February 10, 1982
By Eric Minton
Foreigner's New Album Marks a New Era for the Band
Eric Minton is a writer for the Biloxi Sun, Daily Herald, and The Entertainment Supplement Marquee.
When they went into the studio after a year of turmoil, Foreigner was looking to rejuvenate themselves with an album featuring new dimensions and twists to their already successful musical formula.
With three critically acclaimed platinum albums behind them, the band wanted to experiment a little with a new lineup, yet maintain their impressive track record.
Specifically, "We really wanted to break new ground with this album," said bass player Rick Wills. "Plus we wanted to get the energy back that we felt we had slightly lacked in Head Games (their third album)."
"We tried different things, different ways of playing things, which was really fun to do, hut weren't really Foreigner. So what we had to do at the end was come back to what we felt was us—breaking new ground and making new sounds and still keeping the Foreigner sound and the way we do things.”
"I think we succeeded I think it's the strongest album we've made, track for track."
The album certainly succeeded. 4 is the most successful album in the group's history. About a month after its release, it reached No. 1 on the Billboard, album chart, a first for the band, and now 4has sold about five million copies. The album has also spawned two top 5 singles, "Urgent" and "Waiting for a Girl Like You."
"We all were surprised," Wills said. "We expected 4 to do well, but we were certainly staggered at the way it moved so fast."
The success of 4 is all the more staggering when measured against the group's earlier albums: Foreigner, Double Vision, and Head Games, all of which resurfaced on the Billboard charts after 4 was released.
And the album did break new ground, exemplified by the singles. Wills said of the melodic "Waiting for a Girl Like You:" "We've never approached a ballad that seriously before. To me it's the nicest song on the album."
The album also features the introspective story "Juke Box Hero," which had only a melody for weeks in the studio while the band sought a lyrical line. It will probably be the next single released.
"A lot of kids out there want to be rock guitar heroes, and I think it sums up a lot of pictures in their heads," Wills sack. "When I listen to it, it hits the spot for me."
Most of all, "Urgent" signaled a new twist for the band with its Jr. Walker saxophone solo, and it broke into areas Foreigner had never been before, making the disco charts. "We thought that was quite amusing, actually," Wills said.
Foreigner needed a successful new album after a year of internal strife. Ironically, the "traumatic" period, as the band's only newcomer Wills described It, may have led to that album's success.
Formed in 1977 with a nucleus of established studio musicians, Foreigner originally consisted of six members: Drummer Dennis Elliott, singer Lou Gramm, guitarists Mick Jones and Ian McDonald, keyboardist Al Greenwood and bassist Ed Gagliardi.
Two albums later, the group underwent its first change in personnel when Gagliardi left. Enter Rick Wills, the main character of what he calls a "fairy story."
A native of Cambridge, England, Wills had several years of experience on the English club circuit before moving on to Small Faces. ("Two years of pure craziness, I can assure you. It took me about six months to get over that."), Roxy Music and touring with Peter Frampton.
Wills was visiting New York in March, 1979, when he heard that Foreigner was auditioning for a new bass player. At the time he hadn't been doing much and was feeling, "very sort of down about my career." Wills knew fellow Briton Mick Jones, but didn't know much about Foreigner. He called up anyway and was invited to the studio.
"I didn't know what to do because I didn't know their stuff very well," he said. "I obviously heard of Foreigner with the Double Vision success, but I didn't know the songs very well, didn't know how to play them.”
"But being the old ham I am, I managed to get away with it," he said with a laugh.
That audition went well for Wills, cooking with drummer Elliot and playing the heavy guitar-based, driving rock 'n' roll of Foreigner. But the group had lined up about 60 auditions, and after hanging around New York for three weeks, Wills went home to England. One day later, Foreigner's manager called up with a job offer.
"You just can't imagine what it meant to me," he said. "I was just here at the right time. I guess I'm one of these lucky guys and that was one of those breaks that you get. Boy, I needed it."
Wills called his tenure with Foreigner "a real process of learning, seeing things on a much larger scale than I ,,ad seen before: The shows, the albums, the professional way the group approaches things. And it's allowed me to become slightly more comfortable in the finance department, which is always nice to have."
But he also went through Foreigner's crisis, which surfaced shortly after he joined and as the group was recording Head Games.
Essentially, a conflict arose when Gramm and Jones—one of two sets of founding members—felt there were two major obstacles to the band's development: Greenwood and McDonald—the other founding members. Greenwood and McDonald were also dissatisfied with the band's direction. After recording Head Games and playing through a strained tour, Foreigner fired Greenwood and McDonald.
"There were a lot of friendships involved," said Wills. "It wasn't a cutthroat sort of thing, it was a difficult decision. I hope we've finished with that altogether."
Instead of hiring replacements, Foreigner became a foursome, and that lineup enhanced work on 4 according to Wills, since the songwriting team of Jones and Gramm didn't have to fit six musicians into each song. It also gave the band more freedom when re-coding.
"We did it with just the four, then we brought in other people as we needed them, which we haven't been able to do before," Wills said.
Taking their act on tour, however, required more than a foursome. So they hired three backing musicians: Peter Retlich, a Gary Wright sidekick, on keyboards; Bob Mayo, who played with Peter Frampton, on keyboards; and Mark Rivera on sax, guitar and keyboards.
They also re-arranged their staging, a direct result of paring down the band. "With six it was sort of confusing," Wills said. 'We were all trying to be equal and that can't really happen. You have to have a sort of focal point on stage. Now we've got a situation where Lou is very much central stage, where he belongs."
After a short tour in Europe to test the new stage show, Wills said, "It's really sounding good. It's given us a new lease on life in a way. We found that adding the extra persons was just the extra texture that we needed. So it's working very well."
The additional musicians are only for touring. Expanding the group for recording is a wait-and-see proposition, Wills said. "Four of us will remain a set. We just cut to four which was a real- monster to do and took a long time and a great deal of care. We'll have to see what happens.
"With the band as it is at the moment, it's a very happy band. It feels really good right now.”
Certainly a major factor in the band's happiness is their rate of success. They squeezed into the music scene with the flow of hard-driving rock bands from the East led by the phenomenal success of the group Boston. Foreigner, with a strong professional sense of music, has surpassed the others in endurance and popularity.
And while they are one of the Industry's top sellers, they have managed to hold onto critical accolades. Wills said he doesn't know the secret to the band's success, but he did say the band works hard for the commercial success they have gained, even as they experimented on 4.
He does have a few theories.
"I think we cross over between AM and FM very well. It's a big bonus if you can do that. We are a very song-oriented band: We make good songs, 41/2 minutes on whatever, and we try to make them as interesting and good as possible.”
"And we play what we like to hear, not just for other people; we have to like it, too. We've got to listen to it, for God's sake. If we don't make music we like, how the hell are we going to play it?”
"We certainly seem to have something that's right. A lot of people seem to agree with us. I just hope they keep agreeing."
Wills also recognizes that the music industry is notorious for short careers, and Foreigner hasn't even been around for five years, yet. Your platinum albums and surviving internal strife, though, indicate an endurance factor that will allow Foreigner to continue its impressive track record on this tour and In the studio later this year.
"You live with the fact that one day you may make an unsuccessful record," Wills said. "And that would just have to happen when it happens. So far, it hasn't."