The Phenix Returns
Peter Frampton is back with his legendary Phenix guitar on his latest all-instrumental album Frampton Forgets the Words (23 April, 2021; Ume), and it is both nostalgic – in the best possible sense - and highly accomplished.
Nostalgic because Frampton is suffering from a disease, inclusion body myositis, which affects his muscles and may diminish his capacity to play in the future. Consequently, before the pandemic, he had embarked on what was considered to be his farewell tour. It is also wistful because the guitarist has selected a diverse group of songs that span a lifetime and many of the artists are, or were, his close friends. And finally it is nostalgic because the videos accompanying the songs portray images ranging from Frampton pondering the meaning of life – with humour – to photos, for example of him, his father, and his childhood friend, David Bowie.
The idea of a mytholgical bird rising again from the flames to live once more is present throughout. This is because his 1954 Les Paul Phenix guitar, which was lost in a plane crash in 1980 and recovered more than 30 years later, is front and centre again; because the album was recorded at Frampton’s own Studio Phenix in Nashville, Tennessee; and because despite his serious medical issues, the great man is still here, giving it his all.
Frampton, of course, has nothing left to prove having co-founded Humble Pie at 18, played with musicians of the calibre of Jerry Lee Lewis, George Harrison, Steve Marriott, and Ringo Starr, and produced one of the best live albums of all time; 1976’s Frampton Comes Alive! With so many fans, practically anything he does would find an appreciative audience, but with Frampton Forgets The Words he uses his great skill with guitar tone and phrasing to replace the human voice with a sound that stimulates in an entirely different way.
Co-produced with Chuck Ainlay and backed by Frampton’s tight support band, the new album is his first all-instrumental release since the Grammy Award-winning Fingerprints in 2006.
The album opens with Frampton’s take on Sly & The Family Stone’s funky If You Want Me To Stay, on which he finds a lovely tone. It has been suggested that the choice of this song title may be a wry reference to his muscle disease, and given the humour on display throughout the record and videos, that would be no surprise. More of a surprise was the choice of Radiohead’s Reckoner, but Frampton captures the mood superbly on his Phenix and Hofner guitars.
Covers of Marvin Gaye’s One More Heartache and George Harrison’s Isn’t It a Pity are well turned, and both give nods to Frampton’s youth. The latter provides an opportunity to reflect on the pandemic and lockdown blues in the accompanying video, which also features some uplifting personal moments towards the end.
Far more punchy is the rocking cover of Lenny Kravitz’s anthem Are You Gonna Go My Way, which Frampton says immediately stood out for him when he was selecting songs for the record. “It’s balls to the walls on that one…,” he comments, “it is a great track and an original song that turned out well; we are very pleased.” For different reasons Frampton was also pleased with his cover of Bowie’s Loving The Alien as the two had been friends since school and later toured together on the Glass Spider tour in 1987. The video features lovely archive footage of the pair chatting and laughing together as they leave Madrid’s Plaza Mayor having wandered through the city ‘looking for a beer’ for an MTV clip.
On Frampton’s cover of Roxy Music’s Avalon he plays his Gibson ES-335 Block Inlay electric guitar, while on Stevie Wonder’s lesser-known I Don’t Know Why he seems to have a tear in his eye when he explains how powerful the song is for him. Of course it helps that the Motown icon also happens to be his mate: “I have at least 25 Stevie Wonder albums [but this song] hit my emotion button because it starts off very quiet with a clarinet part and gradually builds until he is screaming at the end. It is our tribute to the great Stevie Wonder, a dear friend… I hope you like it Stevie!”
Frampton Forgets the Words is diverse, gentle and surprising in turns. It is unlikely to win Frampton new fans but he already enjoys a huge following, many of whom will appreciate this nostalgic trip through songs and stories that have moved him. It is a poignant moment for Frampton as he might lose the capacity to play at any time but he is evidently facing the future with strength, stoicism and humour. At what may have been his last concert in October 2019 he says, with his arms outstretched: ‘I'm not going to say goodbye!’ with a highly content and broad grin on his face.