An accomplished and sought-after session guitarist even before his good looks and catchy songs made him a household name, Peter Frampton first achieved chart success with the late-'60s British rock group The Herd. Teaming with Small Faces frontman Steve Marriott, Frampton joined Humble Pie in 1969, then left two years later to pursue a solo career. But while Frampton's early studio albums were well received, he didn't attain pop stardom until the release of 1976's Frampton Comes Alive, which became the best-selling live album of all time. The following year, I'm In You sold millions, but a combination of bad business decisions, questionable choices (such as starring in 1978's ill-fated Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), and changing commercial tides drastically lowered his public profile. After struggling commercially for much of the past two decades, Frampton recently made a modest comeback. In addition to touring regularly, he made a guest appearance on a memorable episode of The Simpsons, performed with Ringo Starr's All Starr Band, appeared in and composed songs for Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, and was profiled on both VH1's Behind The Music and A&E's Biography. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Frampton, who's currently touring with Journey and John Waite, about the fickle nature of fame.
The Onion: Your press material says you were named the British press' Face Of 1968. How exactly did that come about?
Peter Frampton: That was just because I was in a band called The Herd, and we had a hit, and we were a teenybopper band. I wasn't the lead singer of that band until management came along, and record producers looked at us all and said, "You'll sing." I said, "No, I do the backup singing. I don't do that, I'm the lead guitarist." They said, "No, no, no. You'll sing." So, being 17 at the time, I just went along with it. And the first thing I noticed was that I was being singled out as the cute one, I guess you'd have to say. All of a sudden, I was the face of '68. I was on the front cover of every magazine in Europe. It changed The Herd's image from a musical band into a teenybopper band. But we were very successful. And then I got fed up with it and left that band to form Humble Pie with Steve Marriott, who'd also been through a teenybopper-type thing with The Small Faces. But they had ridden out that storm by doing a very credible record album called Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, which was very well received critically. They got through the teenybopper thing, whereas The Herd never did.
O: Did it bother you that so much attention was paid to your looks?
PF: Yes. Being screamed at is only fun for the first five minutes, in the scheme of things. You get frustrated by the fact that you're playing, but no one's listening. I've often seen that clip of Paul McCartney, at the time when he was asked, "Will you ever play again live?" And he said, [adopts heavy Liverpool accent] "Not until they listen to us." That was never to be, so yes, I can totally relate to the screaming stuff, which 'N Sync and The Backstreet Boys go through, I'm sure, right now. But those chaps don't play instruments, so it's a little bit different.
O: Didn't you find it flattering?
PF: Oh, yeah, but it gets old very quick. It's very fickle. Here today, gone tomorrow, especially with a teenybopper sort of thing. You're going to be popular with those teenagers at that time, and then it moves so quickly that you're out of fashion. I think on the A&E Biography, Alice Cooper said it the best. He said, "Peter got the big hair and the good looks, and as soon as you get screamed at, to the hardcore musical fans, there goes your credibility as a rock-god guitarist." There's no way that's going to happen when you're perceived along the lines of Donny Osmond. I hate to liken myself to that, but that's the dark side of the story, as far as I'm concerned. To even think that I was perceived in that genre blows my mind.
O: As somebody who was a big teenybopper icon, do you have any advice for today's teen stars?
PF: Teenybopper icons, wow.
O: Yeah, the Britney Spears and 'N Syncs of the world.
PF: Well, yeah, it's different for a girl, though, I think, because… I think it's easier to reinvent yourself as a girl than as a guy. I mean, if they're just a singer and don't write their own music, then their future is bleak. But if you're a musician and you write your own material, and you have a vision for what you want to do, then the future can be as rosy as you want it to be. But it's very unfortunate that anyone in the teenybopper area is regarded as non-musical. The credibility disappears. Whereas, all I ever did in my bands and through my solo career until Frampton Comes Alive, the reason I got everywhere was because I was a great guitarist very early on, and young. That all went out the window.
O: Did your early success prepare you at all for the success of Frampton Comes Alive?
PF: It did, but I don't think anybody can be ready for that sort of success. I was made aware straight away that there wasn't anybody up there with me. I was the only person there, because I had broken new ground. I'd sold more records than any other person in history with one album, at that point, in '76. It became a very scary place for me, because I didn't know whose advice to ask, and lost my confidence in my own gut feelings about everything. I've since learned, over the years, that you have to look out for yourself. An artist has to be selfish, otherwise he's not true to his own art. I think that threw me for a loop. For the first time, I was successful as a solo artist. No one had the experience, even the management. I didn't realize at the time that management, the record companies, no one had dealt with anything like this before. It was the first thing. It was the first time someone had taken record sales to the next level after Carole King's Tapestry, which was the biggest-selling record of all time up until that point. So I was literally out there on my own, and taking advice from people who really didn't know any more than I did how to deal with the situation, in order to take full advantage of it and turn it into a long career, not one that was going to fizzle because it got so big so quick. This is all with hindsight, which is great, but at the time, it was sort of like I was in the middle of World War III. There were things being fired at me left and right, where everybody wanted me for everything. And having taken, in the scheme of things, not that long—but, as far as I was concerned, most of my life—to get to that point in '76, I didn't want to turn things down. Everybody wants to be on the front cover of People and Rolling Stone. I didn't know then that too much coverage is death, overkill. We didn't realize that at the time. Mistakes were made, so I learned by my mistakes. I won't make those again. I'll just make new ones, like us all.
O: When you were making Frampton Comes Alive, did you have any idea that it would become the album you would be known for?
PF: No, not at all. I was just following the same exact storyline that Humble Pie had already done, which was four or five studio records, and then a live record at the right time. The audience was at a fever pitch for Humble Pie, but they weren't seeming to buy the studio records as much as they were at the shows. It just didn't correlate. So we thought, "Let's give them what they seem to like to come and see." So we did, and it worked. I did that same thing at what I felt was the right time, and I guess it was, and bingo. No idea, and no clue of why. I only know the reason, my feeling of its longevity, is the fact that it was the best of Peter Frampton's four solo records, plus a number from a Humble Pie record, "Shine On." You add me in the live arena, giving just that bit more and the extra adrenaline, the extra excitement of "live." With those numbers, I feel that they are as good, if not better, renditions as the original studio ones. It sort of happened backwards to the way everybody else usually has success. You have a couple of studio successes, and then you make a live record, and nobody's really interested in the live record that much, except the devout fans, because everybody likes what they hear first. They don't want to hear a remix, they want to hear what they've heard, that's it. "What I bought, that's what I like." So when they hear it live, it's not the same. They're not going to rush out and buy that. Whereas me, hardly anybody bought my studio records, but when I put it together live, it went through the roof. So go figure. It's because I enjoy performing live so much. It's a wonderful feeling. It's my forum.
O: After Frampton Comes Alive, there were three million pre-orders for I'm In You. Were you intimidated by that much buildup?
O: Was that a scary point in your life?
PF: Yes, it was, because not only am I not going to be able to follow up this live record with another live record, but I'm following it up with a completely different animal. Also, following up the biggest record in history at that point… that's a lot of pressure right there. It was very scary at that point, and it wasn't an enjoyable album to make. I've learned from my mistakes, but that wouldn't have been the thing I would have rushed into doing as quickly as I did. I, with hindsight, realized that's the one thing I allow myself when people say, "What would you change?" The only thing, which I can't change anyway. But, if I could have changed one thing, it would have been to take off at least 18 months before going into the studio and doing another record. And then, hopefully, I would have been able to wear jeans and a T-shirt on the front cover.
O: One of those things you did in the wake of Frampton Comes Alive's success was star in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts
Club Band. How did you become involved in that film?
PF: We just thought it couldn't fail. This was going to be the biggest movie ever. And, of course, it wasn't. I was promised that Paul McCartney was going to be in the film, and I actually met Paul McCartney at a show in Philadelphia. We were playing there, I think, the next night, and I said, "I'll see you on the film set." And he said, "What film set?" I was talked into doing that and misled, so that's why. I think that both The Bee Gees and myself realized very early on that we'd made a bad choice. But then again, it played havoc with my career, there's no two ways about it. I'm not whining, because it's all in the learning process. We didn't know at the time that it was going to have that effect, obviously. Who's to say that, just because I'm number one on the charts, that I can also be in a big movie? There are a lot of people out there who just love that movie. I don't know why, but they have seen it many, many times.
O: It seemed like a weird idea, to make a Beatles movie without The Beatles.
PF: Whenever I'm with Ringo, people ask him, "What did you think of Pete being in Sgt. Pepper's?" And he says, [adopts Ringo Starr voice] "We don't talk about that." [Laughs.] "He's a bloody idiot." Stuff like that. Doing the All Starr thing with Ringo was a great experience. I love working with Ringo.
O: Do you think Paul McCartney was supposed to be in it but pulled out, or do you think that was just a line they gave you?
PF: I think all of them were asked to be in it, but I think it was in the mind of [producer] Robert Stigwood that they all said yes, or at least that's the line he figured he'd use on me.
O: You have a longstanding relationship with Cameron Crowe. When and where did you meet him first?
PF: I spoke to him on the phone in '74 for a short piece in Rolling Stone on the Frampton record, because I was starting to make waves a little bit then, and that was my first record to sell 300,000 copies. So we did an interview over the phone, didn't meet, and then we asked him if he would do the liner notes for Frampton Comes Alive. We met in Los Angeles at A&M Records in the studio, and I played him Comes Alive, and I said, "Would you like to do some liner notes?" And he was beaming from ear to ear, so I guess he said yes, and we've been friends ever since.
O: What was your first impression of him?
PF: He seemed like a very quiet, very easy-to-talk-to kid, and I wasn't that much older myself. Almost exactly like [Almost Famous star] Patrick Fugit. Patrick had him down. They were sort of joined at the hip while we were making the movie. He would imitate Cameron's mannerisms and everything. It was great to watch. He's a great kid. Yeah, [Crowe] called me up and said, "We always talked about how I hate to do rock movies, Pete. Well, I'm doing one." So he said, "It's not so much a rock movie as it features a band, but it's more along the lines of a personal story about myself. But I want it to be…" We always talked about how rock movies are never authentic, and they're never time-sensitive. There's the wrong guitar, the wrong amp, they're singing into the wrong mic. It just doesn't look right. So that was my job, basically, to make sure that it all fit into 1973, that nothing came from after 1973. If you can find something, I'll take the blame, but so far I haven't had anybody come to me and say, "This didn't happen then," or whatever. That was my first and main job on the movie. And then I wrote two songs with Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick, my writing buddies from Nashville, for the band. Nancy Wilson and Cameron, and I think Ann [Wilson] on one song as well, they sort of, over the last few years, created Stillwater by writing these four songs. And my job was basically to make it six songs, which I did. Then Cameron said, "Would you like to be in the movie?" So I said, "Well, yeah. I'll take the starring role there. Oh, a smaller one? Okay, a smaller role." By the time I realized that everybody was cast except Reg, Humble Pie's road manager, I said, "Well, okay, I'll take that." But I loved it. It was such a great little inside joke, basically, that I was to play Humble Pie's road manager. It was a fantastic experience, both in front of the camera and behind the camera. I love working with film, whether it's the technical side, the acting side, or the musical side. I love everything to do with movies. So this was like a dream come true. When we did the live portions, when the band was on stage, all of them, I was there and in charge of saying whether it was ready to shoot or not, which gave me an immense feeling of power. The first time we shot the numbers, John Toll, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer who's my hero, said, "Well, you know these songs better than anybody." It was a big deal for me. It was just a great experience doing that movie.
O: Other than the technical things, did you feel like Almost Famous did a good job of capturing the rock scene in the mid-'70s?
PF: I feel it did. The thing is, no one really knows exactly what Cameron saw and what he didn't see, and it was his story. So, as far as I was concerned, the hootenannies, the parties, the drugs, all that stuff… I think they touched on everything.
O: Which do you prefer, being a frontman or a sideman?
PF: I enjoy both, but there's something very special about being a hired gun, just being back there playing guitar and doing some backup vocals. I love that position. I would never turn it down. Like with David Bowie, that was wonderful. I enjoyed every minute of that, and all the sessions that I've done. I just really enjoy seeing how other people work, and trying to tailor what I do to fit in with them, which is always a challenge. It's always a learning experience for me. I love working with other people. When I did Ringo's All Starr Band thing, I got to play for everyone. For Jack Bruce, I had to be Eric Clapton. For Gary Brooker, I had to be Robin Trower. For Ringo, I had to be George Harrison. I love that. And with Bowie, I had to be all those different guitarists, as well as play with him.
O: Was it weird to go back to being a guitarist after being a rock star?
PF: No, because people really discounted that part of my career. What David was doing there, apart from reinventing himself, was helping me reinvent myself. I didn't realize it was going on at the time, until it sunk in that he wasn't just [hiring me to play lead guitar] for himself, he was doing it for me, as well. Being that we'd been buds ever since school, he gave me a gift on a silver platter. It was like he was saying, "Come tour with me around the world, where you can't play anymore because you can't draw the crowds, and I'll show them why you made it in the first place." And that's what he did. It was never spoken about that way, but if you see the A&E Biography, David does a piece in that, especially for it, and we both talk about it. I'll never be able to thank him enough for what he did. He refocused people's attention on my guitar playing, rather than on the success of a mop-top, a long-haired rock star that was being screamed at.
O: How did appearing on Behind The Music affect your career?
PF: That and People Magazine and Biography all very recently—and before that, The Simpsons—brought up my visibility. And everybody went, "Yeah, Peter Frampton! Now, I thought he was dead. Didn't he die?" No, so it's wonderful when people come up to you and say, "You know, are you still in music? Do you still play?" "No, I'm a greengrocer, what do you think?" It was interesting, anyway.
O: Was it painful reliving parts of your past for Behind The Music and Biography?
PF: I think Behind The Music was more… We did so many reels of film for that. When I finally kick the bucket, they've got like a three-day special on me there, with the amount of film they did. It was more intimidating to do that than Biography, because Behind The Music has got an angle. It even admits as much. They want the dirt. Whereas Biography is the story as told by the people they interview, and by the research and everything, and by what I say. I thought Behind The Music was great, but Biography definitely told the story the way it happened, in a more drawn-out sort of way. People didn't just get sound-bites, they got actual paragraphs.
O: In Behind The Music, there's a formula for each act. No matter what your career happened to entail, you have to have the incredible success and then the crushing downfall.
PF: Well, that's 25 to 35 minutes in. They call it the "Price Of Fame" spot. [Laughs.] The people that make it call it that. It's usually between 25 and 35 minutes in, bang!
O: Where was your "Price Of Fame" spot?
PF: Well, I think it started with Sgt. Pepper's. [Laughs.] And the downfall, the downslide: The record company drops you, this, that, and then the clawing back to the above-ground afterwards.
O: How did you end up on The Simpsons?
PF: They just called me up. Bonnie Pietila, the casting director of The Simpsons, called me up and said, "Would you like to be on The Simpsons?" And I said, "Are you kidding? Of course I would." Only a few people in the scheme of things have been on that show, and they're all big stars, so I said I was absolutely honored to be on The Simpsons. So I said, "Give me an idea, what is it?" So she said, "Well, the story line is this: You, Peter Frampton, are headlining a Lollapalooza-type concert." There was deathly silence from my end, and I went, "Uh, Bonnie, the thing is, I wouldn't be doing that." Then there was silence on her end and I went, "D'oh, that's a joke!" [Laughs.] I said, "I got it, you want me to play the old, done-everything, been-there, done-this, crusty old rock star, right?" She said, "You've put the nail on the head." So I said, "Oh, God, that'll be great, playing a grumpy old rock star." So I threw myself into it. I did it in 50 minutes, the whole thing, because there were so many guest artists on it, with The Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth and everything. They couldn't get us all together to read it, so I just went in and read my part. They asked me to ad lib a bit. The best part about it was when they animated my ad lib, which was the part when I come off… I think I've lost my pig at that point, and the button won't work, and I just walk right past Homer and I go, "Twenty-five years in this business, and I've never seen anything like it." It was just an off-the-cuff remark, and there I am, as a cartoon figure of me saying it. That was a real thrill.
O: I take it you're happy with the way the episode turned out.
PF: Yeah, God, they show it all the time. The one thing about The Simpsons, I went to Australia with Roger Daltrey and Alice Cooper, and we did the British Rock Symphony over there. For the press conference in Sydney for it, the guy introducing us to the press said, "And, of course, on the end, the man that my son only knows as a character from The Simpsons, Peter Frampton." [Laughs.] Halfway around the world, there's someone that knows me as this crusty old grumpy rock star. [Laughs.] Which I thought was great.
O: I take it that Lollapalooza never actually pursued having you on the tour.
PF: I don't think so. [Laughs.] Nor Ozzfest. I don't think I'll be on Ozzfest, either.