You may be wondering why I’m reviewing Frampton Comes Alive since it wasn’t part of my plan for the rest of the year.
Well, I’ll tell you why: the Seattle Mariners, Miles Davis and Apple Music.
I had started working on a review of Bitches Brew when the MLB post-season kicked into gear. I was particularly excited that the Mariners had ended their lengthy post-season drought because during my last seven years in the USA I lived in Seattle and attended many of their games. As a baseball fanatic, I prefer seeing the games live, which means dealing with time differences ranging from six to nine hours, thereby disrupting my sleep patterns. The Mariners-Astros eighteen-inning, six-hour marathon wiped me out, but once the last out was made and the Mariners were out of the playoff picture, I decided to pass on the rest of the post-season and get back to something approaching normal. While trying to recover from this self-inflicted act of bodily torture, I realized I lacked the mental mojo to deal with Bitches Brew and thought I’d be better off reviewing something less challenging. So I opened my Music app, navigated to Apple Music and the top suggestion was Frampton Comes Alive.
“Oh, what the hell,” I said to an empty room. “Frampton it is!”
I’ll admit right up front that I have issues with Frampton Comes Alive!
Let’s start with the album title. It gives one the impression that the guy was dead, came back to life as the harbinger of the zombie apocalypse and celebrated his rebirth by achieving orgasm. Frampton’s expression on the cover picture certainly looks like he’s getting a particularly satisfying blow job, tantalizingly close to the moment when he makes a big mess all over some groupie’s face.
It’s also pretty obvious from the interplay between Frampton and the crowd (also confirmed by the many shirtless/open-shirt publicity pix used to market his wares) that he was playing to the chicks in the audience. Frampton could get away with that because he was blessed with the lead singer look of the 70s—a long blondish mane atop a malnourished body. Daltrey, Plant and even the decidedly unattractive Rod Stewart capitalized on that presentation, igniting both latent mothering instincts and naughty desires. While Frampton’s lyrics are pedestrian at best, his songs are loaded with one-liners designed to make hearts and clits go all a-twitter. “And all I do is for you, you, and you, and you” croons Frampton, and you can picture him pointing at randomly selected hotties in the audience, giving them a moment of virtual intercourse with a rock star that they’ll tell their grandchildren about.
And the grandkids will say, “Who the fuck is Peter Frampton?”
My parents attended one of the two shows at Winterland where part of the album was recorded. My mother left after about half a dozen songs because she found the music “boring and predictable” and the crowd “a bunch of silly party-goers.” My never-say-die father stayed through the end, came home and told my mother she missed out on a great show. The evidence indicates that his proclamation was a face-saving move on his part, for Frampton Comes Alive never found a place in his vinyl library.
In this case, my parents were emphatically in the minority, for Frampton Comes Alive! became the surprise best-selling album of 1976, topping the charts for ten weeks. It was so universally popular in the United States that the decidedly un-hip President Ford invited Frampton to the White House on September 8, 1976, at a juncture in the presidential campaign when the polls had Ford lagging fifteen points behind the peanut farmer. The circumstantial evidence indicates Frampton may have had a huge positive impact on Jerry’s fortunes—one month after the rock star paid him a visit, the gap had shrunk to a mere two points. Alas, Carter won in a squeaker, so Peter Frampton will never be known as The Man Who Helped Ford Overcome His Dumb-Ass Decision to Pardon Nixon.
Peter Frampton’s superstar moment proved to be relatively brief. His follow-up album, I’m in You, with the cover revealing his bony body under an open shirt and the insipid title track reconfirming his play to the fairer sex, sold fairly well due to the afterglow of Frampton Comes Alive but fell far short of the astronomical performance of that monster hit. His headliner appearance with the Bee Gees in the laughably awful Sgt. Pepper movie certainly didn’t help his reputation and a near-fatal car accident in the Bahamas shortly thereafter cruelly removed him from the limelight.
When I listened to the record, I figured out that the album was sugar-coated hard rock in about fifteen minutes, but after hearing the whole shebang, two aspects of the record troubled me. One: I couldn’t figure out why a guy with such a beautiful guitar tone and such nimble fingers was pissing away his potential by playing predictable shit. Two: Even though the music wasn’t particularly thrilling, the backing band was first-rate, and I fell in love with bassist Stanley Sheldon. I concluded that these guys were capable of so much more than twat-tingling, no-surprises rock ‘n’ roll and that Frampton Comes Alive represented a felonious act of pandering to the popular and the pussy. While Frampton certainly wasn’t the only rock star to target-market the fairer sex (duh), I sensed something in his approach that felt contrived and unnatural.
I was completely gobsmacked when I began my research and found rock-solid support for my conclusion from a highly reliable source . . . Peter Frampton himself.
In November 2018, Frampton sat down with Stephen Rosen for an interview that appeared in Modern Guitars Magazine. Rosen (a superb interviewer and an electric guitar expert) prefaced the interview with an overview of Frampton’s career that included this attention-grabbing paragraph:
After his breakthrough album, Frampton Comes Alive! [1976, A&M; Records] broke all live album sales and became the biggest selling release in 1976, Peter all but apologized for his success. He was embarrassed by the shirtless image on the April 1976 cover of Rolling Stone magazine and for years after the live record came out, it took everything in him to convince his professional peers and fans that he had not abandoned the guitar in favor of becoming a rock star.
In the interview, Rosen mentioned Frampton’s work with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band and asked him how it felt to perform “Sunshine of Your Love” with Jack Bruce. After some conversation about Jack’s reputation as a super-prick, Frampton recalls what was a very special moment for him:
Peter: But, I heard those same stories. He can be difficult, but so can we all. You know, I’m not gonna say anything. When Ringo told me who was in the band he went, “Simon Kirk on drums” and I went, “Oh, great, I know Simon.” He goes, “Gary Brooker on keyboards” and I go, “Oh, you’re kidding me?” And then, “Jack Bruce on bass,” and I go [In frightened tone], “Ohhh, I hope he likes me.” [Laughs]
But, we hit it off. I mean, I gushed when I met him. I said, “I have so much respect for you. I can not believe that I’m playing with you.” After a few rehearsals he came up and said virtually the same thing, which made me feel like a million bucks, I have to say. Because, I did feel that Frampton Comes Alive removed, the success of it, removed all my musical credibility as a guitar player. And you can’t disagree with me, because of the pop icon I became.
So, to actually be playing with a Jack Bruce and a Gary Brooker and Ringo and Simon, who are all, like, credibility personified, and never had a problem with anything else, to actually be respected openly by these people was a huge, giant leap forward for me since Frampton Comes Alive.
Apparently, Frampton Comes Alive seems to have turned into something of a traumatic experience for the guitarist, as he brings up the subject again after Rosen mentioned his 2007 Grammy-winning instrumental album, Fingerprints:
Peter: To me it was like a different career, the start of something new. And when I got the Grammy for it, to me, it’s just like, “Okay, we’re on a different chapter now,” you know? It’s another career. It’s the credible musician Peter Frampton, again. It just took 30 years to get rid of the stigma of Frampton Comes Alive. I’m not talking about the sales, I’m just talking about the reduced credibility as a guitar player.
My admiration for Peter Frampton went from the low 20s to the high 80s after I read this interview. While a lot of famous people have weighed in on the downsides of fame, few have shown the human vulnerability Frampton confessed to in his conversation with Rosen. I get the sense he wanted to apologize, but despite my so-so opinion of Frampton Comes Alive, I don’t think he has anything to feel sorry about.
Look. The guy was in his mid-twenties when he made the album and twenty-somethings do all kinds of things they regret later in life. Like so many who venture into the music business, he got caught up in the seductive lure of fame and fortune and became a willing participant in the marketing efforts that shaped his public image. He may not have expected the overwhelmingly positive commercial response to Frampton Comes Alive, but he rode the wave of popularity for as long as it lasted. He never thought that making it big could damage his reputation as a musician or sever his relationship with the boy who grew up in a musical family and learned to play (on a banjolele, no less) solely for the love of music.
Almost anybody in his position would have done the same thing. Go ahead—step into the time machine and set the dial to any year when you were in your mid-twenties. Someone offers you a chance to make a shitload of money and worldwide fame by playing music—all you have to do is pull together a few nice tunes and unbutton your shirt (ladies may substitute see-through blouses) and your handlers will take care of all the messy details. Because you’re a naïve twenty-something with limited knowledge of how the world really works, you’re going to take that deal and address any fallout down the road.
As far as Frampton is concerned, regaining his credibility as a musician after the unexpected fallout of Frampton Comes Alive took several years, but eventually perseverance won out. If you’re still a Frampton skeptic (as I was), I suggest you listen to Fingerprints—it’s one damn fine piece of work.
As for Frampton Comes Alive . . . it’s a bipolar experience of some good stuff and a lot of not-so-good stuff.
On the plus side, Peter and the band are working at full energy, giving their devoted fans their money’s worth. The mood is decidedly upbeat, a quality that a 70s audience would have found quite refreshing given the generally dour mood of the 70s. The album was patched together from performances at multiple venues, and as is often the case with live albums, some flaws were corrected in the studio, but the edits aren’t noticeable. The sequencing on the original release feels a bit odd, but I understand that the deluxe edition is closer to the actual playlist. Frampton has a so-so voice but compensates for the genetic deficit by imbuing his vocals with heartfelt intensity. The strongest aspect of Frampton Comes Alive is the tightness of the band, with Sheldon on bass, Bob Mayo on a variety of instruments and John Siomos on drums. Their commitment to giving their all comes through loud and clear in the opening number “Something’s Happening” and remains a constant to the end.
Downsides have to begin with that stupid talk box, a gimmicky bit of low-tech popular with the hard rock crowd. I think the only time I’ve heard it used to great effect was in David Gilmour’s work on “Pigs: Three Different Ones.” Frampton is particularly famous for employing the talk box, and while it may have seemed novel and interesting at the time, it feels decidedly dated today. When Frampton isn’t indulging in this bit of whimsy, he lays down some pretty tasty riffs, though I wish he’d pushed himself a little harder and explored more possibilities on the fretboard (which he does on Fingerprints). As for his acoustic guitar work, I’d mark his report card as NEEDS IMPROVEMENT for Frampton Comes Alive and PRETTY DAMN GOOD for Fingerprints.
Most of the songs are musically dull, using tried and true rock chords in predictable combinations with little variation or augmentation. The melodies are generally pleasant but most aren’t strong enough to stick in your head for long. As noted, the lyrics are generally meh and read like incomplete thoughts with an occasional catchy line or two. I had to laugh when I read this attempt at interpreting the meaning of “Baby I Love Your Way” on Songfacts: “This is a very romantic love ballad. Frampton is telling his girl that he loves everything about her and wants to be with her day and night.” Since that’s the narrative behind THE MAJORITY OF LOVE SONGS EVER WRITTEN, we can safely assert that Frampton wasn’t all that interested in lyrical innovation. Songmeanings.com only features lyrics and fan commentary for a measly four songs from the album, indicating a near-complete lack of fan interest in debating the meaning of Frampton’s lyrics.
Favorite tracks: “Somethin’ Happening,” “It’s a Plain Shame,” “Lines on my Face.”
Least favorite tracks: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (I’m sure Mick and Keith appreciated the royalty checks, though), “Do You Feel Like We Do” (though I give him credit for mentioning Shermans, the best cigarettes ever made), “Doobie Wah” and any other song where he pulls out the talk box.
Though I don’t care much for Frampton Comes Alive, I firmly believe in presenting both sides of a debate unless the other side is hopelessly stupid. Therefore, I will close this essay with a video of Peter Frampton performing “Show Me the Way” at the Oakland Coliseum, complete with open shirt and talk box.
I should be back next week with something a bit more substantial . . . but the Phillies have certainly rekindled my interest in the playoffs . . . we’ll see!