steve’s left. Will you join the Small Faces?” And I said, “Boy, you’re a little late. We could have all been in the same band.” I said, “That’s a huge pair of shoes to fill,” and I was right because it took two people to fill his shoes.

GM: What was so remarkable about Humble Pie early on was the diversity of material that you covered, particularly on the two Immediate albums, “Town and Country” and “As Safe As Yesterday Is.” Even after you signed to A&M, you continued to diversify your approach. Was that an intentional strategy, to go off in so many directions?
PF: I think we had so many different influences, and because it was a very democratic situation in the band, there was no real direction, and we didn’t really care if there was one or not. If someone brought in a song that everybody liked — either they‘d written it or they heard it — we’d consider it. We did “Desperation” by ... what were they called?

GM: Steppenwolf.
PF: Steppenwolf! We did it because we liked it. Jerry [Shirley] brought in that song. Jerry, myself, Steve and Greg [Ridley] wrote together at rehearsals. It wasn’t like we had a master plan, and this is what we’re going to do, and we’re going to be really big and successful. That wasn’t it. We got together because Steve had been in a band where the politics for him didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to be, and I was in the Herd, and that was way too poppy for me. We left our bands to do something where there were no constraints. There were no record labels telling us what they wanted and what we should do. No managers telling us what we should do. Everyone said, “Just go away and do what you want to do,” and that was the beauty of Humble Pie.

GM: You’ve played with so many different people over the years. You’ve toured with David Bowie and Ringo Starr. You were on “All Things Must Pass.” Do you still do any session work these days?
PF: Yes, I do, actually. I just played and sang on a Lifehouse track which just came out. Jude Cole produced it, as he always does. They asked me to play guitar, and then they asked me to sing a verse, and I said, “All right, if you must have me sing on something…” Yes, it was a lot of fun. It was a very sort of bluesy type of thing, and there’s an extended guitar solo, and they kept the entire thing, which I’m very thrilled about. Another project that I’m in the middle of working on is actually a dance thing. I just really liked the melody. I can’t really say what it is right now, because until things are in shrink wrap, I don’t like to talk about it.

Peter Frampton Guitar Circus 2013 tour dates

GM: Speaking of sessions, what tracks did you play on for “All Things Must Pass?”
PF: It was mainly the country type ones — “If Not For You” and the ones with Pete Drake on them. Pete Drake, the pedal steel guy, is the one who introduced me to the talk box on that session. He demonstrated it to me right there in Abbey Road. So there’s about — I can’t remember — but as tracks, laying down the tracks, there were, like, five I think. George got me to come back to the studio to overdub more acoustic guitars, because with Phil Spector, more is more.
George would always call me personally, and he’d invite me to come ’round and be part of the session whenever he wanted me to play on something. So he just called me up and said (adopting Liverpool accent) “Phil wants more acoustics.” So I went back to Abbey Road, and we spent the afternoon overdubbing a dozen or so tracks. I can’t remember what I played on, to be honest, because I was so blown away. In between takes, George and I would jam. And then, they’d put up another reel, and he’d show me the chords if it was one I hadn’t played on, of which there were a few. So yeah, I’m playing on quite a few of those songs, I suppose.

GM: So now, looking ahead, what plans do you have in store?
PF:  Well, the next thing I’m doing is that I’m in the process of actually writing now for the Cincinnati Ballet. Five or six years ago, they did five or six pieces of my music — songs and instrumentals — and choreographed them for one man and one woman dancer. They performed it in Cincinnati, but I was out of town when they did it. About a year ago, I saw the DVD of this performance, and it just blew me away. So Victoria Morgan, who is the head of the ballet, invited me down to meet everybody and watch a rehearsal of what they were doing. They were doing Carmen, I think. They had done one thing before where they had this band called Over the Rhine performing onstage, playing music, and the ballet had performed in front of them. So she asked me, “Would you be interested in doing that?” I said, “Absolutely.” So she said, “Would you tell us which songs we can use from your repertoire, and we’ll decide which ones to choreograph.” And I said, “Great! How much music do you need,” and they told me three 20-minute segments. So I said, “Why don’t we do one of the segments with brand new music? I’ll write completely new music and we’ll premiere it at the performance.” So there will be performances in April.
They just loved that idea ... There are no rules, and I just love that. You can do whatever you want. It’s not like it’s going to be on the radio — not that they play my new stuff on the radio, anyway. It’s a whole new ballgame. So this to me – again, getting back to this era of experimentation – it’s just stuff that makes me feel good when I write it. It’s a great experience. I’m enjoying it very much.

GM: You seem very content these days, given this freedom that you have and ability to diversify and follow your own muse.
PF: Thank you. It’s great, because I’ve never stopped doing new music, and I think that it’s important to do that in order to grow as an artist, whether people are interested in it or not. I’m very lucky, because when I re-signed with A&M/Universal in 2005, they said, “What’s your first project going to be?” And I said, “You might not want to re-sign me if I tell you.” So they asked me what I had in mind. I said, “I’m going to do an instrumental record,” and there was a deathly hush. Then they went, “Oh, I got it. I got it!” And that was my first Grammy, for that. I did it for no other reason than to please myself and to do something I always wanted to do, which was an instrumental record. Everyone asked me if I was sure, and I told them I don’t really care what anybody else thinks. So it really was the beginning of a completely new phase for me. I wasn’t in control of my career for a long time after “Comes Alive,” and that was a whole other era. So now I can do what I want to do, and ever since I started on that — you know, bucking the system — I think it’s come full circle, and I’m the artist I should have been all along — not trying to follow a trend after my career faltered, but just doing what I wanted to do. That’s how things happen, when you’re not trying to copy, and you’re not being influenced by what people think you should do. And it’s been a great period, the last 20 years, you know? GM