Foreigner: Mass-Appeal Rock in a Post-Golden Age

Even adults enjoy this platinum-heavy band's new LP

British & American rock band Foreigner as they pose in the photographer's studio, Ed Gagliardi, Mick Jones, Dennis Elliott, Lou Gramm, Ian McDonald, Al Greenwood.Len DeLessio/Getty Credit: Len DeLessio/Getty

 John Lennon cocked an ear. He smiled. It was January 1964, and the Beatles, having whipped Britain into a helpless froth, were headlining a three-week residency at the Olympia Theatre in Paris. The shows were a warmup for the Beatles' impending descent upon the United States, but they had started off badly. Two of the support acts —– American folk-rocker Trini Lopez, internationally hot at the time with "If I Had a Hammer," and Sylvie Vartan, a singer equally celebrated as the wife of Johnny Halliday, the French Elvis Presley —– had attracted enthusiastic constituencies of their own. Opening-night reviews of the main event had been desultory, and le Beatlemania had not yet ensued. Eventually it would, but by showtime on the second night, the Beatles may well have wished they were back in Britain.

And so Lennon, standing in the wings between sets, must have been happy to hear a burst of familiar curses suddenly cut through the alien babble. They were issuing from the direction of Vartan's guitarist, a dark-haired teenager whose guitar strap had just snapped, sending his shiny Gibson to the floor with an ominous crack. Lennon ambled over to the kid, who was in a considerable panic.

"You English?" he asked. "Yeah, yeah," said the kid, whose name was Mick Jones. "Oh," said Lennon, buddying up. "I thought yuz were all frogs."

Mick Jones leans back laughing and lights a cigarette. Seventeen years later, he stil remembers that moment and those days. "They kind of took me under their wing," he says, swizzling into his second vodka and tonic at a plush cocktail lounge near Manhattan's Columbus Circle. "I was in total awe. I thought I was hip, but the Beatles turned me on to everything: Marvin Gaye, stuff I had never heard, more girls than I had ever seen. I used to go out in the limo with them after a show, or back to their hotel and all the craziness there. It was amazing. It was like the pinnacle of everything to me, and I was right in the middle of it. I'd stand on the side of the stage every night with tears in my eyes, I was such a fan."

Today, Jones looks back on such epic encounters from a pinnacle of his own –— high asquat the heavy-pop heap with Foreigner, a formidable airwaves band cast very much in his image. Jones is Foreigner's creative core, around which the other members –— drummer Dennis Elliott, bassist Rick Wills and singer Lou Gramm, the lone American – are fitted like a hand-stitched suit of clothes. As guitarist, coproducer and chief songwriter (often in collaboration with Gramm), Jones is centrally responsible for the group's resounding melange of gut-pummeling riffs, high-profile melodies and moon-shot vocals, all embroidered with dittering synthesizers and intricate harmonies.

It is, of course, gratifying to Jones that Foreigner's first three albums —– buoyed by such barstool hits as "Cold as Ice," "Feels like the First Time," "Hot Blooded" and "Double Vision" –— have sold nearly 16 million copies worldwide. And it's also comforting that the merest mention of the band's name is enough to start cash registers cranking in arenas around the world. But ever since Foreigner made its debut in 1977 –— the year of punk –— Jones has been bedeviled by hostile rock critics, who have put down Foreigner as faceless hacks and tended to dismiss the group's music as "pomp rock," and thus Old Wave, and therefore irrelevant. He has been hurt by the lambastings ritually inflicted whenever Foreigner, to the scribes' gawping incomprehension, has launched yet another jackpot album into the commercial stratosphere. Exactly what, Jones wondered, was he doing wrong?

"There's no use hiding it," he acknowledges. "The criticism really got to me at one point. I felt that what we'd done was quite dignified, in a way. We'd never sold out. We'd never done anything really cheap, you know? I thought that we had really started something ... not new, totally, but we had our own niche, we were doing things differently. But I guess I realized we weren't doing things differently enough."

Jones' aesthetic restlessness led to a sudden and radical restructuring of the group last fall, when founding members Ian McDonald and Al Greenwood were let go, and resulted in their latest album, 4, which reveals a reinvigorated band at the peak of its very considerable powers. What's most striking about 4 —– aside from the high quality of the songs, performances and state-of-the-art production —– is its stylistic variety. Given Foreigner's commitment to hard rock, it's a happy surprise to find tracks ranging from the headlong whoosh of "Luanne," which sounds like a lost page out of the John Fogerty songbook, to the chicken-neck strutting of "Urgent," with its screaming sax break (courtesy of the master himself, Jr. Walker), to the shimmering soulfulness of "Waiting for a Girl like You," on which Lou Gramm's seamless and delicately shaded vocal uncannily recalls Curtis Mayfield's mid-Sixties heyday with the Impressions. There's also rich, pulsing pop ("Don't Let Go"); muscular, Free-like raunch ("I'm Gonna Win"); billowing vocal tapestries ("Juke Box Hero"); and at least one classic cruncher ("Break It Up"). Potential hit singles would seem to abound.

If critics wanted the real rock goods, Jones and company have delivered them: 4 is the band's best and most adventurous album. But it wasn't easy. In fact, in the process of putting 4 together, Foreigner nearly fell apart.

Sitting in a midtown Japanese restaurant, Lou Gramm plucks a diaphanous slice of sashimi off his plate and pours a cupful of sake. He is trying to explain what went wrong with Foreigner around the time of the group's third album. Head Games, released in 1979, was bombed by the critics even more brutally than usual, mainly for its rather repellent cover photo (which showed a frightened girl crouching near a men's urinal) and its single, "Dirty White Boy," which was misperceived as some kind of crypto-racist statement. The album sold nearly 3 million copies, but given Foreigner's previous track record, it was considered a bit of a dud.

"Head Games was a disappointment," Gramm admits. "It was the first one that got away from us. The ideas were good, but we didn't follow up on them, and that was a symptom of our problem. It seemed like everybody had his guard up."

Foreigner's creative malaise festered, and by the time of the group's last tour of Japan, in January 1980, interpersonal communication among its six members had reached a nadir. "We didn't know if we would ever record again," says Gramm. "Or if we ever could record again. I don't know how anybody else was feeling, but personally, I was disillusioned. I wanted to leave, get out of the band. There was this, like, complacency. It was really eating me up. I saw it in myself, and I didn't like it. Then I started lookin' around me..."

More than anyone else, Mick Jones knew that something was drastically wrong with the band. But Jones, an amiable, easygoing sort, dreaded the thought of a confrontation with keyboardist Al Greenwood or multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald, neither of whom, he felt, was contributing as much as he could to the group. In April, the six men started getting together again to work out new songs, but nothing seemed to click. "It was ugly," says Gramm. "We knew Ian and Al had it in them, but they wouldn't show their stuff. It was breaking our hearts."

Robert John "Mutt" Lange, known for his work with bands like City Boy and AC/DC, had been hired to produce the fourth Foreigner album. In late summer, he met with the group and listened to its new material. He was not impressed.

"We had about sixteen or eighteen songs," Gramm says. "They needed work, but I thought they were strong. Mutt didn't beat tactfully around the bush; he told us that if we released ten of the best songs out of this batch, we'd be lucky if we had a Top Twenty album. Then he left for two weeks while we frantically rewrote everything."

Lange's verdict on the new tunes brought Foreigner's internal crisis to a head. Jones knew what he had to do, but he wasn't happy about it. He and McDonald had founded the group in 1976, convinced that they would spark each other's songwriting talents. McDonald, a member of the original King Crimson in the late Sixties, was a gifted musician, equally adept on keyboards, guitar and saxophone. Yet he had never become an integral part of Foreigner's songwriting scheme: of the thirty songs recorded during his tenure with the band, he cowrote four, and only one of them, "Long, Long Way from Home," was a hit. So in September 1980, McDonald and Greenwood walked.

"It was a relief in a way," says McDonald. "There had become less and less for me to do in the band, and I was really ready to branch out on my own." Greenwood, a bit more peeved, says, "It was almost like a power play by Mick and Lou. Mick wanted to do everything, really."

Whatever the case, Foreigner was suddenly a four-piece.

We had a very successful formula," says Rick Wills, poking at a bowl of chicken vindaloo, "and I suppose it would have been quite acceptable to a lot of our fans to go on that way. But from a professional point of view, it was no good at all."

Wills and Dennis Elliott, Foreigner's resident jokesters, are sitting in their favorite Indian restaurant, reflecting on the band's tumultuous recent past and pondering its future. Following the departure of McDonald and Greenwood, Jones called in synthesizer wizards Larry Fast (Synergy) and Tom Dolby (who played on Bruce Woolley's version of "Video Killed the Radio Star"), keyboardist Bob Mayo (formerly of Peter Frampton's band) and sax specialist Mark Rivera (who, along with Mayo and another keys player, Peter Reilich, will be augmenting the group's stage lineup) to take up the slack. It worked out well – now there seems no limit to what the group can achieve. Of course, hard-core critics may still call them faceless, but so what?

"To us," says Wills, "the records speak for the band. When we're onstage, I think we look as good as anybody. But mainly, we're just not image conscious."

"Rick," Elliott interjects, "you've gotta face it –— we're just ugly."

"I was gonna get around to that," Wills mumbles.

Wills and Elliott, like the rest of the group, are in their thirties, and they've been around. Wills knocked about Europe in the mid-Sixties with Joker's Wild, a band that also included his old buddy David Gilmour, now with Pink Floyd. Since-then, he's played with Peter Frampton, Roxy Music and a re-formed (and rather awful) version of the Small Faces. Elliott, a noted session drummer in England, has put in time with If, a British jazz-rock outfit, and Ian Hunter's band. They are pros, and together constitute a redoubtable rhythm section, one capable of swinging in a genre that has largely degenerated into sludge. Now that they're no longer in need of money (all four Foreigners are family men with homes in a fashionable area of upstate New York), Wills and Elliott are looking forward to stretching out stylistically in the future.

"From the outset," says Wills, "I think Mick was determined that we would not stand still in any way, that he was gonna try everything in the book to get what he considers to be an ongoing situation. I think he would definitely stop this band, give up, if he didn't feel it was ongoing. And we would feel the same."

Mick Jones is a gent in the old British-rock-pro tradition, a decorous presence even in his rumpled, frumpy jacket and faded Misfits T-shirt. Now on his fourth vodka and tonic, he's been rambling at great length about the highs and sometimes heartbreaking lows of a life in music, his gently articulated anecdotes strewn with a wit as dry and benevolent as crumbled communion crackers. He holds no grudges and has no regrets. It took a long time, but he's made it to the top. Life is good.

"The further I go on. I keep thinking, 'Christ, I should be starting to feel differently about all this,' he says, calling for the tab. "I guess I may exude an air of maturity sometimes, but I find I'm actually getting a bit crazier as I get older." Jones takes a drag on his cigarette, then leans forward with a smoke-seething grin. "And I really want to stay that way."