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Interview: Peter Frampton’s Early Years

Frampton discusses growing up with David Bowie, discovering the talk box, and London in the ’60s.

Before he performed the shows that would be heard on Frampton Comes Alive! in the summer and fall of 1975, British guitarist Peter Frampton had hustled for the better part of a decade. In 1965, at age 16, he dropped out of school and joined U.K. band the Herd, started Humble Pie two years later, and released four solo albums that were met with lukewarm critical reception, despite the name he was making for himself.

But everything changed with this two-disc set, which found a 25-year-old Frampton wowing audiences in San Francisco and Long Island with his groovy meanderings on the talk-box guitar and catchy pop-rock songs like “Baby, I Love Your Way” and “Show Me the Way.” The recording hung tenaciously onto the Billboard charts for 97 weeks and now ranks as the biggest-selling live album of all time.

It’s been almost four decades since Frampton Comes Alive! was released and, unlike many albums of its vintage, it has maintained its vitality, appealing to fans both old and new. On account of the excitement that still surrounds this behemoth, Frampton has been revisiting the album in its entirety in concert since 2011, with a three-hour show that adds selections from his most recent efforts, Thank You Mr. Churchill and 2006’s Grammy-winning Fingerprints. The best moments of this tour so far have been gathered on FCA! 35 Tour: An Evening With Peter Frampton, a deluxe two-DVD/Blu-ray (Eagle Rock) and Best of FCA! 35 Tour, a three-CD set. In the first installment of this two-part interview, Frampton discusses the events in his storied career that led up to the breakthrough he found in Frampton Comes Alive!.

Let’s talk about your earliest musical experiences. You were a classmate of David Bowie’s—what was that like?
We were at the same school—my father, Owen Frampton, was head of the art department. I met him when I was 11 and he was a couple of years older. I asked my father if he knew of anyone in the school who was into rock and played guitar, and he mentioned David, so I just sort of gravitated toward him. We’d meet on my dad’s art block during lunch, which had some really cool echo due to its stone steps. And we would just jam together with another student, George Underwood, who would later do album covers for Bowie and others. Your first instrument was your grandmother’s banjolele. What was her history with it, and do you still have it?
I think my grandmother played it in a little vaudeville band—she was a big fan of the theater. She gave the banjolele to her son, my father, telling him, “Maybe one day Peter will want to play this—it’s a good instrument for little fingers to start on.” One day I went up to our attic to retrieve a suitcase for summer holiday, saw the banjolele and said, “What is this?” And that was how it all started. Unfortunately, I no longer have the instrument.

What was your first 6-string?
It was a no-name, nondescript plectrum guitar—a steel-string acoustic that probably came from Germany, because I just learned recently the reason we in England had Hofner, Hagstrom, and all these Japanese guitars was because there was an embargo in the 1950s on stuff from the U.S. That’s why Cliff Richard brought back a red 1959 Strat for Hank Marvin to play with the Shadows and it was like Nirvana. England was in a bit of a state then. I remember when I was 5 going to the local government building to get supplies of fruit juice that were rationed for children.

Your earliest influences were obviously rockers like Buddy Holly.
Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent—all those American ones—were definitely a big influence. Like all my contemporaries, I was also into the Shadows. I knew every lick of Marvin’s and learned them all by ear by putting a needle on a record over and over again—there was no form of computer program to slow things down so I could stand a chance of easily learning music. When I was 11 or 12, my parents saw that this was serious and that I needed classical training or “professional help,” as they called it. That’s when they found me a classical guitar teacher, Mrs. Susan Graham, who taught very close to where we would get the rations. So I went to her for about three or four years until I turned pro at 16 and left school to join the Herd.

I understand your father played you records of Django Reinhardt. Did that have a lasting effect on your playing style?
I think so even probably more today than it did back then. When I was starting to play I wasn’t thrilled with the sound on Django’s recordings. I wanted to hear electric and he was playing acoustic. But it didn’t take long for me to think, “Holy crap, nobody plays like him.” To this day, I’ll sometimes find that a Django part I’ve learned has filtered into my repertoire of licks and penetrated my style.

What was it like to be a music aficionado in 1960s England?
If there was a place to be in the ’60s it was London—well, one of the best places, anyway. I keep going back to the Second World War. We were the first generation to emerge from two generations of wars and we had the freedom to do stuff that we were unable to do because of the strife in our formative years. So London became very creative with a lot of new music starting there. In the mid-1950s everyone mostly played skiffle, but all of a sudden in the 1960s there were so many great and adventurous rock bands. I was very lucky to be in a circle with Bill Wyman, a very dear friend of mine, and we’d go to town and hear amazing performances like Jimi Hendrix in a small club. It was a truly great period.

How did your approach to the guitar progress as you played in the Herd and then Humble Pie?
During the Herd period, [keyboardist, bassist, and vocalist] Andrew Bown and I were very much into Jimmy Smith and Kenny Burrell and Groove Holmes—the organ-based jazz groups of the time. We were also taking in a lot of blues, the Kings like B.B. and Albert, which all the other young musicians seemed to really gravitate toward. These influences really manifested in my playing when I joined Humble Pie; I played not just straight blues licks, but something more lyrical. The combination of the two American sides—blues and jazz—was very important to me and began to show in my playing.

When did you first discover the talk box?
I first heard it on the radio sometime in the 1960s because stations would use such effects to do their call sounds, and I remember wondering what it was. A while later, I was doing sessions for [George Harrison’s] All Things Must Pass [1970], playing acoustic. Peter Drake, a pedal steel player from Nashville, was also on the record. During a slow moment in the studio he got out this little box with a pipe, plugged in his steel and started playing. Finally I knew where this sound was coming from. I asked Peter where he got it from and he said he made it, so that was a bummer. But not long after that, Bob Heil, who had done Humble’s sound, started making talk boxes and gave me one as a present. I used it right away in the studio for “Show Me the Way” before the Comes Alive! LP came out, but it wasn’t until I brought out the talk box live that I realized its full power.

Could you describe this power?
The audience would just go crazy. They would laugh and hoot and howl, which they do to this day, even though they might have been desensitized to such sounds through the whole Auto-Tune phenomenon. I recently ran into Joe Walsh, who plays the definitive talk box on “Rocky Mountain Way,” and we started talking about being the two guys known for the talk box. We shared a laugh about how audiences are still like, “What the hell is that?”

Has the talk box caused you any dental problems?
In the past I might have made comments to that effect, but truthfully, no. I have cut the inside of my mouth before when the tube was roughly cut, but nothing with the teeth—that’s all fallacy. The thing about the talk box, though, is you’ve got to keep it clean. When I tour I use a different plastic pipe each night, for hygienic reasons, though in the ’70s I used to sanitize the tubing by sticking it in alcohol—Rémy Martin brandy, to be exact.

You moved to America from England in 1975. Musically speaking, what was the transition like?
The transition really started in 1969—that’s when I first came to America with Humble Pie. It was a shock because there was so much more music available here than in England, where we basically had one radio station and some pirate stations. But here it was amazing to hear music other than what the BBC decided to play. FM radio was all the rage in America, and we’d turn the dial and go: There’s a jazz station! Another jazz station! A blues station! We were definitely like kids in a candy store.

Watch for Part Two of this interview, coming soon!

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