Lou Gramm Looks Back on His Early Days With Foreigner: Exclusive Interview
Former Foreigner singer Lou Gramm got his taste of the limelight, and a visit from the school of musical hard knocks, long before he shared the stage with guitarist Mick Jones and his onetime bandmates.
He was fronting Black Sheep, who had released two albums on Capitol Records and opened for Kiss near the end of 1975. "I used to get from Kiss’ roadies, and from their tour manager, we were the lambs being thrown to the wolves,” Gramm tells UCR. “However, our first show with Kiss, we got an encore as the opening act. We didn’t even know if we’d be able to play. We kind of looked toward Kiss’ tour manager and he said, ‘Yeah, go ahead, go back out there.’”
It was a victorious moment that was short-lived. “We only did a couple of shows with them, because our truck slid off the New York State Thruway and tipped over,” Gramm notes. “We lost all of our equipment, and our record company wouldn’t help us get some more equipment. We lost the tour and then Capitol dropped us.”
The experience of playing shows with bands like Kiss and Ten Years After was enough to give Gramm some “miles under [his] belt” so that when the opportunity came to join the group that eventually became Foreigner, he was ready.
Once the new band completed its self-titled debut album, which was released in 1977, Gramm says they were more than ready to take it on the road. “Even though we recorded that album, we had never played a show as Foreigner until we played our first show, I believe, at a rock club outside of Washington, D.C.,” he recalls. “That was our first show as Foreigner. We had to get our legs underneath us and start to realize what we sounded like and who we wanted to be.”
Foreigner - Live at the Rainbow ‘78, a new video that comes out on March 15, bottles the excitement of that first year the band spent on the road. The show was the last stop on the final leg of the Foreigner: Around the World in 42 Days tour, a lengthy trek that took the band to Hawaii, Japan, Greece, Australia and Germany before the London gig.
Watch Foreigner Perform 'Double Vision' From 'Live at the Rainbow '78'
As they wrapped up touring the Foreigner album, they had already mostly finished recording a second album, Double Vision, which would be released a few months after the Rainbow date, where they previewed two of its songs, the title track and “Hot Blooded.”
“I think adrenaline ruled the night," Gramm says. "And I say adrenaline because I don’t think we were messing around with anything else in those days. I just think that it was so exciting to be an up-and-coming band. We had been getting airplay for our first album and there was a lot of anticipation for what our second album would be. So it was very exciting times, honestly.”
He has specific memories about “Hot Blooded,” which he says was still in the development stage as they prepared to launch the final run of shows. “While we were still recording [that song], we were asked to play Cal Jam II," Gramm recalls. "We played every song from our first album, and we played an old blues song, “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker” by Betty Wright.
"We came off the stage and people were still shouting for more. We’re in a huddle, like a football team, and we’re going, “What do we play? We don’t have any more. And then Mick said, ‘Look, let’s just play ‘Hot Blooded.’’ The music was done, but I only had one verse of lyrics and the chorus. So we went out there and we played ‘Hot Blooded,’ and I sang the same verse three times. When the song ended, it brought the house down. We knew we had something.”
Watch Foreigner Perform 'Hot Blooded' From 'Live at the Rainbow '78'
In addition to the two songs from the then-unreleased Double Vision, the Rainbow performance preserves the entirety of the debut album as Foreigner were performing it live back then. The band storms through hits like "Cold as Ice” and “Feels Like the First Time,” as well as deeper album tracks “The Damage Is Done,” “I Need You” and “At War With the World.”
“We played every single song," Gramm says. "I remember when we were rehearsed, we were thinking of ways of drawing out the songs, like, maybe two leads instead of one. The final choruses would go around three times instead of two. We were looking for time, so we’d have enough time to play the set we were contracted to.”
But, as he points out, “those songs were drawn out like that on the record. Not quite as long as the live versions, but even on the record ‘I Need You’ had an extended solo. The song was longer than most of the others on the album.”
Live at the Rainbow ‘78 documents the development of the band after almost a year on the road. Gramm says bassist Ed Gagliardi and keyboardist Al Greenwood didn’t have as much touring experience as the others, but they had logged a lot of local shows in the New York area. Combined with the years of experience the rest of the band had, it made for a potent mix onstage.
Watch the Trailer for Foreigner's 'Live at the Rainbow '78'
“Mick was the guy that was rock steady to get behind and get in the groove," Gramm notes. "He more or less set the tempos for the songs that we played live, and the work-up of the songs, the delivery of the songs and everything, was pretty much on his shoulders for the way the songs were put across.
"Dennis [Elliott] was a rock-solid drummer who had played not only with Ian Hunter but with a jazz-rock band called If. Ian [McDonald] had played with King Crimson and McDonald and Giles, and he was the wild card of the bunch, because he more or less lent that over-the-top woodwinds and sax and flute and things that made some of our songs -- put them in a little different realm.”
Gramm hasn’t seen all of the Rainbow video, but he's checked out “bits and pieces." “It definitely took [me] right back to those times," he says. "I mean, I saw the way I was dressed and the songs we were playing -- I felt like a kid again.”