The Foreigner Strut: Mick Jones and Lou Gramm’s Sweet Science of Swagger

There’s something uniquely satisfying and majestically meta about a hard rock classic whose core subject is the transformative power of rocking out. An unbeatable demonstration of Foreigner’s brand of no-apologies and no-holds-barred AOR, “Juke Box Hero” demonstrates that fact with all the cocksure swagger you could possibly demand.

Over a stark, almost metronomic beat and a burbling, ominous synthesizer, frontman Lou Gramm devotes the first verse to a cinematic vignette about a downcast dude who “couldn’t get a ticket” to “the sold-out show” and now finds himself stuck in the rain. Nonetheless he gets all he needs by putting his ear to the wall and hearing the one guitar that “just blew him away.” As the tension rises through the second verse, he arms himself with the proverbial “beat-up six-string” and gets down to business. And you can tell how good all that rocking makes him feel because the song makes damn sure you feel it, too, especially when a series of windmill-ready riffs leads into a chorus that seems scientifically engineered to elicit fist-pumping, hard-strutting and anything else you need to do to cope with the surge of testosterone in your bloodstream.  

Formed in 1976 in New York by former Spooky Tooth and Leslie West Band sideman Mick Jones and King Crimson co-founder Ian McDonald with a cluster of burly Americans like Gramm, Foreigner undoubtedly knew they were never going to be cool. After all, they emerged as unrepentantly old-school rockers at a time when disco still ruled the airwaves and the critical establishment was far more interested in punk and new wave. There was little respect afforded to any band doing – as Jones later admitted – “the exact opposite.” Of course, that hardly meant there wasn’t an audience for their sound, which – thanks to the match of Gramm’s muscular vocal style and Jones’ flair for crunchy riffs and sticky hooks – was a big cut above most of the AOR that would become predominant on American radio through the ‘80s. On early hits like “Feels Like the First Time” and “Hot Blooded,” Foreigner managed to be beefy without being bombastic and dramatic without being overblown. They’d fine-tune the formula even further while somehow doubling its force when they joined forces with the era’s two most innovative rock producers: Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, Cars) for 1979’s Head Games and then Robert John “Mutt” Lange (AC/DC, Def Leppard) for 4.

Alas, in the wake of the success of the globe-conquering but hardly strut-worthy power ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is,” the alliance between Gramm and Jones splintered. Though they would periodically re-team over the ensuing decades as Jones worked hard to maintain Foreigner’s health as a reliably rockin’ staple of the amphitheatre, county-fair and casino circuits, neither man would reach the heights they did in Foreigner’s ‘80s golden age. That said, Gramm did unleash one final iconic burst of AOR glory in 1987’s “Midnight Blue,” a pretty much perfect solo hit that may be the mightiest ever example of jukebox heroism. With all that in mind, we present this celebration of the Foreigner Strut, full of all the hits and deep cuts that you need for the ‘80s-movie training montage that may already be running in your mind.