For the last few years, Lou Gramm has been a man in a cage--a gilded cage known as Foreigner.
Since the band's first Atlantic Records album in 1976, it's been wallowing in fame and fortune. Gramm has been the voice of Foreigner on every album. Though his voice is perhaps the most identifiable aspect of the band's music, individual acclaim had eluded him. Fans know Foreigner and recognize Gramm's high, intense, soulful vocals but not many people know his name.
That will finally change. Gramm's first solo album, "Ready or Not," has just been released by Atlantic Records. Gramm has been dying to record a solo album for years.
"I would have done this in 1982 but my contract limited me to recording just for Foreigner," Gramm said. "I could have done a solo album with the approval of the band members and management but I never got that approval. I had an eight-year contract. It finally expired in 1985. I was free to do what I wanted then without anybody's approval. My contract is being renegotiated now."
What has been bugging him about Foreigner? It's not his relatively low visibility. Low-key, level-headed Gramm, 36, isn't turned on by the notion of being a star. His gripe is strictly creative. What has been irritating him for years is his limited role in the creation of Foreigner's music. Guitarist Mick Jones runs the band. Gramm helps him write the songs but Jones and the co-producer-of-the-moment assemble the songs in the studio.
"My contributions haven't been that welcomed," Gramm said. "It has caused me a lot of grief. I was a real studio rat. I was there while the songs were taking shape. I'd be there just in case, 12 to 16 hours a day, listening to all the songs. But Mick shapes the songs. The production goes the way he envisions it. A lot of the time I was dissatisfied with the songs or their direction. They were being overproduced or there was too much harmony or any number of things were wrong. But I didn't have much say. It would leave me bitter, with a bad taste in my mouth."
Part of the thrill of working on his own album, which he co-produced, was basically being in charge. "I like having the reins after all those years of riding shotgun," said Gramm exuberantly, sounding like a man who had just been released from prison.
On "Ready or Not," Gramm isn't exploring anything new. Though it's harder rocking than anything Foreigner has done on its last two albums, Gramm hasn't veered from the middle of the road--where Foreigner is firmly implanted. Still, this isn't the kind of stodgy, pompous rock Foreigner has been limited to on its last albums.
Despite his vocals, which you can't help associate with Foreigner, "Ready or Not" doesn't sound like a Foreigner album. That's no accident either.
"I made an effort to avoid that Foreigner sound," Gramm said. "I wanted to avoid all obvious comparisons. I did songs I couldn't do on Foreigner albums. Some of these songs were offered in some form to Foreigner but didn't get any attention."
In other words, the songs on his album, he said proudly, weren't "Foreignerized": "I know all about that style. There's a slow buildup of the chorus, full-blown production, long, drawn-out song intros, certain harmony patterns. It's easy to avoid. In my songs, I prefer getting to the point rather than drawing out the suspense. Foreigner songs sound more controlled and stylized."
There are no real ballads on his solo album, which may disappoint those who were anticipating a few dreamy numbers like Foreigner's "Waiting For a Girl Like You." But since the band's last album, "Agent Provocateur" which was released in December, 1984, its rock stature has suffered. Some fans have even accused the band of going soft, citing the hit schmaltzy ballad, "I Want to Know What Love Is."
"I wanted to avoid ballads on my album," Gramm said. "I want my rock credibility back."
As you might have guessed, Foreigner is not a buddy-buddy outfit. Its members get along but don't hang out together. Jones, a tough, business-like leader, is dedicated to making the best music possible, not fostering good will among band members. No one ever said he wasn't a nice guy. But his strangle-hold on all the creative aspects of Foreigner hasn't endeared him to frustrated musicians like Gramm and dissident keyboards players Ian McDonald and Al Greenwood, who were fired in 1980.
Don't get the wrong idea. There's no open warfare between Jones and Gramm. For more than a month, they've been writing and rehearsing songs for the next Foreigner album, which they should begin recording next month.
But Gramm's album is apparently a sore point with Jones--for obvious reasons. The last thing Jones wants is to lose Foreigner's lead singer and co-writer. As the voice of the band, Gramm is the one person Foreigner couldn't afford to lose. Without him the band would have a completely different sound.