Sometimes it takes a while to catch on, for me at least. On a whim, I purchased Foreigner’s all-time best album, The Very Best and Beyond. (It wasn’t really a whim – I had this song in my head and couldn’t get it out of there. How long had it been? It took me two or three days to remember who had done the song.) Listening to the album, I wonder that I could ever have forgotten Foreigner when thinking of my favorite things.
I don’t know what “flavor” Foreigner’s music is. I don’t care. They are one of the all-time great bands, and that’s all that’s really necessary. I at least had the good taste to start buying Foreigner albums from Day One, or as close as I ever come to that. Being out of touch, pretty much, with the mainstream, as usual (these were the days of Donna Summer and dancing all weekend), I was wildly enthusiastic about them: when they rocked, they really rocked, and when they did a heavily produced ballad, it worked. (I didn’t realize that you were supposed to turn your nose up at “mainstream” rock.) At this point, rather than duplicating my Foreigner holdings on CD, I looked for a “best of” album; this is the only one that had “I Want to Know What Love Is,” which was the song I had to have. (I also found it really, really cheap.)
Why Foreigner? Back then, on weekends it was pure disco – I was out partying. Otherwise, it was likely to be Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, whatever. I think it might have been because Foreigner had a style you couldn’t quite pin down – you knew it was Foreigner, but it didn’t always sound like any other Foreigner song – in fact, it never sounded quite like any other Foreigner song. The songs were tuneful, rhythmic, and there was something else behind them. I suppose they were mainstream, but they were, nonetheless, unique. And listening to it again, twenty years later, it’s not even a matter of nostalgia – I have no particular memories associated with any of these songs; in many cases, I don’t even remember where I was living when I first heard them.
This is just good music. It is very good music. Lou Gramm is one of the great pop vocalists of all time – he can scream and croon, and everything in between, with unbelievable authority — and Mick Jones headed up a phenomenal band (beginning with Ian McDonald, the amazing British drummer Dennis Elliot, previously of If and Ian Hunter, Al Greenwood on keyboards, and Ed Gagliardi on bass; by the time of 4, they had streamlined down to Gramm, Jones, Elliot, and Rick Wills – ex-Peter Frampton and Roxy Music – on bass, and came up with knockouts such as “Juke Box Hero” and “Urgent”). As songwriters, Gramm and Jones were miles ahead – somehow, while dealing with the themes that occupy all pop music, their lyrics are much more mature than anyone else in the “corporate mainstream rock” category. “I Want To Know What Love Is” is a case in point: this is not some gonadal teenager going out to get his rocks off and call it love; this is a grown man realizing that “I’ve got no place left to hide/It looks like love has finally found me.” Gramm’s husky treatment of the verses is full of longing and resignation over what I can only describe as a kind of disbelieving joy, and when he wails out “In my life there’s been heartache and pain,” you know he knows what he’s talking about. The repeated chorus that ends the song takes on all the potency of a hymn, while Gramm cuts loose with some counterpoint that is hair-raising in its intensity. Likewise, “Urgent” makes no assumptions – it’s just flat out desire, at a fever pitch. And they pull it off throughout the emotional range available in pop music – everything from the “honky-tonk” rock of “Hot Blooded” to the anxiety and anger of “Head Games” to the tremulous, hard-won honesty of “I Want To Know What Love Is” and the awestruck joy of “Feels Like the First Time.”
My one complaint about the songs is that the intro and break in “Head Games” sound like they belong to another song. That’s it. Everything else is, at minimum, very, very good. The three post-band tracks (“Soul Doctor,” “Prisoner of Love,” and “With Heaven on Our Side”), recorded in 1992, two years after Gramm and Jones split, are true Foreigner, and yet new, as well – which to me is one of Foreigner’s trademarks. They’re not my favorite songs – they have twenty years of history to catch up with – but they’re damned good.
There is an old saw that goes along the lines of “quality will out,” meaning simply that, if someone is good, no matter what their medium and no matter what their style, they will stand above their fellows. I just can’t believe it took me this long to realize what giants these guys were.
(Atlantic Records, 1992)