It’s no secret that our president is not crazy about foreigners. Heck, xenophobia was essentially the cornerstone of his entire campaign. But on the whole, back in the 1980s, we liked foreigners. Or at the very least, we liked Foreigner.
We Love 80s Music: Foreigner
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people….” (Donald Trump, June 2015)
“Mexico will pay for the wall. 100%. They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to pay for the wall.” (Donald Trump, Sept 2016)
Just one more thing that makes me long for the simpler times of the 1980s. Sure, we were taught to fear the Russians– that is, until Rocky Balboa ended the Cold War by reminding us that “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!”
But Foreigner, Foreigner was a great band.
Even though the band debuted in the late 1970s (in fact, in 2017, they celebrated their fortieth anniversary), Foreigner leaped into the superstar stratosphere in the early- to mid-80s. In 1981, their album 4 was the top-selling album of of the year, and in 1985, they had their only number one hit with “I Want to Know What Love Is.” So, as we muddle through these desperate, xenophobic times, I thought it might be refreshing to take a look back at some of Foreigner’s greatest moments from the 1980s.
“Urgent”— Here’s a great story about Foreigner’s first big hit of the 80s, courtesy of Juke Box Hero, Lou Gramm’s autobiography. So… the band was working on “Urgent,” and they felt something was missing. And while they were trying to figure out what that something was, they learned that that Junior Walker, a famed saxophonist from the 60s, was playing a gig not far from their studio. That’s when they realized the missing ingredient: saxophone. So a few of the Foreigners guys went to Walker’s gig; after the show, they asked him if he wouldn’t mind recording a track for them. And Walker must have sensed some, uh, “urgency” in their request, because he joined them in the studio that very night, at 3:00 in the morning.
According to Gramm’s autobiography, Walker came in, did his thing, and then packed up his sax. The whole session took maybe 15 minutes. When he was asked if he could do maybe one more take, Walker reportedly said, “I think you have what you need.” And he was right: the engineers were able to splice together the killer sax solo that is the hallmark of the song.
“Juke Box Hero”— One of the great narrative songs that I didn’t even realize was a narrative until just a few days ago. The song begins with a description of a rain-soaked boy putting his ear up against an auditorium door, trying to hear the concert that’s going on inside. From outside, he hears the guitar, which sparks a dream– the dream of being a rock star.
Then in the second verse, that dream has come true: that same boy, all grown up, is now a rock star, a juke box hero. And one rainy night, as he’s getting ready to play, he spies a kid waiting by the door of the concert hall, and he feels as if he is encountering a younger version of himself. (The lyric says the rocker “thought he passed his own shadow by the backstage door”– possibly the most poetic lyric in Foreigner’s entire discography.)
But the line that comes next complicates things: “Now he needs to keep on rocking.” Note the verb: the Juke Box Hero “needs” keep on rocking… but why? Is it because he doesn’t want to disappoint the kid by the door, or the kid still inside of him? Is there a sense of desperation? Now that he has a achieved fame, will he do anything to hold on to the fame he’s achieved?
(Incidentally, in the book Juke Box Hero, Lou Gramm says the song is autobiographical; as a young teenager, he used to hitchhike to the old Rochester War Memorial, put his ear up against the door, and listen to the bands playing inside.)
“Feels Like the First Time”— OK, I’m cheating a little, since this song is from 1977. But it has earned a place on this list thanks to an MTV contest. Back in 1985, MTV unveiled its “Feels Like the First Time with Foreigner” contest, which offered fans a chance to see the band perform in the Washington, D. C. bar where they played their first gig. The grand prize winner also got to see the band perform in Europe, $1,000 in cash, and– to quote the commercial– “a mountain of Bonkers fruit candy.” (That’s right: Bonkers. Do you remember these things? Kind of like a boxy Starburst? And the winner of this contest got a “mountain” of them? I mean, is this person STILL eating Bonkers to this day, over thirty years later??)
“That Was Yesterday”— The second release from 1985’s Agent Provocateur (one of the best album titles from the 80s, by the way). Not one of their biggest hits, and you never hear it on the radio anymore, but I always really liked this song. One of those great “That’s right: I am totally, completely over you… unless you have a change of heart and want to get back together, in which case I’ll come running back in a second” tunes.
“Say You Will” and “I Don’t Want to Live Without You”— These were two singles from the band’s 1988 album Inside Information. Honestly, I was never that crazy about either one of these, but I felt I needed to mention them because they’re the last Foreigner songs to break the Billboard Top Ten. (“Say You Will” climbed to #6, and “I Don’t Want…” peaked at #5.)
“Waiting for a Girl Like You”— Two cool things I recently learned about this song: (1) Thomas Dolby– yes, the “She Blinded Me with Science” guy– played the synthesizer; and (2) This song stayed at number two on the Billboard charts for ten weeks, without ever making the jump number one. And you can blame Olivia Newton-John and Hall and Oates for that. Apparently. Newton-John’s “Physical” had a stranglehold on the number one spot for a while. Then, after “Physical” fell from the top spot, Hall and Oates’s “I Can’t Go For That,” which had been at #3, catapulted over Foreigner to get two #1.
“I Want to Know What Love Is”— Foreigner’s first number one, but also a song that led to some tension between Lou Gramm and his bandmate Mick Jones (who wrote the song). Gramm didn’t have a problem with the song, exactly– just the fact that it was a ballad. See, their previous single– the final song released from the previous album– was “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” And now the first song released from their fifth album was also a ballad. What about their rock-and-roll image? Were they now an Easy Listening band? Gramm didn’t really like that idea. Mick Jones, on the other hand, didn’t see anything wrong with playing songs that people wanted to hear. In a way, they were both right: it is a classic song that you still hear today. But you mostly hear it on soft rock/ easy listening stations.
One more cool story about this song: the band hired the New Jersey Mass Choir to join them for the song. (They also appeared in the video.) But they couldn’t bring the entire choir with them when they went on tour, especially since they only sang on that one song. So Foreigner recruited local choirs from whatever city they were in to sing with them.
“Midnight Blue”— I know, I know. This is not a Foreigner song. It’s a Lou Gramm solo song. But I wanted to include it here for two reasons:
(1) This song proceeds from the story I just told about Gramm’s concern that the band was getting too ballad-y. After the massive success of Agent Provocateur and “I Want to Know What Love Is,” Gramm decided to go on his own for a bit and go back to his rock-and-roll roots. The result is “Midnight Blue”…
(2) … which is such an awesome song, I just HAD to include it (even if it’s not technically a Foreigner song). In his book Juke Box Hero, Gramm said this song received the most radio play than ANY other song from 1987… a claim that I’m not sure I believe. I mean, it was definitely one of my favorite songs from my high school years, but it only reached #5 on the Billboards. And it is in competition with songs like U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and George Michael’s “Faith”— songs which were ubiquitous that year. “Midnight Blue” got more radio play? And if it is true, that makes it even more egregious that it’s never played nowadays. Truly, it’s a song that still makes me feel all cherry-red inside whenever I hear it.
In conclusion… As the folks in Washington endlessly debate about DACA and dreamers, I think the American people need Foreigner more than ever. Luckily, the band– along with Whitesnake and John Bonham’s “Led Zeppelin’s Evening”– is starting its world tour this month. Maybe they’ll speak to a new generation of fans– those kids standing by the back doors of the auditorium, feeling inspired by the music, and hoping that they too someday will become Juke Box Heroes. Or, if they don’t know what jukeboxes are… well, maybe they can at least become Spotify Heroes.