Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
Foreigner appeared seemingly out of nowhere with their multi-platinum self-titled debut which spawned three hit singles, including two that cracked the Top 5. This aptly-named group was founded by three Englishmen (guitarist/chief songwriter Mick Jones, formerly of Spooky Tooth, multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald, a founding member of King Crimson, and drummer Dennis Elliott, who previously played with Ian Hunter) and three Americans (vocalist Lou Gramm, keyboardist Al Greenwood and bassist Ed Gagliardi). They’re often cited as an early example of “arena rock” (along with contemporaries like Boston, Journey, Toto, REO Speedwagon & several others), with many rock fans & critics bemoaning the “mainstream” & “commercial” production of their records and their ability to sell out arenas. I’ve never understood these complaints, since many of their rock ‘n’ roll predecessors from the previous decade were equally successful & radio-friendly, but for some reason these artists never got the respect they deserved. Perhaps it was Foreigner’s instant success that turned off the tastemakers, but I doubt the band members were troubled as their first five albums all reached the Top 5 and went multi-platinum. Jones was the catalyst, writing or co-writing the majority of their songs (including all 10 that appeared on their debut), while Gramm had the captivating voice that lured in listeners…a unique combination of Robert Plant’s effortless power & Paul Rodgers’ soulfulness. With four band members contributing backing vocals, the combination of soaring harmonies, melodic hooks and memorable guitar riffs made for an album jam-packed with unforgettable songs. The way they effectively incorporated various synthesizers into their guitar-based sound made them unique among their contemporaries. If The Cars were the one modern band that appealed to both old school rockers & fans of the “new wave” as the ‘70s drew to a close, Foreigner might have been their nearest rock ‘n’ roll counterparts.
Their debut is best known for the three massive hit singles that put them on the map. “Feels Like The First Time” is a fitting title for the opening track & lead-off single, somehow squeezing in power chords, synths, a sparse guitar riff, an immensely catchy chorus and a cool, slowed-down middle section that gives off hints of progressive rock, in just over 3 minutes. An instantly identifiable piano melody with rhythmic accents forms the backbone of “Cold As Ice.” Jones delivers a tasty & tuneful guitar solo while Gramm’s voice is powerful throughout, whether it’s that unmistakable chorus (“You’re as cold as ice, you’re willing to sacrifice our love”) or when he tells us, “I’ve seen it before it happens all the time…” I love the squiggly synth over the guitar riff on “Long Long Way From Home,” which grabbed me the first time I heard it. Everything that’s great about Foreigner is in this song, including their first sax solo. As if three hits weren’t enough, a few of the album tracks were worthy of chart success, or at least regular FM airplay. “Starrider” is one such song, which should be a staple of classic rock radio. Jones shares lead vocal duties with Gramm on this occasionally spacey power ballad that begins with a minute-long instrumental before the drums kick in, eventually leading to a huge harmony-laden chorus. Jones & Gramm are also co-lead vocalists on “Woman To Woman,” which reminds me of Electric Light Orchestra and features a sweet, climbing synth melody. A loping rhythm & twin-guitars set “Headknocker” apart from the rest of the album. It’s a fun, bouncy rocker & I like the staggered rhythm in the chorus. The verses in the chugging, riff-heavy rocker “At War With The World” remind me of Rainbow, the band led by Ritchie Blackmore following his departure from Deep Purple, while the slowed-down choruses add some prog-rock to the mix along with big harmonies. Jones delivers another lyrical guitar solo on this one. Album closer “I Need You” is the longest track at just over 5 minutes. It fades in with a dirty guitar riff & thundering drums, sounding like early Cheap Trick with synths added to the mix, before switching to a slower, steady rock groove. Other highlights include the simple chorus with massive harmonies and a nice little instrumental breakdown leading into Jones’ extended guitar solo. I used to think that Foreigner was mainly a singles band but as I’ve explored their early albums I realized how much I had undervalued them, and it doesn’t get much better than this debut which still packs quite a punch after four decades.