Foreigner burst onto the crowded musical scene of the late 1970s. There was every kind of rock, pop, disco, funk, country-rock and R&B going on, so everyone was welcome.
Foreigner had a crunchy guitar and synthesizer groove, fitting comfortably with Styx, Journey, REO and some of the new bands like Boston, AC/DC, and Heart.
These guys came ready to play. Formed in 1976, the band was a mixture of American and Brit players. Guitarist and main songwriter Mick Jones was a member of Spooky Tooth with Gary Wright. Guitarist/saxophone/reed player Ian McDonald cut his teeth in King Crimson. Lead vocalist Lou Gramm came from a band called Black Sheep. At this point, Foreigner was a sextet, other members being bassist Ed Gagliardi, keyboard player Al Greenwood and drummer Dennis Elliott.
Foreigner, recorded in 1976, produced three top twenty singles including “Cold As Ice” and “Feels Like the First Time.” The album reached number four in the chart and sold in excess of five million copies. Not bad for a rookie band.
Double Vision came a year later, with the same formula but a more mature sound, and eventually sold more than seven million copies. Producer Keith Olson (Journey, Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac) worked with the band in this album.
“Hot Blooded” was the lead single peaking at number two, followed by “Double Vision” also a top five hit. “Blue Morning, Blue Day” also broke the top twenty.
In my opinion, Double Vision was the peak of their success. Foreigner’s sound was hardly groundbreaking but they offered some interesting songs with an method of arrangement that stood out from other bands. Double Vision was their strongest overall set of songs, no filler, and no overproduced ballads.
Gagliardi would leave the band after this album, replaced by Rick Wills. Cracks were already appearing in the band.
Their next album, Head Games, to be a step down in originality.
The single, “Head Games” was popular but derivative of their past sound. Overall, the album sold five million copies and reach number five, but it was more of a holding pattern.
Prior to recording their next album, Ian McDonald and Al Greenwood were fired from the band. Session musicians would be used to provide the horn and keyboard sounds. This was becoming more Mick Jones’ band, and the contributions of others would be missed, both in the writing and arrangements. Jones formed the band, while he was the boss, he could have benefited from the creative friction; it certainly helped on the first two albums.
The resulting album, 4, was a shift towards more keyboards and infusion of ballads. “Mutt” Lange joined as the producer. “Urgent” and “Juke Box Hero” were the uptempo songs, and “Waiting For a Girl Like You”
4 rose to number one on the charts and sold over seven million albums. So, wouldn’t this make it a more successful album than Double Vision? On a popularity level, yes. Creatively, not in my opinion. I found 4 to be somewhat bland and lacking in much originality. By firing the other members, Jones essentially stamped out other creative voices. Lange was hired to help realize Jones’ singular vision (get it?). Even Gramm admitted that the band did not yield to producer’s stamp, they used producers ideas but made the music their own.
4‘s success was ultimately their downfall. How can you replicate that? To make is worse, the record company released a greatest hits album, capitalizing on their success.
Gramm felt the band’s sound was getting too soft, too middle of the road. In an interview with CBS Sunday Morning in 2015, Jones said that Gramm disclaimed any affection for the song, and that bothered him.
Three years later came Inside Information, which managed to sell one million copies, less than their past albums. “Say You Will” was the highest reaching single, followed by the bland “I Don’t Want to Live Without You.” Again, Jones could construct songs fitting radio format but was becoming Adult Contemporary artists, and less trendy, rock musicians. The bold rocking sound of a decade ago was gone, in favor of landing singles on the corporate pop charts.
Lou Gramm left the band, to be replaced by Johnny Edwards for Unusual Heat (1991), peaking all the way down the chart at 117. “Lowdown and Dirty” is not one the band’s best tracks. Rick Wills and Dennis Elliott left the band.
After several greatest hits albums, Mr. Moonlight, with Gramm returning, appeared in 1995. The album barely reached 136 on the chart and produced no hits.
In 1997, Gramm underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his brain. After he recovered, he continued to perform with the band, but eventually left, due to issues between him and Jones. Gramm firmed his own band.
In 2005, singer Kelly Hansen joined the band, along with other musicians hired by Jones. The band continued touring and in 2009 released Can’t Slow Down, a three-disc collection sold through Wal-Mart. One disc was of original material, the second was mixed greatest hits, and the third a DVD of Live tracks. It sold well and was their highest charting album in years.
In 2012, Jones suffered a heart attack and underwent surgery. He was away from the band for nearly a year. When Foreigner performed without him, there were no original members of the band on stage, making it essentially a tribute band. It’s not unusual for bands to lose members, but when the only original member left isn’t present?
In 2013, Gramm and Jones were inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, where they performed together for the first time in a decade.
This led to some soul searching. “I look back on it now, I couldn’t have been easy to work with in those days,” Jones told CBS Sunday Morning. “I knew what I wanted. I was pretty domineering.” Asked if had regrets. “Yes, I do. We did do something pretty good together.”
Since 2013, Gramm has occasionally performed with Jones, but not on a permanent basis. Greenwood, McDonald and Wills also marked Foreigner’s 40th anniversary playing periodically with the current Foreigner lineup.
Recently, Gramm and Jones sat down with Dan Rather for The Big Interview, where they talked about their health and their years together.