While the meticulous nature of group leader Mick Jones helped limit Foreigner's '80s output to just three studio albums, the reinvented '70s arena rock band produced some of the decade's most memorable and iconic tunes. Unfortunately, the quantity of strong music from Foreigner during the '80s was rather thin, but the quality of the band's best songs, particularly its textured, moody, keyboard-heavy power ballads, is quite remarkable. Here's a chronological look at some of Foreigner's finest '80s moments, as well as a couple of hits produced by lead singer Lou Gramm's successful solo career.
Credit Jones for his ingenuity when it comes to musical genre. On this 1981 hit that reached No. 4 on the pop charts, Foreigner's leader traded in hard rock guitar for what essentially amounts to a disco groove punctuated by a saxophone solo, the cheesy instrumental choice of the '80s. Of course, another central element of the song is undoubtedly Gramm's typically hot-and-bothered vocal interpretation of Jones' suggestive but still PG-rated lyrics. Put it all together and you have very little, musically speaking, that resembles Foreigner's past work. But it's good to know the boys were still somewhat "Hot Blooded" at this point of their maturing careers.
Perhaps the genius of Jones is best exemplified by the Foreigner mastermind's decision to make a seamless transition from arena rock guitar hero to synth soft rock balladeer. After all, such an evolution was most certainly bold and ambitious beyond Foreigner's reputation as a faceless stadium rock dinosaur. This lovely, soaring love song climbed all the way to No. 2 on the pop charts in 1981 and was ubiquitous on numerous radio formats that year. Hearing the song today leaves no mystery as to why the song became such a sensation, but amazingly this was actually just the warm-up for Foreigner's greatest ballad success still to come. Foreigner purists certainly lamented the absence of Jones' guitar, but they had to get used to it from here.
Only listeners familiar with Foreigner's entire 1981 hit album 4 may know this mid-tempo, transitional rocker, but those who do probably revel in its demonstration of band leader Jones' precise and hook-filled melodic sense. The song amounts to a pleasant and eminently hummable blend of Foreigner's original, often hard rock sound personified by a song like "Double Vision," for example, and the gentler, keyboard-based allure of a tune like "Waiting for a Girl Like You." The transcendent bridge provides the track's best moment, but the soaring sheen of Gramm's vocals is fine throughout, as usual. Though released as a single that performed modestly on the pop charts, I can't shake the feeling that this tune never got a fair shot.
Another impassioned tale of resilience in the face of a faltering romantic relationship, this otherwise sunny mid-tempo number from 4 reveals the band in its most commercially viable arena rock form. The guitars are sometimes crunchy but not threateningly so, while keyboard flourishes appropriately support Jones' catchy, melodic framework. And even though this is not music that stands any chance of having a permanent impact on the audience, it's a pretty entertaining listen for lovelorn rock fans who enjoy Gramm's pleading, high-pitched vocal appeals to the ladies.
Foreigner enjoyed a number of hits in the '80s, but none reached a level of over-the-top romantic longing equal to this keyboard-heavy love ballad. Jones has always been an underrated songwriter, and his command was never on finer display than when the calmness of this tune's verses explodes into a crescendo of a chorus perfectly suited for Gramm's impressively high vocal range. But what's most interesting about the tune is how Gramm and Jones tap into a convincing soul vibe somehow, despite their undisputed "Dirty White Boy" status. When the gospel chorus kicks in at the end, it's actually quite transcendent.
As perhaps Foreigner's moodiest and most haunting track, this gem has always been overshadowed by the bigger, more ubiquitous hit on 1984's Agent Provocateur. That's a bit of a shame, as the soaring and evocative keyboard riff that fuels the song truly deserves praise for its wonderful sense of melodic heft. Taken as the two sides of Foreigner, in fact, this track may stand as the band's most perfect moment: Jones' forceful production and sweeping musical ideas find a perfect marriage to Gramm's impassioned, romantically anguished vocal chops. Too bad Jones and Gramm couldn't get along this well on a personal level to keep the band's two most essential members working together a bit longer and more consistently.
With this impressive Top 5 hit from 1987, Gramm proved in convincing fashion that his songwriting abilities had always played a significant role in Foreigner's success, beyond his obvious vocal contributions. Throughout this rousing mid-tempo rocker, Gramm's lyrics snap and plunge ahead with aplomb, and the memorable guitar parts actually out-Foreigner the work of Jones, especially when compared with the band's keyboard-heavy later years. Overall, this may well be the best song of the decade directly produced by any member of Foreigner, love ballads be damned.
Even though Jones emerged himself with a solo album in 1989, it's no secret that Gramm's solo work reached a far wider audience than anything Jones could ever do by himself. And while this tune is undoubtedly weaker than "Midnight Blue," its spotlight of Gramm's unique and compelling vocal style certainly reverberates successfully here. It's interesting that Jones continues to play with other musicians and use the name Foreigner without Gramm during the past several years to modest success, but I can't imagine any universe in which the group's classic material separated from its original singer does anything but pale in comparison.