Where were you when you first heard Frampton Comes Alive?
Seems like a ridiculous question? Not for me. I remember it like it was yesterday. Especially the first song I heard, “Lines on My Face.”
I was a junior in high school and had stopped off at my friend Scott Cummings’ house after school. Nothing unusual here. He lived close to the high school and had a fully stocked kitchen of snacks and sodas. So, it was a regular stop.
Plus, his mom, was “cool!” Sometimes she’d crank her stereo with artists we liked. Very cool mom. It was the 70’s. They were around then.
Scott’s mom invited us to the family room to chat about the day and check out her new Peter Frampton album. At this point, “Frampton Comes Alive” wasn’t a “thing.” In February of 1976, it had just come out (released in January). FCA had not yet become the biggest selling live album of all time.
While I was familiar with the song, “I Don’t Need No Doctor” by Humble Pie, I didn’t know Frampton’s former band performed that. Nor did I know that it was Frampton’s riff that drove that song that had become an FM staple.
The truth was, despite being a big music person, I knew little of Frampton. Nor did anyone else. The four solo studio albums he had made never caught fire despite growing an enthusiastic fan base.
My friend John Dannan was one of those fans. John was always trying to get me to listen to Frampton, thinking because I was a guitar player, I’d appreciate his fluid playing. I heard a few cuts in John’s car, but, for whatever reason, they never grabbed me.
So what was I to make of this new double “live” album I was about to hear? I looked at the jacket. A slightly out of focus cover photo by Richard Aaron of Frampton with his three pickup black Les Paul. Cool. The band, pictured on the inner jacket, which included “Bob Mayo on the keyboards, Bob Mayo!” looked solid.
OK, looks good. Let’s give it a spin. Maybe Dannan was right. Plus, listening to this album would be better than pretending to do homework I wasn’t going to do.
Mrs. Cummings put on side four.
There are two tracks on side four of FCA, the first one being the ballad “Lines On My Face,” the second the set-closing crowd-pleaser, “Do You Feel Like We Do.”
I was unfamiliar with both songs.
The first thing you hear on side four when the needle hits the vinyl is the fully engaged Winterland crowd of seeming Frampton fanatics. Before you hear the opening notes of the chord that begins “Lines,” you hear the fans.
I would later learn the audience was a distinctive feature of FCA. This crowd responds to every lyric, musical twist, and most famously, each nuance of Frampton’s talk box device during the”Do You Feel Like We Do” interlude. Never had a rock and roll crowd been so front and center alongside the music on a live album.
Sure on “The Allman Brothers Live at Fillmore East,” you can hear the crowd clapping along during “You Don’t Love Me” and famously shouting out, “play all night!” during “Whipping Post.” Conversely, on “The Who Live at Leads” you barely hear the crowd. FYI – those were the two best live albums at that time and highly regarded until today.
The audience mix on FCA is unusually prominent compared to those records. Later live albums, like “Cheap Trick Live at Budokan” would take this mixing to the extreme where the audience almost overpowers the performance.
Part of the appeal of FCA was the audience/band mix was precise, and it sounded fresh. Like you were there.
Keep in mind this FCA mix came out concurrent with new stereo systems that could efficiently exploit these subtleties of sound. The Cummings’ stereo, with some terrific KLH monitors if I remember correctly, provided perfect sound.
Back to the music.
Frampton had been honing his catalog of original material through years of marathon touring. He learned what worked and what didn’t. So FCA is a bit of “greatest hits” set list (despite not having hits). Little did I know, that “Lines on My Face,” the song I was about to hear, was one of Frampton’s absolute best songs that his band had become super tight delivering with excellent dynamics and spontaneity.
As I lied on the carpet, after hearing the crowd, I listened to the guitar lines to “Lines on My Face.” A few in the audience cheer. The band enters, and then a solo.
“A solo to start a song?” I thought.
And what a solo. The first run, so fluid and technically perfect. Then the bends. Ideal vibrato. Another lightning fast run.
“Oh my god,” I thought, “who is this guitar player?” How could I not know this guy? That solo, which was likely a throwaway improvisation, was terrific. Perfect for the song. Plus, this type of Major 7 jam was not something I heard a lot of. It wasn’t on Fillmore East or Live at Leeds.
Then, Frampton comes in with the lyrics, “Lines on my head…” the crowd nearly erupts, presumably as the super fans recognize the song. The song continues.
Then another melodic solo. Good grief, the band interplay between the bass player and drummer, perfectly complementary to the lines of the Les Paul. The tom-tom accents, the higher octave bass runs, all the time leaving ample space for everything to be heard. These are good musicians. This is a fabulous song. Frampton concludes with another incredible flourish of notes which is greeted by a very proper smattering of applause for the solo.
Frampton then sings, “There’s so many people, my family, and friends.” The crowd, hanging on every word, applauds again. Obviously, they are his friends!
The audience is fully engaged.
Then I thought, “what the hell am I listening to? Who is this Frampton guy, where did he come from? Who does concerts like this, anyway I so want to be there, watching this?”
Wait! I sort of was there – perhaps that’s why I and, eventually, 17 million others got sucked in.
Meanwhile, the song dramatically turns to the minor key. Like David Gilmore does years later in “Comfortably Numb,” Frampton delivers an incredible overdriven emotional solo during that change that builds and builds with trills and double stops to close it out. When he finishes, the crowd approves.
The band regroups, and Frampton goes back to major mode.
The song continues, then ends.
Wow. I mean, really, wow. That was something.
Still is, as I’ve listened to “Lines on My Face” thousands of times through the years. I’ve also seen him play it live and it remains a real showcase for his guitar playing.
Frampton has said it’s his favorite song from FCA, and he thinks he’s played it at every show he’s done.
FCA was the high watermark for Peter Frampton, and despite going on to win Grammys and tour with others, it will always be FCA for which he is most remembered.
If you’ve ever heard him interviewed, you know he seems like a completely down to earth guy not the least bit bitter about his success or career like he could be.
Nostalgia is a messy business, as it’s mostly self-referential and can be, I dare say, a bit romanticized. So take this with some salt.
As I look back on “Lines on My Face,” what I think about most is innocence. My innocence. The country’s innocence. Post-Vietnam, post-Nixon, healing. SImplicity.
This is because when I first heard that song, it might have been during one of my last golden moments of pure innocence. The purity in Frampton’s sound on that song that blended his clarion voice, his virtuoso guitar, the unabashed audience participation, all with that classic Major 7/minor chord tension was in complete sync with where I was at that moment. As teen high-schooler, I was between the major and minor in my life and would love a crowds approval.
So too maybe was the country. Perhaps this explains why this sold so many copies.
Also, because I was a guitar player, I could honestly “hear” all the notes and nuance behind the music and all the feeling that was behind them. The song just spoke to me. For that day, it seemed to do so uniquely.
I have come to see it as an “all is right in the world” moment. If we’re lucky, we get to experience those a few times in our lives. If we’re doubly fortunate, we have a moment that is tagged to something like a song that we can revisit again and again.
“Lines on My Face” is that for me. Whenever I hear that song, regardless of what is happening, all is right in my world for that seven minutes. I am young again, full of potential. The world is my oyster.
Funny isn’t it, how I was hoping for a soda and some snacks, and instead got a moment of transcendence.