Peter Frampton Shines On (Part 1 of 2)

Peter Frampton was catapulted to fame when his blockbuster 1976 double album Frampton Comes Alive rocketed to the top of the charts. That album set in motion the live album trend; in the wake of Frampton’s success, nearly every major ‘70s rock and pop act released a live record.

But Frampton was no overnight success. As a teenager, he fronted the Herd, gaining popularity in his native England. And later with Humble Pie, he made some of the best hard-rocking music of the early ‘70s. Along with a long list of credits as guitarist on other people’s records (Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Harry Nilsson and many others), his solo albums showcased Frampton’s skills on guitar, vocals and songwriting.

Though his commercial peak of the ‘70s couldn’t sustain forever, Peter Frampton has continued to make and release well-regarded albums. His most recent is an instrumental set credited to the Peter Frampton Band, 2021’s Frampton Forgets the Words. And while he’s faced a serious setback in developing a debilitating disease that threatens his livelihood, Frampton remains hard at work, gearing up for a concert tour that would take him to 18 cities in six weeks. On the eve of that tour, Frampton spoke with me, discussing his music, career and what the future might hold.

L-R: Sneaky Pete Drake, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Peter Frampton, Billy Preston

Frampton Forgets the Words captures the spirit of the artists to whom you’re paying tribute, but without copying their style. The version of George Harrison’s “Isn’t it a Pity” is my favorite track on the album, but a couple of the selections surprised me. Can you tell me about Michel Colombier’s “Dreamland”?

That’s my favorite. Years ago, I saw the documentary on Jaco Pastorius. And I had no idea of what happened to him; I just thought of him as the bass player’s bass player. So it drove me into a Jaco thesis. I got every album, every track, every video, you name it. I went down a Jaco rabbit hole, and I came across the track “Dreamland.” That was co-written by Colombier, and it was actually on his [self-titled 1979] album. I didn’t know anything about it, just that it was the track that I would play every morning. I didn’t think anything more about it.

And then one day, I called up Rob Arthur, my band leader, keyboard player and dear friend for many years. And I said, “Let’s meet at the studio. When can you make it this week?” “Tomorrow? Right.” So we went in, and I said, “I want to learn how to play ‘Dreamland,’ just for kicks. But we’ll record the two of us playing anyway.” So we played it, and we were all smiles. It was just the most fantastic track to play, and we enjoyed it so much. But I had no idea if I would ever use it.

And then after making All Blues (2019), we decided to do an instrumental covers record. And I said, “’Dreamland’! Let’s get it out and put the band on it.” What a tremendous melody! I’m a melody guy; I love great melodies. And that is probably one of the finest.

Speaking of melody, another track on that album that surprised me was your reading of “Reckoner,” the Radiohead track from In Rainbows. What struck me about that is how you highlighted the melody from that song. It was in there in the original, but somehow de-emphasized. You brought it out in a way that the original doesn’t, and that was an inspired way to approach it. Was that something that you were consciously aiming for?

On each track, I wanted to play [guitar] with the vocal texture. On [the cover of Roxy Music’s] “Avalon,” I think I came the closest.

Your guitar does sound like Brian Ferry singing.

That was my m.o.; I wanted to translate it into guitar, bearing in mind the soul and the talent and the performance of the original so that I did it justice, rather than making a muzak version. Because it could have easily turned into that.
And at the other end of the scale is your version of the Lenny Kravitz song “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” For me, the most interesting thing about that song is the second guitar part, with all the riffs.

I’ve always loved that track. We all loved it as a band, and it was really a band choice, because that album is a Peter Frampton Band record, not a solo one. We needed something a little heavier. And I think we did a pretty good job on that one.

When one looks at your career as a whole, one of the things that emerges is an artist who, unlike many of your peers, seems more than comfortable working as part of a unit – even as a sideman – as opposed to someone who always wants the spotlight.

Yeah. I mean, I’m kind of like Jimmy Page has always been. We think of him with The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, but he was a really top session guy in London.

He played on sessions for Herman’s Hermits, Donovan, Françoise Hardy, on and on…

Yeah, he played on so much stuff. I didn’t quite do as much as him, but I’ve always enjoyed doing sessions for other people because everybody works differently. Every artist has different material, and I enjoy bringing my creativity as a guitarist. I’m a guitar player first and foremost. Even if I’ve got a cold, I can still do a good solo. I’ve never minded being the hired gun or the lead guitarist who wasn’t the singer. I did a little bit of singing in Humble Pie with Steve [Marriott], but the main thing for me in Humble Pie was that it enabled me to find myself as a stylist guitar player.

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