To this day, Foreigner has been ignored by Rock's Hall of Fame
(No. 42 in a continuing series on artists who should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but are not)
By Phill Marder
Of the many sax players who have graced Rock & Roll since its inception, to me the recently departed Clarence Clemons was without equal.
But the man he replaced atop my list of favorites was not far behind.
Thus, a moment in the summer of 1981 always has been one of my supreme musical memories. I don’t recall where I was driving, but the car radio was playing the latest offering from one of Rock & Roll’s hottest groups. And it was a great one. And that was before the shock.
There it was, smack dab in the middle of this latest blockbuster, the difference between a good record and a great record.
I said - I was by myself, but I talk to myself a lot 'cause no one else listens - anyway, I said to myself…"That’s Junior Walker." Actually, I more yelled it. Couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and I was correct right from the first note because this was one sound you couldn‘t mistake if you had survived the ‘60s with any memory intact. Junior Walker back on the airwaves - blowin’ that mighty sax right in the middle of "Urgent."
But this week’s thrilling episode is not about Junior Walker. Instead, it’s a thank you to Foreigner, for one of the many outstanding moments they provided between 1977 and 1988 in a hit-filled career that should spell Hall of Fame inductee. The Rock Hall can ignore Walker. The All-Stars weren’t exactly Motown’s superstars. I’ll just chisel a Mount Rushmore of sax players and put him and Clemons on there with King Curtis and Boots Randolph. But why Foreigner has been ignored thus far is a mystery. After all, they are one of the biggest selling bands of The Rock era and they did it all on Atlantic Records, the label that already has placed almost its entire roster, deserving or not, into Rock’s Hall.
Foreigner has had No. 1 albums in five different countries, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway and Switzerland and nine Top 10 singles in the U.S. alone. The run began with "Feels Like The First Time," which hit No. 4 for the six-piece band fronted by former Spooky Tooth guitarist Mick Jones of England and American Lou Gramm, who would prove to be not only a fine songwriting partner for Jones, but one of Rock’s most versatile vocalists as well.
"Feels Like The First Time" could have been recorded by most straight-ahead, hard rocking outfits of the day, but it was distinguished from the ordinary by its intricate vocal interplay, also featured on the next hit, "Cold As Ice," which hit No. 6 after "Starrider" had bombed.
The massive success of the two singles propelled the band’s eponymous debut LP to No. 4 in the States. Though the singles were modest hits in Europe, the LP made nary a ripple in Britain, also the home base for Ian McDonald, a former King Crimson member who played guitars and keyboards, and drummer Dennis Elliott. Like Gramm, bassist Ed Gagliardi and Al Greenwood on keyboards hailed from New York.
A third single, "Long, Long Way From Home" was pulled from the debut LP and this, though not as polished as the previous two, also proved a success, hitting No. 20. It also pointed the direction the band would be heading for the 1978 LP "Double Vision," which eclipsed the debut in worldwide sales and on the charts, peaking at No. 3 in the U.S.
The first single, "Hot Blooded," could feel at home in AC/DC’s catalog, and it soared to No. 3 only to be bettered by the follow-up, "Double Vision," which hit No. 2. Another heavy hitter, "Blue Morning, Blue Day," got to No. 15, but a fourth single pulled from the LP, "Love Has Taken Its Toll," flopped, probably because most fans already owned it on the album.
Gramm called the band’s next effort its "grainiest." Like calling Lou Reed’s vocals bad. The first single, "Dirty White Boy," and the title cut, "Head Games," were as raw as anything released in the ‘70s. But both singles proved sizeable hits and the LP reached No. 5
At this time, the group began going through personnel changes which would become rampant during the ’80s, Englishman Rick Wills replacing Gagliardi for the album, with McDonald and Greenwood dismissed almost exactly a year after the album’s release.
Mutt Lange, fresh off production of AC/DC’s "Back In Black" was called in to work on the next effort. Now a streamlined, three-piece with a vocalist, Foreigner unleashed "4," which started the ’80s by spending 10 weeks at No. 1. To put this into perspective, Hall-of-Fame inductee Solomon Burke spent seven weeks on the Billboard top 200 album chart in his entire career!! It was the group’s breakthough in Europe, too, reaching the top five in several countries, including the U.K.
No wonder. With "Urgent" issued as the initial single, a whole new generation was introduced to the wailing sax of Walker. Also featured was the keyboard work of Thomas Dolby before he was blinded by science. But "Urgent," which reached No. 4, was just the first of five classic hits pulled from this long player.
The next single, "Waiting For A Girl Like You," was Foreigner’s first successful ballad, and what a success it was, setting a record for spending 10 weeks at No. 2. Incredibly, it was blocked from No. 1 for nine weeks by Olivia Newton-John’s "Physical."
The next three hits, "Juke Box Hero," "Break It Up" and "Luanne" returned the band to its normal, heavy mode. Over three years later, "Agent Provocateur," became the group’s initial No. 1 effort in Britain and several other nations, producing the arena anthem "I Want To Know What Love Is" that became the group’s first No. 1 single in the U.S. and U.K.
Though the band had more big hits on the uptempo side, "That Was Yesterday" (No. 12) and "Say You Will" (No. 6), the last major blast was, again, a big ballad, "I Don’t Want To Live Without You" climbing to No. 5 in 1988.
By this time, Jones and Gramm were beginning to wear thin as a duo and Gramm proceeded to issue a pair of solo albums, which yielded several hit singles, while Jones worked on production with the likes of Van Halen, Bad Company and Billy Joel. Eventually, they split and Foreigner continued on with several replacement vocalists as they do today.
It was never the same though. Most groups find difficulty maintaining a huge fan base when the lead singer changes, and Foreigner was no exception. However, the 11-year period in which they dominated record and concert ticket sales is an impressive run for any artist.
Rolling Stone’s Paul Evans, who we’ve met in previous episodes of this blog, called Jones "…master of the hook" and "…a guitarist of unerring efficiency." He refers to Gramm as "…one of the finest singers in all of pop metal." Evans, not the easiest critic to please, added, "Foreigner’s catalogue of car-stereo hits is nearly unrivaled."
As happens with so many bands, it becomes difficult to pinpoint key members, or in this case which members should be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Certainly Jones and Gramm and the rest of the original six merit induction plus Willis. Add Mark Rivera, who served two terms with the band as a multi-instrumentalist and Bob Mayo, keyboardist during most the ‘80s, and you account for those who were present for most of the group’s period of world dominance.
Foreigner was a heavy band that happened to have hit singles. Foreigner was a heavy band that happened to have a couple huge selling ballads. These successes should not be held against the group. A behemoth of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s music scene, Foreigner earned its spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.