IF IT WEREN'T FOR ALL YOU LITTLE PEOPLE . . . WHY PETER FRAMPTON OWES IT ALL TO THE CROWD

Live albums? Why, they're either contractual obligations or shameful cash-ins for someone who's just bolted from his record label. More often, they're the measure of an artist whose best work is behind him.

Take Paul McCartney. His albums barely go gold anymore, so it's no surprise that he's released three live recordings this decade. That's more than the Beatles released in three decades! Dylan, always good for a bad live set every few years, is currently enjoying his best critical notices in eons with his Unplugged album. You can practically write the Rolling Stone review--he's back, he's semicoherent, he's wearing polka-dotted shirts again just like at Newport in '65!

Or how about Elvis Presley? In the seven years before the King konked out, he'd racked up 11 live albums. Almost all of them contained either "Blue Suede Shoes" or "Can't Help Falling in Love," and all bore his pork-chop-sideburned, white-karate-suited likeness on the cover. Since Elvis' rotten studio reject albums from that era had those same identical live karate action poses on the sleeves, you'd need flash cards and the Colonel to tell those records apart.

You could hardly say Peter Frampton's best work was behind him when he released his breakthrough live album in 1976. Five years earlier, the lead guitarist exited Humble Pie, which coincidentally had just achieved its breakthrough success with a double live album recorded at the Fillmore. In the years that followed, Frampton issued four poor-selling solo albums. The first time most people heard any of the songs those albums contained, it was with the roar of the adoring crowd behind it.

In this way, Mr. F's success in the live-recording format mirrored that of Sixties singing star Johnny Rivers. In 1964, this unknown Baton Rouge singer, with producer Lou Adler, hit upon a winning formula the first time out with the "recorded live, very live!" Johnny Rivers Live at the Whisky A Go Go. This was followed by the unapologetic sound-alike, look-alike sequels Here We A Go Go Again! and Meanwhile Back at the Whisky A Go Go. When folk rock became the rage, Johnny trudged back to the Whisky armed with a set of Dylan and Kingston Trio covers for Johnny Rivers Rocks the Folk. No matter that it appeared as if no other nightclub in L.A. would book Johnny, or that some of these albums were studio re-creations no more live than Sgt. Pepper was, people bought 'em up. And when the formula was sufficiently milked dry, Rivers and Adler invented another one--a Golden Hits--LIVE! album!

Add up the sales of all those Johnny Rivers albums and you wouldn't even come near the 16-million-plus units sold of Frampton Comes Alive!. The Wayne's World joke that if you lived in the suburbs you were issued a copy of Rumours certainly held true for Frampton Comes Alive!, as well. Surely any teen with a birthday that bicentennial year was given at least one copy of Frampton Comes Alive!.

If ever there was an audience that deserved a royalty check for services rendered, it's the 5,400 in attendance at the Winterland that night. If only the members could've somehow met after the show and incorporated into something like Comes Alive, Ltd., they could've made a fortune hiring themselves out to arena bands like Journey and Foghat to spice up loads of listless live albums that followed in Frampton's wake.

With the exception of the abusive crowd on Iggy Pop's Metallic K.O. album, every other live-album throng pales in comparison to Frampton's. Even the tanked-up teens on Kiss Alive! seem to settle down somewhat by side two. Not this Winterland bunch. It's like a Frampton infomercial where everyone is fervently pumped with the belief that Peter and his revolutionary talk-box gizmo are going to make life easier for us all. Why else would this crowd go gaga for even a simple acoustic instrumental like "Penny for Your Thoughts"? Sure, it's nice and all, but what's really going on here? Is someone sawing a woman in half behind Frampton's back? Is Pete standing on his head and painting with his feet while playing? Except for some truly stunning music on side four, you wade through most of Frampton Comes Alive! with the mindset of, "Hmmm--it's all right, but it's not THAT great!"

In all these years, no one's ever unearthed a Frampton Comes Alive! video so we could actually see what all the whistling and cheering were about. This is probably because no one's ever asked to see one.

Discounting New Kids on the Block, no other superstar act has ever risen and fallen as quickly and as harshly as Peter Frampton. Checking out Frampton live at a downsized venue near you, 20 years removed from any hype, might help you to fill in the blanks. Or else you can sit down and examine the recorded evidence, if you haven't long since gotten rid of your copy of Frampton Comes Alive! at the local Goodwill.

The album kicks off with "Something's Happening," a song not unlike "Something's Coming" from West Side Story in its embrace of the unknown. In his modest way, Frampton captures the anticipation of the crowd waiting for a concert to start, even though this particular concert has, in fact, already started.

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