Most folks would agree that at this point Peter Frampton could easily rest on his laurels. After a stunning career that’s now extended nearly 60 years, his name is forever etched in the annals of modern music. From his early stint with the Herd, a pop combo that brought him his first measure of adulation while still in his teens, to his crucial role in the British hard rock supergroup Humble Pie and onward to a massively successful solo career that includes one of the best-selling albums of all time, Frampton Comes Alive, he’s made his mark as one of the most beloved guitar gods of all time.
To his credit, Frampton’s never stopped exploring the outer reach of his abilities. He’s made an essential contribution to the work of other artists as well, among them, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, David Bowie and Stevie Wonder, and he’s continued to record albums that have found him mining other fields of endeavor as well, including blues, cover songs and acoustic recordings. Nevertheless, his new offering, cleverly titled Frampton Forgets the Words, may be his most intriguing effort yet in that it finds him reimagining songs by some of his aforementioned associates. His instrumental takes on Bowie’s “Loving the Alien,” Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity,” Roxy Music’s “Avalon,” Radiohead’s “Reckoner,” and Lenny Kravitz’s Are You Going to Go My Way,” retaining the intrinsic melodies associated with the original renditions, while also resonating with an emotional resolve and personal perspective unique to these interpretations. (Read our review here)
Granted, this isn’t Frampton’s first all instrumental album; that distinction belongs to Fingerprints, which was released in 2006. However, given Frampton’s current critical bout with Inclusion Body Myositis, or IBM—an inflammatory and degenerative muscle disease that causes painless weakening of muscle and for which there’s no cure—it does mark a critical juncture in his career and, perhaps, one of his final hurrahs. Indeed, with the double whammy of the pandemic and the uncertainty surrounding his continued ability to perform at his peak, it’s an album that will undoubtably receive an abundant amount of attention, simply due to his impending disability.
Of course, when you’ve had a career as heralded as his, any effort is not only bound to attract attention, but also to be judged from a somewhat stilted point of view. Subsequent attempts to retrace Frampton Comes Alive didn’t come close to equalling their predecessor’s success, no surprise considering the record-setting precedent. That said, his recent memoir, Do You Feel Like I Do?, offers insight into Frampton’s lifelong quest to stay true to his muse and never failing to push the parameters.
A longtime resident of Nashville, Frampton admits that the songs on the new album were driven both by a desire to record as much as possible before the debilitating effects of his disease overcome him completely. However, the songs also have a personal connection as well, many of which can be traced back to prominent parts of his life. For example, he participated in the recording of George Harrison’s landmark All Things Must Pass album and he still has vivid memories of hearing “Isn’t It a Pity” for the first time.
“I heard that the day I walked into Abbey Road Studios to record,” he remembers. “I was in the control room with all the players and George and Phil Spector listening to the playback of what they had recorded the day before. I’m not even sure if there was a vocal on it or even a guide vocal, but it just killed me. I mean, it was just unbelievable. I knew it was at most only six players, but it sounded like 96 players because of Spector, the wall of sound man. It gave me chills, and I wanted to do one of George’s songs that I didn’t play on originally as a tribute. I’ve always felt that the melody of ‘Isn’t It a Pity’ and the chords that go with it are just so fantastic, and that it lends itself to a lot of guitar empathy. I was trying to reach deeper into myself for all of these tracks, and if I got goosebumps when I listened back to them, then I knew we were on the right track.”
So too, Frampton’s take on “Avalon” captures the emotional resonance of the Roxy Music original—again, no surprise considering Frampton’s fascination with the original.
“When it first came out, I couldn’t wait to get it,” he recalls. “I heard a track on the radio, ‘More Than This’ most likely. And so I rushed out, got the album, and ultimately it became one of my favorite albums. It’s still in my top five albums of all time. I think it’s a 99.9% perfect album. Everything came together. So I said, I’ve got to do one of these tracks, and because this song is my very favorite from one of my very favorite albums, I just went, ‘Oh, gosh, I think I know what I can do with this.’ Brian Ferry’s croon is so laid back, and so I tried playing along with it and capturing that original feel.”
Stevie Wonder is another artist with whom Frampton has had a special relationship. Indeed, Frampton’s second solo album, and first with his short-lived band Frampton’s Camel, included a Wonder cover, “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever).”
“I think I have 27 Stevie Wonder vinyl albums, and that’s before he was 12,” Frampton jokes.
“I love Stevie. When I was in hospital after my car accident in the Bahamas in 1976, the night nurse came in at three in the morning and said ‘You have a phone call.’ ‘At three in the morning?’ I asked. ‘Who could it be?’ She said, ’It’s a Mr. Wonder.’ He called me to cheer me up. ‘I’ve got these three new songs,’ he said. ‘I’ve got the backing tracks, but I haven’t put the vocal on. Do you mind if I sing them live to you?’ Mind you, I’m on morphine at this point, but I really enjoyed them. But you know what? I’ve never heard any of those tracks since. He must have a warehouse full of tracks that are finished, but never got mixed. He’s a very generous and caring man, a very empathetic person considering all his efforts for civil rights and everything else. So I have the utmost admiration for him as a person and as a writer, musician, and an incredible singer.”
Asked about the possibility he might tour again once the pandemic passes, Frampton hesitates to offer a definitive answer. He had been on what was billed as his farewell tour prior to lockdown.
“I have to put on my reality hat here,” he responds. “We all have two clocks we live by right now—our life clock and our covid clock. I have a third. Mine is my IBM clock, and the longer it takes for covid to leave or get to a level where we’re all safe and vaccinated, the less chance there is of me being able to pick up where I left off. That’s just my reality. I would love to, but it’s affecting my fingers now and I’ve had to change my way of playing a little bit. My fingers still know what to do, so I think it’ll be a while before I’ll actually have to stop. I’ll go out as long as I don’t feel like people are saying, ‘Well, he’s ill and he’s not as good as he used to be.’ I don’t want that. I don’t want pity. I want them to come and know that I’m in full form.”