Each time an album of any significance is released by a record company, there's an accompanying sideshow that's often more important than the music. That sideshow is called "marketing," or "packaging," and no record company worth its bank account will let a potential big-seller go by without the benefit of a full assault.
No rock performer in the past few years fits the mold of the packaged performer better than Peter Frampton. Frampton's packagin for his album "Frampton Comes Alive" was so good that he simultaneously managed to draw both admiration - for taking an essentially average talent and turning it into a gold mine - and scorn, for being so blatantly commercialized. This from an industry that loves only a winner.
A few years ago, Frampton was a winner. If you turned your radio then, you most likely would hear on of two acts: Fleetwood Mac (from "Fleetwood Mac" and later "rumours") or Peter Frampton, from "Frampton Comes Alive." So complete was this double teaming that it became easy to believe that Peter Frampton was a major star. The illusion stuck, although truly major stars are developed through consistently high-quality material, and all Frampton had was one album, a cute smile and a $200 haircut.
Of course, he really didn't have just one album. In fact, he's paid some relatively tough dues, first as a member of The Herd, then with Steve Marriot in Humble Pie and finally as a band leader (Frampton's Camel) and solo artist. There was an occasional heavey-airplay track ("Something's Happening," "Sail Away," a cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Believe When I Fall In Love"), but basically Frampton was an unknown until "Franpton Comes Alive." After that, though, the publicity machine went nuts.
Frampton had been with Dee Anthony's management firm for a while by then, and Anthony was a firm believer in the work ethic. Back and forth across the country went Frampton is an attempt to make himself known. Luckily, someone had the sense to record the best of his many concerts in San Francisco, and the result was instant fame.
Once that happened, though, things began to turn around for the Dream Machine:
The follow-up to "Frampton Comes Alive," "I'm In you," took long to record and did not do nearly as well as A&M Records. Frampton or Anthony had hoped.
A much-ballyhooed movie contract began withh the disastrous "Seargeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," from which Frampton suffered a terrible critical beating.
He had trouble with his girlfriend.
He broke some ribs on a vacation and spent most of his holiday in the hospital.
No one heard from him for a long time, and many people inwardly snickered while outwardly lamenting how easily the industry could chew someone up and spit him out with no regrets.
But, for those of you who believe that Rocky (and, presumably, Rocky II) is the way life really is, Peter Frampton is back. More accurately, he's attempting a comeback, though you wouldn't know it from the look of his new album, "Where I Should Be." There he is on the front cover in his best Seventeen Magazine pose, hair looking just the way we remember it from all those music awards television shows he seemed to show up on two years ago. Back cover: same hair, cutesy smile.
This immediately draws two reactins. The first is that you have to give the guy credit for coming back as blatatnly packaged as he was the first time around. It takes guts to make the same mistake twice. The second, and stronger, reaction is that he should have a little more - well, humility - if he wants to climb back to the position he once enjoyed. After all, that look might work in People magazine, but it didn't help him after "Seargeant Pepper."
As soon as you listen to "Where I Should Be," you're stuck between emotions again. The single, "I Can't Stand It No More," is rhythmically solid with Frampton's unmistakable guitar work carrying it through. "Got My Feet Back on the Ground" is slightly disco-ish, but not obonxiously so and generally catchy. The title cut (subtitle "Monkey's Song") rocks out better than anything he's done in years. Side two has a winner in "She Don't Reply" and half a winner in "We've Just Begun." After that, there are some problems.
There are two Isaac Hayes covers, "May I Baby" and "You Don't Know Like I Know," and Frampton sounds uncomfortable with both of them. The real clinkers, though, are the ballads. The fact is that Frampton is not a strong songwriter, and when he waxes sentimental he often sounds just plain silly.
To this day, it's a mystery how he got away with lines like "I don't care if they cut my hair" or "Frampton Comes Alive," and here that's rivaled by " . . . glass of wine, that'll do just fine" on "Take Me by the Hand." "It's a sad affair," with forced verses and string arrangements, isn't much better.
So the jury remains out. If this were just any new release, we'd call Frampton an attractive, if lightweight, talent and say that there are a lot of good things on "Where I Should Be" among the weak sisters. Yet this is a man still managed by Dee Anthony, who's no small potatoes. This s a perfomer who still has a big move contract. This is a rock star who, not long aog, sold more two record live albums than anyone in the history of recorded music. He's got a new album and a new tour, but apparently he still has the same approach. "Where I Should Be" is not bad, but it's no "Frampton Comes Alive." It will be interesting to see if this year's version of the packaging sideshow can become the main event a second time around.
PETER FRAMPTON - Where I Should Be - (A&M, SP 3710).
PETER FRAMPTON - Capital Centre, July 23 at 8, with the Climax Blues Band. CAPTION: Picture, PETER FRAMPTON: NOT "ALIVE" THIS TIME.