Frampton Comes Alive! Revisiting the 1976 Classic on its 41st Anniversary
For music fans of a certain age, the image of a golden-haired Peter Frampton grinning out from the gatefold cover of Frampton Comes Alive! will forever be an indelible image. “Live” double albums had garnered success before—the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East and Humble Pie’s Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore spring to mind—but there had never been a phenomenon quite like this one. Selling six million copies during its first year in record stores, Frampton Comes Alive! went on to become the biggest-selling live album in history.
“It was surreal,” Frampton said, looking back years later at that tumultuous period. “It reached the point where I sort of lost my bearings. I told my manager and my record company and my agent, ‘What the hell happens now? How do I stay here?’ I was astute enough to know that the bigger things got, the worse they got, because I had to live up to everything on the next album. I don’t remember a lot of it, not because I took a lot of drugs, but rather because it was too much for the mind to deal with.”
Though he was just 26 years old when Frampton Comes Alive! was recorded, Frampton was already a veteran of the music business. After earning acclaim for his guitar skills in the British bands the Herd and Humble Pie (and for an uncredited appearance on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass), he launched his solo career with the 1972 album, Wind of Change. Subsequent studio albums saw Frampton progress steadily as a songwriter, and while composing material for his fourth solo release, titled simply Frampton, lightning struck in the form of two classics. Both songs—“Show Me the Way” and “Baby, I Love Your Way”—later became high points on Frampton Comes Alive!
“I’ve tried many times to analyze how I wrote those songs,” observed Frampton. “I had gone to the Bahamas—to [Humble Pie frontman] Steve Marriott’s cottage on the beach—to write a new record. Steve’s piano was there, and I had an acoustic guitar, and an electric, and a boom box. For the first two weeks, everything I wrote sounded like rubbish. I was trying to find where I was going, and then one day, before lunch, I wrote the music, the melody, and the first verse and chorus to ‘Show Me the Way.’ I felt I was on a roll, so right after that I started messing around with some electric guitar and piano. As the sun was setting, I was already writing the lyrics to ‘Baby, I Love Your Way.’ It was an amazing day, to say the least.”
As with all of Frampton Comes Alive!, “Show Me the Way” and “Baby, I Love Your Way” teem with a vibrant energy not found on their studio counterparts. Although by then Frampton had become a consummate songwriter and guitarist, capturing the essence of his compositions in the confines of a recording environment had often proved problematic. In the case of a third classic from Frampton Comes Alive!, “Do You Feel Like We Do,” the difference between the live version and the studio version is less extreme, in part because the original version was played live in the studio.
“‘Show Me the Way’ and ‘Baby, I Love Your Way’ just sort of leap out at you, live,” says Frampton, “whereas the way they were recorded in the studio was more introspective. I think that comes from the fact that I’m—not less sure of myself in the studio—but just more under the microscope. Performing live is more like living on the edge, and I tend to thrive in situations like that. In the studio you can do things over and over again, and that’s something I tend to lose interest in very quickly. I’ll never be able to play the same solo twice, for instance. I don’t want to, and I don’t try to.”
As meteoric as Frampton’s rise was in the wake of Frampton Comes Alive!, forces conspired just as fast to bring the whole juggernaut crashing to earth. At the insistence of management, an overworked Frampton rush-released a follow-up, titled I’m In You, that proved disappointing to his new legions of fans. Selling a “mere” three million copies, the album was deemed a failure, and Frampton was subsequently written off by some as a “pop star” rather than as the superb guitarist and songwriter his peers knew him to be. More ominously, Frampton Comes Alive! triggered a seismic shift in the record industry, as profits began to trump artistry.
“I think things became more calculated, in the sense of not only how a record might be marketed, but also in the sense that it was possible to sell that amount of records,” Frampton observes. “Bruce Springsteen has talked about this as well. That album and a few others—Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, for instance—definitely changed the ‘m.o.’ of the record companies. It was a business before then, but it was also a business where new artistic ground was being broken every day. In the ’60s, artists didn’t really care about the money, and the record companies weren’t anywhere near as calculating. People were more concerned with having fun. After Frampton Comes Alive!, a lot of the fun disappeared, and you started to have people running record companies who didn’t like music.”
Frampton continued to release solo albums on a regular basis, but commercially speaking, the next ten years marked a fallow period. A promising reunion with former Humble Pie bandmate Steve Marriott ended tragically when Marriott died in a house fire in 1991.
Beginning in the mid ’90s, however, Frampton began to experience a career resurgence. In the year 2000 alone, he recorded two songs for the Walt Disney Records project Tigger Mania, served as “authenticity advisor” for the Cameron Crowe film “Almost Famous” (and made a cameo appearance in the movie as well) and released a multi-media concert recording titled Live In Detroit. In the years since, building on that momentum, he’s released several acclaimed albums, including the Grammy-winning instrumental record, Fingerprints. He also continues to be an immensely popular figure on the tour circuit.
As regards the sudden fame that engulfed him 40 years ago, Frampton has tended to be philosophical. “It’s very difficult to control your public image when you go from being anonymous one day, and then you’re like a can of soup the next day, where you’re on everyone’s tongues and easily recognizable,” he says. “It really did get to that extreme, when in fact the only reason I ever got into a band at such a young age was because I was a good guitar player. I wasn’t hired for my singing or for my looks — I was hired for my playing. I’ve been knocked down many times in my career, and each time I’ve gotten knocked down I’ve become stronger. For a minute, I think, ‘That’s it. I’m just going to do film music, or maybe do sessions, or produce.’ But five minutes later I’m thinking, ‘No, I can’t do that. That’s not me. I need to play.’”