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Lou Gramm: Juke Box Hero (Interview)

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RCM: What was the first song you co-wrote with Mick?
LG: Long Long Way from Home.
RCM: From Hot Blooded to Head Games to Juke Box Hero, you and Mick co-wrote a slew of hits. Characterize your writing partnership.
LG: I think Mick is the best if not one of the best riff rock writers in this business. I would sit listening to cassette tapes of one idea of his after the other. Some of them were a little faster, a little slower, some had different tempos. But the thing is, every one of them was memorable and the good basis for a song. After repeated listening to his ideas, I‘d pick one that had stuck in my mind and I would start working on a lyric and a melody. I wouldn’t finish anything, of course, I’d just get the basic idea and come back to Mick with it. He’d have the riff and I’d have the basic idea for the melody or maybe a lyric and together we would work from there.
RCM: You and Mick are receiving a major award in June at the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and you’re going to be playing together for the first time in many years.
I’m excited about getting this award and also excited about playing again with Mick, We haven’t performed together in ten years. When we spoke for the first time after all these years it was a very good phone call. It was like talking to an old friend. It’s really tough to let a partnership like that one go without even conversation for that long.

It felt good to reconnect with Mick again and I’m looking forward to the event.

RCM: In your book you talk about how you “Americanized” Feels Like the First Time, what did you mean by that?
LG: Feels Like the First Time was certainly a great song but the way Mick had sung it was a little bit poppy, a little like British pop. I felt I put a little swagger into the lyrics and in that bridge (sings “like it never will again…) I made it a little bit bluer and soulful. I think the combination of the way the music strutted and me being able to influence the tone of the lyrics a little bit was magic.
RCM: Feels Like the First Time and Cold as Ice were two stone cold smashes form that record, perfect FM radio hits, did you have a sense that these would carry you to stardom?
LG: In the music trade magazines, our songs were getting added to a lot of radio stations playlists so that was very encouraging. The band was rehearsing to open some shows for The Doobie Brothers and I remember Dennis Elliot (Foreigner drummer) and I driving into New York City from West Chester. We were on the highway coming into the city and all of a sudden a DJ on WNEW introduced us as a bright new hope and then played Feels Like the First Time, Dennis and I were freaking out and so excited that we had to pull off the road before we got into an accident. (laughs)  It was just terrific.

RCM: After Head Games, the band was reduced from six members to a four piece—with multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald and keyboardist Al Greenwood leaving the group. How did that change dynamics within band and sound for Foreigner 4?
LG: The guys that were with us that were no longer with us when we started working on 4 were great players–Ian (McDonald) and Al (Greenwood). Great guys.  We were at the point where Head Games wasn’t the album (as far as the public was concerned) that they thought we would make. We actually got a lot of flack for the cover which they thought was misogynistic. And with our song Dirty White Boy, we got banned in the Bible belt and in the Northeast, Boston and some of those far Northeastern cities.
foreigner head games
People in those cities were actually burning the album. We didn’t think we had created that much of a ruckus.
I mean, compared to some of the Stones’ songs, we were still in diapers.
As for changing from six piece to a four piece, that happened when we started to write for our next album 4. To be honest, it seemed that our writing had not progressed and we were regurgitating old ideas. And the other strange thing was a lot of times when we’d go off the road after a tour people would put their instruments and their amps away and not touch them again until it was time to start the new album. So it wasn’t something that you lived for, it was something that you’d take out when you needed it and put away when you didn’t.
It was very glaring when we’d start playing again; you could tell some people hadn’t touched their instruments for four or five months So we just felt that we’d come as far as we could go with the chemistry that we had and it wasn’t necessarily time for new players to come into the band, we wanted to pare down the band and focus on what we had. Ironically enough, Foreigner 4 became the biggest album of the band’s career.
RCM: Foreigner were pegged as “corporate rock” by critics. Why do you think the band and other popular AOR groups from the time like REO Speedwagon, Boston, Kansas and Styx were blasted by critics, where to them “popular” meant selling out?
LG: That “corporate rock” tag was insulting and derogatory. Critics insinuated that our songs were written at a corporate meeting with the record label presidents and their label reps sitting around with the band as we wrote hit songs to order like we were making oatmeal.

It was very searing and biting criticism and the farthest thing from the truth.

We tried not letting the criticism bother us; we were selling a lot of albums and tickets to our shows so the fans liked what we were doing. But it did bother us because we knew it was so far from the truth. We were sure that to respond to the critics in any way shape or form other than continuing to make good music would be counter-productive. It would turn into a back biting war of words that no one would win.
RCM: As a solo artist, your biggest hit was Midnight Blue. It was a huge hit across the board, with REM covering it in concert – have you ever heard their version?
LG: I heard their version and I have an article from Rolling Stone magazine where they say that REM did Midnight Blue as an encore at a few of their shows. I was totally flattered they did the song. They were held in very high esteem and to a large degree were purists so for them to not only pay us the highest form of flattery by playing it, but also performing a song that was still a hit and high in the charts, that got a lot of attention.

RCM: Despite it being one of the band’s major hits, I Want to Know What Love Is permanently skewed direction of band with softer, more ballad-oriented material.
LG: I felt that Foreigner began as a rock band and made our name as a rock band. I saw no problem doing a ballad a ballad now and then. When we had a big hit with Waiting for a Girl Like You, doing a ballad that’s a hit transcends styles; it goes on rock radio, album-oriented radio and soft rock. While we were getting more saturation with a song like that, to continue to put out ballads like that for that purpose was doing irreparable damage to our rock credibility.
After I Want to Know What Love Is became a huge hit, I was really pushing to write good rock songs that were hit singles. It seemed to me that Mick didn’t want to pick up the guitar that much: he was stuck on ethereal keyboard sounds and was more caught up in writing slow to mid tempo songs and leaning more towards that style including these very soft and melancholy songs like I Don’t Wanna Live Without You.
RCM: There’s a funny story you relate in the book about that particular song.
LG: First of all, I refused to sing it. I got a call from Foreigner’s manager more or less reminding me of my contractual obligations and that I should come to my senses and sing the song. So I did sing the song but I under-sang it. I didn’t think I was putting very much emotion in it and it became a huge hit. Guess it was good enough and I didn’t get my point across. (laughs)

Gramm and a car.

Gramm and a car.

RCM: Did those differences with Mick about the direction of the band ultimately lead to you leaving the group to pursue a solo career?
LG: Yes, absolutely. That certainly was the impetus for my solo album, Ready or Not. There was a ballad or two on that album but they were rock ballads. They weren’t schmaltz.
RCM: You were diagnosed with a brain tumor in the late ‘90s, how did that diagnosis/recovery affect you on both a personal, professional and spiritual level?
LG: The operation was a very difficult one. I spent almost nineteen hours on the operating table. There were a number of brain tumor specialists from the New York City area that had sent me home after doing MRI’s telling me that my tumor was inoperable. I was watching the news show 20/20 and saw a segment on Dr. Black who’s a brain surgeon in Boston and is the purveyor of laser surgery for brain tumor removal. At the end of the segment they gave his office number and I was on the phone with his office the next morning.
Two days later I was on the operating table. Although the tumor was successfully removed, the damage that it had done left me less than whole. I had trouble speaking, my memory was horrible. My doctor told me that I shouldn’t be doing anything for a year, year and a half, Six months later I was in Japan with Foreigner and then on a grueling bus tour in the States. All these hits that I’d been singing for years, I had to write the lyrics out with a marker pen on white paper and tape it to the floor around the mic stand because I would forget the beginning of the second verse or lose my way halfway through the bridge if the words wouldn’t come to me.
Gramm at a speaking engagement.

Gramm at a speaking engagement.

From the damaged pituitary gland, everything I was eating turned into fat; I put on over hundred pounds. I felt like a zombie. There would be segments of live audiences that would be pretty cruel and the critics were ripping me up as someone who had indulged his success and was now a caricature of his former self. It was horrible. Whether they knew or not, they didn’t even mention the brain tumor or the damage, just took what they saw and made their own storyline for it.
RCM: In 2013, you’re singing better and better and are in much better physical shape.
LG: Absolutely. I don’t know who these critics are that wrote these cruel things about me, but I’m sure that they took note that I was not that person and I felt redemption. My outlook on life changed. I certainly saw good in a lot of people who knew what I went through and were well-wishers. And for those people who didn’t know or just chose to take the down side of it and project it really made it an eye-opener for me.
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