Wednesday, June 14, 2006

From the Vault: Frampton Comes Alive! 30th Anniversary

Thirty years ago, the album that ruled America's charts, AOR radio, and lava-lamp-lit bedrooms was Peter Frampton's live double record, Frampton Comes Alive! It topped the charts for sixteen non-consecutive weeks between April and September 1976. It was the album of the bicentennial summer. As Wayne Campbell puts it, "Of course I have Frampton Comes Alive! It was issued to suburban homes along with samples of Tide."

The question for this 30th anniversary retrospective is why Frampton Comes Alive! was such a big album and, more important but not unrelated, why is it still worth listening to today? It remains a mystery why the live versions of unknown material by this second-rate Humple Pie drop-out became standard AOR fare and endure as classics to this day. Live albums are usually used by established acts as time buffers after a long tour so they do not have to go back into the studio right away. I am not aware of any compiled live album to do for an artist what it did for Frampton. So what makes Comes Alive! different?

First, there's the gimmick. Frampton is credited for making significant use of the guitar voice box. He certainly was not the first to use it. But he was the first to make it a major part of his song writing and style. As can be heard on "Show Me The Way" and "Do You Feel Like We Do?" the audience goes nuts for his voice-box solos. It was a fresh gimmick then and so it created a buzz. However, now that the voice box has been relegated to Bon Jovi come-back singles, it is hard to get excited about the technique anymore. Some appeal remains for vault-listeners, as Frampton was one of the few who put the voice box to melodic use.

But the gimmick alone cannot explain its popularity then and classic status now. The 1970's where full of technical advances that do not necessarily result in great albums. Technique must accompany songs. And Comes Alive! does not lack great songs. Although it has been spoiled for many in my generation by a terrible 1990's cover version, "Baby I Love Your Way" was and is a perfectly simply love song worthy of its heavy airplay. In college I managed to loose track of the second CD on account of lending it out too many times to people wanting that song.

But more important than the love songs are the deep album cuts like "I Wanna Go To The Sun" and "Lines On My Face" that used to receive airplay on AOR stations before the Classic Rock format took over in the early 1980's. Ironically, now we can only hear singles from classic bands who made their names on an anti-single, anti-Top-Forty format. So every band between 1969 and 1978 (with the major exception of Led Zeppelin) are relegated to one-hit-wonder status, as we hear the same songs over and over, never realizing that these albums were full of songs much better than those on the air now. So Frampton Comes Alive! deserves a fresh hearing simply because it cannot be heard via radio the way it used to. Hopefully on-line digital music will help to resurrect a number of smaller acts that have become punchlines over the years.

So buy the CD, or at least a couple of songs on iTunes. Try to imagine what it would be like for a live rock record to be the number one album in the summer of 2006. Ponder what it would take to happen again. Better yet, get an old turn table and buy the vinyl for $1 at a used book store or yard sale, set it up next to your lava lamp and see if you can recapture the excitement of the first time someone heard the opening notes of the voice-box guitar solo on "Do You Feel Like We Do?" blare through a pair of over-sized earphones.


Tim said...

Thanks, ALIEN CORPSE, for the trek way back into the history of rock n' roll. And, be assured, to those of us who ARE bound by space and time (though you are not) Frampton is "HISTORY."

That being said...76 must have been a glorious time to listen to music, when GOOD music dominated, instead of PRETTY music.

As a member of a later generation (an Xer through and through) Frampton never really meant anything to me until Homer went to Lollapalooza. He took Frampton's inflatable pig to the gut, and Smashing Pumpkins raided Frampton's cooler of club sandwiches...
"Hi, I'm Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins." "I'm Homer Simpson, smiling politely." Now that's CLASSIC.

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tim said...

Or was it Sonic Youth with the cooler? Too tired to google that.

Magee said...

Don't forget Cypress Hill theiving the London Symphony Orchestra! Yeah, that's all I know about Frampton. So, Mr. Corpse, would you recommend this album to someone on an very limited budget?