25 Years Ago: Foreigner Start Over With ‘Unusual Heat’
Foreigner ended the '80s as one of rock's most consistently successful acts — and then they lost singer Lou Gramm to a solo career, forcing founder Mick Jones to start over for the band's seventh studio album.
Gramm, who'd already scored a handful of solo hits before announcing his departure from the lineup, has attributed the split to his frustration with the growing emphasis on keyboards in Foreigner's sound. Jones, perhaps unsurprisingly, sees things differently — though he's perfectly willing to admit the band's singles took more of a power ballad turn toward the middle of the decade.
"It was a time when the market was starting to change in music a bit and getting rock tracks really played and being able to breathe in that time, it was just the circumstances," Jones told Ultimate Classic Rock. "I had certainly never made any conscious decision to go soft or to become a keyboard-oriented band. It was just a phase we were going through. I guess if you look at a lot of the big bands over the years, they’ve experimented. I never wanted to feel stagnated with the music from Foreigner. I think we by and large were able to do that."
As Jones sees it, Gramm's wanderlust more likely stemmed from a desire to be a solo star — and chafing under the restrictions of working in a creative partnership that Jones admits he may have dominated to an uncomfortable degree. "Lou, I don’t know, it’s a difficult situation. I still don’t really fully understand it," he admitted. "I do understand a lot about it, but I think it was also a bit of a rebellion as far as he was concerned. I think his foremost thing was getting his solo album together in that time. You know, everybody kind of started to feel that was becoming his priority. If you take a look at the amount of lead singers that have left bands when they’re in their prime, it’s never usually very successful."
To fill the void left by Gramm's absence, the remaining members of Foreigner turned to Johnny Edwards, a veteran singer who'd done a tour of duty with Montrose and was then the frontman for another Atlantic act, Wild Horses. As Edwards told UCR in a separate interview, Wild Horses had only just signed its record deal — and although joining for Foreigner was obviously tempting for financial reasons if nothing else, he was reluctant to walk away from his own band after struggling for years to make it on his own terms.
Jones, however, was undeterred — and eager to work with a singer most fans hadn't heard of rather than hiring a big-name replacement who'd come with his own baggage. "We were in rehearsal and talks with a couple of guys who were both strong candidates and had kind of a name," he admitted. "I felt eventually that it was probably going to be better to not try and put an all-star band together, but to keep on the same kind of path with four people being involved in making a record and not really, I think I would probably say, cheapening the band at that point — cheapening the meaning and the direction of the band."
"I turned it down and then they just kept turning up the pressure. For some reason, they really wanted me to check it out, and then they came out to L.A. and [Jones] flew me back to New York on the Rolling Stone jet with Jann Wenner and all of these crazy things," Edwards recalled. "The more I got to know them, the more I felt like, 'Wow, they really do want to try to start fresh' and they weren’t trying to make me be something I wasn’t. Mick wanted to start from scratch and write songs. He listened to every song I had, which was a lot."
Enticed, Edwards left Wild Horses (whose ranks would later include future Foreigner bassist Jeff Pilson) and entered the studio with Foreigner and producer Terry Thomas, who'd already worked replacement-singer sales magic with Bad Company. He was a natural choice for the gig, but as he told UCR, he had reservations.
"I quit three times, actually," said Thomas. "Johnny Edwards was a fantastic singer, but he’s not Lou Gramm! If you’re going to replace the singer, you have to be like Journey — you have to put someone who sounds like Steve Perry in. So they needed someone to sound like Lou Gramm. I didn’t want to do the record. I didn’t want to do it. ... When they said, 'We want you to do this,' I said, 'If you haven’t got Lou Gramm, it’s not Foreigner.'"
Conceding that Gramm took the voice of the band with him when he left, Jones admitted that the period after his departure was a very difficult one for Foreigner — and an uncertain one too.
"It was very difficult and very emotional and laden with all sorts of stuff," said Jones. "It was wounding at the time. You know, the other two guys in the band, Rick Wills and Dennis Elliott, we were just kind of high and dry and had to gradually make decisions and come to the realization that Lou, even though he might record still, was no longer really [there], his mind was with his career and so there was just a lot of questions. You know, why? Why can’t we get over this, and we’ll do another album and then we’ll keep things going as long as it’s good. But it wasn’t so good anymore. So that was a tough time for the band, definitely."
All of which is to say that Jones more than understands Thomas' trepidation — but from his perspective, the end result was worth the effort. "It was a difficult job, I have to say, for him," said Jones. "Because it was our first album without Lou, and we didn’t really know where we were going to go with that. But once we got working on it and [began] preparing it, things started to come together. It was great working with him, he’s a very talented guy and a real stickler in the studio, I guess a bit like I was. So we had our clashes from time to time, but generally, it was great."
"I always liked Terry’s production," added Edwards. "I loved what he did with Bad Company, so I was happy to be with him and he made it easy. He’s a great programmer. On the demos, he programmed all of the drum parts so that we could get a lot of this stuff out there and the ideas formulated. Mick was always good about getting the right atmosphere created in order to have a good experience in the studio and that was one of the main things I learned from him. But you know, they would always be respectful and help me get through it and coach me the right way."
Listen to Foreigner's 'Lowdown and Dirty'
Aside from a new singer and a new producer, Foreigner also mixed up their songwriting dynamic on the album. Jones had settled into a partnership with Gramm over the years, but while assembling material for the new LP, he worked with a pair of partners: Edwards and Thomas.
"I think it’s important," Jones said of co-writing with Edwards. "[Starting with] the early days [of the band], I definitely liked to obviously work with the singer to have him first of all feel part of it and realize that it’s him that’s singing the songs, so he has to capture the feeling or the direction of the song. I just think it was a gesture to welcome him into the band and I knew that he had written. It wasn’t just [me] saying, 'Oh, he writes a little.' He had the experience writing and it was a fun experience working with him and he fully deserved that credit."
Somewhat ironically given Gramm's stated reasons for leaving the band, the new material took a decidedly harder-edged approach than the fairly glossy sound adopted for the past few Foreigner records. Looking back on the songwriting sessions, Edwards recalled working on the uptempo "Mountain of Love" first, which set a deliberately more aggressive tone for the album.
"He and I talked about it. He knew that they were falling into this 'ballad band' category and he knew that in order to keep the vitality going that they needed to maintain that rock appeal," said Edwards. "So it was an intentional strategy to make sure we didn’t just have another album full of ballads. I think it’s one reason that he hired me, was to get more of an edge and more of a rock orientation to the band."
Fans heard the results on June 14, 1991, when the album — titled Unusual Heat — arrived in stores behind leadoff single "Lowdown and Dirty," which went as far as No. 4 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart. But the album itself rose no higher than No. 117 — a massive comedown for a band that had routinely gone multi-platinum throughout the '80s. Steep as Foreigner's fall from grace was, Edwards told UCR it didn't surprise him at all — partly because after the introduction of SoundScan sales tabulation that year, labels couldn't gin up numbers as easily as they once had in order to manufacture momentum for a hit.
"There was no way to use standard tools that had always sort of been in the toolkit of promotion ahead of time and using what probably does amount to promotional tricks and sleight of hand to create a buzz about a project," he explained. "All of a sudden, it was like, 'No, you’re only getting credit for what’s actually being sold and going out the door.' So it made it much harder for a band like Foreigner to just come out in the Top 20. No, you had to prove it right away. You know, Mick was disappointed, but I wasn’t surprised. Naturally, I would have liked to have had it go better, but it didn’t surprise me at all."
Adding to Edwards' uphill climb as Foreigner's new frontman was the knowledge that, no matter how talented he was in his own right, there would always be a segment of the fanbase that only wanted to hear Gramm behind the mic. Although years of playing bar band gigs had thickened his skin, the weight of living up to Foreigner's earlier legacy couldn't help but take its toll.
"Every time we walked out there, you’d have to be aware that there are a lot of people who are going to be skeptical, trying to size it up to see if you’re as good as the original guy," said Edwards. "You just kind of have to block it out and get up there and do what you can do. I was always a little frustrated by that. You know, I felt like I was more driven to be my own artist rather than try to duplicate somebody else and that was always frustrating."
Unusual Heat's dismal sales — followed by the cold shoulder fans gave Gramm's new band, Shadow King, later in the year — put the writing on the wall for Edwards' tenure with Foreigner, which would run out the following year when Gramm and Jones mended fences and staged a reunion. Gramm's return ended what was ultimately an odd, brief chapter in the group's history — but awkward as it might have been in the end, neither Edwards nor Jones look back with regrets.
"I’d been working with them for a couple years and we were working on songs for another album, so I was caught off-balance a little bit when they decided to get back with Lou," admitted Edwards. "But that’s the way it goes sometimes."
"We didn’t really get to go as far as I would have liked to. I think if we would have done another album with Johnny, perhaps who knows [what would have happened]," added Jones. "But it certainly was a great time recording the album and having somebody who really was the genuine article in as much as you know, our kind of music, and perhaps a little more guitar-oriented than things we had done of late."
Though Edwards' time in the group has long since run its course — and after a long layoff from music, he's now fronting a new band called Bleu Phonque — there's still an outside chance that fans might someday have a chance to hear the tracks they were working on for the tabled follow-up to Unusual Heat. Edwards estimates they had "six or eight" demos finished when he left the group, and while Jones couldn't say where those tapes are now, he wouldn't mind digging them up.
"We have some songs that are definitely hanging around there somewhere, which I don’t know whether they’ll ever see the light of day, but we were going with some interesting stuff on that album in the beginning," said Jones. "I was writing and I felt very comfortable writing with Johnny. I have to say, it was a real fun experience, working with him. He was a good guy. There were some songs that Johnny and I wrote that I don’t even know where they are, to tell you the truth. I would like to find them. I’m sure they’re around somewhere. I’d like to find them, just out of curiosity and just see what we were doing."
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