From the Stacks

From The Stacks: Peter Frampton, ‘Hummingbird In A Box’

The thing about a lifetime as a working musician is that you get really good at what you do.

It’s one of those obvious statements that we never apply to rock and roll. Virtuoso cellist Pablo Casals is often quoted as saying “I think I’m making progress” when asked at various advanced ages why he continued to practice. The subtext varies from “how humble” to “even the greats practice,” but the inherent assumption always remains “a lifetime of practice rendered Casals a master of his instrument.”

But when it comes to rock musicians, old equates to obsolete, played out, antiquated. So and so is such an embarrassment. He can’t play like he used to. Her best years are way behind her. They’ve been writing the same song for forty years. If the unfortunate musician who dared to age once was burdened with sex symbol status, the demands to go sit in the corner and shut up become even more shrill.

Sometimes there’s merit in this criticism. Not every faded rock star keeps his chops up, after all, but more often what’s at work is a sort of ageism. Popular music is a young persons’ game, a cliche that its own purveyors perpetuated. “Hope I die before I get old.” “It’s better to burn out than fade away.” “I want to be forever young.”

Not all young songwriters fell into that trap. Peter Frampton could not have been more than 22 years old when he penned “Lines On My Face,” which alluded to the worry lines creasing the speaker’s brow, but as a boy obsessively dropping the needle on my worn copy of Frampton Comes Alive I heard a world weary narrator.

Frampton certainly had earned his world weariness by age 22, even if it wasn’t overtly expressed in that particular song. The man had been a working musician since age 16, and had tasted success both with the Herd and Humble Pie prior to launching his solo career.  Frampton’s Camel, his sophomore solo album and home to “Lines On My Face” didn’t even crack the top 100. It’s follow up, Somethin’s Happening performed even worse, chart-wise, but things began to turn around with 1975’s Frampton. That album earned a gold record and cracked the top 40.

Things exploded the following year with the release of Frampton Comes Alive, the eight-times-platinum double album that transformed Frampton into a global superstar. His good looks, great songwriting, and exceptional guitar work made the artist a favorite of both casual and serious rock fans. Guys who claimed to hate everything on FM radio begrudgingly granted the guitar virtuoso an exception.

Ten years into his life as a working musician, the kid from Bromley was everywhere: magazine covers, television, radio.  Over the next two years he’d hit the saturation point, starring in the film adaptation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and turning off the Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam with the wimpy “I’m In You” and the even wimpier cover photo for the album of the same name. The backlash was swift and brutal: Pretty Boy Peter Frampton was cast from the rock and roll garden. Even Frank Zappa took to mocking Frampton as part of his act:

Meanwhile, Frampton did what working musicians do: He kept working. He toured. He took the coveted guitar slot in old friend David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down era band. Most importantly, he continued recording albums–13 in all since I’m In You marked the end of his platinum record peak.

In recent years the guitarist relocated to Ohio, where the Cincinnatti Ballet commissioned seven songs for–you guessed it–a ballet. While ballet and Frampton seem like odd bedfellows, the collaboration resulted in one of the most charming albums of 2014.  The title track might be the greatest XTC song that XTC never wrote:

All of which is a long-winded way of saying this. Peter Frampton:

  • is a great performer.
  • a great songwriter.
  • a brilliant guitarist.
  • was wrongly excommunicated from the holy church of the rock for perceived crimes against rock and roll.
  • has only benefited from 50 years of practicing his craft.
  • is every bit as talented entering 2018 as he was in 1968.

Hummingbird In A Box is still in print and is available on CD, vinyl, and streaming services. You can also pick it up at the merch table when you go see him live , which is really the best way to absorb what an enormous talent Peter Frampton remains. I dare you to leave a Frampton gig with your prejudices still in place.

 

2 replies »

  1. Growing up, I liked his songs played on the radio, even “I’m in You”. But I wasn’t a big fan, and never bought any albums. That said, Frampton is one of those whom I’ve never seen perform live but would like to.

    Like

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