Foreigner

 Foreigner

 Lou Gramm – circa 1979

 “Paying the penance / I was longing for home” – ‘Long, Long Way From Home’ (Mick Jones, Lou Gramm, Ian McDonald)

What do you call a rock band consisting of three Englishmen and three Americans?  If you’re Mick Jones, you dub the aggregation Foreigner – because, wherever you play, some of the band will be ‘foreigners’.

The road to the creation of Foreigner is quite a lengthy one.  It starts with Mick Jones.

Michael Leslie Jones is born 27 December 1944 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the United Kingdom.  “Growing up in England, I was drawn to America,” he says.  “Everything from movies to the American music my father listened to.  He collected jazz but was also a great fan of Les Paul and Mary Ford [an American guitarist and his wife, a singer, who performed on record with him].”  Mick says this is “No doubt the genesis of my interest in the guitar.”  In fact, years later in Foreigner, it is a Les Paul model of guitar that becomes Jones’ usual weapon of choice.  Another early influence is “Buddy Holly [the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll pioneer] – that opened the door for me in music [and made me think]…I want to do that.”

Mick Jones forms a band called The Hustlers.  From there, he joins a purely instrumental group called Nero And The Gladiators in the early 1960s.  They have one hit, ‘Entry Of The Gladiators’, in 1961.  The outfit heads to Europe, but Mick Jones drops out and remains in France.  There, he provides guitar backing for French singer Sylvie Vartan and also gets work backing her husband, Johnny Halliday, a sort of French answer to American rocker Elvis Presley.  In January 1964, Sylvie Vartan is the opening act at the Paris Olympia Theatre for The Beatles and the star-struck young guitarist meets the visiting British superstars.  For the rest of the 1960s Mick Jones is a session guitarist, mainly with Johnny Halliday, but the work takes him as far as U.S. locales such as New York and Memphis.

Mick Jones returns to the U.K. in 1970.  That year he becomes involved in Wonderwheel, a short-lived band put together in London by American keyboardist Gary Wright.  A veteran of U.S. group Spooky Tooth, Wright reactivates that defunct band in 1973.  Mick Jones is part of the reborn Spooky Tooth, appearing on the two albums the band records in 1973 and another set in 1974 before Spooky Tooth collapses again in November 1974.  During this time, Jones also plays on recording sessions for British guitarist Peter Frampton and ex-Beatle George Harrison.  After Spooky Tooth folds, Mick Jones does some work with Ian Lloyd of Stories and almost joins The Leslie West Band, the ex-Mountain guitar player’s new unit.  Taking a job as an Artists & Repertoire agent for a record company, Mick Jones fails to sign anyone to a recording contract.  However, this brief stint gives him a lot of new contacts.

In New York City, Mick Jones meets Bud Prager, who will become Foreigner’s manager.  With Prager’s encouragement – and nothing else to do – around 1975 -1976 Jones begins writing songs and assembling a band to play them.  He finds two expatriate Englishmen living in New York: Ian McDonald (born 25 June 1946) and Dennis Elliott (born 18 August 1950).  McDonald was a founding member of British art rock band King Crimson but left that group in December 1969 during their first U.S. tour to promote their debut album.  Elliott played in the band for the short-lived alliance of glam rock stars Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson as they performed in the U.K. and U.S. in 1975.  Al Greenwood (born 20 October 1951) and Ed Gagliardi (born 13 February 1952) are Americans recruited for the enterprise.  The most crucial piece is vocalist Lou Gramm (born Lou Grammatico, 2 May 1950).  “I’d been given an album he’d done with Black Sheep [an obscure ‘70s outfit],” explains Mick Jones, “and that was the album I put on when I was songwriting.  I heard his voice and the connection with the song, and it suddenly clicked that this was the guy.”  Lou Gramm is working on a construction site when he gets a call from Mick Jones asking him to audition.  The results are positive and, in early 1976, Foreigner is constituted as: Lou Gramm (vocals), Mick Jones (lead guitar, vocals), Ian McDonald (guitar, keyboards), Al Greenwood (keyboards), Ed Gagliardi (bass) and Dennis Elliott (drums).

Foreigner spends almost a year writing and rehearsing material.  Atlantic Records are said to have sponsored the act from an early stage, but Mick Jones remembers it a bit differently: “We got turned down by most record companies.  It wasn’t an easy sell.”  It is Atlantic with whom they sign a recording contract though.

Foreigner is often labelled a corporate rock act.  This is not a compliment.  Corporate rock is thought to be created by faceless, anonymous bands with generic names.  Their goal is to appease suited record company executives, rather than fans.  They are rock acts motivated by commerce rather than art.  Most corporate rock acts peddle something like heavy metal, but sweeten it with keyboards and water it down with ballads (‘soft metal’).  It’s like taking a ravening jungle predator and turning it into a neutered, toothless, flabby beast in a cage.

Foreigner is probably the best band ever to be tarred with the brush of corporate rock.  They are better than such a label would suggest.  Some of the characteristics of corporate rock may be present in the sound of Foreigner, but this band should not be so easily dismissed.

The songs of Foreigner can be broken into three categories.  First, there are the hard rock songs.  To call them heavy metal may be an exaggeration, but they are satisfyingly brawny and rough.  Secondly, there are mid-paced songs where guitars and keyboards are held in balance to foster drama and some vaguely artistic outcome.  Finally, though they are in short supply at first, there are ballads, odes to the power of love.

The songwriting is usually a collaboration between vocalist Lou Gramm and guitarist Mick Jones.  Their partnership evokes the Robert Plant and Jimmy Page team from Led Zeppelin, the originators of heavy metal.  Frontman Gramm is a similar curly-haired blonde, but he eschews Plant’s hippie fantasy love-god posturing in favour of a more (American) blue-collar working-man persona.  Like Mick Jones, Jimmy Page too served a long apprenticeship as a session guitarist.  While Jones may not be as inspirationally resourceful as Page, he has a similar gift for knowing how much to contribute on a given track without overloading it.  They share an economical precision.  Another legacy of their studio backgrounds manifests in their production.  While Page produces all Led Zeppelin’s work, Jones always has a co-producer involved; perhaps fearing he is not sufficiently objective about the end product.  Mick Jones is certainly aware of the parallels.  When assessing his goals he says he wants to put his style of music “next to a Zeppelin or [British rock-pop-folk act] Traffic or a Free record (a bluesy Brit rock band] and be proud.  That’s the standard I have to reach.”  However Gramm and Jones lack the personal charisma and mystique of Plant and Page.  This is where Foreigner struggle with the charge of being ‘faceless’; they are not – but neither are they iconic celebrities.

“I’m a strong part of the Foreigner identity,” Mick Jones states.  “They look to me to guide the band.”  Yet, to many in the audience, Lou Gramm is the public image of Foreigner.  After all, he is the frontman.  “Lou and I used to get on pretty well together,” Jones acknowledges.  “Lou’s got a great voice.”  It may surprise some to hear Jones point out “Lou was a tenor”, since most of the time he assumes a gruffly masculine tone.  Certainly Gramm can reach the high notes to good effect, but it turns out that upper register is his native sound; it is when he is singing ‘normally’ that he is really stretching himself vocally to hit those lower parts.  Yet for all his admiration for Lou Gramm, Mick Jones retains a steely grip on the tiller: “Being the founder and the driving force in the band, I direct the band…The songs start with me.”

The debut album, ‘Foreigner’ (1977) (US no. 4), is released in March.  Mick Jones shares production credit with Ian McDonald, John Sinclair and Gary Lyons.  This album has perhaps a higher keyboard quotient than the band’s later efforts.  Appropriately, the first single is ‘Feels Like The First Time’ (US no. 4, UK no. 39), a song about rebirth or new love that makes the narrator reel as though it is happening to a novice.  Mick Jones is the sole author of the song.  “I have waited a lifetime / Spent my life so foolishly,” may be an autobiographical point for a man who spent around fifteen years in the wilderness waiting for this moment.  The rearing guitar riff says just as much about the man though.  Fittingly chilly keyboards introduce ‘Cold As Ice’ (US no. 6, UK no. 24): “You’re as cold as ice / You’re willing to sacrifice our love.”  A strict rhythm keeps frostbite from setting in.  Although ‘Cold As Ice’ is co-written by Lou Gramm and Mick Jones, the latter claims that ‘Long, Long Way From Home’ (US no. 20) “was the first song that Lou and I collaborated on.  It echoed a lot of [Lou’s] anxiety about moving to New York City [from his previous place of residence, Rochester, New York].”  Over a decaying guitar riff and synthesisers that open out like the musical equivalent of a grand dame’s fan, Gramm sings “I was inside, looking outside / The millions of faces, but still I’m alone.”  Ian McDonald shares a songwriting credit with Gramm and Jones for ‘Long, Long Way From Home’.  ‘Starrider’, co-written by Mick Jones and keyboardist Al Greenwood, takes a stab at some science-fiction in both the lyrics and the synthesiser sound effects.

‘Double Vision’ (1978) (US no. 3, UK no. 32) is Foreigner’s best effort.  On this set the band rock harder with an earthy self-assurance.  Keith Olsen co-produces with Mick Jones and Ian McDonald.  The first single from the album, ‘Hot Blooded’ (US no. 3, UK no. 42), is Foreigner’s best song.  Mick Jones explains that it “came together in the studio out of a riff, in about ten minutes.  It was also the first time my [guitar] amp[lifier] ever caught fire in the studio, and that was a good sign,” he laughs.  “Well I’m / Hot blooded / Check it and see / I got a fever of a hundred and three,” bawls Lou Gramm, his voice rising on the title and the words ‘got a fever’.  All around him, guitars snarl.  This sort of no-holds-barred, reckless aggression shows Foreigner at the top of their game.  It never descends into chaos; control is always present.  However, it is the feeling that things are only a moment away from collapsing into destructive combustion that gives the song its tension.  Scarcely less satisfying is the title track, ‘Double Vision’ (US no. 2).  The hot guitars on this number are matched with some punctuating horns.  Gramm grinds his teeth over lines like “It’s time I had a good time, ain’t got time to waste / I wanna stick around ‘til I can’t see straight.”  Mick Jones laughs “Everybody…thought it was a drug song [but] Lou came up with the title after a [New York] Rangers [ice] hockey game where the goalie had suffered a concussion…[and] double vision.”  ‘Blue Morning, Blue Day’ (US no. 15, UK no. 45) is a more arty, half-paced number.  In this precision soap opera of love gone wrong, Lou Gramm sings “Well honey, don’t telephone / ‘Cos I won’t be alone / I need someone to make me feel better.”

Between Foreigner’s second and third albums, the band sheds bassist Ed Gagliardi.  Filling the role of new bassist is Rick Wills (born 5 December 1947).  Like Mick Jones, Rick Wills has also worked with Peter Frampton (1972 -1974).  In addition, Wills spent time in the ranks of two legendary British bands, Roxy Music (1975 – 1976) and The Small Faces (1976 -1978) – albeit not the best known versions of those acts.

Rick Wills’ debut with Foreigner is ‘Head Games’ (1979) (US no. 5).  “I liked the double entendre,” admits Mick Jones of the album’s title and the title track, ‘Head Games’ (US no. 14), whose despairing tone is buttressed by what Jones describes as “guitar-synth power rock.”  On this disc Mick Jones and Ian McDonald co-produce with Roy Thomas Baker.  Troubled by some critical flak for the band’s ‘polished’ sound, the album’s best known song, ‘Dirty White Boy’ (US no. 12), displays what Jones calls “a little more earthiness”: “Are you worried what your friends see?” ask the lyrics.  “Will it ruin your reputation loving me? / ‘Cos I’m a dirty white boy.”  The singer sounds short on time, an impression reinforced by the racing guitar riff.  Despite the presence of other strong songs like ‘I’ll Get Even With You’ and the album’s ‘subtle brand of rock’, ‘Gramm and Jones feel that the album fails to break any new ground.’

The result of this soul-searching is a shake-up of the band’s membership.  Ian McDonald and Al Greenwood are shown the door and not replaced.  Instead, Foreigner becomes a four-piece band consisting of Lou Gramm (vocals), Mick Jones (guitar, keyboards), Rick Wills (bass) and Dennis Elliott (drums).  Their new status is reflected in the title of their next album, ‘4’ (1981) (US no. 1, UK no. 5), which is also the fourth Foreigner album.  Mick Jones shares production duties with Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange.  This disc certainly finds the band exploring new territory.  The first single, ‘Urgent’ (US no. 4, UK no. 54), is built around a rubbery guitar and throbbing bass, but is most notable for a scorching saxophone solo from Jr. Walker, who had some (almost) instrumental hits on Motown Records in the 1960s.  Mick Jones, who writes this song by himself, says “I channelled [Rolling Stones vocalist] Mick Jagger a bit…I had the whole lyric done in a half hour.”  The lyrics gasp “Your desire is insane / You can’t stop until you do it again.”  If ‘Urgent’ is surprising, even more startling is ‘Waiting For A Girl Like You’ (US no. 2, UK no. 8).  This is Foreigner’s first full-blown ballad.  As a band better known for hard rock, this could have been a disaster, but instead proves quite effective, thanks in part to self-effacing lines like “So long / I’ve been looking too hard, I’ve been waiting too long.”  Helping the case is a quite different sonic palette.  ‘Waiting For A Girl Like You’ is largely played on synthesisers, computerised electronic keyboards.  Helping Jones out is Thomas Dolby, an English pop-boffin scoring some synth-heavy hits of his own around this time.  Mick Jones relates the story behind ‘Juke Box Hero’ (US no. 26, UK no. 48): “We were at an arena in Cincinnati, [Ohio, in the U.S.A.] and a kid had been waiting there all day, so we took him backstage and let him sit on the side of the stage.  I kind of wrote it through his eyes.”  ‘Juke Box Hero’ is actually co-written with Lou Gramm, but ‘Break It Up’ (US no. 26) is a solo Jones composition.  These two songs are a bit closer to the standard mid-pace dramatic rock Foreigner had frequently plied, but no less impressive for that.  ‘4’ is also very commercially successful, justifying the risks taken.  For Jones, perhaps the sweetest part is “We finally got acceptance [in the U.K.] on that album.”

In 1982 Mick Jones marries socialite Ann Dexter-Jones.  She comes complete with three children: Mark, Samantha and Charlotte Ronson.  Jones himself has two sons, Roman and Christopher Jones, from a previous relationship.  Together, Mick Jones and Ann Dexter-Jones go on to have two more children, Annabelle and Alexander Dexter-Jones.

’4’ was such a huge album internationally, there was an onus on us to deliver yet again,” acknowledges Mick Jones.  “It took its toll on the next album, ‘Agent Provocateur’.”  Co-produced by Alex Sadkin and Mick Jones, ‘Agent Provocateur’ (1984) (US no. 4, UK no. 1) is heralded by ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1).  A solo Mick Jones composition, this is most obviously the big ballad designed to appeal to the same audience as ‘Waiting For A Girl Like You’.  It avoids some of the comparisons by toning down the synths and giving it a gospel feel thanks to backing vocals by the New Jersey Choir with Donnie Harper and Jennifer Holiday.  “We all got together in a circle and said ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ before we recorded that track,” Jones notes.  Over trudging sounds, Lou Gramm’s agonised vocals wails “In my life there’s been heartache and pain / I don’t know if I can take it again.”  The dramatic ‘That Was Yesterday’ (US no. 12, UK no. 28) finds the singer declaring “But now I stand alone with my pride / And dream that you’re still by my side.”  Jones describes this as “One of my favourite songs on that album.  It has a maudlin feel to it…”  The mid-paced ‘Down On Love’ (US no. 54) is possibly the best of the rest.

Between this and the next Foreigner album, Lou Gramm releases his first solo album.  From this comes the song ‘Midnight Blue’ (US no. 5).  It almost sounds like a Foreigner out-take, possibly due to the sheer familiarity of Gramm’s voice.

‘Inside Information’ (1987) (US no. 15, UK no. 64), the next Foreigner album, shows some strain.  Lou Gramm is present but, in the words of Mick Jones, “it had become very difficult.”  The guitarist elaborates, “It was pretty clinical; I’d basically prepared the tracks and Lou came in and sang them very professionally.  But it wasn’t the old partnership.”  Frank Filipetti shares production duties with Mick Jones.  The highlight may be ‘Say You Will’ (US no. 6, UK no. 71), a romantic stand in which the singer demands “Say you will / Say you won’t / Make up your mind tonight.”  ‘I Don’t Want To Live Without You’ (US no. 5, UK no. 91) is this album’s loved-up ballad with electronic keyboards.  Like previous ballads by Foreigner, this one is written by Mick Jones alone.  Sounding like a car crashing into a computer, ‘Heart Turns To Stone’ (US no. 56) chronicles love gone wrong with the words “Now it’s over / And her heart turned to stone.”  The lyrics go on to note “She’ll do fine on her own.”  Does it foreshadow a separation of a different kind?

In 1990 Lou Gramm leaves Foreigner.  According to Mick Jones, “It was that softer ballad stuff he didn’t want to do.”  Equally important is ‘the singer’s desire to focus on his solo career.’

Johnny Edwards is brought in as lead vocalist for ‘Unusual Heat’ (1991) (US no. 117, UK no. 56), but this Foreigner album is ‘largely ignored.’

Drummer Dennis Elliott leaves Foreigner in 1991.  Johnny Edwards and Rick Wills follow suit in 1992.

If Mick Jones is not faring so well without Lou Gramm, the opposite also proves true.  The Atlantic Records executives tell Jones and Gramm to make up.  With Bruce Turgon (bass), Jeff Jacobs (keyboards) and, less officially, Mark Schulman (drums), the new look Foreigner records ‘Mr Moonlight’ (1995) (US no. 136, UK no. 59).  Ironically, by this time Atlantic Records have dropped Foreigner and this effort is issued by Rhythm Safari / Priority.  The disc is ‘only a moderate success.’  The album’s best effort, ‘White Lie’ (UK no. 58), toys with embedding acoustic guitar into the band’s pop formula.

Mick Jones and Lou Gramm again part ways.  Kelly Hansen is the man given the gig as Foreigner’s new lead vocalist in 2005.

Mick Jones and Ann Dexter-Jones divorce in 2007.

Foreigner continues to tour with Mick Jones and an increasingly unstable membership list, filled with hired guns and short-term fill-ins.  ‘Can’t Slow Down’ (2009) (US no. 29, UK no. 105) on Rhino Records is a three disc set with one new studio disc, one disc of remixes, and a DVD documentary.  This is followed by ‘Acoustique’ (2011) on AIS Records.

It’s a shame that Lou Gramm and Mick Jones couldn’t seem to resolve their differences.  However, it may be an illusion to think everything would have been alright if they did.  In reality, when they found themselves at odds at the end of the 1980s, Foreigner’s time seemed to have passed anyway.  All things run their course and, thanks to Foreigner, Mick Jones and Lou Gramm made a mark in a way that would not have been possible had they doggedly remained with, respectively, Nero And The Gladiators and Black Sheep.  Sometimes change is a necessary part of life.

When Mick Jones first put together Foreigner with three Brits and three Yanks, it meant they would always be considered outsiders wherever they played.  They had no home town crowd, no native groundswell of support. To combat that, Foreigner had to develop an approach flexible enough for different markets.  Although this led to possibly inaccurate accusations of generic facelessness, it may really have produced a more universal kind of music.  Foreigner created a sound for the world, rather than any specific country.  Foreigner was a ‘hit machine whose music dominated pop radio in the 1970s and 1980s…’  ‘…With Lou Gramm’s asbestos-throated vocals injecting undiminished passion into [Mick] Jones’ songs.’

Sources:

  1. wikipedia.org as at 10 June 2013
  2. ‘Foreigner – The Definitive’ – Sleeve notes by Jerry McCulley (Rhino Entertainment Company / Atlantic Recording Corp. / Warner Music Group, 2002) p. 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12
  3. KLOS Los Angeles (U.S. radio program) – Mick Jones interview conducted by Heidi Hamilton and Frank Kramer (30 October 2012)
  4. ‘The Virgin Encyclopedia Of Eighties Music’ – Edited by Colin Larkin (Virgin Books, 1997) p, 192
  5. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 86, 88, 113, 128, 217, 248
  6. allmusic.com, ‘Foreigner’ by Greg Prato as at 24 July 2013
  7. 1991 Foreigner radio interview – Mick Jones interview conducted at the Capitol Tokyo Hotel by Shinji Hyodo and Osamu Masui (Steve Harris – interpreter)
  8. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 185, 197

Song lyrics copyright Somerset Songs Publishing, Inc.  Additional publisher on ‘That Was Yesterday’, ‘Say You Will’ and ‘Heart Turns To Stone’ – Stray Notes Music.

Last revised 19 November 2013

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