At the beginning of 1976, pretty much every album being carried around school was by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, or Black Sabbath. I’m not sure if we had actually moved on from the Prog obsessed days, or if I was moving in slightly different circles, or what exactly had happened, but loud riffs and high-pitched voices were the order of the day. Following my not entirely successful first album purchase, my second album was Deep Purple’s Burn; I was clearly hovering between following the herd and trying to figure out what I actually liked.
While I was concerning myself with whether I should save up for the double live Made in Japan album, something shifted in the musical landscape – without warning, every third album in the Year Area was a completely different double live album, by a musician we were only vaguely familiar with, and who had suddenly taken over our musical consciousness. There had been a single the previous autumn which I might have heard a couple of times, but which surely wouldn’t have detained me, then another – Show Me the Way – which was unusual in two ways; the fact that it was a live single, and the weird guitar effect which those in the know incorrectly identified as a Vocoder. That one got my attention, and apparently everyone else’s, and suddenly, Frampton Comes Alive! was the record to be seen with.
There was no obvious reason why it should suddenly dominate our musical landscape, but looking at it now, there are some key reasons, only some of which we might have recognised at the time.
Firstly, it was cheap. Yes, go ahead and insert Aberdonian jokes here. A double album for only slightly more than the price of a single – if I remember correctly (and I might not) it was priced at £3.49 when most albums were £2.99, and most double albums were £4.49 or £4.99. The numbers may be off, but the price difference was noticeable, and represented significant value for money. Then there was the Vocoder – strictly speaking, it was a TalkBox – which appeared to be allowing the guitar to sing the lyrics, and definitely needed to be explored more, and thirdly…
Well, thirdly, it was a window into another world. Pretty much everything I’d experienced up to that point had been either loud and raucous or wildly fantastical. This was – I don’t know – grown up. Frampton seemed to be singing and playing in an idiom I hadn’t really considered before; an older musician, with insights into the world of the adult and even sophisticated. The music wasn’t hammering on your skull for attention, or screaming at you; it wasn’t doing tricks or showing off – it was just doing its thing, smoothly and tunefully, and inviting you to sing along if you felt like it. It was probably inviting us to breathe in some mind-altering substances and float along with it, but I think I was a little too young to pick up on that.
And it was doing that while still being recognisably rock and roll. The elements of rock were all still there, it just sounded different. It sounded a lot different from the world I was peering out at through the drizzle, and while I can’t imagine I was daydreaming of California, I can definitively report that this album makes a lot more sense if you’re listening to it while driving up the Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica to Malibu. Some of that feeling, that sense of place, definitely came through into my chilly, grey Aberdeen bedroom and turned my head.
It was also unusual in a couple of practical ways which meant that, without being able to put my finger on it exactly, I just liked this album. It was oriented oddly, with the title next to the open side, meaning that if you opened the gatefold up (and I will get to raving about gatefold sleeves; I will…), you were effectively holding it sideways and running the risk of the actual discs falling on the floor.
The other odd thing about this record is something I keep reading about, but for the life of me, cannot remember if my copy featured or not.
The first record player I remember in the household (pause for a moment to nod to David Hepworth and Mark Ellen, whose Word in Your Attic series made me think about this) was a large, heavy black standalone record player with a speaker (or speakers) at the front which played my parents’ records. It had an autochanger arm and the long spindle required to make it work, and you could stack several singles on the spindle and have them automatically drop down each time the previous one was done. I don’t think I had ever considered the possibility of doing that with an album, but some pressings of this album were designed to do exactly that, with sides one and four paired, so side two could drop down automatically and save you getting up every 20 minutes or so.
The whole thing was academic for me and my little red plastic player of course – I definitely didn’t have autochanger capability on it, and I doubt I’d have been happy having my precious LPs slam down on top of each other in any case. The practical upshot of it was that I would have had to change discs every time a side ended, exactly the opposite of the intended effect. I don’t remember having to do this, but I do remember that there was something weird about the way it worked, so perhaps that was it.
So, what do I make now of this flood of Californian sunshine into my beige 1970s life? Well, I can clearly see that loving this might lead you into all sorts of areas which didn’t directly relate to the music I’d been listening to – people my age who were carrying around Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Doobie Brothers albums may well have got there from here; I dabbled a little, but the British music of the following eighteen months turned out to have a much greater pull on my tastes.
What I do feel clearly now, as I’m sure I did then, is the thrill of being dropped in to a live performance – the audience sounds vast and enthusiastic, especially to someone who hadn’t ever been exposed to anything more raucous than a piano recital in the Cowdray Hall. I am a fervent defender of the idea of the live album (spoiler: this won’t be the only one on this list), and I am absolutely certain that this album is one of the key reasons why.
Side one – almost all of the album, to be honest – flows effortlessly, from the cool groove of Something’s Happening through the “funky” Doobie Wah, to the first appearance of the TalkBox, on the recent single Show me the Way, and I can picture myself nodding along, and possibly even singing along with the one I recognised from the radio.
It’s a Plain Shame is the first song which wakes 2021 me from the pleasant fog of nostalgia to wonder at a couple of things – first of all, Frampton introduces it as an ‘oldie but a goodie’, which is an expression which has somehow stuck with me, and it’s slightly startling to hear that it comes from this album, and – wait a minute, how old is it? A quick check reveals that it’s about three years old at time of recording; time moved differently in the seventies, kids. The other thing which stands out is that this song could – just about – have featured on some of the other albums I’d been listening to at the time; it rocks along solidly, and features flashy guitar solos, but it simply lacks the distortion and overdrive I’d been used to. It’s clean and neat and a little bit inoffensive, and I wonder what I was thinking about when comparing this to the other stuff.
Side two starts off acoustically, and All I Want to Be isn’t exactly a change of pace, but does feature sone enthusiastic audience participation. It, and its companion piece Wind of Change comes back to me to the point where I anticipate the firecracker which someone lets off during the second song. I know I’ve listened to this a handful of times in recent years, but it’s clear that I must have played it to death in 1976 – nothing which happens surprises me, except the extent to which I remember the words, and the way the simplicity of the songs still works.
Baby, I Love Your Way was the other song I had likely heard before hearing this whole album, and it will either enthrall you or have you looking for something with a bit more bite to listen to. I’m locked in to this by the force of nostalgia, but I can understand the other point of view. The memory it provokes, however, is unlike the majority of the memories I’ll be provoking during this exercise – when I hear it now, I think of the sun setting over the Pacific, which I’d definitely never seen in 1976, and which I don’t think I can definitively tie to listening to this specific song anywhere – it just that, having seen the sunset off the California coast, it must have been where this all came from. Is there a word for nostalgia for something you’ve never experienced?
I Wanna Go to the Sun, at a full seven minutes, promises much to the Prog fan, but doesn’t deliver any of that – not to say that I don’t enjoy it; it’s just that I think I was used to longer songs having some development, and this just trucks along via an extended instrumental wig-out (I believe that’s the appropriate Seventies term) or two in the middle. It’s fun, but maybe not quite seven minutes of fun.
Penny for Your Thoughts is a delightful palate cleanser – a quick acoustic instrumental to kick off a side which I remember less well than the other three. There’s a song called Money, but none of the ones you were thinking of, which does rock a little harder than anything we’ve seen so far, then Shine On, which is the only hint here that Frampton used to be in Humble Pie.
There then follows a nearly eight-minute-long version of Jumpin’ Jack Flash which is treated to sound pretty much exactly like everything else on here, and which I clearly remember skipping at the time. Giving it a more mature critical ear now, I tend to agree with teenage me, that it lacks everything dynamic and thrilling about the original, and should only be listened to out of a sense of duty.
Side four, however, is worth persevering with. OK, that may not hold true for everyone, but it’s the strongest memory of this album for me, mainly because of the way it ends.
The stage announcement at the end of side three is designed to have us believe that side four represents the encore – I checked, and it wasn’t, but it feels like it, so let’s go with the flow. Lines on My Face is laid-back and in a very Californian groove; unlike the other two longer songs so far, it doesn’t overstay its welcome mainly by being so relaxed under its very seventies guitar solos.
And then it all wraps up with Do You Feel Like We Do? By any measure, it’s ridiculously over-extended and full of pointless twiddling, especially with the famous TalkBox, yet I can’t help feeling a thrill of recognition at the opening lick, and I can clearly put myself back in the mindset of that somewhat naïve teenager, hearing this for the first time, and feeling like he had been given a glimpse of some fascinating, complex, and adult world he didn’t really grasp, but wanted to know more about.
It’s surely the least anguished hangover song ever recorded, and just flows into an extended and most likely improvised jam session, which will only work if you’ve allowed yourself to be swept along by the feel of the whole thing.
I fully appreciate that the majority of people of my age who bought this in 1976 have neither listened to, or thought about, it since about August of 1976, but there are a couple of reasons it’s here. First of all, it’s a terrific double live album, and perhaps the only one here which never prompted me to go and explore the rest of the artist’s catalogue. If I’m going to properly cover the range of albums I’ve loved over the years, then there have to be several live albums in the list, and this is the one which perhaps got me hooked in the first place.
The other reason it’s here is, of course, that it doesn’t cleanly fit with popular taste. If the music of 1977 was rebelling against anything, it was surely the last ten minutes or so of the last track on this. But I loved it then, and it still makes me smile now, and that is worth recording. I definitely went through entire decades after I bought this without hearing it or even thinking about it, but the familiarity of it all the way through reminds me clearly just how much I loved those few albums I owned back then, and how listening with an uncritical ear is sometimes the best way to hear something.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Honestly? I have no idea. As far as I’m concerned, this album is the whole of Peter Frampton’s career. Tell me I’m wrong, and I’ll have a listen, but I think there’s a reason this is his biggest selling album by far.
Compilations to consider?
The beauty of a great live album is that it functions as an introductory compilation, and – if the musicians are good enough – serves to steer you to other things. There are compilations out there, but why would you need anything more than this one?
Well, yes. There’s a Frampton Comes Alive II apparently. No, haven’t been tempted.
I’m not aware of a biography (maybe he’s working on one), so I’m going to point you at a video of Rick Beato interviewing Frampton in 2018.