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40 Years Ago: Foreigner Release Their Debut Album

For many young musicians, finding oneself stranded across the ocean without a job would seem like a pretty good reason to panic. But for guitarist Mick Jones, who ended up at loose ends in New York during the mid-’70s, it was merely a short-lived inconvenience that led to the gig of a lifetime.

Jones, who’d landed with the Leslie West Band after Spooky Tooth dissolved in 1974, had to start over again when West’s group also imploded following their self-titled release in 1976. Understandably, the situation prompted some hard reflection on Jones’ part.

“We’d come over to tour and base ourselves in America, and that was good for a little while. But eventually, things kind of disintegrated. I was kind of left in New York … stranded almost,” Jones laughed later. “I thought, I’d better do something here, otherwise I’m just going to head back to England and see what I could piece together as a career.”

With the guidance and financial backing of West’s manager, Bud Prager, Jones set about penning material while lining up like-minded musicians for a new band. Admitting his spark of creativity might have simply stemmed from “desperation,” he recalled, “I started writing by myself. Before I knew it, I had two or three songs, and I wondered what to do with them. One of those songs was ‘Feels Like the First Time.'”

While the songs were flowing freely, rounding up the right personnel proved a little more problematic. After an early aborted attempt at solidifying a lineup, Jones held on to just one player — keyboardist Al Greenwood — while continuing his search. Piece by piece, he heard what he was looking for: Multi-instrumentalist King Crimson vet Ian McDonald soon joined the fold, followed by former Ian Hunter drummer Dennis Elliott. Yet even after the slowly solidifying combo auditioned dozens of singers, the right voice failed to surface.

As is so often the case with painfully drawn-out searches, the solution was right in front of Jones all along — specifically in his record collection, where he dug out a copy of an album by Black Sheep, a short-lived group whose singer, Lou Gramm, had offered it up when the band crossed paths with Spooky Tooth on the road years before. Although Jones was less than impressed with Black Sheep’s songs, revisiting the LP left him convinced Gramm was his man.

Fortunately for Jones, Gramm was at his own career crossroads following the dissolution of Black Sheep, and agreed to travel from Rochester to New York City for an audition. Once he stepped in front of the mic and added his vocals to Jones’ growing stack of songs, it was obvious to everyone in the room that he’d made the right decision.

“We all clicked immediately,” Gramm recalled in his Juke Box Hero memoir. “I thought when we started rehearsing that there would be a get-to-know-you period where we would be feeling one another out, but it wasn’t like that at all. The chemistry among us was instant.”

Listen to Foreigner’s ‘Cold as Ice’

Attention from the record industry would prove a little slower to come by. After completing the lineup with bassist Ed Gagliardi and calling the new band Trigger, Jones handed off his demo to Prager, who shopped it to numerous labels to no avail. It wasn’t until Atlantic A&R exec John Kalodner spotted the tape in the office and played it — mistaking it for a different Trigger he’d recently been to see — that the group finally started to gain some traction.

Record deal finally in hand, Jones’ band needed to figure out what to do for a name after Kalodner pointed out they couldn’t use Trigger. Riffing on the fact that half of their lineup was British and the other half was American — so they’d be foreigners no matter where they played — Jones suggested Foreigner as a replacement, and it immediately stuck.

The rechristened group headed into the studio in the fall of 1976 with producers John Sinclair and Gary Lyons, fleshing out a 10-track set that included a handful of Jones solo compositions — including the fateful “Feels Like the First Time” — as well as a number of co-writes with Greenwood, McDonald and Gramm, who contributed to half the songs on the emerging LP. Although Foreigner’s lineup would change a number of times over the ensuing decades, it would be Gramm and Jones’ creative partnership that proved the most critically and commercially fruitful for the band.

The Foreigner sessions, however — like the sessions for most debut LPs — captured a band still finding its identity to a certain extent. Although the album would ultimately lead off with the killer one-two punch of “Feels Like the First Time” and “Cold as Ice” — both Top 10 singles and enduring fan favorites — there were a number of experiments that weren’t quite in line with the sound the band would later pursue, like the Jones-sung, prog-tinged number “Starrider.” But if they’d go on to make more consistent albums later in their career, Foreigner still added up to a powerfully effective rock ‘n’ roll debut.

Audiences responded accordingly. In addition to a pair of Top 10 hits, the album notched a third single in the Top 40 (“Long, Long Way From Home”) and peaked at No. 4 in the U.S. on its way to moving more than five million copies. Virtual unknowns a year before, Foreigner ended 1977 as rising stars — and their star would only continue to soar over the decade to follow.

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Next: Top 10 Foreigner Songs

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