Peter Frampton on David Bowie’s Gift, the Authenticity of ‘Almost Famous’ and Remaining Music-Driven Despite Muscle Disease
“My creativity has jumped since I’ve been off the road,” reveals Peter Frampton, who retired from regular touring at the end of 2019 due to inclusion body myositis— a progressive muscle disorder that produces inflammation, weakness and atrophy.
Frampton shares the story of this diagnosis—as well as the full sweep of his career—in the memoir Do You Feel Like I Do?, which has just been issued in paperback. The engaging narrative begins with his years as a teenage guitar prodigy, who finds early inspiration through his friendship with David Jones (later Bowie), a student of Frampton’s art teacher father. The book then offers his perspective on Humble Pie, Frampton Comes Alive and a series of triumphs and travails that continue to this day.
In April, the guitarist released the all-instrumental album Frampton Forgets the Words, a worthy follow-up to his 2006’s Grammy-winning, Fingerprints. Frampton says that there’s much to follow, including a blues album—the sequel to 2019’s All Blues—and another solo record currently in the works. “This is a period in my life where I can do whatever I want musically,” he adds, “and I’m experimenting with all new types of material.”
A portion of your book tracks your efforts to shed your identity as a pop idol, which began with Frampton Comes Alive. Did you always have faith you’d come out the other side?
At the time where everything falls apart in the early ‘80s, before the Glass Spider Tour, I thought that was the end. I said, “I’m never gonna do anything ever again.” The fall was as quick as the rise. One day, I was the flavor of two years and then, the next day, I was not. It was a depressing period for me.
I didn’t realize what David’s gift was going to do for me. My feeling was, “Oh, my God, Dave and I are gonna play on the same stage at the same time every night for the first time since we’ve known each other.” We’d played the same venue the same night, but never at the same time—always in different bands. So it was just a dream come true for me.
It wasn’t so much that he was David Bowie—this was something that we started back in school, and this was the completion of the circle for me. Then, along the way, I realized that people were talking about me being the guitarist in David Bowie’s band, not being a teen idol. It was after I toured with David that I decided to put my band together again and start touring in ‘92. So David set the whole thing in motion with that huge gift he gave me.
Your Footprints album put an exclamation point on that. As you returned to the all-instrumental approach for your latest record, was there a particular song that revealed itself to you in a new way as you were recording it?
I thought that “Reckoner” and “Avalon” were the two most inventive ones. Even though my guitar couldn’t sound like Bryan Ferry, I wanted to play it in the register that he sang in. I know that album Avalon back to front, it’s one of my all-time favorite records. There are very few perfect albums, but that’s one of them. I could have done any of the songs, but I went with “Avalon” because it’s a personal favorite and I felt that I really did get his idiosyncrasies with his singing.
I took the same approach with the Radiohead song [“Reckoner”], and I really felt good about it.
Almost Famous celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2020. As an advisor and songwriter for the film, do you have a favorite scene?
My job was to keep everything as authentic as possible. Cameron [Crowe] and I have been friends since he was 15 or 16; we don’t know for sure. He was the guy who wrote the liner notes for Frampton Comes Alive. On Almost Famous he’d asked me to keep everything really authentic—the correct amp, the correct guitar, the correct microphone, all that stuff. Then he asked me to turn Billy Crudup into a cross between Jimmy Page and Paul Kossoff. So, during much of the time in preproduction, I was there teaching him the solos that either Mike McCready or I actually played.
Early on, Cameron came up to me and said, “What’s one thing that Billy could do that would totally convince you, as a guitar player, that he was actually playing what you’re seeing?” I said, “When he’s got his fingers on the notes that are correct, he should pluck the right string, then he close his eyes and look upward.” So we passed that on to Billy way before the shoot and put that in his head.
Then we got to the big live scene where they’re finally playing the big arena. On the day of the shoot, John Toll— the Academy Award-winning cinematographer—put a set of headphones with the mic on me and allowed me to be one of the people calling the cameras. He said, “You know this music better than I do. You wrote some of it. Tell them what’s going to happen in four or five beats.” So I was doing that and then there was this one moment where I was standing next to Cameron, looking at Billy, who had his hands in the right place. Then, he closed his eyes and put his head back. I looked at Cameron, and we high-fived like crazy.
In your book, you reveal that you would often iron before a show. That’s a rather dangerous undertaking for someone who relies on his hands. Was there ever a mishap?
I would have an iron and an ironing board because it calms the nerves. I remember being on this tour with Alice Cooper, and the way that he would get ready is he would watch the worst horror movies ever made. So he would watch bad horror movies, I would iron and others would do other things.
Later on, I ditched the iron and used the steamer. When I did my two tours of duty with Ringo and the All-Stars, Gary Brooker was the keyboard player. I loved Gary and, one day, he asked me to do his jacket for him. I told him that he should do it, but he didn’t have the technique down and he shriveled his jacket up. I kept saying, “You’re a little close there Gary; you’re a little close.” [Laughs.]
You book ends with a simple, fitting question: “How do you feel?” How would you answer that at this moment?
I feel very positive. I know I have this muscle disease and I know where that’s headed. I’m not obviously going to be on the road for any considerable amount of time. If I do go out, it will be one-offs.
Every day, I get up and I write and record demos. I’m definitely still music-driven, I just won’t be on the road so much. I miss that part terribly, but I also don’t miss it because I’ve relaxed into this new person. For so many years, I was on the road, and now one of my children is moving to Nashville with my granddaughter. So it’s a very exciting period for me.