Still Alive!

It shouldn't be this easy to get Peter Frampton on the phone, but it is: A publicist for DreamWorks Pictures calls, asks if you're interested in talking to the man, and five days later, he's on the other end of the line at the appointed time. Twenty-four years ago, such things would have been unfathomable: For one brilliant moment, he was the very model of a Rock God--a curly haired totem worshipped only from afar, a man attainable only in record stores that kept Frampton Comes Alive! only as long as it took to refill the bins. In 1976, he was Rolling Stone's artist of the year, the magazine's cover boy (with an article written by Cameron Crowe, who would become Frampton's boss 24 years later) and every girl's poster boy. Even now, that record remains the best-selling live album ever made: 16 million copies and still going, a back-catalog mover long after the man moved from the arenas to the clubs to the county fairs.

The Peter Frampton on the other end of the line is so far removed from that hazy-pink, golden-toned image that adorns the cover of Frampton Comes Alive! one's hesistant to compare the two. He's now the short-and-gray-haired Frampton, family-man Frampton, Behind the Music Frampton, classic-rock-radio Frampton, bespectacled Frampton, half-forgotten Frampton. That beloved live album, which features songs you know so well even if you loathe them ("Baby, I Love Your Way," "Show Me the Way," "Do You Feel Like We Do") sold by the millions and made him quite wealthy. Everything since then, save for 1977's I'm In You, has sold by the thousands--and even I'm In You sold only three million copies and was considered a disappointment. To even the most rabid true believer, Frampton's discography starts and stops with one album, despite the fact he co-founded Humble Pie with ex-Small Face Steve Marriott, appears as a session guitarist on such albums as Harry Nilsson's Son of Schmilsson and George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, and released four solo albums between 1972 and 1974 and more than 10 since 1976, including the just-released Live in Detroit on CMC International, the label where dinosaurs go before they turn to fossils.

Frampton knows how he turned into a footnote: Quite simply, he fucked up. He killed his career in mid-sprint; he sabotaged his fame by following orders instead of giving them. He knows he shouldn't have released a studio album so closely on the heels of Comes Alive!, but A&M Records insisted. He knows he shouldn't have agreed to appear in Robert Stigwood's garish, laughable 1978 film version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but he did anyway. At the time, it seemed like a good idea--the chance to play the Beatles' immortal Billy Shears in a film that starred the Bee Gees, Steve Martin, Aerosmith...and George Burns. At the time, he was excited, telling Crowe in Rolling Stone that it was "a labor of love," given his adoration for the source material. But like most things in the 1970s that seemed like a good idea, it was most definitely not. The soundtrack went platinum, but it wasn't worth it: Twenty-two years later, he tries not to even mention it.

"I've escaped Frampton Comes Alive! now, but it was definitely an albatross at the time," Frampton says, sounding very much like a man for whom the word perspective was created. "No matter what you did to follow it, a la Michael Jackson and Thriller, it's never going to be as big or as good. Everybody wants more. It's gotta be bigger; it's gotta be better. There's no way of doing that, especially following up a live record with a studio one, which, as far as I was concerned, was not where I did my best work. I hadn't really proven myself. I mean, [1974's] Frampton was my best studio record, I felt, but...Releasing I'm In You and doing the Sgt. Pepper's movie were the things that really..." He pauses, then chuckles. "I let things get out of my control and didn't vote on those with my gut instinct, which was no."

Then, shortly after the film's release, Frampton suffered a near-fatal car accident in the Bahamas; soon after that, the platinum records became gold records became no records at all. Even his attempts at comebacks were ill-fated: At the end of 1990, he began writing and recording again with Steve Marriott for a proposed album that was to be released the following year. But on April 20, 1991, Marriott died in a fire in his home in England, and Frampton was once more left to ponder what had gone wrong.

But do not think for an instant that Frampton's is a sad story. Yes, he's been a subject of Behind the Music, and, yes, he most definitely fit the profile: A struggling young and handsome musician hits it big, then hits bottom. But Frampton's tale, like those of most rock-biz survivors who taste fame but refuse to swallow it, has its happy enough ending. He's now a 50-year-old husband and father, a family man who records when he wants and tours when he feels the need. He's been famous; now, he's just well-known, as it should be. After all, Frampton wasn't cut out for fame: He's too nice a guy, and nice guys don't finish at all in rock and roll.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky