When Frampton Came Alive
Peter Frampton was a talented guitarist, a solid songwriter, and a decent singer. He had a handsome face and long blonde curly hair. For a moment he was the biggest rock star on earth.
He grew up in the London borough of Bromley. His grandmother gave him his first musical instrument, a banjolele, when he was seven. He went to the same school as David Bowie and left at age sixteen to join The Herd, a band that ended up having three hits on the U.K. charts.
I was an eleven-year-old music fan in New Jersey when Frampton put out his breakthrough work, “Frampton Comes Alive!” It was a double album, recorded live, and it moved steadily up the charts in the early months of 1976, reaching №1 in April. It held that spot for ten weeks on its way to selling eight million copies.
“Show Me the Way,” an uptempo love song with a loose feel, was the first single. The melody and the hooks were what got me when I heard it on the car radio. And like everybody else I was entranced by the “talk box” effect Frampton used for a riff that began, “Waaoah—wah-wah-wah-wah-wah.”
Unlike certain songs I had grown to love only after multiple listens (Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” Paul McCartney’s “Junior’s Farm,” and Bowie’s “Fame” come to mind), “Show Me the Way” was immediately likable—and yet I didn’t get sick of it as the months went by.
The second single was the strummy and romantic “Baby, I Love Your Way,” a ballad Frampton had written on the same day he came up with “Show Me the Way.” While pop stations played those two songs into the summer, rock radio went with “Do You Feel Like We Do?”, a fourteen-minute epic with a long talk box interlude during which Frampton asked his fans, “Do you feel? Does anybody feel? Do you feel like I do?”
The crowd answered his musical questions in the affirmative, with eruptions of whistle-heavy cheers, and he brought it home with an extended guitar break of confident rhythm work interrupted by curlicues of melody that sprang up out of the noise.
My friend Paul Subman lost his father to a car crash at age five. When Paul was seven — the year before we met — his mother married the manager of a Mercedes-Benz dealership. There was nothing like that going on at my house.
Paul had two sisters, one younger and one older, and he got two more with the addition of the stepfather.
He lived a ten-minute bike ride away from me, and I slept over at Paul’s, in that enjoyable chaos, almost every Friday night when I was in fifth and sixth grades, or so my memory tells me
I was in love with the four girls in his house, mainly Jackie, who was the younger of his two stepsisters. She had a shag haircut and crooked teeth. One day, when I was ten, I wrote her name on the bottom of my left foot in purple Magic Marker.
The stepfather seemed never to be around on the nights when Paul and I would install ourselves on the thick carpet in front of the living room’s stereo system and immerse ourselves in albums from his older sisters’ collections. It was mostly Elton John — “Honky Chateau,” “Madman Across the Water,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and, once in a while, “Caribou.”
Paul’s mother sometimes drifted through the room. I can see her in a long dress, about to go out for the night. She was a lot of fun, the opposite of a disciplinarian, so it was a surprise when she told us that “Jamaica Jerk-Off,” from side two of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” was “not a very nice song.”
Paul and I also spent a lot of time with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the Beatles album that was almost ten years old at the time. And in the last months of our friendship, we had “Frampton Comes Alive!”
We gazed at the cover art as we listened to the various albums. Sometimes we followed along with the printed lyrics. Marissa, the older stepsister, deigned to sit with us now and then to school us in Beatles lore — the pilgrimage to India, the backwards messages, the rumors of McCartney’s death.
Jackie was around on those nights, too. Although Paul and Jackie were not related by blood, they claimed to share a psychic bond. The evidence for this was that they had once had the same dream on the same night, they swore to God.
Paul could stay silent for long stretches at a time but he wasn’t shy. He even had a steady girlfriend, whom he had been “seeing” since third grade.
He seemed tougher and older than anybody else in our grade, probably because he knew about death. The only time he mentioned his father in my presence was to say he had been six-foot-four. Paul was hoping to make six-six. He wanted to be in the N.B.A.
My older sister got “Frampton Comes Alive!” as a Valentine’s Day present from her first high-school boyfriend, a guy with a patchy beard named Mike. I remember staring at the cover—Frampton’s face, glistening— with the two of them in the kitchen one winter afternoon.
“He’s high,” my sister said.
I asked her how she could tell. Mike offered a snort before she kindly explained the meaning of Frampton’s glazed eyes.
For some reason kids didn’t use backpacks in those days, so it wasn’t the easiest bike ride when I took her copy of “Frampton Comes Alive!” to Paul’s house late on a Friday afternoon.
We sat at the stereo and made our way through both discs. The song “Penny for Your Thoughts,” which opened side three, surprised us. It was a lovely acoustic guitar instrumental, not much more than a minute long, played solo by Frampton — but the audience roared as loudly as they did for the big rock songs when it was done.
It was cool hearing the hits “Show Me the Way” and “Baby, I Love Your Way” in the context of the album, but the more dramatic and less known “I Wanna Go to the Sun” became our favorite, now that we were on the inside.
I forgot or neglected to take the album with me when I went home the next day. My sister bugged me about it for a long time afterward, to no avail. As punishment she deemed her records off-limits to me.
Paul and I had another source, though —a kid named John Rispoli. His older brother’s collection included The Who’s “Tommy,” with the original version of “Pinball Wizard, ” which seemed almost brittle in comparison with the new Elton John remake. We were at Johnny’s house when we came upon some strange artifacts in his brother’s stack: the previous, unheralded Peter Frampton albums.
They seemed like they had nothing to do with us. One was recorded in an English castle. And the original studio versions of the songs we knew from “Frampton Comes Alive!” somehow disappointed us. They seemed thin and muted without the benefit of the cheering audience that gave his breakthrough its special charge.
At the end of the school year, “Frampton Comes Alive!” started to sink in the charts. I stayed on as a regular at Paul’s house through the long summer. Then came September, and Paul and I went off to different middle schools.
It didn’t occur to me to keep in touch, although we had been almost inseparable since third grade. Maybe the idea of keeping in touch is an adult concept; or maybe I stopped going to his house because I had found a new friend early in my time at the new school.
The new friend introduced me to Bob Dylan, and we ventured together into the land of Pink Floyd and Steely Dan. I grew my hair long, wore a leather necklace, experimented with bad grades and pot.
One night my father stepped into my room as I was blasting the Pink Floyd album “Animals.” He snatched the lyric sheet from me after the lines, “Just another sad old man / All alone and dying of cancer.”
“Isn’t this a little negative?”
He had grown up on jazz singers like June Christy and Chris Connor, so Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” must have struck him as unnecessarily grim.
My new friend and I never listened to Peter Frampton or Elton John. They seemed so far from the complexities of Steely Dan’s “Aja,” the harsh view of romantic love we found in Dylan’s “Idiot Wind,” and the suicidal spookiness of “Dogs.”
At the same time Frampton was fading fast, his reputation having taken a hit thanks to a series of decisions that earned him the disapproval of rock’s gatekeepers and tossed him into a sphere once occupied by unthreatening acts like Leif Garrett and The Bay City Rollers.
The first misstep came at the height of his fame, when he posed shirtless for a Rolling Stone cover portrait, shot by the fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo. He looked like a pinup and the headline didn’t help: “The Pretty Power Rocker.”
Then he released a hasty follow-up album, “I’m in You.” The first single was the title track, a slightly syrupy love ballad. When he played it in concert or on TV appearances, he was no longer armed with the black Les Paul Custom guitar that had lent him rock-star gravitas.
He also said yes to a scheme cooked up by the mogul Robert Stigwood that gave him the starring role in a big-budget movie musical based on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In place of the Beatles-esque band at the center of the story would be Frampton himself, in white overalls, along with the three brothers who made up the Bee Gees, a veteran band that was having a resurgence because of its timely embrace of disco. The movie flopped when it came out in 1978.
And so Frampton — who had not so long ago received respectful notices from critics while filling arenas after years of road-dog touring— was suddenly perceived as a pop-music folly, a beneficiary of a lapse in the collective taste. He stopped having hits, injured himself in a drunken car crash, and lost his fortune. By this time, I was a high school student whose taste in music had moved from Pink Floyd to the back-to-basics bands filed under New Wave or punk.
A new system of belief accompanied my allegiance to these short-haired underdogs, one that required me to distance myself from prog-rock, heavy metal, disco, Southern rock, folk-rock, any music made by hippie types or rock stars who flaunted their wealth, and most of the songs on the charts.
I got a buzz cut at a barbershop one summer day when I was fifteen. At the time, my family was about to move to a town ten miles away. So with my punk-ish haircut still fresh, I got on my bike and rode to Paul’s house, to say farewell to the friend I hadn’t seen in three years.
I couldn’t give myself permission to enter through the garage in my old, familiar manner. Like a salesman I stood at the formal front door and pressed the lighted doorbell.
Paul’s mother let me in and told me I was all grown up. She asked what had happened to my curls and said Paul was out but would be back soon.
The house seemed faded on the inside, with a daytime dimness. There had been a divorce, she mentioned in an almost cheerful tone, and now Jackie and Marissa were living with their dad in Florida.
In the same living room where Paul and I had gone deep into Frampton, I sat awkwardly on a sectional couch with his mother.
Every time I had seen her before this, we had been in the flow of a day, and the talk had come naturally. Now it was question-and-answer time. We went through the school stuff and the news of my family before she asked, “What kind of music do you like?”
I was matter-of-fact when I answered with the name of the most dangerous-seeming band in my pantheon: “The Clash, mainly.”
“Paul loves the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead.”
He entered the living room by way of the basement stairs. He was already six feet tall, with whiskers on his face. His hair was long, almost to his shoulders.
I forget most of what we said to each other but I remember he pulled my sister’s copy of “Frampton Comes Alive!” from the stack of albums over by the stereo and handed it to me. He said he didn’t want it anymore and I said I didn’t want it back.
We went outside. We crossed the front lawn. Once we reached the quiet street, I took one of the discs out of its sleeve and whipped it toward him like a Frisbee. It sailed onto the grass. Paul picked it up and threw it back. The record hit the street and cracked. I completed the job of destroying it. We laughed. I took out the second disc, and we laughed some more as we smashed it and stomped on it. I got on my bike and rode away, the broken bits of vinyl on the pavement behind me.