Some questions are dangerous to ask, and not meant to be answered.
Like, “Would you rather French-kiss your grandmother, or slide down a giant razor blade into a pool of rubbing alcohol?”
And: “Dare me to eat this?”
The pithy answer to this last one would be “all of them,” but that’s sort of unfair. I mean, yeah, their music was always pretty dumb. But you could put together a pretty decent compilation of meat & potatoes rock music using songs from their first four albums. Lou Gramm’s white-soul howl and Mick Jones’ turgid guitar combined to form a sort of lowest-common-denominator alloy: not quite rock, not quite pop, but dumb and bland and catchy enough to make the kids go nuts. They picked up on the commercial possibilities of the Power Ballad earlier than most, and (for awhile) did it better than most of their contemporaries.
I guess what it boils down to is that, most of the time, they were better than Journey, which I admit is not really what anyone should be shooting for. But we’re all about giving credit where credit is due here, and Foreigner had its moments. Also, they never recorded a concept album, which gives them points in my book.
Then they got all sucky. After “Waiting For A Girl Like You” (good song) and “I Want to Know What Love Is” (not as good) hit it big, Mick Jones hopped completely onto the late-’80s glossy MOR bandwagon. The result, with 1987’s Inside Information, was one last big hit with “I Don’t Want to Live Without You” (sample lyric: “I don’t want to live without you/No, I don’t want to live without you/I could never live without you”) and Lou Gramm’s departure from the band.
Even in ‘87, the writing was probably already on the wall for these guys. Top 40 radio was beginning to move away from contrived ballads by corporate rock veterans, and toward contrived ballads by younger bands like Poison, while album rock was beginning its long and painful death spasm. This created a situation in which the only way for bands like Foreigner to get airplay was to record sissy ballads that probably would get them laughed off AOR playlists and probably wouldn’t even be played by Top 40 stations anyway. By the time Foreigner resurfaced in 1991, the band could have released the best album of its career and it wouldn’t have sold for dick. But then, they didn’t release their best album. They didn’t even release a good album. They released Unusual Heat.
Even the front cover screams “cutout bin.”
Going in, Foreigner had one big problem–no lead singer–which they solved by hiring a Lou Gramm soundalike named Johnny Edwards. But where Gramm was often enough of a true vocalist to transcend Jones’ frequently pedestrian arrangements and asinine lyrics, Edwards was in over his head. His blustery yelp is swallowed whole by this album’s thuddingly dull material. Making things immeasurably worse is Jones’ decision to hire Terry Thomas as producer. His name is meaningless today, but at the time, Thomas was riding a hot streak: he’d produced, played on, and co-written two huge-selling albums by the reconstituted Bad Company. Here he had a unique opportunity to, just as he had done with Bad Company, take a well-known rock band with a loyal fanbase and help destroy its credibility beyond repair. As the world would soon discover, Terry Thomas may be a complete hack as a producer, and a heartbreakingly lazy songwriter, but he seizes opportunities where he finds them.
Ten of Unusual Heat’s eleven songs were co-written by Jones, Edwards, and Thomas, and they are all terrible. (Just so we’re clear, the eleventh song was written solely by Jones, and it’s terrible too.) The sucking starts right away, from the first notes of the first track, a real stinker titled “Only Heaven Knows”:
My intentions are good, my heart’s in the right place now
You see I wanna be good to you baby
But sometimes I just don’t know how…
Why do we laugh, why do we cry
Why do we feel this pain inside
Only heaven knows, only heaven knows
Diehard Foreigner fans may have been singing along with that chorus for reasons other than those intended by the authors.
This lyrical “theme”–what I guess we can describe as “I’m sorry, baby, I didn’t mean it”–pops up throughout the album. Here is a high point from “I’ll Fight For You”:
I’m turning to you, when love is on my mind
You’re all I want, woman, and love’s so hard to find
I know that I hurt you, and I know that I was wrong
But I want you back, back where you belong
And here’s my favorite verse, from “Moment Of Truth”:
Don’t expect me to treat you like a lady
I may not always show respect
It’s too soon yet, I hardly even know you
That’s just my way, don’t get upset
In this context, the overwhelming success of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam makes absolute sense. Even Candlebox is better than this.
In a rare example of chart justice, Unusual Heat landed with a thud, and Foreigner never recovered. Though Gramm was back by 1992, and the band actually released a halfway decent album a few years later, nobody cared anymore. By the turn of the century, they were reduced to suing their publishing company, on the grounds that their deal should be unenforcable because the publisher had to have known the band was never going to sell enough records to make any money from it. Gramm has left the band again, which, one imagines, creates problems on the casino and state fair circuit (”No, last night was Foreigner. Tonight it’s Lou Gramm, formerly of Foreigner.”) All indications point to Unusual Heat remaining Foreigner’s major-label swan song, which is probably, all things considered, the best thing for everybody.