The Complete Atlantic Studio Albums 1977-1991
by David Chiu
Like many of the popular rock groups that came of age in the ’70s, Foreigner doesn’t seem to get respect from the critics and cynics, even though the band has sold tons of records and charted many memorable hit songs that still get played on radio and jukeboxes. The ‘corporate band’ label is misleading, and the proof lies in the first seven studio albums Foreigner recorded for Atlantic – now collected on this new boxed set. If anything, the music from those records is satisfyingly consistent as each album delivers at least one famous hit and some killer non-single tracks. It’s a credit to the genius and determination of guitarist/founder Mick Jones, and the passionate and soulful delivery of vocalist Lou Gramm. Let’s face it: Foreigner’s music is just so well produced with its meaty rock chutzpah, the moments of tenderness, angst-ridden lyrics about relationships, and those catchy melodies. There are far more terrible things to be guilty of.
The 1977 debut Foreigner – featuring the original six-man line up of Jones, Gramm, Ian McDonald, Al Greenwood, Ed Gagliardi, and Dennis Elliott – introduced the world to that aforementioned classic sound that would forever stamp the band’s reputation. It’s seems so appropriate that the record opens with “Feels Like the First Time,” which has since become a Foreigner staple along with “Cold As Ice” and “Long Long Way From Home.” There are a couple of underrated gems on that record as well, including “Starrider” (one of the few tracks that Jones sang lead on) and “Headknocker.” Then the band escaped the sophomore jinx with the brilliant follow-up Double Vision (1978), which yielded smash hits in the title song and Hot Blooded. Frankly every song on that record could have been a hit single, like “Blue Morning, Blue Day,” “Love Has Taken Its Toll,” and “You’re All I Am” (a harbinger of things to come for Foreigner in the ballads department).
Head Games (1979) was kind of a transitional album, and not because Rick Wills replaced Ed Gagliardi on bass. Perhaps it was due to the influence of punk rock, but Head Games sounded a bit looser and rawer – not as tight and slick as Double Vision – as indicated on such tracks as “Women” and “Rev on the Red Line”; the major hits from that record were “Dirty White Boy” and the title song.
Then McDonald and Greenwood left, reducing Foreigner to a quartet and leading to its fourth album in 1981 called simply 4. It’s the band’s masterpiece and biggest seller thanks to that yearning ballad “Waiting for a Girl Like You” – which amazingly spent 10 weeks at the #2 spot on the Billboard charts and never hit #1 – and the rockers “Urgent” and “Jukebox Hero.” The streamlined sound (co-produced with Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange) as a result of the new lineup with some tinges of New Wave (keyboardist Thomas Dolby played on 4) really worked on the record, from “Woman in Black” to “I’m Gonna Win” and to the reflective “Girl on the Moon.” If there is only one Foreigner album to choose on a desert island, 4 is the probably the quintessential work.
Foreigner placed some heavy emphasis on the synthesizers than on previous albums for 1984’s Agent Provocateur, whose sound in retrospect is typical of the ’80s sound. The album is best known for containing Foreigner’s first and only #1 song in “I Want to Know What Love Is,” definitely one of the most iconic power ballads in rock and Gramm’s best performance. Even with the predominant synth sound, there are still some heavy rock tracks such as opening “Tooth and Nail,” “Reaction to Action,” and “Stranger in My Own House” that show the band hadn’t entirely gone soft after establishing a new facet to its personality with the power ballads. 1987’s Inside Information is a slight improvement with some really strong songs – and I’m not talking about the hits “Say You Will” and “I Don’t Wanna Live Without You.” Stellar tracks like “Face to Face,” the dynamic-sounding title song, “Can’t Wait” and “Heart Turned to Stone” deserved more airplay at the time.
Whether it was intentional or not, the lyrical thread of Inside Information hinted of the strained relationship between Jones and Gramm at the time, which resulted in Gramm’s departure from the band. His replacement was Johnny Edwards for 1991’s Unusual Heat, which is the most criminally underrated Foreigner album to date. Shamefully, that record didn’t make a dent on the charts, perhaps because fans couldn’t accept Gramm’s exit, and grunge was on its way to up-end everything in the industry landscape. After the two synth-dominated, state-of-the-art-sounding previous albums, Unusual Heat marked a return to the more straight-ahead rock with such tracks as “Lowdown and Dirty,” “Only Heaven Knows,” “Moment of Truth,” and “No Hiding Place.” And Edwards did a wonderful job on the vocals by adding grit to the material. It would have been interesting if that edition of the band could have made another record, but it never happened as Jones and Gramm eventually patched things up and worked together as Foreigner for another 10 years.
In addition to the original studio cuts, the box also contains the bonus tracks that were first released on the reissues of Foreigner, Double Vision, Head Games and 4 from over 10 years ago. It’s a perfect summary of Foreigner’s platinum-selling history up to that point, and a vindication that this is a band of substance beyond that arena/corporate rock tag.