Numerous epitaphs have been written for the rock ‘n roll era, viewed by some as stretching from the beginnings of Beatlemania to the Seattle-based grunge explosion of the pre-dotcom early ‘90s. Its marketer, the recording industry, lumbers along like a wounded beast, weathering mortal blows like free song downloads, MTV’s removal of promo clips from its schedule, the disposable teen pop juggernaut fueled partly by Nickelodeon and the massive success of American Idol, and Generation Y’s embrace of state-of-the-art communications technology, an ironic distraction from the music itself. The implosions of the mighty Tower Records – a one-time employer of mine - and its upstart rival Virgin Music are only the latest portents of doom for an increasingly moribund colossus.
Flash back – those old enough – to the mid’-70s, a time when rock was sufficiently entrenched in the American consciousness to fork in various directions: yelping stadium rock for suburban teens, a softer middle-of-the-road sound for Mom and Dad, the stirring of raucous punk for the malcontent next door, and the overeducated ramblings of so-called progressive rock, most of its creators hailing from fog-shrouded England.
It’s no secret that the UK proved fertile ground for new rock acts, pioneering and otherwise. Most rock critics would place Foreigner in the latter category. This Anglo-American quintet, fronted by Brit lead guitarist Mick Jones and American lead vocalist Lou Gramm, rose to chart-topping success with the release of their 1976 debut, and typified a radio-friendly brand of arena rock which featured a generous helping of power chords, wailing vocals, and lyrics primarily concerned with wooing loose ladies and getting laid, selling over 70 million albums for their efforts. In the ‘80s, this sound would be derisively dubbed “corporate rock”, and disdain for it, coupled with declining music sales, would help usher in the jump-cut MTV era, and its splashy British postpunk groups.
Foreigner, however, continued to sell scores of records well into the Music Television period, leaving in their wake blander, white-bread outfits like REO Speedwagon, and I hope that’s due partly to the passionate, bluesy belting of frontman Lou Gramm, who departed the band amidst musical differences in the early ‘90s. Many longtime fans may have fretted that the group gave up the ghost, but judging by their recent appearance on PBS’s veteran live-performance showcase Soundstage, such concerns are for naught. Their Soundstage gig – taped in the Windy City and directed by Joe Thomas - is now available on DVD as Foreigner: Live, and the old gray mare – only Jones remaining from the original lineup – seems no less vital.
Newly minted lead singer Kelly Hansen is, in many respects, a prototypical rock star. A soulful screamer and physical clone of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Hansen is utterly at ease fronting this group. On their early hit “Head Games”, Hansen effectively apes Gramm’s timbre, sounding eerily like his predecessor, but thankfully, it’s the only number marked by copycat vocals. Let’s be honest, if Hansen duplicated Gramm’s vocals throughout, the band would come off like its own cover act, an unsettling prospect. However much enthusiasm one has for Gramm – and he deserves a great deal – I can’t fathom any serious fans wanting Hansen to serve as his doppelganger. Perhaps some will take comfort in knowing that Gramm’s towering high notes usually elude Hansen, anyhow.
I sat patiently through the somnambulant “Waiting For A Girl Like You”, their 1982 uber-hit – 10 weeks at #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100! – but a sleepy tune seemingly devised to drag Foreigner into the more conservative Adult Contemporary radio format. The song is no more exciting as performed by Hansen as Gramm, but hardly less, notably. This was followed by their latest single – yes, they’ve stepped back into the studio – “Too Late”, which surprisingly, is no less hummable than much of the band’s earlier oeuvre. Only the naïve would imagine it racing up the Top 40, but who knows? Many would have said the same of Santana a decade ago, before Carlos stuffed number one in their faces.
Mick Jones, now portly and silver-haired, plays acoustic guitar on their ‘80s hit, “Say You Will”, and he interacts graciously with Hansen. Some would argue that Foreigner, as they know it, is dead, as Jones has recruited a new team of players: Hansen, Dokken founder Jeff Pilson on bass, rhythm guitarist Tom Gimbel, keyboard ace Michael Bluestein. Foreigner have always employed a keyboardist, unlike ‘70s peer Ted Nugent, the “Motor City Madman” and instrumental Luddite, who fashioned an entire career out of stroking the same three elemental chords. Not least the eminent Jason Bonham, already an audience fave, thanks to his participation in the reunion of his father’s band…you may have heard of them…er, Led Zeppelin? Yet some nimrod neglected to mention him in the DVD’s promo materials!
Other tunes include their Elvis tribute “Dirty White Boy” – no, that’s not a new reality show on CMTV – and the 1981 Top 5 “Urgent”. This song is preceded with a lengthy instrumental intro, and halved by an able sax solo, but I miss Gramm’s shriek, and feel that it works best as a studio cut. After “Urgent”, Bonham and Bluestein enjoy a brief romp, momentarily spotlighting their talents, before the band rips into their anthemic “Jukebox Hero”, the fourth single from their multiplatinum Foreigner 4. Arguably the best cut on that album, I’m always thrilled by the palpitating-heart bass introduction to the tune, and they stretch this to orgiastic length here. Halfway through the song, the band unnecessarily segues into Zeppelins’ “Whole Lottta Love”, but soon returns to “Hero”, treating the tune as the show’s epic centerpiece, as it belongs.
The band sharpens at this point, truly warming up to the next numbers, presented as encores, after they apparently wrap up with the elongated “Jukebox Hero”. Hansen delivers a spirited rendition of the gospel-tinged “I Want To Know What Love Is”. Finally, if you look up ‘70s stadium rock on Wikipedia, you might see a listing for “Hot Blooded”, an archetype of the genre if ever there was one. We get a bit of psychedelic strumming from Jones as a prelude, then he and Hansen tear into a sassy stomp, breathing new life into what had admittedly become a clichéd old warhorse.
Sadly, despite the band’s 30-plus-year history, there are no extras – or flashy packaging - to be found in this DVD release, and perhaps it’s Soundstage’s desire to emphasize their program, as opposed to individual artists. Also, footage of players long gone from the group might seem slightly inappropriate, deflecting attention from the current lineup. As a consolation, we do get six additional tracks unseen in the original television broadcast.
Some will dismiss Foreigner as a “dinosaur band”, another pejorative synonymous with corporate rock, if a tad harsher. Depending on my mood – I’m old enough to recall trudging down to the local record shop to buy their 1982 compilation Records—I might occasionally concur. No one can claim that Foreigner represent untrodden ground in rock dynamics. You won’t see any hipsters at the local food co-op sporting their t-shirts, nor will college radio stations induce Skechers-clad freshmen to download “Too Late”.
It’s also unlikely – though not inconceivable – that their upcoming album will intrude on the Top 20. That stated, maybe it’s time for a critical reassessment of the band’s output and legacy, and this concert certainly won’t dissuade anyone in the rock press from that. That may be all the group can ask for.