Peter Frampton Discusses the Winning Formula Behind ‘Frampton Comes Alive’
In the ‘70s, was it possible to be a music fan and not own a copy of Peter Frampton’s live opus ‘Frampton Comes Alive?’
Released in 1976, ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ broke all sales records set by previous live records and became the best selling album of the year, moving over six million copies in the United States alone.
Frampton had been working steadily to build his solo career, releasing four studio albums as a solo artist following his 1971 departure from Humble Pie. The release of ‘Frampton Comes Alive,’ culling a setlist of favorites from those albums as well as selected ‘Pie highlights would be the saving grace that finally made Peter Frampton a household name.
2011 marked the 35th anniversary of ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ and the veteran guitarist hit the road for an evening of music featuring a full performance of the original setlist that ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ had been formed from. A second set featured a mix of newer songs (including songs from his 2010 studio release, ‘Thank You Mr. Churchill’) and additional older favorites.
The tour played to rave reviews and sold out audiences and now has been collected in two distinctly different packages. The DVD/Blu-ray of ‘FCA 35 Tour: An Evening with Peter Frampton’ features footage shot during two shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York City and the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee.
The CD and digital download of ‘FCA 35’ is a different animal, collecting 30 tracks recorded at various tour stops throughout the entire run of shows. Collectively, the audio and video portions of this release present the most comprehensive live documentation of Peter Frampton’s music to date.
We had the chance to speak with Peter about these new releases earlier this week.
Hey Peter, I think it’s safe to say that you’ve been a busy guy lately.
Well, obviously the CD/DVD and Blu-ray came out a couple of weeks ago and I was working on that for a while. Now I’m working on music for a ballet. The Cincinnati Ballet invited me to do an evening (together). So me and the band are going to be playing in April onstage behind the ballet and they’re going to be choreographing over the next couple of months to older music of mine. I’m (also) writing 20 minutes of brand new music with Gordon Kennedy, who I’ve been writing with for, he tells me, 13 years now.
So there will be three 20 minute segments. The first and last will be older music and the center section of 20 minutes will be us premiering 20-25 minutes of brand new music, written specifically for the ballet.
The full album thing can be complicated for some artists, because they’re usually performing a set of songs that they might never have performed in that sequence, which can present pacing challenges and other issues. Did any of that kind of thing come into play when the idea came around to do the idea of doing this show?
Well, one of the things that worked so well back then and also now is that it was our stage act! [Laughs] There goes one problem out the window! It’s something that we’d been building up to with that repertoire, in that order. And in fact, we didn’t do it onstage in the same order as people are used to on the vinyl.
We did it the same way we did it back in ‘75, which was different (than the live show), because the four sides of vinyl restricted you to 20 minutes [per side] and we couldn’t split up certain songs in the same order that it was in. So it was different.
It’s interesting to note that these songs that we regard now as classics, because of ‘Frampton Comes Alive,’ came largely from the four studio albums that came out prior to that. At the time, it must have felt like a good validation of your songs and songwriting, to have those songs become so popular. There must have been some satisfaction there.
Yes, obviously. It basically was a live best of [covering] six years of work, really. That’s what it was. And instead of putting out a greatest hits — we didn’t have greatest hits — so we didn’t realize that we were actually putting out our greatest hits but live…..but they weren’t hits yet. It was just basically the same template as Humble Pie. I just followed to the “T,” what we had done and it worked. Well, we [also] had the same management, the same agency and same everything….and record company obviously as well, Jerry and Herb [Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert from A&M Records].
So I think we didn’t want to mess with a winning formula. I always equate my album ‘Frampton’ to ‘Rock On’ in the stream of events and when that came out and jumped in popularity to all of the others, just like ‘Rock On’ did, everyone looked at each other and went “live album.” I don’t know if anyone said it first [but] it was sort of a foregone conclusion.
Looking at that original live album, what was really the idea behind doing a live record as far as what would be accomplished?
It was at that point, reaching a wider audience. The ‘Frampton’ album sold better than all of the other solo records that I’d had, put together. It was over 300,000 copies, so that was a good signal that we were poised for my first gold record. And again, I just go back to, the time was right at that point. We could get something live out pretty quickly after ‘Frampton’ and strike while the iron’s hot.
In fact, it did take a year, but it just seemed the right thing to do and that was why we did it. It was just a natural decision. We’d done it before with Humble Pie and now we were going to do it again and hopefully we’d get a gold record….we’d move from 300,000 [in the U.S.] to 500,000 and it would be the first one on the wall, for me as a solo artist.
There are certainly a number of songs that have remained in your setlist over the years. What were some of the songs that perhaps were pulled out of mothballs that you really enjoyed playing on this tour?
Well, I’d have to say absolutely ‘Doobie Wah’ and I don’t think we’re putting that one away for a while either!
I agree with that choice!
It’s just the band – it’s just such a great funky tune to play and everyone sort of gets a little bit of a look in on that one. Stanley Sheldon gets a nice bass break in that and I had forgotten how funky that one was. It’s just an enjoyable number to play and obviously, I guess people love to hear it. I would have to say, that was the surprise for me, that one.
The times that I’ve seen you live over the years, whatever the setlist is, it seems like your material is really compatible and palatable when it comes to you putting together a setlist and making it all fit together.
Well, one hopes so. [Laughs]
Are there struggles in that area occasionally?
To pay tribute to a dear friend and a legendary person in the business, we just lost Frank Barsalona, head of Premier Talent. I remember him and Dee Anthony watching one of the first times that Humble Pie came to New York. We opened at the Fillmore for…I think it was Santana, but I’m not sure. We did our 35 or 40 minute set as the opener of the three act show and it went okay. There was obviously a second show that night and we went next door to Ratner’s, the Jewish deli, as everybody did.
We sat down and Frank just said “you know, you should put that Hallelujah [‘Hallelujah, I Love Her So'] song here and move that other one here and I think it will make a big difference” and boy, was he right.
The change of the order of two songs being flipped in an act can be incredibly powerful, the way you build an act. And that was my first lesson….all of ours, first lesson. We’d always ask Frank from that night on, “what do you think?” and he said “you got it now, you got it.” You know what I’m talking about — you just have to build an act from the ground up and you can’t always be peaking. You’ve got to have a beginning, a middle and an end, basically he said. I never forgot that and I don’t think any of us did.
Frank was very intuitive and you know, Dee was great too, obviously in cheerleading the band and always being so positive about how good we were and he was like the football coach. But the reason that Frank and Dee worked so well together I think, was the fact that they both saw different things. They both came from different places and were looking at different things in an act. And you know, I can never thank Frank enough for that.
There’s things that you learn on the way up that are so important and pacing and how to set the tone for an evening and how to keep the audience through that is a very important thing. As far as setting the tone, ‘Something’s Happening’ sticks out as one of those songs that has worked well as an opener for you through the years.
Yes and we hadn’t done it for quite a few years, so bringing that back in, especially with this latest band, which is phenomenal, oh my God. So hearing everyone’s take — it’s just a complete revitalized feel with this band. This band is about five years (old) now, with all of these members, maybe more — except for Stanley, who has only been with us for two years now — but he might as well have been there!
It’s a pretty phenomenal feel we give to the old ones, by paying homage and also, bringing new life to them. People say “well, ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ was great, that band” and I said “yeah, I agree, that band was great and that album is great, but the night before and the night afterwards was two completely different shows.” It’s just that that one night has gotten immortalized and I always want to change. We never play it the same. Obviously, there’s signposts that you reach throughout the songs that you have to get to the next signpost, but in between, there’s so much ad-libbing [and] that’s what keeps it interesting. The rule is to try and never play the same thing twice when you have the freedom to do that in the song.
The DVD and Blu-ray presents perhaps the best live representation of your show on video to date. How did you end up sourcing from two shows instead of just one?
I didn’t feel that we had it with just the Beacon (show, in New York City). At great personal expense (laughs), I went and decided that we needed to do another one and I was right. We had so much more to choose from. There were better moments in Milwaukee. My playing was different and I think that so much is expected….it seems ridiculous really, that it costs so much to film a show and audio and yet you’re doing it for your own love of your fans, because it’s not going to sell.
The sales of concert DVDs and Blu-rays is way down, but I just felt that I’d been asked so many times, “where’s the footage of ‘Frampton Comes Alive’” and I said “there isn’t any.” We had one static camera at Winterland. Bill Graham used to film U-Matic black and white (video) I think it was, of every show. But I believe that that show was one of the ones that went up in smoke when BGP burned down.
So it doesn’t exist and even if it did, it would be such terrible quality it wouldn’t be worth putting it out. So I just felt that this was the time to do [it]. No, I don’t look the same and no, we don’t play exactly the same, but it’s time that there was a visual record of me playing those numbers. So that was the reason for doing it.
I would say that you’re probably a better player now and I think that this film and this album really captures perhaps the most complete overview to date of your music. Since it’s not only the ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ performance, but also the second set, which has a “since then” element to it, with the new material that is included in that set.
Exactly. The idea of that was, when it was put to me, have I ever thought about doing a ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ tour, I said “yeah, but I can’t just play ‘Comes Alive’ — that’s not me — I’m not going to be put into an oldies bracket only.”
I am an oldies act — yes, I am — there’s that part of me, but I am so much more than that. I’ve never stopped making new music and whether the audience wants to hear it or not, I’m going to play it. Because I’m an artist and I create and I’ve got new stuff. It’s like….I’m not comparing myself to Picasso, but I always relate music to visual art as well.
It’s just like saying to Picasso “okay, the Blue period is fantastic — we don’t want to see anything else after that.” But with art and novels and movies — people can go on making….directors, painters, authors, can go on making new, new, new and people accept it, accept it, accept it without the drop of a hat.
But with music, it’s so powerful and makes you think of a time period (that) it locks (the listener into that certain era). When you hear a piece of music that you heard 20 years ago, you are back there. You are there in a flash, quicker than they can do it on ‘Star Trek.’ You’re back there. And that’s what is a help and hindrance to music. People, they fall in love with a certain period of your music, but it’s not human nature to want to accept anything new.
It’s a weird part of the creative arts and it’s the only one where, 10-15 years ago, they started calling the Stones and other big classic rock bands “dinosaurs.” And again, I go back to Picasso — he’s a dinosaur because he got over 70 and he’s still painting works that sell for multi-millions, you know? That’s the only thing that I don’t get. I don’t understand why it is that way.
Sometimes when you mount a tour like this, it brings out a contingent of people who say “oh my God, Peter Frampton is still here.” Did you encounter a lot of that on this run, people who were surprised that you were still out there, making new music and playing shows, even though you’ve never veered from that?
Oh, I still have (that). Everyday, I’ll have the person that will say “are you still making music?” and it makes you flinch a little! (Laughs) You know, the teeth start to grit!
Well, first of all, your fans grow up with you and are there and then there’s those people that are not necessarily fans, but they knew of your music, because they couldn’t help but know because it was so big and it was so in your face everywhere. And those are the people that go “oh yeah, I remember you – are you making music then, still? Are you doing that? Do you still play?” (Laughs) The band and I have a good laugh about situations like that.
Recording a live album and getting it right can be a nerve-wracking experience. One of the aspects of this tour was that you were often recording the shows each night where possible and making the audio available to the fans. I’m aware that you’ve done this before, but as an artist, what’s it like opening yourself up like that? You don’t really have the opportunity to take back a night that’s below your own expectations, do you?
No, you don’t (laughs) and look, it’s live and even on ‘Frampton Comes Alive,’ the original one, I had the choice of what tracks to actually use, because we had more than we needed. So you don’t have the choice [in this case], so it’s a brave move. But I have to say, even our worst night is pretty acceptable as a performing entity.
I make mistakes — we all make mistakes — I forget lyrics. It’s there and some nights are good, some nights are better and some nights are phenomenal. So I’m proud of what I do — yeah, there’s a couple of shows or more than a couple of shows where I’ve wished that maybe that one wasn’t available, but you know, that’s live performing — it’s not perfect.
You obviously can’t make the actual show un-happen either.
No. Unless we were using samples for everything every night and then you wouldn’t want to buy it, because you might as well buy the first one of the tour.
The CD version of this release compiles the best of those recordings from the tour. Were you listening to the recordings along the way with an idea of a compilation like this or was that an idea that came later?
I knew right from the start that I wanted to do a live best-of and I think people are a little confused. They don’t quite understand that the three CD set is not the same audio as the DVD/Blu-ray. Five tracks are [from the same DVD/Blu-ray audio sources], because they were what I felt were the best. But there’s 25 songs that are from London to Montreal, Walla Walla, Washington — you name it, they’re from all over the world.
I bit off a little bit more than I could chew, because there were 116 shows. Luckily, knowing that I was going to do this, we had a three ring binder in the dressing room that was put out every night with the setlist from that night and each band member would go in and mark what they liked and what they didn’t like. When I got that three ring binder back, I went through it and realized that there were 38 shows where we had just written across both sets, “great night” and so that’s where I started. Sometimes we were right and sometimes we were wrong!
But I did start there and there were some pretty phenomenal nights. It still was a very long process. I said I took a year off — I didn’t really take a year off — I’ve been working on this for months. So it was a long job, but if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. So I didn’t want to just have somebody else [and go] “oh, you choose.” No, it’s gotta be from me, otherwise it’s not real.
The tour featured a storybook development that you really couldn’t have written any better, with the reunion of you with your beloved black Gibson guitar. What was it about that particular guitar that you loved so much back in the day?
Well, it’s just because it became the guitar that I used. I got so used to it, whether it was the best Les Paul in the world or a mediocre one. It didn’t matter — it was my guitar. It happened to be a unique sounding Les Paul. I have others that sound better and completely different that I use for different things, but getting that back, when I play those songs — the first time I got it out at rehearsal and played ‘Lines on My Face,’ I had the hugest goosebumps on my arms and I looked around at the band and they all had their eyes closed and were just smiling.
It was like it was back — there was the sound, you know? It’s got a specific sound that you can’t replicate. Every guitar is different. I’ve realized that it doesn’t work for some of the songs that I’ve done, or instrumentals. Like, I wouldn’t use that on ‘Boot It Up’ — it doesn’t have the power. It’s a more dainty sound and a more subtle sounding Les Paul. I’ve got ones that sound like buzzsaws compared to that one and they are more appropriate for something like ‘Boot It Up’ or ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor,’ even though that one was the one that was on the original ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor.’
Are you a guitar collector?
Unfortunately, yes! I don’t have a lot of multiples of guitar types, except for the ones that I use onstage, for backup reasons. But some of the ones that I use onstage are one-offs, you know, vintage ones, because, why not? You can’t think about the value of them when you’re playing them and realizing that this guitar is perfect for this song and is the best possible sound. That’s why I used it on the record, you know?
I’m in a quandary sometimes about which ones to bring out, because I’ve lost a lot in the Nashville flood as well, but that was not on the road — that was in a warehouse. But since the flood, I’ve picked up some beautiful pieces.
Are there aspects of your playing and technique that you’re still working to either explore or improve upon?
Oh my God, you know, I never stop. My motto is that I want to play something today that I couldn’t play yesterday and I hope that continues for the rest of my life. I don’t see it changing. I’m not even talking technically — I’m just talking about melodically or something new that “oh, that’s good” and you get the goosebumps. You go “wow, where did that come from?” Or, I’m listening to someone and I go “wait a second, let me get that one” and I go and buy it on iTunes and download it and then I slow it down. I don’t care who it is — I’ll learn it. I still do that, because I’m inspired by trumpet players, piano players, guitar players – every type of instrument that is playing chords or solos, I’m listening to what they’re doing.