How Peter Frampton Found His Way Again After ‘Comes Alive’
Few artists have experienced the kind of unpredictable career path Peter Frampton has.
His breakthrough album and all-time blockbuster, 1976's Frampton Comes Alive!, made him a household name, but he was hardly a new artist. Frampton had already spent a number of years playing in various bands, as well as releasing his own solo material, but the two-LP concert record proved to be on a whole other level. Its setting had everything to do with it, he says.
“There is an enjoyment that runs throughout that album that I think is palpable,” he tells UCR. “And you can feel it when you put the needle down or put the CD in. ... I think that's why Comes Alive! did go berserk sales-wise ... because there's something that we captured."
Frampton's latest release, Frampton Forgets the Words, takes a look back at multiple points in his resilient career, most of which have little to do with Comes Alive! The new album features instrumental covers of songs originally made famous by George Harrison, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Roxy Music, Radiohead and more. Each was chosen by Frampton as a small way of honoring the relationships he's had with other musicians over the years.
While the rest of the world was often shown Frampton as the pretty face on the cover of magazines, insiders knew him as an exceptionally talented, hardworking guitarist whose style of playing had developed into something special.
It's a singular approach Frampton has been fine-tuning for years, having barely put down his guitar since he was 12. As a kid, he gravitated toward the rocking, youthful energy of bands like the Shadows but also found himself picking up improvisation techniques from his parents' favorite jazz artists, Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt.
“I just wanted to listen to the Shadows, they just wanted to listen to Django Reinhardt,” he admits. “And then suddenly we were both listening to both, and I realized how incredible Django was.”
He eventually expanded his palette to musicians like George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Albert King. In time, he developed a blended style of rock, jazz and blues that set him apart from other young guitarists of the time. “I tried to put them together,” he says. “I think, because of my slightly different style, I think that's why people were drawn to my playing.”
By the time he was 16, he was the lead singer and guitarist for the Herd. Teen magazines branded him “The Face of 1968." Frampton was disheartened - he wanted to be a musician, not a pop star. At 18, he joined forces with Steve Marriott, fresh from Small Faces, to form Humble Pie. For Frampton, it was another opportunity to further develop his style and assert his musicianship. “My stay with Humble Pie was like a thesis on finding your own voice as a guitar player, and I really feel like I did,” he says.
Watch Peter Frampton's Perform 'Natural Born Bugie' With Humble Pie
But it still wasn’t the right fit. Friction in Humble Pie led Frampton to leave the band just before the release of its fifth album, the breakthrough live record Performance: Rockin' the Fillmore. The live LP became their first gold record, and even though he was no longer in Humble Pie, the success wasn't lost on Frampton. After releasing a handful of solo albums (his debut LP, Wind of Change, featured Ringo Starr, Billy Preston and Klaus Voormann), Frampton saw only moderate commercial success. He then decided to take a page out of the Humble Pie playbook.
“I had four solo albums, and the fifth one was a live record,” he notes. “It was sort of a foregone conclusion that I should do the same thing, because my  album Frampton - I likened it to the same template as [Humble Pie's 1971 studio LP] Rock On - it sold over 300,000 copies on its own. So, now I'm grabbing fans, and it was obvious that the stage act would be good to put out there.”
He had little clue what he was in for.
When Frampton Comes Alive!, a double album recorded live at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, was released in the early months of 1976, his world changed practically overnight. It reached No. 1 in April 1976, stayed there for 10 weeks, sold more than 8 millions copies and remained in the upper portion of the chart for more than a year. In the span of a few months, Frampton went from a moderately successful guitarist to one of the planet’s biggest superstars. “That's when I got scared,” he recalls, “because I knew that I'm now competing with only one person: me.”
Listen to Peter Frampton's 'Do You Feel Like We Do'
No artist had ever experienced that level of swift success. Even the Beatles had more time to grapple with their rise to fame and had each other as support. In his 2020 memoir, Do You Feel Like I Do? Frampton quotes Cameron Crowe: “It was like Peter was strapped to the nose cone of a rocket. They shot him out into space, he landed on the moon, he got off and there was nobody else there.” While the album made him a household name, it also reinforced the “pretty rocker” stereotype he'd been trying to avoid and put an enormous amount of pressure on a follow-up.
“I think that if it had just become a gold album, got to No. 19 in the charts or something, it would have been so inspiring that I would have been able to continue to build my career, as opposed to going to the moon,” he says. “And what goes up has to come down.”
For several years, Frampton meandered from project to project, struggling to find his stride. His next album, I’m in You, which featured appearances from Stevie Wonder and Mick Jagger, was a chapter that Frampton described as being “one of the worst periods of my life.” The album did well enough commercially, but Frampton was largely unhappy with the rushed songwriting and the cover art, a “ridiculous” image of him dressed in satin with his shirt buttons undone.
The next few years were particularly unkind to Frampton - his participation in the 1978 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie with the Bee Gees was a flop, and he suffered a near-fatal car accident in the Bahamas just months before the film's premiere. In 1980, the plane carrying all of his tour equipment - including the Phenix, his beloved black Gibson Les Paul - crashed and killed three people. (The Phenix was recovered and returned to Frampton in 2011. The instrument is used on Frampton Forgets the Words.)
Things began to look up when old friend Bowie invited him to play guitar on his 1987 album Never Let Me Down, as well as accompany him on his 1987 Glass Spider Tour, which showcased Frampton for what he really wanted to be: a great guitar player. Frampton eventually started to pick up sessions with various musicians and write music that felt truer to himself. He's played with or earned the respect of nearly everyone who matters in rock 'n' roll - from Harry Nilsson and Roger McGuinn to Pearl Jam and Styx.
Watch Peter Frampton's Perform 'Let's Dance' With David Bowie
"I regained my sense of direction, which I'd completely lost, of what I wanted to do for me,” he explains. “For a while there, I thought, Well, what do the people want? And an artist never thinks that. I'd never thought that before. ... I had lost that sense of self and pleasing myself first as an artist.”
Even so, he’s still grateful for the way Frampton Comes Alive! offered him an enduring connection with fans, and he still hasn't gotten tired playing those famous songs. “It’s still fun, because we don’t rehearse them anymore,” he says. “We don't play them for our own enjoyment. But the enjoyment is watching the audience.”
Especially when he brings out the talk box, which was first used all those years ago to serve as a way of communicating with the audience. “I created this humorous character that is the talk-box guy," he laughs. "That's what we loved about it."
He firmly believes there’s something irreplaceable about Frampton Comes Alive! that keeps fans engaged, no matter how many times they've heard it. And even though his diagnosis of inclusion body myositis (IBM) has forced him to retire from large-scale touring, Frampton plans to continue performing for audiences in some form for as long as he can.
"When I play live, it's a whole other entity," he says. "I walk on that stage, nobody advises me what to do whatsoever. I'm out there on my own. And I do my thing. That's me - at my best and uninhibited.”