Live from the Lincoln Center: The Fist-Pumping, Bic-Lighting Legacy of Foreigner and Arena Rock

The Fist-Pumping, Bic-Lighting Legacy of Foreigner and Arena Rock
By Brad Tolinski

The early ’70s were a strange and transitional period in American culture. The first few years of the decade were basically spent mopping up leftover bits of business from the ’60s, but after President Richard Nixon announced his resignation in 1974 and the war in Vietnam ended in 1975, spirits lifted and people literally kicked off their shoes and began to boogie.

Men’s lapels and moustaches got bigger, women’s hip-huggers and haltertops got skimpier, and young adults shook their tail feathers as disco flourished and arena bands like Kiss exhorted their legions of fans to “rock and roll all night and party every day.” There was a sense that better days were to come, and innovators like Bill Gates, who started Microsoft in 1975, and Steve Jobs, who founded Apple in 1976, were busy working around the clock in their garages to guarantee it.

In his influential 1976 essay written for New York magazine, celebrated American social critic Tom Wolfe defined the ’70s as the “Me Decade.” He describes how U.S. economic prosperity had “pumped money into every class level of the population on a scale without parallel in any country in history,” triggering a wave of narcissistic behavior, resulting in “the greatest age of individualism in American history,” and evidence of this self-centered optimism was literally everywhere. The most ubiquitous symbol of the era was a big yellow smiley face that was paired with the phrase “Have a Nice Day!” and it was on everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs to underwear.

Across the sea, however, England was struggling economically. Its industrial-based economy was in a tailspin, unemployment ran rampant, and inflation peaked at over 30 percent. Under these circumstances, it was no surprise that teens and young adults became restless, angry, and cynical, and their rage manifested in a punk-rock movement that soon ruled Britannia.

American critics loved the anger and raw energy of UK bands like the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and the Clash. But if record sales were any indication, most American kids weren’t really feeling the angst. In 1978 Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, perhaps the most important punk rock album of the era, failed to dent Billboard’s Top 100, while the soundtrack to the John Travolta movie Saturday Night Fever, featuring the dance music of the Bee Gees, dominated U.S. radio. And if you liked your rock-and-roll, the best-selling groups of the day were upbeat arena bands with rousing choruses like Journey and Van Halen.

Rage? Anger? Having dodged the Vietnam War, most young people were just happy to be “Stayin’ Alive.” And if you were young it meant you spent much of your time cruising the highways in a Pontiac Trans Am, Dodge Charger, or a sweet AMC Hornet to the epic sounds of a new FM radio format known as AOR (album-oriented rock).

The format was the brainchild of Chicago DJ Lee Abrams, who introduced the idea of basing playlist choices on demographic research—the newly created, quasi-scientific field of “psychographics.” It was packaged and sold to radio stations across America, displacing many freeform “underground” programs of the ’60s. The end result was a dramatic narrowing of the range of music heard on rock radio. Lengthy and guitar-intensive album tracks were still favored, but less “accessible,” more fringe or radical styles were shunted off the air. No more ragas or warbly voiced folk singers, but listeners could count on hearing rock favorites such as Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Pink Floyd’s “Money” multiple times daily. As the ’70s rolled on, this selection came to be complemented by the hard-rocking, fist-pumping music of bands specifically tailored for the AOR format.

One could argue that 1977 was AOR’s banner year. Just some of the classic albums released that year were Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Queen’s News of the World, Styx’s The Grand Illusion, Kansas’s Point of Know Return, Steely Dan’s Aja, and Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell. But no other album summed up the era better than the debut by a group of British and American rock vets who called themselves Foreigner. Formed in New York City in 1976 by English musician Mick Jones and fellow Briton and ex–King Crimson member Ian McDonald along with American vocalist Lou Gramm, Foreigner could seemingly play anything, compose in a multitude of styles, and write hooks that gnawed deep into brain’s pleasure center. The album’s first two singles, “Feels Like the First Time” and “Cold As Ice,” were so dynamic and uplifting, they demanded you flick your Bic lighter and sing along no matter where you were. They were songs in search of a party, or perhaps mini-parties.

Foreigner’s debut album also demonstrated the band could do more than just raise the roof, it could also be poignant (“Long, Long Way from Home”), spacey and progressive (“Starrider”), and serve up Beatlesque melodies (“Woman Oh Woman”) if needed. Over the next couple of decades, Foreigner would sell millions of records as the band supplemented its kickass rock hits like “Double Vision” and “Dirty White Boy” with funk (“Urgent”), quiet storm balladry (“Waiting for a Girl Like You”), and even gospel, as witnessed on its 1984 masterpiece, “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

Foreigner was one of the kings of the AOR era, but it lasted much longer than many of its peers, because at the heart of it the group was more versatile and simply better songwriters than many of the bands of the era. Boston, Journey, and Styx each had a distinctive style, but Foreigner had many. Is it any surprise that, to paraphrase the group’s 1981 mega-hit, the band eventually became one of pop music’s most celebrated “juke box heroes”?

Chief songwriter, lead guitarist, and founder Mick Jones explains: “We were very conscious of not wanting to sound like anyone else. We were more gritty and down-to-earth than many of our contemporaries. Our songs were more rooted in soul and R&B, and we were focused on good arrangements and really sturdy choruses. We wanted to create something that would last.”

They say the test of a great song is if you can strip it down to its essentials—an acoustic guitar and vocals. In this evening’s performance, Foreigner in Concert: Unplugged, Foreigner shows just how wonderfully “sturdy” its catalog is. Even when you eliminate the laser lights, the big amps, and the electric guitars, these are great American songs that will have you stomping your feet and singing along like it was 1977 all over again.

Will it feel like the first time? Absolutely.

Brad Tolinski is author of Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page (Crown) and the moderator of BackStory Events, a music interview series with AOL Build. His epic narrative history of the electric guitar, PLAY IT LOUD!, will be out later this year on Doubleday.

—Copyright © 2016 by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc. Full Program