Peter Frampton looks back on the album that made history

Daily Herald Music Critic

If you thought “Frampton Comes Alive!” was just a kitschy time machine to the ’70s, think again.

Sure, it featured the super-extended guitar solos, the musical ballads, the now-stereotypic stage banter (“thank yuuuuuuu!!!!”) and feel-good FM staples “Baby, I Love Your Way,” “Show Me the Way” and “Do You Feel Like We do?”

And don’t forget the robotic “talkbox” gave his voice a mechanical tweak.

But “FCA!” had one more novel ingredient: sales. In 1976, it sold a record 8 million copies (18 million to date), a whopping number for a solo artist and a figure the industry had not witnessed before. Of course, bigger blockbusters (Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”) would follow. But at the time, Frampton ushered rock into the stadiums, bridging the gap between the counterculture of the ’60s and the big business music was becoming.

To mark the album’s 25th anniversary, the set has been reissued with some additional tracks. It follows on the heels of a Frampton resurgence. Although he virtually disappeared from the marketplace in the late ’80s, Frampton has since been touring actively and recently witnessed a renewed interest in his career after Cameron Crowe cast him in an adviser role for his movie, “Almost Famous,” for which Frampton wrote two songs and played a bit part.

He also recently scored a Grammy nomination for a live album (“Live in Detroit”) from this year. And he just started manufacturing his famous talkbox, which he strategically re-named, “The Frampton.”

What follows is an edited conversation Frampton, now 50 and I had recently about his career and the impact of his most famous album.

Q: I don’t think I know anyone over 35 who doesn’t own a copy of “Frampton Comes Alive!” Why do you think that album became so embedded in rock culture?

A: Well obviously there’s no answer to that; one can just surmise, you know. The only thing I can say is … there’s something about me live. I enjoy it so much. Whatever band I’ve been in, it’s always been a performing band. We don’t just come and play our record and leave – it’s a show. You can buy the record. (Frampton’s previous band) Humble Pie, same thing. We were doing better with concerts than with our studio records. It just hit a nerve. We were at the right time, with the right pitch, being a baby boomer with that age group that was ready to receive it at that point. It just stuck with me.

Q: We asked our readers to share their memories of “Frampton Comes Alive!” and they sent in so many eloquent reasons why they still return to that album. Are they getting something from it they can’t find today?

A: Being a musician and being very open-minded about most music, I’m always interest in something new. But I speak to a lot of people my age and the last CD they bought was from 1984. (laughs) It’s sad to me, there’s so (much) great stuff out there, whereas there are a lot of baby boomers that still are very active with their music. But it’s more that aren’t.

Q: Before “FCA!” live albums were never taken seriously. What do you take from playing live as opposed to the studio?

A: I’m in complete control once I walk on that stage. There’s no one behind a pane of glass saying, “that was OK, Pete, but can you do it better?” (laughing) It’s a little demoralizing! I think, for me, I open up (more) with an audience than in the studio. Earlier on, studios were a very scary place, especially for people without experience, which is what I was when I started. It’s a very clinical environment.

Q: But do you ever get tired of being forced to play your older hits again and again?

A: We enjoy doing old numbers because we know the audience likes hearing them. If I went to see The Who and didn’t hear “My Generation,” I would freak out and want my money back. As much as I like Ben Folds Five – they’re a tremendous band – I never quite understood why they didn’t do their big hit (“Brick”). If I don’t do “Show Me The Way,” there’ll be people coming to the show for the first time, always. So they’ve got to (hear) it. That’s my feeling.

Q: Fans are making an investment when they see you, they’re taking that next step after buying the album.

A: Right. If I wanted to do a whole show of (1973 solo album) “Frampton’s Camel” and a whole show of (1972 solo album) “Wind of Change,” I’d advertise it like that. That’s definitely in the back of my mind too – do multiple dates with a different album every night, plus the hits.

Q: Here you were ate age 25 and you released “FCA!” In 12 months, it sells 8 million copies, unprecedented until then. That sudden attention must have knocked you off your feet.

A: The thing was, it was pretty instant. It started big and it never seemed to let up. Basically, we didn’t stop touring from ’75 until ’82. And it was a long tour! (laughs) It was crazy. A lot to enjoy. It was almost like we were watching Peter Frampton go through this as a band. It was like I was two characters. I’m not a whiner, because if you ask for something you better be prepared to get it, and boy did I get it. I’m not going to complain. I probably had three weeks where I had the biggest head in the world and then I came right back tot he ground. It was just excitement for three weeks, when you realize that you’re the biggest thing that there ever was in that particular moment in time. Records were meant to be broken. You lose your privacy, but that was expected so I went along with that. It was nowhere as bad as today, media-wise, because nothing’s taboo anymore. I think I got away with a lot, actually! (laughs)

Q: You were in the middle of such a shift in the record industry, at the time. Did you realize things were changing, that record companies were expecting “FCA!”-type numbers from new albums from then on?

A: Well, I was a part of the change in the business. Companies just realized if one guy can sell this many records, we need to change a lot of stuff. But I don’t think anyone realized that any one artist could really sell that many copies in that time. And it caught them off guard. And that’s when the business became way more corporate. And unfortunately, I was at the beginning of that and started it.

Q: Today, albums are considered failures if they don’t sell several million copies sin one month. Isn’t that the downside?

A: To me, there’s an awful lot of talent that is unrecognized and will not even get one record, and now there’s less of a chance, much less of a chance. I always quote my dear friends (A&M founders) Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss who had an idea of what they wanted their record company to be and never wavered from it one bit. If you didn’t have a hit straight away and they believed in you, they stuck with (me) for four records. Last of the independents, they were called.

Q: Artists really need that nurturing.

A: Yeah they do, because otherwise, I feel, you get copy acts.

Q: For a majority of your career, you had “FCA!” behind you. Was there ever anything you always wanted to go back and tweak?

A: If I could only sing a couple (songs) in tune it could help. (laughs) It’s live, babe, it’s live. We didn’t have (the voice-altering software) Pro Tools in those days. My answer to that is (raspberry). It was pretty much for me a perfect record over a specific night and a couple other nights put together. I still grimace when I hear some of it because, you know, it’s live, there are little mistakes in there. I can go into the studio and make something perfect.

Q: One of the most memorable features of “FCA!” is the talkbox.

A: We’re trying to change the word in the dictionary from talkbox to “The Framptone.” It’s the thing you put in your mouth! (laughs) IT stared when I was very young. When I was supposed to be asleep, I was listening to radio stations under the bedcovers. In England, I listened to Radio Luxembourg, sort of a pirate station in Europe. They sued to have decoderish-like call letters, where they did mechanical voices. And I just loved that sound. And I was doing sessions for George Harrison for (Harrison’s 1970 epic album) “All Things Must Pass.” And I met Pete Drake his pedal steel player. In a slow moment, he got out this little wooden box with a little pipe, plugged the pedal steel into it and then stuck the pip into his mouth and very quietly started talking to me. And I said, “that’s the sound! There it is! Where do I get one of those?” And he said, “I don’t know, but you’re not getting mind.” He made it himself. He had, I think in the ’60s, a couple of big country hits with that. So I went out, it was a search for the holy grail, and I got one of those and the rest was history, so they say.

Q: Your career got kick-started in strange ways in the past few years: on the Simpsons, in “Wayne’s World,” and you were heavily involved in Cameron Crowe’s ’70 rock movie, “Almost Famous.” Why did you, among so many other ’70s rock icons, get rediscovered by a new generation?

A: I’ve never given up. First of all, in 1989, I released “When All The Pieces Fit.” At that point, it did virtually nothing. People were telling me, “your solo career is over, you’ve got to form a band, forget it!” (laughs) I said, “Excuse me, you’re talking to a Frampton here, we don’t give up.”

It seemed like there was a dark cloud because (Humble Pie lead singer) Steve Marriott and I got back together. We started working. We had our ups and downs. We were going to do a record. We had written about half a dozen things, three of which were finished before his untimely death (in 1991). When I lost him, it was like, “I know they told me to give it up, now I start a band and it didn’t work.” From ’91 it was a real slow, laboriously slow year for me. I didn’t want to do anything and I didn’t know if I was going to do anything after that point. In ’92, I thought, “What makes me happy – playing live makes me happy.” And I told my agent, “Let’s do six weeks of clubs and let me get my feet wet” and it turned into nine months. We started out in clubs and ended up in Pine Knob (an arena) in Detroit. It was a real realization to me that there was a terrifically loyal audience out there and I shouldn’t forget them And I guess that saved me. From ’96 on, I’ve been out every year ever since.

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