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Lou Gramm on Foreigner’s Heyday, the Beatles and ‘Live at the Rainbow ’78’
Back in 1978, Foreigner broke through in a big way with the tremendous commercial success of their debut album, which spawned the monster hits “Feels Like The First Time” and “Cold As Ice.”
This Anglo-American outfit were a permanent staple on FM radio and their explosive live performances solidified their status as formidable hard rock practitioners in the mold of Free, Humble Pie and Bad Company. The newly released Foreigner: Live At the Rainbow ‘78 (pick up a copy here) charts a band at the peak of their live prowess on the concert stage. We spoke with the band’s legendary vocalist, Lou Gramm, for a look back on their halcyon career in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.
Rock Cellar: Watching the Foreigner: Live at the Rainbow ’78 DVD, what impressed you and surprised you the first time you saw it?
Lou Gramm: I think initially of course you’re surprised by how young everyone looks. (laughs) But I was impressed with how good the band sounded. I was also impressed with how good the filming was and the sound was really great quality. This show has been sitting in the vaults somewhere. I know the people who filmed and recorded it at that time were some of the best around, and I’m happy it’s finally being released.
Rock Cellar: How did Foreigner’s songs change in a live setting?
Lou Gramm: Foreigner songs change in a live setting by taking on a little more of a reckless life. The studio recordings definitely have a great feel, and we were totally concerned about the arrangements, but I think after the songs have been committed to tape or vinyl in these days and we began playing them in live shows, they got a little bit looser and a little bit more fun to play.
Rock Cellar: And you were playing a second set of drums at some of these shows during this period, right?
Lou Gramm: Yes, I was. I used to do that back then. I think it happened for sure during “Starrider” and I also played on “Headknocker.” I started out as a drummer. Back in the day I played drums in the high school marching band and the orchestra and was committed to being a drummer. I even auditioned at the Eastman School of Music. I think my drumming background served me well along the way as a live vocalists.
Rock Cellar: What are your most indelible memories of those early tours behind the band’s first two albums, the debut self-titled album and Double Vision album?
Lou Gramm: I think we learned a lot as a band. When we started touring for our first album we had not played together before, so it wasn’t like we were a band that was playing out a lot and then decided to record an album. We were a band that first recorded an album and then stated playing live shows. But fairly quickly we got used to each other onstage and were comfortable with the songs. But I remember introducing “Hot Blooded” and “Double Vision” at those Rainbow shows in ’78. I think we all had butterflies because I think we were so anxious to make them come off upfront and tough and hoped it would elicit a good audience response.
Rock Cellar: Can you characterize the chemistry and magic of the original lineup?
Lou Gramm: I think more than being a British/American band, I think the Brits to a certain degree had a little more time in the saddle than the Americans, that they’d been playing music for a while longer and had reached a certain level before the Americans had. It wasn’t that the Americans were inexperienced, it was just that we were still in the formative stages. The band I was in before Foreigner was Black Sheep and we had two albums on Capitol Records and a single on Chrysalis, so of the American members in the band, I felt like the most experienced. I think it’s probably a good thing that I did have that experience because Mick and I jumped into songwriting mode right away.
Rock Cellar: Foreigner broke big out of the gate with your first album. When did you realize you’d made it and wouldn’t need to get a 9-5 job anytime soon?
Lou Gramm: I think I realized that when “Feels Like The First Time” was racing up the charts and we were getting album play on three or four other songs. That’s when the singles could be doing one thing and the deeper cuts would be really giving you the depth of the band.
Rock Cellar: A lesser known deep cut comes from Double Vision, “Love Has Taken Its Toll,” a co-write with Ian McDonald.
Lou Gramm: We performed that song a number of times live but after a while since it had got so little airplay compared to the rest of the songs that we were playing and the response was next to nothing, so we dropped it from the set. But regardless, it was a great song, I enjoyed writing that with Ian and I think it turned out great on the album.
Rock Cellar: Another gem of a deep cut that you also co-wrote with Ian McDonald was “Do What You Like” from your third album, Head Games.
Lou Gramm: That song had some Beatle magic to it. No hiding it all. As we were recording the bridge, we realized how Beatle-ish it was sounding. Ian was in the control room while I was out singing and we exchanged smirks with each other. It was really fun. The more Beatle-ish it sounded, the more we got into it. Mick’s solo is fantastic.
Rock Cellar: Given the extraordinary success of the debut album, most bands suffer from the sophomore jinx. Was there excitement of capitalizing on the momentum and success of the first album or was it more, “Holy shit, we had a huge hit album and now we’ve got to scale that mountain of success again!”
Lou Gramm: It was both. The excitement from having a huge album definitely gave us momentum but the responsibility of following that up with an album equally or better also was frightening as hell. But our producer Keith Olsen had just come off producing Fleetwood Mac so we had swinging for home runs already. It’s a great sounding album. I think we had very strong songs on that album but we were still in the formative stages of honing our sound so there were still rough edges. There was a little more showcasing of different members in the band. It wasn’t all straight ahead rock songs. They all had vastly different personalities to them. It’s an album that I’m extremely proud of, I think Keith did a magnificent job producing it.
Rock Cellar: Growing up and being your own juke box hero, what were your big dreams of musical stardom?
Lou Gramm: It hit me seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was ten or eleven years old.
Hearing those awesome songs just slightly over the screaming crowd and thinking about, I wonder how that would be? Although the screaming made it very exciting, the songs themselves were the part that I loved.
Rock Cellar: Did you know by that point that you had a good voice?
Lou Gramm: No.
Rock Cellar: When did someone first say, “Lou, your voice is incredible!”
Lou Gramm: Well, by the time I was fifteen I was playing in my first real rock band. We had another lead singer but I was able to sing one song in our whole set, “Stop! In The Name Of Love” by The Supremes, and I’d get a lot of compliments about it and as the band went on I ended up singing three or four songs. And then the next band I was in I was one of a couple singers.
Rock Cellar: Speaking of juke box heroes, what was the inspiration behind one of the band’s biggest this, “Jukebox Hero”?
Lou Gramm: I started writing the song, the melody and the lyrics. I was writing about being in Rochester, New York and being at the backstage door of the Rochester War memorial when Jimi Hendrix was playing. I didn’t get to see Hendrix play; I was outside of the War Memorial. Every time the door would open to let people, in people who had backstage passes, I‘d stick my head in here and I’d see him for about ten or fifteen seconds and I’d hear him and then they’d shut the door again.
I could hear him outside of the door through the walls and stuff, but it was different than when somebody opened the door. That concert was crazy because some kids started lighting the padding on the seats on fire. So back to “Jukebox Hero,” I started writing the lyrics. It was a rainy night and I didn’t have a ticket and I was just a drenched rat outside the backstage door. I took the song to a certain point and then Mick started to help me with it because I wanted him involved.
Of course, it’s the story of a guitar player. (recites some of the lyrics) I wrote “standing in the rain, with his head hung low.” I could remember when it’s windy and rainy and you’re not going any place and the rain is starting to beat you down and your head is hung low. (continues reciting lyrics) “Didn’t have a ticket, it was a sold out show.” Then the door would open to let these people who had passes in and you’d “hear the roar of the crowd, you could picture the scene.” And that’s really what the song’s based on. I had all of that and I asked Mick to get involved because he was my writing partner and I definitely wanted him to help me out, and he did, and the song turned out fantastic. I’m extremely proud of that song and I think it left an indelible stamp for anyone who was wondering if Foreigner was capable of delivering a hard rock song.
Rock Cellar: “Hot Blooded” is a highlight on the new live DVD. Trace its evolution.
Lou Gramm: We had begun recording the Double Vision album and to the best of my knowledge, we had just finished recording “Hot Blooded” and we were asked to play Cal Jam II. We wanted to do that and we did. We played every song form the first album and I think we played an old R&B song, “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker” by Betty Wright, and the audience still wanted more.
We were huddling backstage trying to figure out what to play. I only had one verse written for “Hot Blooded” — we were still finishing it up in the studio — but we decided to play that anyway and it brought down the house. So we definitely knew at that point that we had something with that song. Then this show in London at The Rainbow came very close after that.
Rock Cellar: I always felt “Hot Blooded” was connected in some way to “All Right Now.” Big rock intros that are definable, a rock solid soulful groove. Do you sense the corollary between both songs?
Lou Gramm: Yes, I definitely do. Obviously it’s not intentional as they’re two completely different songs but on a certain level they do connect. When you hear the intros of both of those songs, you know what it is right away.
Rock Cellar: Did you ever see Free live?
Lou Gramm: I saw them at the New York Academy of Music when they were opening for Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show. Isn’t that amazing? Free was opening for Dr. Hook! I was blown away. When they came on the roadies pulled on ropes, it was like a sled with wheels and it had three full stacks of Marshall amps in each sled. They pulled them out,
(Paul) Kossoff had them on one side and Andy Fraser had those on the other side of the stage. Crazy. Paul Rodgers also had a small piano onstage when they played things like “My Brother Jake.”
Rock Cellar: I recently heard a previously lost BBC Radio One interview circa 1979 where music artists review latest releases.
A notable show featured two superstar guests, George Harrison and Michael Jackson and reviewed in the show was “Blue Morning, Blue Day,” any guesses on their verdict of the song?
Lou Gramm: Wow, you’re kidding me? What did they say?
Rock Cellar: George gave it a thumbs up and said, “I’m pleased for Mick that that this band is a success because we first met him in ’64 in Paris at the Olympia, he was the musical director for Sylvie Vartan and Johnny Hallyday. I thought the record was very pleasant. He’s a great guitar player.”
Michael liked the song too, and said “I liked the guitars on that. It’s really strong. I like that a lot. It gets your attention.”
Lou Gramm: Unbelievable.
Rock Cellar: Lastly, share your memories of the time when Jimmy Page and Robert Plant joined Foreigner onstage in the early ’80s.
Lou Gramm: Oh boy! I believe that happened in Munich, Germany. We had a sold-out crowd there. We had come off stage after our set and were toweling off quick and getting ready to go back on for the encore and in walks Jimmy and Robert.
Of course, Mick knew them and there were hugs all around. I got to meet them too; they were huge idols of mine. Next thing I knew Jimmy had his guitar and we were onstage jamming in front of a sold-out Munich crowd. We jammed don “Whole Lotta Love” and I believe we jammed on “Hot Blooded.”
It was recorded and somewhere there’s a tape of that. I’d heard little snippets of it over the years and no matter what the quality is, it’s sensational to hear. The crowd went ballistic, when we came off the stage after that, everybody was soaked in sweat and huggin’ and laughing about what a great time we had playing together.
July 31, 2020