Peter Frampton Band
Photo: Austin Lord
Peter Frampton On Whether He'll Perform Live Again, Hanging With George Harrison & David Bowie And New Album 'Frampton Forgets the Words'
A year and a half ago, Peter Frampton may have played his final concert. Standing alone at the Concord Pavilion, just north of San Francisco, on October 12, 2019, he didn't want to follow his band offstage at the end of his performance. He didn't want to stop.
"I had to wait until the crowd would calm down," Frampton tells GRAMMY.com. "In the end, I had to shut them up to say 'Thank you.' And I never said goodbye. I just said, 'I'm not going to say goodbye.'" Despite the fact the 70-year-old is creatively active and taking care of himself, the time will come when he has to say goodbye to touring. When? His inclusion body myositis, or IBM, will dictate that.
The degenerative muscle condition, which has no cure, may one day claim his guitar mastery. And at that point, Frampton says, he will stop. But if it's cruel that the COVID-19 pandemic potentially robbed him of his final viable year as a live performer, Frampton doesn't carry any detectable resentment about it. The one-time GRAMMY winner and five-time nominee is too busy playing guitar—and every time he picks up the instrument, he says, it feels like the last time.
That bittersweet parting between a man and his lifelong communication tool colors the Peter Frampton Band's latest instrumental album, Frampton Forgets the Words, which drops April 23 via UMe. (His last album 2007's Fingerprints, won a GRAMMY for Best Pop Instrumental Album; his cover of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" won Best Rock Instrumental Performance.)
Frampton Forgets the Words is a grab-bag of 10 covers of rock songs that just plain move Frampton, and he imbues every lick and line of tunes by Radiohead ("Reckoner"), Roxy Music ("Avalon") Lenny Kravitz ("Are You Gonna Go My Way") and other legacy artists with deep feeling and panache.
GRAMMY.com gave Frampton a ring about the future of his touring career, why he chose these songs, and his relationships with David Bowie and George Harrison—both of whom he covered on this album. Check out Frampton Forgets the Words' version of Bowie's "Loving the Alien," which premieres exclusively above, and read on for the interview.
The pandemic interrupted your farewell tour, yeah?
Yes. We were lucky. I was so, so lucky that we decided to start it in May of '19 because we managed to get halfway through. We finished the U.S.-Canada portion in mid-October. And then, of course, by March, we were shut down. We were supposed to go to Europe in 2020, in May. Realistically, it was the right thing. We're all in the same boat, so it was definitely the right thing to do. But, yeah, it was disappointing.
Did you record Frampton Forgets the Words before or after COVID-19 hit?
Before. It was recorded before the finale tour. We did three, nay, four albums before coming off the road in 2018—again, in October-ish—with Steve Miller. Then, took nine or 10 days off, went straight into the studio and did the All Blues album and another blues album, which has yet to come out. Then, we took Christmas off and in early 2019, we did Forgets the Words.
And then, we started after that, all the way up to April sometime, we were working on my first new solo album since the last one.
Peter Frampton in 1973. Photo: George Wilkes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Were you playing some of the Frampton Forgets the Words tunes during the farewell tour?
No, we were playing stuff off All Blues, but we were not playing anything off the instrumental record. Because it wasn't out yet, and also, that meant we could do some of the Fingerprints instrumentals, like "Black Hole Sun" and occasionally some of the other ones in there from that album.
This album feels very personal, in a sense. I remember reading a past interview where you said your playing has become more soulful over the past few years due to some of the physical issues you've been facing. It sounds like you're profoundly feeling every note of these songs.
I think it's a combination of things. I treasure being able to play so much, and of course, it's weighing on my mind that I do have my muscle disease clock—the IBM clock, I call it. Because I am slowly, slowly, slowly… but it's very slow.
I think it's a combination of having played so many notes over the years—I've chosen what not to play anymore [laughs]—and I feel like every time I pick the guitar up, it's like I'm playing for the last time. So, I put my heart and soul into it, especially on stage. Especially on the finale tour, because the audiences were different every night, but the feeling I got from every audience was exactly the same. It was a phenomenal feeling of them all putting their arms around me and saying, "It's going to be OK." I got chills saying that. But I did, I felt that, and I realized I've touched a lot of people and their lives.
It really brought it home to me, how much my music has meant to so many people. It was just a two-way "Thank you" the whole night, on every show. I have to say, every show. And at the end, I would be left on my own on the stage, the band would leave, and I had to wait until the crowd would calm down. In the end, I had to shut them up to say "Thank you."
They didn't want us to leave. And I never said goodbye. I just said, "I'm not going to say goodbye. I'm just waving." It was just phenomenal. The best experience of my whole career of touring.
That's lovely, truly. I noticed while listening to Frampton Forgets the Words that even without lyrics, each song's intent came through loud and clear. Just your guitar "singing" them. Do you feel the emotions of "Isn't It a Pity" or "Reckoner" come through simply in the melodies and performances when you strip away the verbal element?
Well, I started as an instrumental player because of The Shadows, this incredible pre-Beatles instrumental band that was Cliff Richard's backup band as well. They had so many hits. You would call it "surf music," but we would call it The Shadows. So that's how I started—with very melodic stuff.
Let's home in on "Isn't It a Pity," a song of compassion and tender concern. Your instrumental version telegraphs those emotions even without George's words.
My guitar is another voice. It's like I sing with my voice and I play with another voice. It's always been the most expressive part of what I do, is play. So, when I chose these songs to do instrumental versions of, I chose them because of my capability, of what I thought I could do.
"Isn't It a Pity," I tried to sound like George's voice but in my voice, if you know what I'm saying. It was an emulation of what he was singing. Obviously, with an instrumental, you don't have the second verse with different words to keep peoples' attention. So you have to make it more interesting as it goes along, with the notes you choose.
So, that one is what I enjoyed doing the most. That one and also Roxy Music's "Avalon." I'll play my own trumpet here, even though I play guitar: Brian Ferry's voice on "Avalon" is like, "Is there something coming out?" It's so laid back and I wanted to be able to emulate not the sound of his voice, but the effect his voice had on the listener. I'm very, very proud of the sound and the playing, especially on the verses of "Avalon."
You're terrific at building drama, too. You may not be able to add a second verse, but you can add embellishments that up the ante.
You have to do that. Otherwise, it would be boring.
We're touching a lot of spheres in rock history with this tracklist. What's the common thread between these 10 tunes, beyond the simple fact that you love them?
It's something that these songs all stir emotion within me. Especially Radiohead and even "Dreamland," which is the Jaco Pastorius tribute. I couldn't do most of these songs because as a guitar player, I can't play as fast as he could play on bass!
But it's all a choice of notes. That's the common thread. If you compare "Dreamland" with [Alison Krauss’] "Maybe," which is the end track, it's about the melody. It's about that choice of notes over that chord sequence. And I think it rings true with all of them.
"Isn't It a Pity" has got that diminished kind of chord that George does on the second line, and that just sets it apart from every other song on All Things Must Pass. And it was the first one I heard when I went into the studio. They had already done that track when I sat down and started cutting tracks with them, with George.
I've never forgotten… well, first of all, it's my first time walking into Abbey Road. I'm not going on a tour; I'm going to play on an album with George Harrison and all these incredible players, you know? Ringo, Jim Gordon, Klaus Voormann, Billy Preston. It was just unbelievable. So, I've never forgotten that moment when I heard "Isn't It a Pity."
It's always been the one that just… again if I get goosebumps, you're in!
What was your relationship like with George?
I had a very, very good relationship with George. Apart from meeting him the same day as he asked me to play on the Doris Troy album, and then asked me back for All Things Must Pass, my wife and I—Mary, at the time—would go down to Friar Park, where they lived, and spend time on the weekends with George and Pattie. It became kind of a thing. He was a dear friend and I miss him terribly.
We've got David Bowie in there, with "Loving the Alien." Did you know him as well?
We went to school together. I met David when I was 12 or 13 [years old.] My father was his art teacher in high school for three years. He became—as well as my friend—almost closer to my dad because my dad was the head of the art department and it was every form of visual art known to man, from typography to fine art to you-name-it. History of architecture, the whole bit.
My dad obviously taught everybody, but when there was a student—in this case, a couple; there was George Underwood, who did the Ziggy Stardust cover as well as many others for David, who's a fantastic fine artist, a painter. I have some of his work here. He was Dave's best friend for life.
So, it was the two of them I met. At one point, my dad said, "Well, you boys all play these guitars and this rock 'n' roll music. Why don't you bring your guitars to school, and I'll stick 'em in my office, and you can play them at lunchtime? So we did, and David became sort of more of a family friend.
When we did the introduction to the Glass Spider tour in London, my parents came up and afterward, there was a press conference and we played about four or five numbers. So afterward, my parents were backstage. And I'm talking to Mom and I'm saying, "Where's Dad?" She's saying, "Oh, I don't know. He went off with Dave somewhere!" They would just disappear off together.
When I lost my dad, Dave was the first person to call. That gives you some idea.
Such intimate connections! I also wanted to touch on Radiohead, since they're the most contemporary act of the bunch. What's your relationship with those guys and/or their music? I'm not sure if you know them personally.
No, I don't know them. But from afar, I'm amazed by that band. It's one of the most inventive bands ever, I think, and they keep reinventing themselves with every album, every piece. It's something so special; it's very unique. I mean, every band is unique in some way, but Radiohead are way ahead of their time, I think, which is wonderful.
I can learn so much from them just listening to the way [Thom Yorke] sings, plays, the way they all write, the basic chord sequence and the track and the riff. You know, I delve in there. It's a lesson for a musician. It's a really big lesson listening to any one of their songs.
Let's say, best case scenario, venues start to open this summer. Are you going to try to finish up your farewell tour?
This is where I have to give you the realistic chat. Not you—I have to be realistic because we all have one clock. Well, we've got two clocks right now, worldwide, that we live with. One is our life-clock and one is the COVID clock.
The COVID clock is stopping everybody from being around each other, for good reason, right now, obviously. And the more we stay away from each other, unfortunately, at this time, the better it is. But I have a third clock, which is my IBM—inclusion body myositis—clock. Slowly but surely, unfortunately, I'm losing strength in my hands, my arms and my legs.
It's specific muscles it hits. It picks and chooses the muscles and there's no rhyme or reason for it. They don't know; there's no cure. If it takes another year before we can reschedule any dates, I will have to be realistic to see if my hands work or my legs will keep me up.
That's what I have to deal with, and I think there's a certain level of playing where I won't perform anymore. If I can't play certain things the way I want to—I don't want to be that person to go out there and people feel bad for me because I don't play as good but I am Peter Frampton. That's not going to happen.
If I go out having played my last show [near] San Francisco on October 12, 2019, if that's my last show, then so be it. But obviously, I am hoping more than anybody else that within a year—or if it is a year; I'm imagining it's going to be at least a year—if things aren't doing good, then that will be it for me, unfortunately.
In the meantime, it seems like you're feeling good and you're creatively percolating. What are you listening to lately? If you were to make another instrumental record, what might be on it, based on what you're checking out these days?
Oh, gosh. I can't answer that question. That's a whole thought process I'd need, like, a month for!