Frampton Comes Alive
Originally Released: 1976
More than a few decades back it seemed like every high school-aged white kid in America was issued the same five albums. On Long Island, there was a bonus sixth record.
I owned most of them but even if you didn’t you couldn’t escape. None of us could and in certain precincts of the FM dial you still can’t. But the calendar has turned and now that we’re beginning to lose the guys (and they’re all guys) who made these records maybe it’s time to think anew about them.
So I’ll start with the grand-daddy of multi-platinum live albums, released 40 years ago this month. The soundtrack of my freshman year in high school came from mostly two records: Frampton Comes Alive and Hotel California. Then 25-year old Peter Frampton was everywhere The Eagles were not.
If you weren’t hearing those silly talk box-enhanced solos on the radio you were seeing that cover shot (above) , all soft-focus filters and blown out curls. It went on and on, fueled by only three singles unlike the multi-single hysteria of MJ and Bruce eight years on.
You can almost see why punk had to happen.
Nineteen seventy-six was also the year I started getting my ears on. And when you begin exploring virgin territory you tend to stick close to home. Someday I may get around to explaining the challenges I faced in doing that but for now just understand that I found myself like many another young adolescent in an alien, sometimes hostile environment. So it was easiest to go along. At least it seemed so initially.
That meant listening to whatever anyone else did. And in the fall of 1976 that meant Frampton Comes Alive. It’s hard to imagine how big the record was so let me offer not data but an anecdote. My mother knew enough to get it for me for Christmas on cassette tape.
Then I rebelled. I discovered the 1960s first, the 1967-era West Coast scene second. Jefferson Airplane, in particular, captured my imagination (probably my heart and soul, too, at least for a while). Here was something I could sink my teeth into. The energy of anger. Rebellion as politics. Who had time for songs about, well, girls? Because that’s what the hits, “Show Me the Way,” “Baby, I Love Your Way.” and “Do You Feel Like We Do,” are about.
As quickly as I’d started listening to FCA I stopped. And I wasn’t alone. The songs evaporated from the airwaves. By 1978 Frampton was parading around in a pastel-colored 19th century band costume with the Bee Gees, trying to pass themselves off as Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It got so bad that Frampton was an uncredited guitar player on the title song of Grease. Oh how the mighty guitar Gods had fallen.
So why, 5 years ago when the 35th anniversary edition was released, did I pony up a whopping $3.99 for a record that summed up everything wrong about the 70s?
I think I just missed it.
The truth is as I age the things that were once too familiar now seem like lost friends. And my listening habits have changed. Where once the radio blared constantly in rotation now my own library–all 23 thousand songs of it–streams at random. There’s small chance that anything will get played out.
So let’s consider this record anew. Fact is, if it weren’t for the (over)hype we’d recognize FCA for what it actually is–a damn good guitar pop album. The set opens with ‘Somethin’s Happening’ and it sets the bar. Relatively short (there are too many self-indulgent seven-minute plus songs on the record), catchy hook, neat, lyrical solo, chorus you can sing along with. It isn’t The Beatles but it’s a fine example of the form.
Then we settle into an alternating pattern. We get ‘Doobie Wah,’ a song that raises the question of its existence in its stoned-sounding title. Then ‘Show Me the Way,’ almost anthemic by comparison, and still playworthy after all these years. Those opening chords on the guitar just nail what guitar pop should be. ‘It’s a Plain Shame’ continues the solid pop into what has always struck me as the girl’s part of the record.
Anyone who’s read Nick Hornby with a shudder of recognition knows that when it comes to muisc girls are less stupid than boys. Boys are lunatic completists. Girls want the hits about love. And Frampton delivers a triad on what was side two of the LP. Anchored by ‘Baby I Love Your Way,’ it’s an immemorable trio saved, thankfully, by the soaring ‘I Wanna Go to the Sun.’
From there to the end it’s a mix of shimmering pop (‘Shine On’), questionable covers (‘Jumping Jack Flash’) and chart-topping excess (‘Do You Feel Like We Do’). As a bonus, the anniversary record comes with a virtually note-for-not creation of that last song by Warren Haynes. I suppose it’s meant to introduce Frampton to the jam band crowd.
You could honestly do worse. What bogs this record down isn’t its contents. it’s the myth around it that refuses to go away. Just one example: Alec Baldwin, in an intervew wih Frampton on WNYC, sets up a question by showering accolades like “virtuosic guitar playing” and Frampton, seemingly demurring, responds “Sound is very important to me…If I don’t have good sound, I can’t play very well.” In another interview, which I heard but can’t find, Frampton says he’s always been known for his live performances.
Which strikes me as a chicken and egg sort of thing. Yes, I can hear the four remaining Humble Pie fans telling me I don’t know the band’s live record or even body of work. Which is true. But what’s also true is that Humble Pie were always a second tier band, more Savoy Brown or Spooky Tooth than Led Zeppelin. Enjoy them all you want, just don’t try to stick them in the pantheon.
And in the meantime, give FCA another listen. I’m including a Spotify playlist that drops out the parts that don’t work for me but retains two of the three singles. Call it FCA-The Pop Album. As a bonus, I’ve included the Grease title track on the playlist. (And just for fun, I’ve included the film’s animated opening credits–title song included–below. It’s another familiar face that makes me smile)