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Fifty Years On, Frampton’s First Love Remains The Stage

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David Wolff - Patrick/Redferns via Getty Images
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Nearly 50 years into life as a professional musician, Peter Frampton is still uncovering new facets of his playing and his music. This summer he’s been criss-crossing the country performing live dates to packed houses with his electrifying brand of rock music, but during his downtime from the road he’s been preparing for his first-ever acoustic album.

“It’s sort of like taking it back to when I had just written the songs. It’s a more personal performance of each song,” Frampton says. “There will probably be one new one, but basically the favorites will be on there and some deep cuts from various albums I’ve put out from throughout my career as well.”

But playing acoustically is not a novelty for Frampton. He started playing on an acoustic before he’d reached his teens, and even his early years as a recording artist, with the British band Humble Pie, saw him blending acoustic and electric versions of the instrument.

Frampton recalls those early days with his bandmates Steve Marriot, Greg Ridley and Jerry Shirley.

“We would come in and bring our guitars—acoustic and electric—and just jam. Steve would play a song that he’d just written, I’d play one that I’d written, and everything went into the pot," Frampton says. "Everyone got a chance. It was very democratic. We were just playing the songs we loved playing. I think that’s what made those first two albums so interesting. I don’t think that I’d learned by then that you need a chorus in a song.”

Frampton left Humble Pie after the classic live album Rockin’ The Filmore, embarked on his solo career and eventually released another classic live recording Frampton Comes Alive, which has been a staple of radio and record collections since 1976. As much as Frampton loves the studio, he’s able to be deeply creative on the stage, even when performing songs that have been part of his catalog for decades.

“That’s the most enjoyable time for me of everything that I do—writing, recording, engineering, whatever. Because it is the complete opposite from the studio. There’s only one take: Take One. That’s it. It’s very much off the cuff. Each night can be very differently creative. I’m not the kind of performer who likes to play the same solo, worked out every night or the same way I sing it. It’s got to be different for me,” he says. “Obviously the songs are the same but what’s within the framework of those songs changes from night to night.”

That approach is something that Frampton credits to his interest in jazz—something that set Frampton apart from his contemporaries in the ‘60s music scene.

“When everyone was listening to Eric Clapton and The Bluesbreakers, so was I. But I was also knowing that as seductive as the blues is and how much I enjoyed listening to it and playing it, I wanted to make my style a little different so that it didn’t sound like everybody else,” he says. “I love listening to Miles (Davis) and listening to different instruments. Miles Davis, as well as being an incredible technician, he knew how to play two or three notes to the right chord, and it was just phenomenal.”

Frampton has been striving to simplify his own music in recent years, and getting back to the basics of the acoustic guitar is one way he’s been able to do that. Listeners can follow the progression of Frampton’s artistic arc with three new reissues that are coming out over the next month, starting with 1986’s Premonition and ending with 2003’s Now. Always fascinated with technology, Frampton couldn’t help himself when it came to 1989’s When All The Pieces Fit.

“It was the computer period. The drum machine. When you start using computers, relying on that kind of technology to help you write the song, it’s not going to be as good as if you sit down with that acoustic guitar or that acoustic piano. I think a lot of people were guilty at that point of letting the equipment almost dictate the way you were going to write. ‘This Time Around’ on When All The Pieces Fit was just me and a synthesizer and a voice,” Frampton says. “It was one of the last tracks that we did and that’s when I was realizing, ‘OK. I’m going to go back to before I turn any equipment on I’m going to start writing with my acoustic or my electric or my keyboard.’ I’ll bring in the equipment afterwards. That’s what I’ve done ever since.”

Peter Frampton performs Wednesday evening at the Orpheum Theatre. Reissues of Premonition and When All The Pieces Fit are available in stores on Aug. 28.

Peter Frampton Selected Discography:

After the success of Frampton Comes Alive!, the British-born guitarist and vocalist really had nowhere to go but down—at least on a commercial level. But some of Frampton’s best work was still ahead of him. Here’s a glimpse of some of the recordings that followed that monster album, including three that are newly reissued. (*Denotes reissues.)

 

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Where I Should Be (1979)

After a near-fatal car crash and period of recuperation, Frampton returned with this soul-filled outing. Joined by Steve Cropper, the Tower of Power Horns, and longtime compatriots Bob Mayo and Stanley Sheldon, the record managed a decent-sized hit with “I Can’t Stand It No More.” Some of Frampton’s best post-Comes Alive guitar playing and some of his most soulful work overall.

 

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Breakin’ All The Rules (1981)

A sizeable portion of this album was released a year earlier as a Brazilian-only EP. Joined by guitarist Steve Lukather and drummer Jeff Porcaro (both of Toto) the record didn’t hit the way it could have on the charts despite strong material and performances. The record business was in decline at this point and several of the biggest acts from the 1970s—including KISS and Cheap Trick—weren’t moving records they once had. Worth seeking out.

 

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*Premonition (1986)

Frampton hadn’t made an album since the contractual kiss-off The Art of Control in 1982. Premonition found him surrounded by all the trappings of 1986—synthesizers and loads of of-the-moment technology. Still, his playing and singing remained intact and he managed to score some radio play with “Lying,” a tune that’s still vibrant nearly 30 years on from its release.

 

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*When All The Pieces Fit (1989)

Teaming with outside writer Will Jennings (Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton) and longtime bandmate John Regan for this batch of material, Frampton sounds like a man determined to make a record in step with the times and one worthy of his reputation as performer and innovator. It may take a moment for some to get beyond the frosty late 1980s production but, as with Premonition, there are gems to be founds, including “My Heart Goes Out To You,” the stomping “Mind Over Matter” and the synth-heavy “This Time Around.” It would be five years before Frampton issued another album.

 

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*Now (2003)

Following a disappointing 1994 self-titled release and an admirable live release (Frampton Comes Alive II) and one that disappeared without much fanfare, this was a welcome return. Frampton sounds rejuvenated in both voice and spirit in “Flying Without Wings,” “Love Stands Alone” and “Greens.” His take on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” doesn’t let us forget his skills as a lead guitarist or vocalist.

 

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Fingerprints (2006)

Joined by a wide range of guests, including Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule, Allman Brothers), guitar legend Hank Marvin, members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden as well as Rolling Stones men Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, Frampton issued his first-ever instrumental album and walked away with a Grammy in 2007. The material is excellent and his take on Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” is one more example of how wise he is as an interpetor of song. A nice companion piece to his latest, 2014’s Hummingbird In A Box.

 

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Thank You Mr. Churchill (2010)

Returning to his role as a singer after 2006’s instrumental Fingerprints, Frampton sounded hungrier than he had in decades and the material was fierce. The title tune, “I’m Due A You” and “Restraint” are three of the best but it’s hard to pick. A great place for listeners who’ve fallen off the path to pick up.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.