‘There were 8,000 people going nuts for us in San Francisco. The band were on fire. And we ended up with the best-selling live album of all time’
Interviews by Dave Simpson – The Guardian
‘I’ve got a week left to write it’ … Peter Frampton in 1976, a year after the single’s release. Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy
Peter Frampton, singer, songwriter
When I was 11, I saw this guy on the steps of our school playing sax and singing Elvis Presley songs. I asked my father – the school’s art teacher – who he was. He said: “Oh, that’s Jones.” I said: “I want to be him.” We became great friends, and “Jones” became better known as David Bowie. David used to tell a story about seeing me on Top of the Pops with the Herd and going: “That’s Peter! Why isn’t he in school?”
I also played guitar in Humble Pie with Steve Marriott from the Small Faces, but wanted to lead my own band and do some singing. After my first three solo albums flopped, I was convinced the record company were about to drop me.
I had three weeks off, so took my guitar to Nassau in the Bahamas to write another album, knowing it was probably make or break. I bumped into Alvin Lee from Ten Years After at the airport and thought: “I won’t get any work done now.” I don’t remember anything about the next two weeks, but after Alvin left I thought: “I’ve got a week left to write the album.”
The next day I messed around with my acoustic and in about 20 minutes came up with the chords that became Show Me the Way. I had some lunch and a little swim and under a palm tree I then wrote Baby I Love Your Way. Both songs are about the girlfriend I was about to start living with. With Baby I Love Your Way, the sun was setting, so I wrote: “The shadows grow so long before my eyes.” The moonlight brought the fireflies out, so they went into the song, too.
When we recorded it, the drummer, John Siomos, said: “This is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.” But the album [Frampton] flopped. Everything turned around after we recorded a live album in San Francisco, our first big headline show. I was so nervous I forgot that it was being recorded, but to my surprise 8,000 people were going nuts for us. The band were on fire. I really meant what I was singing, and the inspiration of so many people screaming at us meant we really captured something. The live versions of Show Me the Way and Baby I Love Your Way became massive hits, and Frampton Comes Alive! was soon the best-selling live album of all time.
We recorded the studio version of Baby I Love Your Way in a castle in Gloucestershire, using Ronnie Lane’s mobile studio. The idea was to get away from London and the label, not that they interfered much. It was more a manor with a few turrets than a full-on medieval castle, so not too goth, but dank and miserable. There were balls and chains and armour.
Quite often when anyone’s under pressure in music, you find that something special happens very quickly. Peter was listening to a lot of Stevie Wonder and was impressed that Stevie played every instrument on his records, so Peter did that, too – everything except the drums, and he’s a really good drummer!
The live version is more stripped down, faster, with more electric guitar. Peter sings his heart out. He wasn’t really noted as a singer so he wanted to make his mark, and he succeeded. The energy of the live album feels as if there’s sunshine on it – Big Mountain kept that feel for their reggae cover version – whereas on our initial album version it was probably pissing it down with rain.
People always ask me whether the live album was overdubbed. It was all live apart from a keyboard part we had to fix because a lead came out on stage. Frampton Comes Alive! was never intended to be a double album. Peter’s manager went: “Nobody will want to listen to the whole gig.” But, when A&M Records owner Jerry Moss came down to listen, he said: “Where’s the rest of it?” So we had to go back in and mix the rest. After the live album came out, Peter couldn’t go out on his own because he’d get mobbed. In New York, girls would be jumping on him – not just a few but loads of them – trying to rip his clothes off. It was insane.