Saturday, 15 September 2007

Top 100 Albums - #66: Frampton Comes Alive! (1976)

Peter Frampton makes his only chart appearance at number 66, with the live album that launched his career as an "arena rocker".A musical prodigy from the age of 7, self-taught guitarist and pianist Peter Frampton began his professional music career in 1966, when he became the lead guitarist and singer for The Herd, scoring a series of minor hits in the late-1960s. In 1969, 'the Face of '68' joined forces with former Small Faces guitarist and singer Steve Marriott, forming Humble Pie. It was during this period that was introducing to the 'talkbox' effect on guitar which would become his signature sound. After two years playing second fiddle to Marriott, he left to start a solo career just as Humble Pie scored their biggest US hit, 'Rockin' The Fillmore'. But despite favourable reviews for albums like Wind Of Change (1972) and Frampton's Camel (1973), mainstream success still eluded him.

Frampton Comes Alive! is the live album resulting from recordings of the 1975 tour of the States, largely culled from the concert at San Francisco. After introducing our hero as "an honorary member of L.A. society", it begins with the rip-roaring rocker that is 'Something's Happening'. Taken from the album of the same name, this is an ideal opener thanks to the precise and aggresive drumming of John Siomos. Overlay this with the guitar playing of Frampton and Bob Mayo and you have a cracking song. You sense from the start that Frampton is in his absolute element. All the timidity of his studio recordings is out the window, and the result is just plain great.

With 'Doobie Wah', Frampton gets more funky (by his own admission). The relatively softly-softly opening allows Stanley Sheldon's run-of-the-mill bass playing to creep out of the speakers. This is a lot more laid-back, with Siomos focussing on the ride and snare than the tom-toms. Frampton crests the heights with his attractive vocal delivery; and on the guitar he is given plenty of room for his riffs to settle. It's not the memorable song he's ever produced, but the sound is definitely there - even if the ending comes a little too soon.

If memorable lyrics were the problem on the last song, that is not the case on the live staple, 'Show Me The Way'. This song from Frampton (1974) finds the band in a perfect mellow balance, and the first glimpse (so to speak) of the famous talkbox. The chorus is classic Frampton modified blues: I want you to show me the way/ I want you to show me the way/ I want you day after day. Overall this mellow rock ballad is a little too laid back for many arena rockers' tastes; on the other hand, the band does not display any feelings of complacency which tend to emerge on such numbers under less control circumstances.

'It's A Plain Shame' is "an oldie, but goodie" with a proper head-banging rock riff, perfectly executed by Frampton. It's a number with a riff straight out of the late-1950s, played with all the bravado of men in long hair playing Les Pauls. Again, Sheldon is pushed into the shade as Frampton and Mayo jump into the quiet area with high-pitched solos. The chorus is catchy in its simplicity, a feeling echoed in lines like She'd like to taste me/ She'd like to waste me - it's so simple it's obviously going to work.

Taken from Wind Of Change, 'All I Wanna Be (Is By Your Side)' is the first acoustic number on the album. It's a love song, much in the same vein as 'Baby, I Love Your Way'. But there is a question of why Frampton chose acoustic for a song which would have sounded a little better with electric. On the album, sure, acoustic skills are welcome, but Frampton is not a folk singer and so cannot carry off unplugged stuff as well. Just be thankful that it's a good song. Sadly, the next one isn't. The title track of Wind Of Change is the first turkey of the album. It's acoustic again, but this time it sounds like Frampton is trying to be Dylan with the least amount of success. It's a soulless song designed only to buy time in the set - perhaps to recharge the talkbox?

'Baby, I Love Your Way' is still acoustic, but thankfully the rhythm section has woken up from its slumber. Siomos adds a lovely samba touch into the mix, while Sheldon played some beautiful harmonies over Frampton's melodies, in a manner reminiscent of a less pretentious Chris Squire. Where Mayo does feel brave enough to step forward, his backing vocals blend in well, so that you almost don't know that he's there. This is a love song from the 1970s that comes without any of the shtick or faux-macho pomposity of an Enkelbert Humperdinck or Tom Jones.

In a parallel of Frampton's career, no sooner has he got it so right, than he goes and gets it so very, very wrong. Both the next two tracks are rubbish efforts, both on their albums and on the stage. 'I Wanna Go To The Sun' is an instantly forgettable funk rip-off which meanders along and down dale with little real substance. There is no substance to this repetitive mishmish of influences, and is one to skip over. 'Penny For Your Thoughts' is pure 1970s self-indulgence. It's an instrumental (bad move) on acoustic (very bad move). Like a lot of arena rockers, these pieces were designed to prove to the audience that electric guitarist could still play acoustic well, without any reliance on effects. But like the rest of them, this sounds like a cross between an ELP record and the music being piped in a touristy Greek restaurant.

Having been stupid enough to sit through this, we come to the really good stuff. And it was worth it. '(I'll Give You) Money' is from Frampton and opens with a brilliant sequence from Siomos on tom-toms and bass drums. The opening lines are priceless: I'll give you money/ I'll give you loving/ I'll give you everything/ Except heaven opening. And while this is too complex to be a proper headbanger, the sound is great. The crowd is louder, the drums are more prominent, the guitar is edgier - everything falls into place. You'd almost think it was a different gig...

'Shine On' is mellower, but only just. Complete with a catchy riff and organ (Mayo), this is yet another one to shuffle to slowly and gently with little care for the meaning of the song. Siomos' cymbals sound notoriously tinny on this track, like something from an early-1960s pop record. Listen carefully and Sheldon will creep into with his melodious bass lines. 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' is a cover - obviously. But this is actually a massive improvement - especially for those who didn't like the original. Die-hard Stones fans will cry sacrilege, but Frampton has done a great service by stripping away Charlie Watts' monotonous timekeeping, jazzifying it with a lovely instrumental section. He can sing better than Mick Jagger, too.

'Lines On My Face' is lifted out of Frampton's Camel and has a more mournful edge to it, with the kind of sound in the opening that Snowy White would borrow in the early-1980s. It's a power ballad with the volume turned down abouty missed opportunity for love. Frampton's voice is quivering slightly, giving the impression that this is intensely personal. It may well be about his first wife, Mary Lovett, whom he divorced in 1973, the year the album came out. It's a deeply personal, well-rounded little number.

As it turns out, we are rewarded for our patience. If you must listen to only one track on this album, for the good of the world, make it 'Do You Feel Like We Do'. It's the longest, clocking in at 14:17, but it's absolutely majestic. From the first six notes from Frampton's guitar, the place is alive with excitement because everyone knows what's coming next. It's solid lyrically, the chorus is simple but effective, and the musicianship is great. But best of all is the long gap left after 3:53. After a pretty reasonable keyboard solo by Bob Mayo, we wait with baited breath for that moment. When the talkbox arrives, the euphoria comes and you sink into a sense of deep satisfaction which is most particular to rock'n'roll.

On all counts, Frampton Comes Alive! would not seem like a worthy rival to Live At Leeds (#68). Judged on the same criteria it comes across as a poor relation. The sound is so polished that all the live energy is dissipated; the lyrics are forgettable; the crowd are almost shoved aside instead of becoming part of the sound; and the musicianship is above average, hardly giving the impression of people at the top of their game. But to view this album through such a narrow prism is to do it a disservice. The real charm of Frampton Comes Alive! is the culmination of Frampton's best work into the arena that suited it best. It is the ideal starting point of an examination of his career, where other live albums are issued to buy time. It's not Live At Leeds, but in the mid-1970s it was the closest that discerning fans would get without selling their soul to punk.

3.79 out of 5

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