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Forty years ago, A&M Records released Frampton Comes Alive!, the fifth album by Peter Frampton, a doe-eyed 25-year-old English rock guitarist. Hopes for the live, two-record set — recorded in 1975 — were cautiously optimistic. Previously, Frampton had made considerable headway in America, first as the lead guitarist for Humble Pie and then as a well-received but commercially insolvent solo act. Through relentless touring, he had established devout fan bases in New York, Detroit, Chicago and San Francisco and become a staple of FM radio's emerging album-oriented rock format. A&M co-founder Jerry Moss had signed Frampton to the label when he was 19, because, Moss says today, "He had a cool face, he didn't mind working, and he had a great attitude." He adds, "I thought he was a star."
Released without fanfare in the post-holiday doldrums of January 1976, Frampton Comes Alive! entered the Billboard 200 at No. 143 on Jan. 31. Coming on the heels of 1975's cavalcade of soon-to-be-classics — including Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, Queen's A Night at the Opera, Patti Smith's Horses and solo albums from three of the four ex-Beatles — a career-spanning collection of Frampton's melodious hard rock, gilded with his jazz-influenced guitar work, was a gamble: a greatest-hits package without the hits, and a live album to boot. A&M hoped the set might go gold, selling about 500,000 copies.
"A&M was getting nervous," recalls Lenny Bronstein, the label's director of national radio promotion. "By then they had invested at least $1 million in Frampton they weren't recouping." His highest-charting LP thus far, 1975's Frampton, had peaked at No. 23, but Frampton Comes Alive! leapt to No. 51 its second week, then to No. 22, No. 6, No. 4 and No. 2, where it loitered throughout March. Finally, Frampton got a call from Dee Anthony, his manager since his Humble Pie days. "He said, 'Are you sitting down?' " recalls Frampton, now 65. " 'We're No. 1.' "
Frampton Comes Alive! bounced around the top 10 for the rest of 1976, logging a total of 10 weeks at No. 1, selling more than 6 million copies and breaking Carole King's sales record for 1971's Tapestry. "Show Me the Way," which had stiffed when released as a single from Frampton, hit No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and introduced the Talk Box, a squawking guitar effect, to millions. Within Frampton's camp, surreal scenes began to unfold almost daily. A&M executive Bob Garcia was backstage at Anaheim Stadium when "all of a sudden, they cleared everybody away for somebody coming to say hello to Peter." It was the Secret Service escorting Jack Ford, son of the president of the United States — and Frampton fan. Garcia remembers, "That's when we knew he had arrived."
Frampton Comes Alive!'s freakishly outsized success caught the rock establishment off-guard — this was the same Frampton, playing the same songs, who six months earlier was still stuck second on the bill at Midwestern ballrooms. The mighty Led Zeppelin had toured the States the year before to comparative indifference; now Frampton had replaced Jimmy Page as the guitar hero du jour. Jon Pousette-Dart, opening act for the first leg of the Frampton Comes Alive! Tour, recalls that "from the earliest dates, it was clear they were sitting on top of the world with that record." Garcia recalls Frampton peeking out from behind the speakers at the 70,000 fans packing Anaheim Stadium and sputtering, "I don't f--ing believe this." Thirty years before the term was coined, Frampton Comes Alive! went viral — becoming a pop-cultural avalanche that, once started, sustained its momentum until, it seemed, every man, woman and child in North America owned the album or had heard it on the radio.
"It was a great sense of satisfaction, obviously," says Frampton. "But that's where I got very nervous. No. 1 is a little scary, because there's only one place to go from No. 1."
Then, as suddenly as it had arrived, Frampton's moment vanished. I'm in You, the May 1977 follow-up to Frampton Comes Alive!, rushed into release with iffy material the guitarist wrote under unrelenting pressure, hit No. 2 on the momentum of its predecessor and sold 1 million copies in a month, but was widely considered a failure. Overexposed, his credibility as a rock musician cashiered by I'm in You's sentimental title ballad and pinup-style album cover, Frampton spent the rest of the '70s recording desultory albums and left the business entirely before re-emerging in 1986 with Premonition, a credible comeback album, and playing lead guitar on David Bowie's Never Let Me Down.
Decades later, as the Grammy winner prepares for a national tour in support of his just-released 18th album, Acoustic Classics, Frampton's hallmark double LP is, in a sense, a cautionary tale about the consequences of attempting to parlay a journeyman musician's hard-earned success — built year by year, gig by gig — into an indiscriminate cash-out. But it's also instructive to look back at how and why the set blew up, from aspirational gold album into cultural juggernaut, and why its influence lingers today, both as a business case study and an enduring cultural artifact. It's tempting to shelve the album as '70s nostalgia, as temporal as bamboo bongs and blasting "Do You Feel Like We Do" while chugging pre-ironic reissue PBR. But Frampton Comes Alive! has survived with its dignity, and with the dignity of its creator, intact.
The album has been invoked in pop culture with knowing affection in every decade since its release. "If you lived in the suburbs, you were issued it — it came in the mail with free samples of Tide," Mike Myers marveled in Wayne's World 2. In the 1994 Gen-X classic Reality Bites, Ben Stiller informs Winona Ryder the album "totally changed my life." Frampton starred in the beloved 1996 "Homerpalooza" episode of The Simpsons, and the guitarist's appearance in a 2008 Geico ad — in full Talk Box mode, clearly in on the joke — made him look magnanimous instead of pathetic. Frampton takes his music, but not himself, seriously, rendering him ridicule-proof.
Frampton Comes Alive! also was the beneficiary of a specific cultural moment. Issued at the dawn of the disco and punk movements, both soon to reshape the music business radically, the album was a nexus between the hard rock that defined the early '70s and the more melodious pop-driven rock that would emerge in the '80s. The album's immense success enabled the mainstreaming of fellow rock road warriors: REO Speedwagon, Styx and other perpetual opening acts saw their careers blossom in its aftermath. "Frampton Comes Alive! was the perfect storm for the new mainstream that AOR radio was embracing in the mid-'70s," says Lee Abrams, the consultant who pioneered the format. "It combined the 'party 'til you drop' exuberance of live music with melodic-but-with-an-edge songs. This album's multitrack depth and [Frampton's] then-image as a rocker played perfectly into the AOR mind-set among both listeners and programmers."
That the album was several magnitudes more successful than previous live records — and Frampton's fall was so devastatingly swift and career-maiming — owes to timing, demographics and the rise of AOR, says Eric Weisbard, a University of Alabama professor and author of Top 40 Democracy.
The record business in the mid-'70s was steeped in a cultural sexism and elitism, says Weisbard. "The definition of a cool rock person at the time was laden with male virility," which suited the AOR audience, rife with blue-collar young men and not so many women. "If you suddenly had a ton of female fans, you were seen as compromised" — a pop rather than a rock star. Frampton actually had experienced this before, as lead singer of '60s teen-heartthrob band The Herd and formed Humble Pie to jettison his pop-star past and burnish his musicianship and his rock bona fides. Frampton Comes Alive! was meant to be the culmination of this vision. But the album's unprecedented popularity, combined with Frampton's flowing locks and pretty-boy poise, delivered to him a vast constituency of young women who had never heard, nor cared, that he was also a serious guitarist. For much of 1976, he had a foot in both worlds — a credentialed rock star on Tiger Beat's cover with John Travolta.
"There had never been a pop-rock star on the magnitude of Frampton," says Chip Rachlin, a concert booking agent in the '70s. "He paid his dues and had credibility, and so he was taken seriously, as opposed to a David Cassidy." But Frampton's heedless march into pop stardom — at the behest of his management — led back to the very place he had worked so hard to leave behind. Manager Anthony (father of Universal Music Group executive vp Michele Anthony) continued cashing in on every opportunity, regardless of its potential impact on Frampton's longer-term image, such as co-hosting the Rock Music Awards with Olivia Newton-John in 1977. "I don't think Peter should have appeared," says A&M's Moss. "I sort of wanted to keep him sweaty."
When I'm in You dropped with Frampton posing in satin and frills, the last vestiges of his credibility vanished. His champions at AOR abandoned him. "That image of him was completely rejected by rock radio," says A&M's Bronstein. "The negativity was nuclear."
"It's much like the Jonas Brothers," adds Rachlin. "They were the biggest act in the world for about 18 months. And then you couldn't give them away. Rewind the tape 35 years and you have Frampton."
Weisbard argues that Frampton's team could have salvaged the situation had they not hewed to the either/or of pop star or rock star, pointing to the credible job A&M later did positioning Sting — another virtuoso musician with stunning looks and an audience of adoring young women — when he left The Police for a solo career. Abrams concurs: "I would've focused him as a rock 'n' roller and ax master who happened to be cute, rather than the other way around. They kind of cut off his balls in search of hit singles."
Frampton doesn't put it that way, exactly. "I went from a musician to a pop star overnight," he says. "That's a very hard thing to scrape off."
This story originally appeared in the March 12 issue of Billboard.