Frampton at 50

A cultural steamroller that's sold more than 20 million copies so far, Frampton Comes Alive! is also the most celebrated example of an artist who broke through to worldwide fame thanks to a live record. In the wake of this monster success, fans went back and listened to Peter Frampton's four solo studio records that predated the live behemoth. Sales and respect grew.

Three of those four releases, Wind of Change (1972), Frampton's Camel (1973), and Frampton (1975), have been remastered and reissued in a limited edition, 180gm vinyl-LP box set, Frampton@50, In the Studio 1972–1975, by Intervention Records.

The box presents a mystery: Why didn't the albums that preceded Comes Alive! find a larger audience when they were released, especially because they contained studio versions of much of the material that was rerecorded for the live album?

Wind of Change, his first solo record, shows exactly what the guitarist was thinking when he departed his previous band, Humble Pie, in 1971. A mix of acoustic and electric guitars, the album focuses on his vocals, an element of his music that has always been underrated. Produced by Frampton and engineered by Chris Kimsey, the album's title track, an acoustic ballad, displays the characteristic poles of his songwriting: strong melodies, weak lyrics. Weird lines like "I have itchy fingers and butterflies a strange," and attempts at profundity like "Love comes close to wrecking all you have to give/God knows, there's so much to give," do not, however, drag down a melody as strong as "Wind of Change." The same is true for the harder-rocking "It's a Plain Shame."

Though afflicted with a muscle disorder today that is beginning to affect his playing, Frampton has always been one of rock's most inventive and nimble guitar players, and the instrumental accompaniment is stellar throughout. An all-star group of guests—Billy Preston, Klaus Voormann, and Ringo Starr—add to the proceedings.

The failure of the funkier Frampton's Camel to find a larger audience upon release is harder to fathom. Filled with quality tunes, heartfelt performances, and the craftsmanship of old pros, Frampton's Camel, named after his band at the time, should have been a hit. Produced by Frampton and engineered by the great Eddie Kramer along with Kimsey and Dave Wittman, the recording captures the band—Mick Gallagher (keyboards), Rick Wills (bass), and John Siomos (drums)—tight and in touch with the material. Only Siomos would appear on Comes Alive! Rockers like "White Sugar" and "All Night Long" are more than the equal of most 1970s hard rock. Frampton's guitar plays counterpoint with his vocals on a rocked-up cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)."

The vocals on "Don't Fade Away," another song where the lyrics stray—"Side by side rowing with you, rowing with you"—have always suffered from an in-a-can sonic quality, a defect somewhat corrected on this new reissue. One clear instance where the version on Comes Alive! is unmistakably superior to the studio track is the live album's biggest hit, the Top 10 "Do You Feel Like We Do." On Frampton's Camel, the arrangement of the original version is slack, the tempo lags, and the energy level is nowhere near what is captured on the live album.

With the guitarist playing all the instruments except bass (Andy Bown) and drums (Siomos), Frampton came the closest of the three albums in this set to being a hit (#32). Produced by Frampton and engineered by Kimsey and Andy Knight, the opener, "Day's Dawning," is built around an appealing chorus hook and a climax that features the old rooster-crowing gag (ending with "Shut up!"). Of all the tracks from this trio of albums that appeared on Comes Alive!, the version here of "Show Me the Way" is the most similar to—almost exactly the same as—the better-known live version, complete with the talk-box guitar effect. Lyrical struggles sabotage "Nowhere's Too Far (For My Baby)" which opens with the cringeworthy chorus, "I'm crossing my fingers/I'm touching my toes/I'm hoping this feeling will go." Easily one of the guitarist's finest moments as a songwriter, "Nassau/Baby I Love Your Way," is an immortal pop melody from any angle. Even the lyrics, enlivened by lines like "The moon appears to shine and light the skies/With the help of some fireflies," hit a new high.

Frampton@50 was mastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering with an all-analog chain. Bellman also cut the lacquers. Several sets of tapes, including 1970s-era tape copies, were considered as sources before ½" safety copies from the 1990s A&M Safety Program were judged to be the best. The Wind of Change and Frampton safeties are sourced from UK production masters, while the Frampton's Camel safety is sourced from the original stereo master. The LPs were pressed at Gotta Groove Records in Cleveland, Ohio. The originals were well-recorded; the sound on Frampton@50 is audibly though not dramatically improved: crisp, detailed, and with some space blown into the mix. The packaging is luxurious with high-gloss tip-on jackets.

The fourth studio album that provided material for Comes Alive!, Somethin's Happening (1974), could, according to Intervention, be a forthcoming release.

To repeat the question: What made the material on these three albums, generally well-played and well-recorded throughout, suddenly such a world beater on Frampton Comes Alive!? For starters, it was originally a bargain double album with a $7.98 list price. His pretty face on the cover didn't hurt. Constant touring had tightened the band and arrangements in what clearly were inspired live performances. (Frampton has often said in interviews that this material was minimally touched up in the studio afterward.) Just as critical, the tempos in the live show were uniformly faster, and the mix, with the drums further forward and a generally more-aggressive guitar sound, served the material better. This re-evaluation is long overdue.

MFK's picture

Another example of Frampton's amazing work during these years is to be found on John Entwistle's 1972 gem Whistle Rymes. Ten Little Friends peels paint.