The Nineties were trying times for Foreigner, even before the tumor was found in the middle of lead singer Lou Gramm’s head.
At the beginning of the decade, Gramm and lead guitarist Mick Jones parted ways, ending a working relationship that spanned thirteen years, six platinum or multi-platinum albums and more than a dozen bona fide classic rock radio staples. Jones recruited a new singer and cut a back-to-basics Foreigner album, Unusual Heat, while Gramm, having tasted solo success with two albums in the late Eighties, released a sharp, albeit not-quite-right for the times, pop-metal album with his new band, Shadow King. Both projects tanked, and by 1992 Jones and Gramm were back together. They recorded three new songs for a best-of package, but shortly thereafter “amicably” left their longtime home of Atlantic Records and resurfaced with a new Foreigner album, Mr. Moonlight, on a tiny subsidiary of rap label Priority Records. One new ballad got within spitting distance of the Top 40, but Foreigner were a long, long way from their golden days as, well, jukebox heroes.
“To tell you the truth, there wasn’t much option for us at the time,” Jones admits today. “It was a very low point at that particular time, and very tough for older, established acts to get any kind of deal.”
Nevertheless, the band carried on, surviving by playing the hits on the shed and festival circuit while painstakingly recording a new album. Then, in late 1996, Gramm went to the doctor complaining about chronic headaches, memory loss and, yes, double vision and was diagnosed with crainiophryngioma, a non-cancerous, “benign” brain tumor that left unchecked would have benignly killed him.
“It was . . . quiet terror,” recalls Gramm. “Within hours of finding out I had a tumor the size of an egg and tentacles that were wrapped around the optic nerve in the pituitary, we were looking for a specialist. Everybody knew that time was of the essence, to get this thing out of my head before it really did irreparable damage that would drastically change the way I lived life.”
Needless to say, Gramm survived the ordeal, and was soon back on the road and in the studio with Foreigner. It’s a story that has Behind the Music written all over it, and sure enough Foreigner’s installment in the popular VH1 series is set to air in September. This week, Rhino releases a two-disc retrospective of the band, titled — what else? — Jukebox Heroes. And though Gramm and Jones remain committed to finishing a new Foreigner album (their shooting for next spring), both are happy to see their successful if often underrated history tended to with proper respect.
“We left Atlantic about seven or eight years ago, and since that time there hasn’t been much attention paid to our catalog by that company,” says Jones with diplomatic, dry understatement. “But when Rhino took over, they were really gung-ho and enthusiastic about it . . . It was really a breath of fresh air.”
In addition to the expected album cuts and greatest hits (“Feels Like the First Time,” “Hot Blooded,” “I Want to Know What Love Is,” “Say You Will,” etc.), Jukebox Heroes also covers Gramm and Jones’ respective solo albums and a couple of songs dating back to Jones’ days playing guitar in a late incarnation of Gary Wright’s Spooky Tooth. Gramm admits disappointment that his pre-Foreigner band, Rochester, N.Y.’s Black Sheep, is not similarly represented, but hopes that, somewhere down the line, “another compilation will come out that digs a little deeper.”
Apart from that oversight, the anthology does an admirable job of covering Foreigner’s entire career, up to and including a pair of tracks from Mr. Moonlight and one blistering rocker, “Lowdown and Dirty,” from Unusual Heat, featuring Gramm’s brief replacement, Johnny Edwards. Gramm’s Shadow King material is M.I.A., but two top ten solo singles, “Midnight Blue” (covered by R.E.M. on their 1988 Document tour) and “Just Between You and Me,” more than hold their own in the Foreigner mix.
“It felt good to make that statement,” Gramm says of his successful solo excursion. “And it proved to be one that helped me when it came time to work with Mick again. I think it garnered me a new sort of respect.”
By illustration, although Gramm and Jones co-wrote most of Foreigner’s material together, it has only been since Gramm’s return to the band in the last decade that he has shared production credit with Jones, a noted studio perfectionist who has masterminded Foreigner’s musical direction from day one. Jones now waits patiently for Gramm’s full recovery so they can reconvene work on the new album, tentatively due in the spring. “I think that in the next few months, we’ll be back in full creative mode,” says the guitarist.
Jones, who is currently finishing work on a 5.1 surround sound DVD audio disc of the band’s self-titled, 1977 debut, hints that Foreigner’s next album may well reflect shades of the cutting edge global lounge and electronic sounds he’s been exposed to by his stepson, noted New York DJ Mark Ronson.
“He turns me on to a lot of stuff,” laughs Jones. “For awhile, it got to a point where my interest just dulled in what was going on musically. And now I’ve found that back again, and I’m sort of really clarifying the image of what I want the band to sound like. I don’t think this band could sound completely radical, and I think it would be foolish to do that, but I would like to incorporate a lot of the vibes and the sounds that have started to happen these days. I think we just have to come up with a few more really good songs, and that’s it. It’s just songs at the end of the day. No matter what you do around it.”
“I think that if taken on its own merit, people would embrace a new Foreigner song,” adds Gramm. “When does it say that it’s time to stop making new albums and become a nostalgia band? It’s not our choice. But we’re pretty creative people, and we have a lot of ideas, and we feel we can still make viable, relevant new music. And we will.”