The British child singer was “The Face of 1968” in Rave Magazine when he was The Herd’s teenage guitarist, and he became a bona fide sensation as the guitar hero in Humble Pie in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His debut solo album, 1972’s Wind of Change, was well received critically and commercially, but his next three — Frampton’s Camel, Somethin’s Happening and Frampton — barely made an impression. In fact, he was on the verge of throwing in the towel on his solo career when he recorded a live album at San Francisco’s Winterland as a thank you to his loyal but cultish fan base.
When Frampton Comes Alive was released in January 1976, it barely grazed the bottom of Billboard’s Top 200. But steady airplay on FM radio turned the album into a sensation. Frampton Comes Alive ultimately became one of the biggest-selling live albums in history, spending 10 weeks at No. 1 and selling more than 16 million copies (reissued in 2001, the album still moves units today).
His next career moves: The platinum-selling but largely disappointing I’m in You and a starring role in the ill-conceived Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film.
Frampton’s subsequent solo career has been defined by similar highs and lows, but his current roll has been all upward. His 2006 instrumental album Fingerprints won a Grammy; his latest album, Thank You Mr. Churchill, is generating great press; and his ongoing tour with Yes is doing good business in a slumping concert economy.
“We were a great team back in the ’70s, Yes and myself, and we seem to have put one of those packages together again where one and one equals three,” Frampton says. “We’re very lucky. We’re selling out! I’m very surprised, but pleasantly. We’re talking about going around the world because this is such a good package.”
This year might turn out to be one of Frampton’s best in quite some time. Mr. Churchill, released less than a week after Frampton’s 60th birthday, has been generally well received. Although more than a few critics have hailed the new album — which marks his reunion with engineer/producer and longtime friend Chris Kimsey — as featuring some of the best guitar work of his career, Frampton brings an artist’s perspective to the observation.
“It’s never good enough for me,” he says, laughing.
“It could always be better. The beauty of having Chris Kimsey there is that he knows when I’m flogging a dead horse and he also knows when he feels that we’re two takes away from something that I’ll be really pleased with. I’ve been producing my stuff alone for so many years, it’s (nice) to have that independent pair of ears and mind, and someone who’s so simpatico. We’ve known each other so long and our cores have not changed. We’re still the same people.
"To spend three months in a basement with any other man would be difficult, but with him it was easier. We had our moments when we were both frustrated, but that frustration pushed us to greater things.”
Mr. Churchill might stand as one of Frampton’s most intensely personal yet still wide-ranging albums. There’s an autobiographical nature to the title track (which veers into a call for peace) and “Vaudeville Nanna and the Banjolele,” he examines normal celebrity life in “I’m Due a You” and “Invisible Man” is a Motown tribute (featuring the label’s legendary Funk Brothers). Those tracks are balanced by songs like “Asleep at the Wheel,” the story of a Japanese girl kidnapped by North Koreans to help train spies to pass as Japanese citizens, and “Restraint,” where Frampton tears into Wall Street over its big bailout.
All of the songs, written during and after the Fingerprints sessions, came from a deeply personal space and are much more raw and visceral than the previous album’s textural instrumentals. With around 50 songs to choose from, Frampton had an interesting dilemma in arriving at Mr. Churchill’s 11 tracks.
“It’s just a feeling,” he says. “(The track) ‘Thank You, Mr. Churchill’ was the beginning of the concept, because I wanted to look back as well as look forward. Over the last few years, I’ve lost Mom and Dad — everyone goes through it — and the day you suddenly sit up and go, ‘Wait a second, I’m an orphan,’ you start to look at the past in a different light. My brother and I had terrific parents with great values, and we were always a close family.
“That’s another reason for ‘Asleep at the Wheel,’ thinking that there are people that weren’t born with the face cards that I got dealt from the top of the deck. Even though it was inspired by Megumi, it brought me into thinking that we don’t have a choice who we’re born to.”
Part of Mr. Churchill’s vitality (and that of Fingerprints, as well) comes from a less obvious but incredibly important aspect of Frampton’s life, namely his move away from myriad substances that had been counterproductive to his creative output for a good many years.
“I make no secret about it: I’m working on my eighth year of sobriety, and it’s been a very fruitful and inspiring time for me,” he says. “It sounds corny, but it’s been one of the best periods, if not the best period, of my life. I’m older, so one hopes one has some wisdom, but if I was still using I don’t believe there would have been Fingerprints or Thank You Mr. Churchill.”
Perhaps the greatest source of pride for Frampton on Mr. Churchill is the vocal on “Road to the Sun,” provided by his 21-year-old son Julian, a budding artist in his own right.
“I’ve got my own Steve Marriott!” Frampton exclaims of his son’s vocal prowess. “No one will ever be Steve Marriott (Frampton's colleague in Humble Pie), but he’s such a good singer and writer and he just gets better and better, so I’m very proud. My quality control is pretty high, and if my son didn’t cut it he wouldn’t be onstage. The boy can sing.
"I think that the next project I’m going to do after the world tour is I’m going to help him put his album together. The boy writes two or three songs a day. He drives me crazy, and I mean that in the best possible way.”
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