Stayin' Alive

Twenty-four years ago, Peter Frampton was a Rock God, a curly, feathered-haired totem on the peak of Mount Olympus. In 1976 he was Rolling Stone's artist of the year, the magazine's cover shot and every girl's poster boy. Even now, his huge breakthrough Frampton Comes Alive! remains the best-selling live album ever: 16 million copies and still going, a back-catalog mover even after the man has moved from arenas to clubs to county fairs.

Which brings us to the year 2000 and Frampton's day job: He has spent the last few months working with his old friend Cameron Crowe, helping the writer-director make a film about his early days as a journalist for Rolling Stone. Though Frampton is credited as one of Almost Famous's technical advisers, he likes to refer to himself as the "authenticity person," the guy who made sure 1973 looked and sounded like 1973. He even appears briefly in the film as Reg, the tour manager for Humble Pie.

"I've only been involved in one other movie, and it wasn't a great movie," he says, referring to Robert Stigwood's garish, laughable 1978 film version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. "I don't even really want to mention it in the same sentence as Cameron's movie, to be honest. This is definitely.Look, I've been in the worst rock movie, I've been in the best. What can I tell ya?" Frampton laughs, loudly.

Crowe -- who wrote the liner notes to Frampton Comes Alive! and, violating the cardinal rule of rock journalism, remained friends with the musician -- hired Frampton to teach the film's fictional band how to look, sound and act like 1973 rock stars on the way up. After all, the story of the band, Stillwater -- featuring two actors (Billy Crudup and Jason Lee) and two musicians (John Fedevich and the Red House Painters' Mark Kozelek) -- reflects Frampton's: In 1973 he was a young up-and-comer, opening for Black Sabbath and convincing himself that even if he failed on his own, he could always fall back on his career as a session man. Frampton taught the actors how to dress, how to hold their instruments, how to hold themselves on stage, even what to be thinking while playing (usually, not a damned thing). They obsessed over the details -- they wanted to know how to wear their guitar straps -- and Frampton obliged their every question and every request. Days were spent learning parts; nights were spent watching old videos.

"For instance, Jason asked, "Why am I doing this?' " says Frampton by way of explaining the rigmarole of Rock Performance 101. "And I said, "Well, basically it's two things. You're supporting a big headliner, Black Sabbath, so if there are 10,000 people there in an arena, you want to make sure that when you come off the stage, 2,500 of those are gonna be new fans. That's your job. You wanna play in front of as many people as you can in a short space of time, because you're on the up. Your album is starting to move, and you wanna get over.' Then he wanted to know about relating to an audience, and I said, "Well, for me, when people leave, I want them to feel as though I directed something toward them individually, so that I've involved the whole audience.' A lot of bands don't play like that. A lot of people in '73 came on with their back to the crowd and dissed the crowd, but I think this band was more go-get-'em, I-want-you. [Lee's character] Jeff Bebe wanted that audience. He wanted the fame more than anything, so I told [Lee], "You're going out there to get as many new fans as you can.'

"They would ask, "What am I thinking during a solo?' I told Billy, "My mind goes blank. I just get involved in the moment.' I told him that I'm thinking, "I don't want to play the same way I played last night. I want it to come from somewhere else, so I am always trying to reinvent myself musically, ya know? If I am not nervous before I go on, what's wrong? Something's wrong.' It was that sort of stuff. I mean, I do remember all that. I remember 1973. Now 1976 was a little blurry." Frampton laughs again. He comes alive.

To even the most rabid true believer, Frampton's discography starts and stops with one album, despite the fact he co-founded Humble Pie with ex-Small Face Steve Marriott, appears as a session guitarist on such albums as Harry Nilsson's Son of Schmilsson and George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, and released four solo albums between 1972 and 1974 and more than ten since 1976, including the just-released Live in Detroit on CMC International, the label where dinosaurs go before they turn into fossils.

Frampton knows how he turned into a footnote: Simply, he fucked up. He killed his career in mid-sprint; he sabotaged his fame by following orders instead of giving them. He knows he shouldn't have released a studio album so closely on the heels of Alive!, but his label at the time, A&M Records, insisted. He knows he shouldn't have agreed to appear in Sgt. Pepper, but he did anyway. At the time, it seemed like a good idea, the chance to play the Beatles' immortal Billy Shears in a film that starred the Bee Gees, Steve Martin, Aerosmith and George Burns. At the time, Frampton was excited, telling Crowe in Rolling Stone that it was "a labor of love," considering how much he adored the source material. But like most things in the 1970s that seemed like a good idea, it definitely was not. The soundtrack went platinum, but wasn't worth it. Twenty-two years later, Frampton tries not to even mention it. Almost Famous, on the other hand, will make a nice feather in the 50-year-old guitarist's once-feathery hair.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky