Whether their singles were ‘Cold as Ice’ or ‘Hotblooded’, the seventies saw rock band Foreigner shoot straight to the top of the charts, where the group achieved platinum status time and again. With veteran rocker Mick Jones at its helm, the success of Foreigner’s brand of arena rock proved that audiences craved a solid middle ground between the harsh nature of punk and the optimistic sounds of disco.
Foreigner was established in 1976 out of lead guitarist Mick Jones’s desire “to combine Blues and R&B with British rock and make it sound soulful and authentic”. It was also the result of a challenge issued by the multi-instrumentalist to his manager Bud Prager that Jones could succeed as a musician.
In fact, the Englishman was already familiar with the music business by the time he founded Foreigner. In the mid-Seventies, having played with bands such as Spooky Tooth, Jones found himself at a loose end following an acrimonious departure from his latest venture as the guitarist for The Leslie West Band.
Deflated by this latest failure and determined to prove himself to Prager and the industry, Jones began auditions to assemble a team of musical talent.
Despite being based in New York, Jones’s search immediately uncovered a second Brit in ex-King Crimson guitarist and Middlesex-born Ian McDonald, who was first to join the fold. The multi-talented musician was shortly followed by American keyboard player Al Greenwood, English drummer Dennis Elliott and US born Ed Gagliardi on bass.
The final element required for this experienced group to become a band was a lead vocalist, yet Jones struggled to fill the part. It was only following 50 auditions that he found New York native and relative newcomer Louis Grammatico, known as Lou Gramm. The group was complete.
After searching for inspiration as to the band’s identity, Jones called the ensemble ‘Foreigner’ because of its collection of musical talent from both sides of the Atlantic.
The newly named band immediately set forth to produce an album and find a record deal, yet the abundance of groups such as Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones meant that Foreigner failed to pose a draw for the labels. It was finally Atlantic Records who saw the potential in the experienced players. They would not regret their decision.
In March 1977, Foreigner released its first self-titled album, ‘Foreigner’ (1977) and it did the unthinkable. It immediately shot to the top of the charts, selling over five million copies and exceeding even Jones' expectations.
Bouyed by the song writing chemistry between Jones and Gramm, Foreigner bucked the trend by selling singles as well as albums. The songwriters were even nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist. Songs such as ‘Cold as Ice’ and ‘Long, Long Way from Home’ captured a legion of fans who bought them in their millions and catapulted the band into instant stardom.
Realising that he needed to capitalise on this success, Jones immediately returned the band to the studio to create their next album. In a move that many would have considered risky, Foreigner enlisted Grateful Dead producer Keith Olsen in place of Gary Lyons and John Sinclair who had helped create their debut record in order to keep their sound fresh.
This change worked and the release of ‘Double Vision’ (1978) was met with widespread public approval. Fans seemed undeterred by the scorn piled upon the album by critics such as Keith Tucker of Rolling Stone who dubbed it “incredibly self-absorbed and nearly paralyzed by redoubled caution”.
In fact, ‘Double Vision’ became another massive hit for the group, selling over seven million records in the US alone and proving that Foreigner was not a passing phase. Singles such as the title track ‘Double Vision’ and ‘Hot Blooded’ also became radio favourites, peaking at numbers two and three respectively in the US charts and keeping the album in the top ten for a grand total of six months.
Foreigner seemed unbreakable. Yet, as they embarked on their third album, ‘Head Games’ (1979), they did so without original member Gagliardi, who was replaced by Rick Willis. ‘Head Games’ proved yet another sensation for the group, spawning top ten singles such as ‘Dirty White Boy’ and peaking at number five on the US Billboard charts.
Yet it seemed that the evolution of the band was far from complete. In 1980, seeing himself as the visionary of the band tasked with shepherding it forward, Jones sacked both Greenwood and McDonald, leaving the group as a quartet. Further changes would follow, testing the band to its limit.
The group did not release an album that year, perhaps signalling a need for its members to take stock of their increasing fame and their depleted line up. Foreigner’s next offering, the aptly named ‘4’ (1981), would need to serve as a steadying force, both to the shaken group and its wary public.
Jones proved himself a shrewd strategist, enlisting Mutt Lange as producer and filling the void left by the missing band mates with a throng of musical cameos, including Junior Walker’s saxophone solo on the hit ‘Urgent’.
The public seemed to fall under the musician’s spell and the record soared, peaking at number one on the Billboard charts. This success did not however heal the rift in the group, which would not release another studio album for three years.
In 1984, Foreigner returned to a different audience. The rise of the MTV generation posed new challenges to the platinum selling group, requiring them to prove that they were still relevant. Yet their break from the limelight appeared to have imbued the group with a new level of energy and Foreigner battled their modern demons with ‘Agent Provocateur’ (1984).
The band’s first release from the album was the gospel-inspired, theatrical rock ballad ‘I Wanna Know What Love Is’. Backed by the New Jersey Mass Choir, Gramm was in his element, his throaty voice transcending any generational divide.
The single was a massive hit, providing the band with their first number one on the US charts. However, the fact that this song was a ballad also confused some of Foreigner’s fans, who were unsure whether to embrace them as a pure rock group or whether this marked a change of genre.
Whilst this uncertainty did not affect album sales, cracks began to emerge in Foreigner’s façade as the band divided along musical lines. In particular, whereas Jones was leaning towards a new pop sound, Gramm harked back to the band’s original rock roots.
The members tried to work through their differences, releasing the album ‘Inside Information’ (1987). However, as the tension grew between the band’s leader and its vocalist, the situation proved untenable. In 1989, Gramm left Foreigner, claiming that Jones had become too controlling.
Jones quickly found a replacement for Gramm, bestowing the band with the new voice of Johhny Edwards. The change proved a step too far. Fans showed their disapproval, shunning Foreigner’s 1991 album, ‘Unusual Heat’.
The failure of this record seemed to pull Foreigner further into a spiral of dissent. Dennis Elliott followed in Gramm’s footsteps, leaving the group without a drummer and with only Jones as an original member. Larry Aberman acted as a temporary replacement, but Foreigner would struggle for years to replace Elliott.
Gramm returned to Foreigner in 1992, after Atlantic Records mediated between him and Jones. The reunion was long enough for the band to release a best hits album and an intended comeback record, ‘Mr Moonlight’ (1995). However, the album failed to achieve this aim, floundering near the bottom of the charts and producing only one minor hit, ‘Until the End of Time’.
As the future of the group lay in peril, Gramm faced a private battle which threatened his life. In 1997, he was diagnosed as having a brain tumour. The illness took its toll as the medication prescribed to the vocalist caused his voice to suffer.
In 1999, Gramm was well enough to join Foreigner on a summer tour with fellow Eighties sensation Journey, as well as other performances through to 2002. However, the feud between Gramm and Jones appeared to be far from over. In late 2002, the two parted ways, leaving Jones to gather the pieces of Foreigner once again.
As the last remaining original member of the band, Jones’ attempt to create a new Foreigner yielded little success. In 2004, the band appeared for a one-off show in yet another guise as a sextet which included Jason Bonham, the son of Led Zeppelin’s drummer, John. This would be Foreigner’s last performance for three years.
It was only in 2007 that Jones raised the group back from its near death. That year, Eighties super group Def Leppard announced that Foreigner and Styx would join it on its American tour.
Jones had managed to carve a new face for Foreigner, retaining Bonham as the group’s drummer and recruiting ex-Hurricane singer Kelly Hansen as lead vocalist. The venture proved so successful that Foreigner took to the road again later that year, marking its 30th anniversary with a ‘Greatest Hits’ tour.
On 15 July 2008, Foreigner sent a message to its fan base and to the critics who denied the band had staying power with the release of ‘No End in Sight’. The best hits album containing three new singles and spawned a tour for the group, which had added Jeff Pilson and Tom Gimbel to its line up. Foreigner still boasted the talents of Hansen and Jones.
Foreigner’s eclectic influences and professional approach to the music business catapulted it into the rock scene in the Seventies, earning it immediate success with rock tunes that became anthems. Yet, whilst the band has produced hit after hit, selling albums in their millions, it is perhaps the members’ passion for music which has been their undoing. Whether it has been the desire to pursue solo careers or disagreements over their musical tone, Foreigner has struggled to maintain its line up. Nevertheless, the group’s hits have never suffered, each withstanding the test of time.