Saturday, June 29, 2013

Joe's Record Collection: Frampton comes apart

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful: Peter Frampton at his mid-1970s peak.

I'm in You
The record: I'm in You (A&M, 1977 - SP 4704)

The artist: Peter Frampton

History: It doesn't happen much (or ever) these days, but back in the 1970s, a live album could really turn an artist's career around. It happened for KISS with Alive! in 1975, and it happened in an even bigger way that very next year for journeyman rocker Peter Frampton with the similarly-titled Frampton Comes Alive!

Born in 1950 in Beckenham, England, Peter Frampton had made something of a name for himself as a singer and guitarist in such bands as the Herd, which he joined at age 16, Humble Pie, and Frampton's Camel, and he'd done some prominent session work for George Harrison, Harry Nilsson, and others. He signed with A&M as a solo act in 1972 and released a handful of studio LPs to middling sales, until an album simply called Frampton staggered up to #32 in May 1975 and went gold.

In January 1976, A&M released the singer's first live album, Frampton Comes Alive!, which was recorded at San Francisco's famed Winterland. FM stations took a liking to it, and the LP caught fire. By February 1976, it was the #1 album in the country. In all, it logged ten weeks at the top of charts and sold ten million copies.

Great news, right? Well, yes and no.

The live album made Peter Frampton a household name and brought him to a much larger audience than he'd ever known before, but a hit that big brings with it a certain amount of backlash. To say the least, the stakes were awfully high when Peter and his band returned to the studio to make the follow-up. Though his commercial triumph had been a long time coming, Peter Frampton was an out-of-nowhere sensation to many listeners.

Critics and other rockers were also rankled by Frampton's "pretty boy" image: the flowing blond locks, the delicate facial features, the bare chest -- all of which were prominently featured on the cover of I'm in You. It seemed like everyone was waiting for his star to fall.

Alanis Morissette: The Peter Frampton of the '90s.
I'm in You, while not an outright flop, was the beginning of Peter Frampton's commercial decline and the start of his status as a pop culture punchline. That trend would be greatly accelerated the next year when the singer made the ill-advised decision to co-star with the Bee Gees in the Robert Stigwood-produced mega-flop Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a movie musical based on the Beatles' 1967 concept album.

In 1979, Peter's last year as a hit-maker, Frank Zappa released his most successful album ever, Sheik Yerbouti, whose opening track, "I Have Been in You," was a direct swipe at the title track from Frampton's record. In his failure to top Frampton Comes Alive!, Peter Frampton might seem similar to Michael Jackson, who was haunted by Thriller for the rest of his life. But Jackson scored major hit albums before and after that career milestone.

To me, the Peter Frampton story is analogous to that of Alanis Morissette. A former child star, Alanis had been a pop singer for a few years in the early 1990s, with two albums that had been successful in her native Canada before she released Jagged Little Pill (1995), the worldwide #1 smash that ultimately sold 33 million copies. That album was Alanis' Frampton Comes Alive! and inspired a similar backlash. Its follow-up, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998), was her I'm in You -- the pretty successful sequel that still felt like a commercial disappointment and signaled a popular decline.

Ultimately, both Peter Frampton and Alanis Morissette adopted the old philosophy of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" and simply revisited their past triumphs. In 2005, Alanis released an acoustic remake of Jagged Little Pill and managed to sell 300,000 copies. In 1995, the very year of Alanis Morissette's greatest popularity, Peter Frampton finally released Frampton Comes Alive! II. A deluxe, 25th anniversary edition of the original would come out six years later. Their chart-busting days are over, but both Peter and Alanis have endured as touring acts whose fans still turn out, albeit in smaller numbers.

All Music Guide says: Four stars. "A surprisingly laid-back album steeped in lyricism and craftsmanship, particularly in the use of overdubs on even the harder rocking numbers." - Bruce Eder [link]

Was it a hit: Yes, but not the success Frampton and his label were hoping for. It peaked at #2 on the album charts, was certified platinum, and landed three singles on the charts -- the title track (which also hit #2), "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)" (#18), and "Tried to Love" (#41). By most standards, that would be cause for celebration, but after Frampton Comes Alive!, it was a letdown. After one more modest hit album and single in 1979, Peter never reached the Top 40 on either chart again. What went up had come down.

Cameron Crowe
Choice excerpt from the liner notes: Rolling Stone's Cameron Crowe, years away from directing Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous (and, uh, We Bought a Zoo), acknowledges that Peter had a daunting task ahead of him when recording the follow-up to Frampton Comes Alive!, but the critic assures us that "Frampton has risen to the challenge of his incredible success with authority. From sweeping acoustic melodies (played in part on his idol Django Reinhardt's original acoustic guitar) to all-out electrical virtuosity. There is a new vibrancy about this music."

The album's fancy inner sleeve contains further liner notes from Peter himself. He dedicates the album "to all of You" for"the confidence" you've given him, but he still sounds a little nervous. "I was bubbling with ideas and trying not to compete with myself," he writes. "Even so, subconsciously there was an underlying pressure to 'out do' the last album." Underlying Pressure might have been an excellent alternate title for this LP.

Frank Zappa: "I'm in you!"
The listening experience: Not nearly as painful as I'd feared. I'm not a Peter Frampton fan; this album was one I got from (I think) my aunt and uncle's collection. Before this, my knowledge of Frampton was pretty much limited to the misbegotten Sgt. Pepper movie. That notorious flop holds a grim fascination for me; I own the DVD, the soundtrack on CD and vinyl, and the tie-in paperback book. I also knew Frampton from his guest appearance on The Simpsons, where he gamely mocked his image as a rock dinosaur, and Frank Zappa's scathing parody.

Onstage, Zappa would preface "I Have Been in You" with a monologue about Peter's exploits with teenage groupies, and the phrase "I'm in you," always uttered in a taunting, cartoonish voice, became a running joke in Zappa's show. After that, I feared I'm in You would be a wussy, pseudo-rock embarrassment. It's not that at all. Well, it is that just a little in spots (the title track), but I'm in You definitely didn't deserve to be a career-killer.

Bruce Eder was right; this is a laid-back album, as mellow as lime Jell-O. Frampton was under the gun when he made this LP, but you can't hear it in the songs, which mainly just plod along quite amiably. A few go on too long, particularly an eight-minute slog called "Won't You Be My Friend," but that's to be expected of a 1970s rock album.

Eder was right about the "craftsmanship" part, too. I'm in You is one slick endeavor. Frampton and his band have a tight, cohesive sound, and the production work -- by Frampton himself -- is very professional. I'm in You has a rich, satisfying sound I found very gratifying. As Michael Parks said in Kill Bill, Vol. 1, "Well, a sure and steady hand did this. This ain't no squirrelly amateur."

Frampton's singing is a lot like his guitar playing: strong, supple, melodic, and kind of anonymous. His songs, too, are pleasant and tuneful, but for the most part, they soon fade from memory. One track in particular, "St. Thomas (Don't You Know How I Feel)," seemingly takes its inspiration from two of the most famous songs from Frampton Comes Alive!: the title from "Do You Feel Like We Do" and the melody from "Baby I Love Your Way."

On Side Two, Frampton calls in the cavalry. Mick Jagger makes an uncredited but unmistakable cameo on "Tried to Love." (Frampton thanks "Mick" in the liner notes but doesn't give a last name.) And then Stevie Wonder lays down one of his intricate harmonica parts on "Rocky's Hot Club," one of I'm in You's catchiest songs.

The album closes with a double shot of very credible Motown covers: "(I'm a) Road Runner" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)." There are no real stinkers on this LP, no major missteps; all it needs is a sense of urgency or a strong reason to exist. Frankly, a live audience might have provided just that.

What probably doomed this album more than anything else, though, was its terrible cover: Peter in a coquettish "seductive" pose, wearing shiny pink pants and an unbuttoned blouse with lace cuffs. Coupled with the implied sexual boast (masquerading as sensitivity) of the album's title, that cover would be enough to kill anyone's career.

Overall grade: B