In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1976: Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive!
With the advent of social media, we’ve become used to seeing people go from nothing to famous within a short period before fading quickly back into obscurity. It’s become routine to see this 15 minutes of fame trajectory now but like a lot of these things, it didn’t just happen all of a sudden. This type of trajectory has been around for a long time. Case in point: Peter Frampton who 45 years ago was catapulted from obscurity to the center of the music world with his live album Frampton Comes Alive! before falling just as drastically.
When Frampton Comes Alive! was released in January 1976, not much was expected from it. The album of live performances came from an artist who had been in a moderately successful hard rock band but had struggled to establish himself as a solo artist. Hell, when the album was released it debuted on the Billboard album chart at a very low #191. Sometimes an album like this will do moderately well at best and that’ll usually be the end of it.
But then something strange began to happen as Frampton Comes Alive! soon began to jump drastically on the charts and sell in numbers that hadn’t been seen before eventually reaching #1 and staying there for 10 weeks. Like many people with social media today, Frampton had built up a devoted following through relentless touring and it paid off big time. The album wound up selling eight million copies easily blowing past Carole King’s Tapestry as the best-selling album of all time and blowing past competition like Fleetwood Mac, Wings At The Speed of Sound, Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975),and Chicago IX: Chicago’s Greatest Hits to become the best-selling album of America’s bicentennial year.
Peter Frampton wasn’t a big star but had been around for a long while before his big break. Raised in the London town of Beckenham, Frampton started playing music very young joining his first band at 12 with various bands that followed. During school, he befriended an older classmate who would later become known as David Bowie bonding over music and their bands playing with each other. At 16, Frampton had his first taste of success when he fronted a band called the Mod which only landed a few hit UK singles in the late ‘60s but briefly turned Frampton into a teen idol, a title he’d struggle with later on.
Wanting to get away from the teen idol image, Frampton and the Small Faces’ Steve Marriott teamed to form the more hard rock band Humble Pie. While Humble Pie was never a big success, they began making inroads in America as a major live act which included opening for Gand Funk Railroad at their 1971 Shea Stadium concert which broke the Beatles’ record for the fastest-selling concert. After four albums, their label began capitalizing on their growing live act by releasing 1971’s live album Performance Rockin’ The Filmore. The album became a modest breakthrough going Top 30 but Frampton, feeling at odds creatively, left the band to go on his solo career right before his band’s breakthrough.
Frampton would soon wish he was still with his old band as his solo career got off to an unsuccessful start. Despite having high-profile musical connections that included playing guitar on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album, his first three solo albums landed with a thud on the charts and largely went unnoticed. It wasn’t until his fourth self-titled album in 1975 where Frampton began making some inroads peaking at #32 and going gold. Hoping for a big break, Frampton and his team decided to replicate what had worked well for Humble Pie in recording a live album. Much like his old band, Frampton may not have been selling a lot but was attracting big crowds in major cities performing in small venues so releasing a live album seemed like a perfect opportunity to showcase his best moments as a performer.
Throughout 1975, Frampton and his band toured extensively with three concerts making it onto Frampton Comes Alive! The first concert came in June at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom with the other two concerts in New York including an August concert at the Long Island Arena and a November performance on the campus of SUNY Plattsburgh. The songs performed are all from Frampton’s first four solo albums with four from 1972’s Wind of Change, two from 1973’s Frampton’s Camel, three from 1974’s Somethin’s Happening, and four from 1975’s Frampton. The material originally gathered from these shows impressed A&M co-head Jerry Moss so much that he demanded more songs eventually making Frampton Comes Alive! into a double album. Obviously, nobody could have predicted the monster success to come. A&M projected sales of 500,000 enough to go gold and continue Frampton’s momentum. It exceeded even their expectations.
Listening to the live tracks versus the original studio versions, I can see why these songs didn’t take off initially. They’re perfectly fine tracks but ultimately something feels missing that could make these songs really explode. Listening to the original songs now, they sound like a blueprint for a much better version. On Frampton Comes Alive!, Frampton and his band make these songs well come alive. They easily improve on the studio versions largely by picking up the tempos and bringing a fun energy that wasn’t there originally. Most notable is the epic closer “Do You Feel Like We Do” where it becomes a more fast-paced rocker and extends into a 14-minute jam-filled with nonstop vamping complete with Frampton’s signature talkbox. It’s no wonder that the live versions continue to be popular with the album’s hit singles, “Show Me The Way,” “Baby, I Love Your Way,” and the aforementioned “Do You Feel Like I Do” remaining in constant classic rock rotation in all their live glory.
Before listening to Frampton Comes Alive! for this review, I’ve never listened to it all the way through despite its massive cultural legacy as a major signifier of ‘70s notably with Wayne Garth’s famous line in Wayne’s World, “Everybody in the world has Frampton Comes Alive! If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide. Like many kids of boomers and classic rock parents, I have memories of hearing Frampton Comes Alive! playing many times in the car but never paid attention beyond the main hits. After listening to the entire album, I can say car rides perfectly describe the mood of Frampton Comes Alive! Like a lot of ‘70s rock, it’s music that’s designed to be played during car rides with songs that are easy to sing and jam along to while going out on the town or on long trips.
There’s no one thing I’ve read that perfectly explains why Frampton Comes Alive! became as big of a seller as it did but one factor that I think explains at least some of the success was the popularity of rock live albums during the ‘70s. In a Stereogum retrospective, it makes an interesting point of how live albums functioned as an early form of social media for fans. Remember this is pre-Internet and pre-MTV so you didn’t have many opportunities to see or interact with your favorite artists outside of their concerts so these albums brought that interactive experience into your home and it proved incredibly successful during the decade. Live albums like At Filmore East, Live at Leeds, Wings Across America, Alive!, and Live at Budokan were major sellers and spawned hit songs from those live versions that have become the definitive versions of those songs for many.
The live album phenomenon is one facet of understanding the enormous success of Frampton Comes Alive!. Another facet I think explains this success is the culmination of touring Frampton did. After all, this was an era where rockers big and small toured relentlessly building up audiences in major cities and hubs. All of that combined is what probably helped Frampton Comes Alive! take off as much as it did.
It also helps that it’s a pretty enjoyable album. What I liked the most listening to the album is how it feels like you’re listening to an actual concert. It starts out with the screaming and then Frampton speaks for the first time riling up the crowd before getting into a few upbeat jams to start off before going into a more acoustic set in the middle before going back to the rockers with an occasional cover (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”) and ending with an extended jam to cap off the night. Part of the charm also comes in the sound. Even though the album was recorded in small venues, it sounds like it was recorded in a big arena, which Frampton would soon perform in thanks to the album’s success. After a year without concerts, listening to Frampton Comes Alive! feels like being transported to a different world and a reminder of how fun these types of gatherings used to be before COVID-19 shut it down for the meantime.
On record, Frampton comes across as an approachable rocker. Where many of his contemporaries were portrayed as untouchable gods, Frampton comes across as someone you’d want to hang out and have fun with. He sounds like he loves performing and is having a blast on the album. The only major gimmick Frampton does is when he uses a talk box on two of the big hits “Show Me The Way” and “Do You Feel Like I Do.” The talkbox, a tube device that allows a player to put their voice into the sound of their instrument, has been used by many rockers but Frampton is the one artist the device has become most associated with. On “Show Me The Way,” the talk-box is mainly a flavoring but on “Do You Feel Like I Do,” it gets its chance to shine with Frampton going into a heavily indulgent solo sounding like a robot with his singing and I love it.
With the success of Frampton Comes Alive!, Frampton now had to navigate being a full-on celebrity which he was not prepared for. In subsequent interviews, Frampton has admitted not knowing how to handle this sudden rise to fame. As a result, Frampton quickly found himself in a series of bad career decisions that dented his momentum just as it had risen. He posed shirtless for Rolling Stone which cost him some rock credibility as he was now viewed as a teen idol. His official follow-up to Frampton Comes Alive!, 1977’s I’m In You, was a #2 hit and singles-wise gave Frampton his biggest hit with the #2 peaking title track. But it ultimately fell short of its predecessor with people including Frampton himself criticizing the album as rushed.
Things didn’t get better from there when Frampton starred with the Bee Gees in the disastrous 1978 Beatles movie musical Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and suffered severe body damage after a car crash in The Bahamas. The next album, 1979’s Where I Should Be, continued the downward projection only managing to go gold, and its accurately titled lead single “I Can’t Stand It No More” peaking at #14. A year later, a plane crash in Venezuela destroyed much of his instruments including at first thought his black Les Paul guitar on the Frampton Comes Alive! album cover before it was found and brought back to Frampton in 2011. He did get to play guitar on Frankie Valli’s “Grease,” the #1 hit theme to the hit movie of the same name so that’s one saving grace in an otherwise dark period.
After the ‘70s, pop music moved far away from Frampton and Frampton never tried to recapture his old glory. He had a bit of a comeback in the late ‘80s with his album Premonition. Soon, he hooked up with his old schoolmate David Bowie playing guitar on his 1987 Never Let Me Down album and continued playing guitar on the album’s tour including in its accompanying concert film Glass Spider. He even got a #1 hit as a songwriter in 1988 when Will to Power took a medley of his “Baby, I Love Your Way” with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” to the top. It’s a shitty medley at that but you can’t be too mad when it’s making you money.
Since then, Frampton’s been doing good for himself. He continues to put out albums where one of them, 2006’s Fingerprints, won Frampton his only Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. He’s also done good business on the road touring heavily through the classic rock nostalgia circuit including a 2015 show I attended on Long Island where he performed after Cheap Trick and was known for kicking people’s phones when they were recording him. The man still knows how to put on a show.
Frampton has also been a fun guy to have around showing up in places like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Madam Secretary where he happily plays his songs for their characters. He appeared as a guitar hero during a 2006 Colbert Report skit. He also served as technical advisor for his friend Cameron Crowe’s 2000 semi-autobiographical movie Almost Famous about the ‘70s rock scene that the both of them were involved with even writing songs for the movie.
A couple of years back, Frampton suffered a setback far greater than starring in some bad movie when he announced his diagnosis of inclusion body myositis, a progressive muscular disorder that gradually weakens the muscles. For Frampton, it means he can’t play the guitar as well as he used to. This led him on a big farewell tour through 2019 where he ended at The Forum theater outside Los Angeles playing many of the same songs that brought him such overwhelming success four decades earlier. He had planned more farewell shows in his native UK before the pandemic squashed that plan so his 2019 California show might wind up being his last ever show.
In one interview, Frampton notes that a pop star’s career lasts eighteen months while a musician’s career lasts a lifetime. That ultimately explains the story of Peter Frampton. 45 years ago, he was the biggest pop star in the world but it was one part of a long musical career that’s taken him to many other places and he seems perfectly fine with that.
Honorable mention: For the most part, 1976’s biggest albums fall into the feel-good road-trip rock cannon most notably the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) which despite being the year’s #4 album has sold so much over the years that the Recording Industry Association of America currently lists it as the best-selling album of all time in the United States for sales of upward of 38 million copies surpassing Michael Jackson’s Thriller. A lot of those are pretty good but if there’s one that can truly be considered a classic it’s Queen’s A Night At The Opera, a fun album that represents Queen at its peak with its bombastic and theatrical melding of rock and other styles as represented by the almighty “Bohemian Rhapsody” among other well-known Queen songs like the soft comfort of “You’re My Best Friend” and “Love Of My Live” to the hard-rocking kiss-off of “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To…).”
Next time: Fleetwood Mac turn their interpersonal drama into the classic album Rumours that also set the stage for a new kind of hit album