In 1977, three pop stars vied for space on the covers of teen magazines like Tiger Beat and Teen Bag: Leif Garrett, Shawn Cassidy and Peter Frampton.
About the only thing Frampton had in common with those young men was his towheaded pulchritude.
While Garrett and Cassidy were native Californians with little discernable musical talent, Frampton was a well-established and well-respected British rocker who was enjoying the unforeseen fruits of a monster success: a double-disc live set called “Frampton Comes Alive!” which had just surpassed Carole King’s “Tapestry” to become the bestselling album of all time.
Frampton’s time in the limelight was brief. Some blame confusion over Frampton’s teen idol appeal. Some blame Frampton’s decision to star in a critically reviled, big-screen, jukebox musical based on the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Frampton, who performs July 31 at the Foellinger Theatre, blames the pressure he felt to come up with something half as newsworthy and noteworthy as “Frampton Comes Alive!”
“I guess I got very excited,” he said in a phone interview. “Everyone was riding the crest of a wave and it was a very exciting period. But it can have its downside too…You’re not only a successful album, you’re not only a number one album, you’re not only a platinum album many times over…Now, go follow that one up.
“And that’s where the pressure really came in,” Frampton said. “I don’t think I was, at that point, ready to go right back in and do the album that then became, ‘I’m In You.’ That should have been done about three or four years later. We should have just waited. Because, people say you’re only as good as your last record. ‘My last record was the biggest record of all time. I think I’ll wait a little bit.’”
Frampton acknowledges that his career didn’t progress precisely as he’d hoped but he has no major regrets.
“I’m still here talking to you,” he said. “‘Frampton Comes Alive’ is 40 years old this summer and I couldn’t be more proud of it. We’re still talking and I’m still playing around the world to wonderful audiences.
“That’s something I love to do, playing live,” Frampton said. “It’s something I am able to do as long as I want to and that is a very luxurious position to be in. I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Of course, being a celebrity musician and being a good musician are sometimes mutually exclusive concepts.
Frampton was a good musician before he got preposterously famous and he has improved considerably since fame faded.
His chops are well displayed on his latest album, “Acoustic Classics,” a collection of stripped-down hits and deep cuts.
The idea was to commemorate “Frampton Comes Alive!” in some fashion. But he said he could never do slavish remakes of any of his old material so he tried a different tack with this.
“I can’t go backwards,” he said. “I want to go onwards and upwards. What I decided to do was do it acoustically and do it as if you had come over for coffee and I said, ‘Hey, I’d like to try this new song out on you that I just wrote last night.’ And I get the guitar and I sit down at the kitchen table and I play it for you.”
Releasing an album in 2016 is a different proposition from releasing an album in 1976, Frampton said.
“A lot of people have said what I am about to say,” he said, “but you used to go out and tour to promote an album. Now we make an album to promote a tour. It’s completely reversed.”
The album that eventually outsold “Frampton Comes Alive!” in 1978 was another double disc set: the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack.
The double album has since gone the way of the rotary phone, the three-martini lunch and the human attention span.
“You don’t need to put out as much stuff at once,” Frampton said, “even though I did with this ‘Acoustic Classics’ because I felt that that there were songs I knew everyone would want to hear and also songs that maybe didn’t see as big a light of day.”
From an artist’s standpoint, the streaming music economic model is about as far from the double album economic model as canned tuna is from fresh lobster.
“I’ll just give you a figure,” he said. “An iTunes download was 99 cents; $1.29 for better quality… I know people who have had a hit record and it’s streamed hundreds and hundreds of thousands of times and their check is $31. You’d be better off being a vacuum salesman door-to-door than a musician.”
The streaming music booster club claims that streaming gives artists massive exposure that they can use to make money elsewhere and in other ways.
But that may not mean much to a serious musician who has never had much interest in using his music or celebrity to sell skin products or colognes.
Frampton has lived in Nashville for several years and he said many of his friends and friendly acquaintances there have scaled back their musical aspirations.
“I just know from the songwriters who have had to go back and get day jobs,” he said, “and engineers from studios – the same thing. And studios that have closed down. It’s quite amazing to think that if it goes on much longer…people are going to have to go into debt to make records and not get the money back. It’s a losing concern.”
2016 has felt like a particularly pivotal year in the music industry with the passing of such giants as Prince and David Bowie.
The lives and careers of Frampton and Bowie were intertwined since the two were teens.
Frampton and Bowie attended a technical high school located in the Bromley suburb of London where Frampton’s father was an art teacher. Frampton sat in on jam sessions with Bowie and his mates during which they performed the music of such American rockers as Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers.
Bowie was still called David Jones at the time.
“David was already in a local band called The Konrads and I’d seen him play and he was already a mentor of mine right from the off: ‘I want to be like him,’” Frampton recalled. “So even though we were only three years apart, he was already someone I was looking up to. He was already singing like Elvis and playing sax as well.”
Bowie went on to open for Frampton’s band Humble Pie.
When Frampton’s career took a nosedive in the early 1980s, Bowie invited him to join his band. Frampton’s stint as Bowie’s guitarist reminded people of his virtuosity on that instrument.
“With the ‘Glass Spider’ tour, he could have chosen any guitar player he wanted and he chose me,” Frampton said. “We’d always wanted to play together on the same stage at the same time. It was a wonderful gift. He took me around the world and introduced me as the guitar player. It was incredible.”
Being known as a guitar player is all Frampton has ever really wanted.
“I just want to play something on the guitar today that I couldn’t play yesterday,” he said. “It’s just always been about the guitar for me. I’m so lucky that passion reinvents itself. That is something that I have always been so thankful for, that my first addiction is still with me and it’s roaring right now.”