When I was in 6th grade, my class was given the assignment of choosing our favorite songs and creating visual representations of those songs with photos and/or drawings and paintings. This was before the computer age, so you basically had 25 kids raiding their parents’ and neighbors’ magazine collections to cut out pictures. In some ways it wasn’t so different from some of those horrible fan-made videos you see on YouTube where somebody has gone in an extremely literal direction with pictures illustrating a song’s lyrics (for example, a road if the song mentions a road, a moon if it mentions a moon, and so on). We, to an unimaginative ‘T’, did the same thing, old-style.
We were to bring the song in on a cassette tape and the teacher would play it on a boombox while we stood in front of the class, presenting our masterpiece of cut and paste. At the time I was very into the Beach Boys and chose “Sloop John B”, proceeding to fill a handmade booklet with pictures cut out of my father’s sailing magazines. I don’t remember any of the others, apart from a lavishly illustrated tribute to John Denver‘s “Rocky Mountain High” by a quiet blond girl, and Foreigner‘s “Juke Box Hero”, a fairly new song at the time, chosen by the rocker girl in the class. I remember her standing at the front with her feathered hair, ripped jeans and a defiant look on her face. She didn’t want to be up there doing this dorky thing, but at the same time this was her music, man. Previously, she’d been someone on the outskirts of the class, a little intimidating, but here she was standing in front of everybody with probably the most rock song chosen in the whole class.
And that’s how Foreigner was perceived back then by us kids – they were cool and had an edge. There was no “corporate rock” tag hung on them yet, at least not one that had filtered down to our age level. As well, time hadn’t relegated them to the dusty “classic rock” pile and the songs hadn’t been played ad nauseum for decades, draining the life out of most of them through sheer repetition.
Those first four albums – Foreigner, Double Vision, Head Games and 4 – were masterpieces of radio friendly rock, tailor made for the times. Foreigner tapped into a zeitgeist and achieved a near-perfect balance of hard rock and pop hooks, taking the swagger of Zeppelin and Free and mixing it with the slick sounds of bands like 10cc or the Alan Parsons Project. Lou Gramm had one of the best voices in rock, able to deftly handle crunchers like “Hot Blooded” as well as sensitive ballads like “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” It was an emotive voice; tough, but with no jagged edges, a perfect foil for songs that could be described in the same way.
Based on the hits alone, it’s easy to look at Foreigner’s catalogue and view it as a commercial package masterminded by a corporate record label and designed to make lots of money. Not that that necessarily diminishes the work, but the back story is much more interesting. In brief, founder Mick Jones had hung out with the Beatles for a time in 1964 before a career bouncing around in various bands including Spooky Tooth and as part of Mountain’s Leslie West’s solo band. He also worked for an independent record label and was involved in production.
The rest of the original Foreigner came from unexpected backgrounds as well with keyboardist Al Greenwood having roots in progressive rock, drummer Dennis Elliott a recent part of the Ian Hunter-Mick Ronson Band, and perhaps the most surprising based on the rest of his career, Ian McDonald, who had been a big part of the early King Crimson (he would also co-produce those first couple of Foreigner albums).
This mix of differing songwriting personalities and musical directions didn’t always make for the most cohesive albums, especially on the first two, where we have a handful of songs not sung by Gramm which don’t quite fit in. The sci-fi “Starrider”, sung by Al Greenwood, sounds like a proggy early Styx outtake, while “Back Where You Belong” and “I Have Waited So Long” have a much more lite acoustic pop, Beatles-rooted feel, due in no small part to the vocals (also by Greenwood?). In short, things weren’t as streamlined and calculated as they may appear from future greatest hits collections.
It only made sense for the band to unify their vision more. By 4, only Jones and Gramm remained of the original Foreigner. Yet, even though he was booted from the group, Ian McDonald says in the liner notes to Rhino’s reissue of the first Foreigner album that musically it’s one of the works he feels most proud to be associated with. I find this especially interesting, as McDonald has worked with many more artistically and critically appreciated artists than Foreigner before and since.
In the end, though we’ve heard some of those Foreigner radio standards for so many years, some still sound fresh to me: “Long, Long Way From Home” with what sounds like a honking, huffing and puffing tuba breakdown part way through around the 2:14 mark (I don’t even know if there’s a tuba on the track, but that’s what it sounds like), the stellar sax solo on “Urgent” played by soul/funk legend Junior Walker, the mix of dreamy chorus and riffing rock on “Double Vision”, the layers of lush synths on “Waiting for A Girl Like You”, the anchoring melody line in “Blue Morning, Blue Day.”
Professional? Studio-slick? Commercial? Yeah, they’re all that, but at their roots they’re great, well-crafted pop rock songs. Something we can never have too many of.
If nothing else, Foreigner’s place in the universe was earned by the placement of “Hot Blooded” in the classic WKRP in Cincinnati episode where Les Nessman buys a wig:
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WKRP in Cincinnati – used to love that show! Less Nessman rocks! 😉
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This is a great piece of writing. Loved it.