Staying alive

Peter Frampton was an overnight pop sensation. For Ashley Kahn, his music is synonymous with the Ame

"Everybody in the world has Frampton Comes Alive!: if you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide."
Wayne Campbell, Wayne's World 2

I was talking with a friend who is a music company rep. "You know they're bringing out a special edition of that live Frampton album - next January." I hadn't heard that name in aeons, but it was bound to reappear: in this post-millennial era, when our cluttered, collective cultural attic is picked through and its contents are held up for reappraisal (think VH1's Behind the Music and other re-examinations of the Sixties and Seventies), Peter Frampton's number has come up. A knowing smile and upward glance, like those reserved for special moments when reminders of bygone trends are mentioned, passed between us.

I was poised mentally to delete the update, but that internal wheel of nostalgia creaked forward. Peter Frampton . . . the British rock'n'roll heart-throb who came from nowhere to claim chart-topping honours in the US in 1976, but then disappeared from the pop radar only three years later. From the outset, Frampton had pedigree and promise galore in the UK: a teenage recruit to London's The Herd in 1966; a young star hailed as "The Face" the following year; co-founder, with ex-Small Faces guitarist Steve Marriott, of the rock group Humble Pie, with whom he finally grabbed a toehold in the US. In 1971, Frampton split from the group to go solo; he worked, gigged and recorded through three years and five albums, eventually exploding into success with his double live album Frampton Comes Alive!.

I recalled the time and context of that album. I recalled handling the album cover and listening until I knew every lyric, guitar break and scratch on my well-worn copy. And I recalled how deeply that music was interwoven with my memories of being a 16-year-old American basking in the red, white and blue glory of that bicentennial summer.

Ask any American between the ages of 30 and 50 about 1976 and images of tall ships in New York Harbour or bombs bursting above Washington DC will come to mind. Or the face of Gerald Ford, America's first and only non-elected chief executive, having consecutively replaced a scandal-ridden vice-president (Spiro Agnew) and president (Richard Nixon). A substantial number of American citizens can still see Ford, smiling as he rang the cracked Liberty Bell in Philadelphia on that special 4 July (now there's a metaphor).

And we can still hear the true anthem of '76, not singing of "broad stripes and bright stars", but simply declaring, "Baby, I Love Your Way".

No mere one-hit blunder, Frampton proved a phenomenon, a rocket whose glare came as a surprise to all. He was one of the first rock newcomers - albeit no stylistic revolutionary - to break through the established ranks of the chart-topping pop and rock elite. Frampton Comes Alive! muscled aside albums by the Eagles, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Fleetwood Mac to rule the Billboard charts for ten weeks, starting in April '76. The haloed image of the boyishly attractive, long-maned guitarist and singer that graced the album's gatefold cover was as ubiquitous as the flags that began to drape every office building and window display in the country.

Frampton was a pop chameleon. He leapt across the social boundaries of the day. He was British and a hippy, but good-looking and clean enough for mainstream America. He satisfied a youthful demographic, from pre-teen through twenties, and looked great in denim or silk shirts, or no shirt at all. His music likewise covered a broad spectrum of musical formats: unabashed pop sentimentality dressed in rock clothing. Frampton could jam on guitar, plying smooth lead solos over a hard-rocking band as he wistfully sang non-threatening lyrics. His message - like the question posed in his hit "Do You Feel Like We Do" - was one of unity. But it wasn't a call to arms or action: it was an invitation to - as we used to say - "party hearty". The sound of his crowd screaming and singing along on his bestselling live album underscored his wide-ranging appeal.

Frampton offered a celebration of coming together to those who were missing - or had totally missed - Woodstock. I have only to recall a certain concert he headlined in Cincinnati, Ohio, and that mid-teen thrill of belonging as I surveyed a T-shirted throng of kids who looked, talked and rocked like me. But Frampton's rallying cry was heard well beyond his primary domain in the marijuana-hazy interiors of the arena-rock circuit. By September '76, there he was, personally invited to the White House, watching TV with the family Ford.

Then it struck me: if the sound of that summer was Frampton, his out-of-nowhere success seemed more than just a happy, bicentennial coincidence. An almost palpable rosy, upbeat haze had settled over the country during those warm months that was common to his songs and to the national spirit. It was more than just patriotic pride or the invitation to one helluva coast-to-coast birthday party. To maturing baby-boomers and counter-culture holdouts - and to many on the other side of the great American generational rift - '76 was a time of healing and unity, of flag-waving rather than flag-burning.

What the Beatles had been to a post-Kennedy, mid-Sixties America - innocent and still reeling from the bloody assassination - Frampton was to wide-eyed '76: a musical salve for a post-traumatic, transitional period. His music - particularly that one album, which everyone seemed to own - temporarily held together a majority of a US society that needed encouragement and pause. It was as if all the social promise of the Sixties had been rekindled, and Frampton's music was the perfect soundtrack to fan that flame.

I remember the time vividly. That shared, energised zeitgeist stood in stark contrast to the collective downer America had endured for the preceding five years. It had all started as the decade opened and an entire generation awakened to the fact that the great Sixties party was finally over. And to what affect?

"Nothing's really changed . . . The dream is over, it's just the same, only I'm 30 and a lot of people have got long hair, that's all!" John Lennon complained in 1970. The sentiment was echoed on the far side of the Atlantic: "If the goal was to get everybody to have long hair and take drugs," Country Joe McDonald remarked a year later, "then the revolution is over with, and we've succeeded."

In the US, the onset of the Seventies had many long-haired heads bowing. All that had been fought and sung and marched for seemed to have worked in reverse. Promising a turn to the right as never before (at least, that's what he said through his spokesmen), Nixon was in the White House; in 1972, he was re-elected. American forces were still in Vietnam, and the conflict was actually escalating, even expanding into Cambodia. Plus the war was now literally being fought at home. Billy clubs had been used to strike down protesters in 1968 at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago: but in 1970, it was real bullets that felled students on Kent State campus.

Fast forward to 1975. The wedge-issue of Vietnam was tucked away for ever (save for some luckless veterans) as US forces had pulled out in 1973, and Saigon fell two years later. In August 1974, the Watergate affair had finally drawn to a close; Nixon boarded a helicopter and was gone. Shining brightly was the promise of a new administration to replace the lame-duck Republicans in their last year in the White House. No wonder the halcyon days of 1967 seemed to be back - not only back, but perhaps even better. Word was that even the president's son Steven was getting high in the White House basement.

On the twin (and often siamesed) stages of American politics and pop culture*, 1976 was the year of the outsider. The American electorate - fed up after years of Washington's insider game, laid bare by the Watergate scandal and by Ford's dubious pardoning of Nixon - was helping to propel the campaign of a Bible-and-Bob-Dylan-quoting governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter.The surprise success Rocky, starring newcomer Sylvester Stallone as an amateur boxer who comes out of nowhere to challenge and almost defeat the reigning champion, was lighting up movie screens nationwide. Even the usually staid country music audience was embracing a new breed of "outlaw" songwriters, as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings spearheaded an outsider takeover of Nashville. And then there was newcomer Peter Frampton, blaring from every FM radio that spring through to the end of the year.

But, as 1977 broke, so did the wave of popularity and praise that Frampton had ridden to the top. His brief year-and-a-half run in the spotlight ended with one more US Top Ten hit - the sugary pop ballad "I'm In You". Ill-advised career moves (overmilking his poster-boy good looks, taking on the lead role in the film fiasco Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) helped return him to rock journeyman status.

While Frampton was slowly fading from America's collective pop conscious, the country's downcast, cynical outlook returned. As 1977 progressed, Carter's well-intentioned ineptitude ran up against Washington's wilful indifference. The clouds that had parted the year before began to gather again. Headlines defining unsolvable social and economic ills - with the new president apparently ill-equipped to be effective - led the national spirit into a slow decline. This time, the Sixties were truly over, and so was that Indian summer of hope that had briefly flowered the year before.

Wherefore Frampton? He never again came close to the pinnacle he attained during that summer of '76. Undaunted, he rocked through the end of the decade and over the next 20 years, touring with former schoolmate David Bowie in 1987 and reuniting with Humble Pie co-founder Marriott in 1990. This summer, a shorn and less skinny Frampton returned to the big screen in Cameron Crowe's retro-rock film Almost Famous - playing a Humble Pie tour manager, and serving as an "authenticity consultant" on the project.

Meanwhile, Frampton Comes Alive! comes alive again. The reissue my friend mentioned is being prepared for the album's 25th anniversary early next year, complete with a copy of the original tour programme, new, never-before-heard material and new liner notes.

In 1886, ten years fashionably late, the French chose to mark the US centennial by unveiling a statue that still stands proudly on an island overlooking lower Manhattan. A century later, the United Kingdom - through an unofficial cultural ambassador - offered its own gift of something appropriate to the era to the former colonies on their 200th birthday: Frampton Comes Alive!. It still stands as the third most popular live album of all time and, for at least one patriotic American soul, still rings with that ephemeral spirit of '76.

Ashley Kahn's Kind of Blue: the making of the Miles Davis masterpiece will be published next spring by Granta Books

Frampton Comes Alive! is available from HMV shops or through the store's website:

* If you think the star-studded boost that pop culture is giving Al Gore this year is anything new, think again. In the first national election following Watergate, the rules had changed: private contributions were limited severely and federal matching funds were made available to presidential candidates with enough support to last into 1976. By the end of 1975, the Jimmy Carter campaign was running on fumes. The Georgian governor approached one of his earliest supporters from his home state, who also happened to manage one of the hottest, most profitable rock acts in the US: the Allman Brothers. The group agreed to do three benefits for Carter (or more accurately, to put up the proceeds of three upcoming, sold-out concerts), and that was good enough for the bank. With a rock-sponsored loan in his pocket, Carter coasted into 1976, received federal matching funds, and eventually strolled into the White House (literally, as he eschewed the imperial limousine ride).

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