By: Robert Cavuoto
In this book Lou shares details about his rise from humble, working-class roots in Rochester, N.Y., to become one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most distinctive and popular voices.
He recounts how he realized his dream to be a rock star, but sadly, like many stars, succumbed to the trappings of wealth and fame. Foreigner’s remarkable success was due in large part to the song-writing synergy between Lou and the band’s founder, Mick Jones.
However, creative clashes between the two would become more frequent and the tension would result in Lou’s departure, not once but twice; the second time for good.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Lou and talk about his life’s story and the legacy that he and Mick Jones created together in Foreigner.
Robert Cavuoto: I really enjoyed your book, Juke Box Hero: My Five Decades in Rock n’ Roll. What are some of the things you want your fans to take away from it?
Lou Gramm: More or less what life is like; that it’s not all glory and good times. That there are sacrifices and pitfalls which are easy to get caught up in. That there were accolades and satisfaction when you write a good song and it does well. But that’s not everything. I just wanted to show an accurate picture of how it was for me.
Robert: In the book you talk about always wanting to be a rock star. It’s also evident in the hit song, “The Jukebox Hero.” Tell me a little about that drive and how you attained your goal.
Lou Gramm: The first time I remember actually wanting to be a rock star, or at least make a living playing music, was when I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Something clicked with me. It was fantastic. There was a guitar out of tune here and there, or harmony that was a little off. But, it was television, and television is very unforgiving.
They were numerous times on Ed Sullivan and I think I saw them every single time. To me that was the real initiative, the breakthrough that made me understand what I wanted to do for a living. It wasn’t the screen; it was the great songs and playing live. That really was the attraction for me.
Robert: Being in the music business for fifty years, I’m sure you’ve seen drastic changes from when you were starting out.
Lou Gramm: One of the big ones is corporate radio. There used to be independent radio stations with program directors that had an idea of what they wanted to play. That type of thing is now gone, and you hear just about the same 10 or 12 songs on every button you push. And that’s sad.
The other changes that are drastic are when an artist has had numerous successful albums and singles, it is certainly inexplicable that there’s no intent to play their new music. Only their old hits are played on Classic Rock Radio. It’s like being put out to pasture. Again, it’s not that these artists have tried to put out albums, but it won’t get the airplay anymore. Their time is over. Someone, somewhere has drawn the line, saying, “That’s it for them.”
Robert: I recently spoke with Roger Glover of Deep Purple and he said the same thing. He goes, “Outside of our four hits, nobody has played any of our new stuff in the last 30 years. We’re invisible.”
Lou Gramm: Yeah, that’s right. And for better or worse, record companies don’t have the clout they used to have 25 years ago. You really don’t need a record deal. You just do a recording. You can do an excellent recording on home equipment now, because the level of that equipment is so proficient. Then put it on the Internet for the whole world to hear. It’s interesting and it’s terrific for up-and-coming rockers, but it’s the death knell for the established ones.
Robert: I think there’s a level of expectation that’s required of bands like Foreigner, Aerosmith, and Deep Purple – that every album is going to have huge hits, and sometimes it’s not achievable or that music is not in fashion. I assume that makes it a little more challenging.
Lou Gramm: And if you start writing for the times, you’ll never succeed. You can’t chase the style of music that’s popular. You are what you are.
Robert: The one thing I couldn’t figure out in the book was why Mick Jones kept cutting you out of all the writing collaboration? You guys were hit makers so why would he want to jeopardize your relationship for a couple more dollars? It wouldn’t make sense in the long run.
Lou Gramm: I think he felt that if he could limit my input, but still have me sing, there’s a huge, huge financial benefit that would flow his way, making sure that I was able to buy into the song emotionally. He took that chance and at a certain point, my input was null and void.
I clearly wanted to steer away from the sappy ballads. We had “Waiting for a Girl,” that was a huge hit. It’s fine, but “I Want to Know What Love Is,” was the first single of an album after “Waiting for a Girl” and now we had two huge ballads in a row, and then the next single from the next album was “I Don’t Want to Live Without You.”
So, now there are three big singles from three consecutive albums. Our rock reputation and our rock audience were severely diminished.
Songs like “I Don’t Want to Live Without You,” or “I Want to Know What Love Is,” cross over from rock radio to MOR [middle-of-the-road] radio to soft rock. So you win big on all fronts. I think, at some point that became more appealing to him than keeping our rock integrity intact. That really was the source of our anxiety and anger at each other.
Robert: It seemed like he was trying to make you a hired gun rather than a partner.
Lou Gramm: That’s what I was feeling like.
Robert: The interesting thing about the ballads was that Foreigner was on the forefront of it. In the ’80s every hard rock band had to have at least two “monster ballads” on their album in order get radio or video play.
Lou Gramm: I was particularly aware of that. It was almost like we set the trend, but it wasn’t a trend I was proud of. [Laughter]
Robert: When you look back, do you think Mick was aware of that trend, or did he just stumble into it?
Lou Gramm: I’m very sure he was aware of the upside of that. It’s pretty sad because even album rock radio back then would go right to those songs. And our good rock songs got zero attention versus on the earlier albums, when they would focus on the melodic, but hard-rocking single.
Robert: When you were getting ready to record 4, you got rid of the whole rhythm section. Did you really think that the original band would not have been able to pull off what you accomplished on 4?
Lou Gramm: Everyone in the band was very proficient at their instrument and wanted to be the best they could. But, by the time 4 rolled around, when we came off the road for Head Games, and we put our big equipment away, so did people’s guitars and drums. Everything gets locked into the storage room.
After touring, there were more than a few people who didn’t touch their instruments for months and months, until we started rehearsing for the next album. So, we would have to stop for clunky notes, just like you would expect for someone who didn’t touch them for three or four months.
Robert: They were rusty.
Lou Gramm: Yeah, and it was very frustrating, while you were supposed to be creating you had to wait for people to figure parts out. We felt that when it was time to start creating, everybody should be sharp as a tack on their instrument. That was something that was a lack of dedication,
It seemed that when we would exchange ideas, only certain people would contribute and those contributions was more like something we had done two albums ago. Not only were people not practicing their instruments, but now their ideas were stale, as well.
It got to point where we felt like a clean break and just trimming the band down to a quartet. It was the only way we were going to survive, or we would be one of those bands that you can’t tell one song from the first album, versus the third album. We were insistent on each album having its own personality.
Robert: Do you still speak with those three other members?
Lou Gramm: Some of them. I speak to Ian McDonald and Dennis Elliott, occasionally.
Robert: How is your relationship with Mick?
Lou Gramm: There is no relationship, to tell you the truth. I did speak to him in just the past month or so and congratulated him on his songwriting Hall of Fame award. And he congratulated me on mine, and it was a friendly, but chilly, short phone call.
Robert: What do you think about him carrying the torch for Foreigner?
Lou Gramm: He owns the name, and he has the right to do whatever he wants. He’s been very ill. He had a throat tumor and a heart bypass.
So, he’s been off the road for almost two years. But, the band continues to play without him. I think he’s still in the band, but due to his health problems, he hasn’t been playing.