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 Frampton’s riff 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. His four solo studio albums 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 I’d appreciate his fluid playing because I was a guitar player. I heard a few cuts in John’s car, but they never grabbed me for whatever reason.
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 pickups, 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 being the ballad “Lines On My Face” and 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 opens Lines, you hear the fans.
I would later learn the crowd was a distinctive feature of FCA. This crowd responds to every lyric, every musical twist, and most famously, every nuance of Frampton’s talk box device during “Do You Feel Like We Do.” 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. There’s hardly any audience interaction on that one. FYI – those were the two best live albums at that time.
The audience mix on FCA is unusually prominent compared to them. Later live albums, like “Cheap Trick Live at Buddahkan,” would take this mixing to the extreme where the audience overpowers the performance.
Part of the appeal of FCA was they got the audience/band mix precise, and it sounded fresh. Like you were there.
Keep in mind this FCA mix came out concurrent with new stereo systems that could exploit these subtleties of sound. The Cummings’ stereo, with some terrific KLH monitors, 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 a “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 lay 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 was so fluid and technically perfect. Then the bends. Perfect 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 seemed like a throwaway improvisation, was terrific. Plus, I had not heard much about this type of Major 7 jam. It wasn’t on Fillmore East or Lived 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 complements Les Paul’s lines. The tom-tom accents, the higher octave bass runs, all the time leaving space for everything to be heard. These are good musicians. Frampton concludes with another incredible flourish of notes, greeted by a very appropriate smattering of applause for the solo.
Frampton sings, “There’s so many people, my family and friends.” The crowd, hanging on every word, applauds again.
The audience is fully engaged.
What the hell am I listening to? Who is this Frampton guy? Where did he come from? Who does concerts like this, anyway I want to be there, watching this.
Wait! I sort of am there – perhaps that’s why I am so 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 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 primary mode.
The song ends.
Wow. I mean, really, wow. That was something.
It 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, a real showcase for his guitar playing.
FCA was the high watermark for Peter Frampton, and despite going on to win Grammy’s and tour with others, it will always be FCA for which he is most remembered.
Nostalgia is a messy business, as it’s still primarily self-referential and, I dare say, a bit romanticized. So take this with some salt.
As I look back on “Lines on My Face,” I think about innocence most.
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, and 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 a teen high schooler, I was between a major and minor and would love crowds approval.
As a guitar player, I could honestly “hear” all the notes and nuance behind the music, feeling what was behind them. The song spoke to me. For that day, it seemed to do so uniquely.
It was an “all is right in the world” moment that, if we’re lucky, we get to experience a few times in our lives. If we’re doubly fortunate, that moment is tagged to something like a song that we can revisit again and again.
“Lines on My Face” is that for me.
Funny. I was hoping for a soda and some snacks, and instead got a moment of transcendence.