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.

"We'd like to get a bit funky now," happy-go-lucky Pete declares on "Doobie Wah." Doobie Wha? is more like it--this is "Listen to the Music" with Pete as Carlos Santana filling in for Jeff "Skunk" Baxter. When you consider that Led Zeppelin already plundered "Long Train Running" for "Trampled Underfoot" and the Bellamy Brothers also scored a hit with their "Listen to the Music" clone "Let Your Love Flow," it's surprising no one has made a tribute album to the Doobie Brothers yet. Maybe there's some unwritten law that a rock band can't have a tribute album if it's appeared on an episode of What's Happening!!.

"Show Me the Way" introduced millions of people to the gimmicky guitar gadget known as the talk box. Much of the talk box's appeal lies in that it sounds disgustingly dirty, as if someone is vomiting into a vacuum-cleaner attachment. On the album's 14-minute talk-box demonstration disc "Do You Feel Like We Do," Frampton puts it in his mouth to say "I want to thank you." No doubt many teenaged girls thought he was saying "spank you." That had to be good for at least three million units sold right there!

Frampton's major Achilles' heel was his lyrics. Nearly every song reveals an unhealthy dependence on his audience's approval for guidance and strength, as if the soon-to-be-ordained superstar is not in control of his own actions. Lines like "I want you to show me the way" and "I can't believe this is happening to me" betray a helplessness unbecoming for someone who wants to remain on the top of the pop dung heap. Also note how most of his songs contain the word "want"--"Want to be with you night and day," "I want to go to the sun," "All I want to be is by your side," "I want to take your love"--never an "I'm gonna" or an "I will." Though "I'll Give You Money" adopts a take-charge role, Frampton's next album punches the "I" word straight into presumptuousness: I'm in You. And speaking of You, dig Framp's liner notes from the album, second only to Lou Gehrig's legendary "I'm the luckiest man in the world . . ." speech in the choked-up department. Because of the confidence--You have given me, I dedicate this album to all of You.

Apparently, he wasn't as "in" all those "Yous" out there as he thought; though the album went platinum, its sales paled in comparison to Comes Alive! and signaled a downward spiral that has led him from stadiums to more "intimate" venues.

But, to hear Peter tell it, it wasn't just the recordings that dampened his career. Frampton concludes in the Joe Smith book Off the Record that posing shirtless for fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo killed any serious notion of him as a musician. "I didn't realize what a split-second photo like that could do," he says. "It just got to the point where the image had totally overridden everything else. Suddenly, I was appealing just to teenage girls. Everyone forgot I could play guitar."

Perhaps Frampton could've survived being reduced to a guitar-toting Farrah Fawcett if he had had a couple of boss tunes. Unfortunately, "I'm in You" was a wimpy teen-idol song when he needed some grit. Frank Zappa had no trouble lampooning it with his merciless, narcissistic spin on groupiedom "I Have Been in You."

Frampton's appearance in the career-killing film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band didn't help his credibility, either. Luckily, Frampton got into a car wreck in the Bahamas, which spared him from the humiliation he would've faced had he attended the film's gala premiäre in New York City. At one point during the viewing of this hollow, overdone extravaganza, Peter's character, Billy Shears, is on a ledge about to commit suicide. One look at his forlorn, puppy-dog face and the jaded Times Square audience could barely contain itself. Reportedly, people began screaming "Jump! Jump!" and laughed at every wasted frame of celluloid.

Although his next album was titled Where I Should Be, Frampton seemed clueless as to how to salvage his career. By 1981, he was floundering with Breaking All the Rules, a hopelessly late attempt at toughening up his effete image. The cover, featuring leather-clad Pete lighting up a cigarette, strained for a toughness that couldn't be found anywhere in the grooves.

So we left Frampton typecast as a nice, shirtless guy who used to be great live. If he was worried about his teen-idol image, he could've grown a beard like he did in 1968 when he left his teenybopper band the Herd. But that would be repeating himself. So would making another live album, something he has resisted for almost 20 years. He could've done a Johnny Rivers and just kept churning out live albums like Frampton Comes Alive--Again! or Something Frampton This Way Comes--Alive!. He could've even tacked a Roman numeral onto the original title (a trick used by Meat Loaf and Kiss) and repeated past glories, but he did none of these. His need to prove himself in a recording studio pre-empted anything that clever.

For all Frampton's weaknesses as a recording artist, he seems like a pillar of strength compared to the man who eventually trounced Frampton Comes Alive!'s record sales, Michael Jackson. Currently, the Pathetic One is under the misguided, nay, demented notion that he can top a fluke like Thriller by releasing a greatest-hits package with most of Thriller's nine cuts repeated on it. But Frampton is smart enough to know you can't go home again. Even today he says, "I do not have a clue as to why Frampton Comes Alive! was so big, but it was."

Give him credit for something.
Peter Frampton is scheduled to perform on Thursday, June 8, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with And I Am. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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