Foreigner is one of those tragic victims of the Keyboard Eighties. Why so many Sixties and Seventies survivors felt the need to change what worked for them escapes me. I blame some sort of mass hysteria. It’s the only logical explanation for how “Superstition” and “I Just Called To Say I Love You” could emanate from the same mind. But Foreigner wasn’t only a victim of the Keyboard Eighties: They also made the gateway album that led so many rockers down the keyboard path.
My first exposure to Foreigner was Saturday Night Live. Long before Andy Samberg mastered the “SNL Digital Short,” short films were part of the SNL format. In fact, I believe Albert Brooks was making SNL shorts beginning with the series premiere.
SNL was my cultural pull-up bar: I might not be able to get up there, but I knew that was the goal. Every sketch was funny and if it wasn’t I just didn’t get it. Every musical guest earned immediate credibility. Leon Redbone, Tom Waits, Patty Smith — I saw each of them first on SNL, and I knew they were great because they carried the Saturday Night Live seal of approval.
Gary Weiss picked up where Albert Brooks left off. His films were challenging: sometimes funny, sometimes strange and disturbing. One was in essence an early music video for Foreigner’s “Cold As Ice” — a dark vision of a vicious woman torturing her (I assumed) boyfriend/husband. The only image I remember clearly is her sadistic smile while her man danced in slow motion across the screen, only he wasn’t dancing. He was trying to reach the scissors that she plunged between his shoulder blades.
Music, image, and SNL endorsement. Foreigner was officially cool and they really did rock, at least for the first three albums. “Feels Like the First Time” is as fine a piece of power pop as was released in the Seventies. I played my Double Vision 8-track until it warbled, then I jammed a matchbook under it and played it some more. Head Games opened with the bluesy rocker “Dirty White Boy,” which is exactly what I felt like when the album cover graduated to my spank bank for uncertain reasons that still leave me fluttery and confused.
I stumbled onto their fourth album, imaginatively titled 4, thanks to the awesome superpowers of the Frisbee. Radio station WBCY out of Charlotte hosted a Frisbee tournament, the Mountain Dew WBCY-108 Frisbee Disc Fly-In. I think that the major disc events were represented: golf; ultimate; throw, run, and catch (TRC); maximum time aloft (MTA), etc. I really don’t know because I was there solely for the freestyle events.
Freestyle is an event involving teams of two or more participants working a series of tricks alone or in tandem. During the Seventies the focus was mostly on throws, catches, and rolls — rolling the Frisbee across your chest like a Globetrotter with a basketball, for example.
By the Eighties, however, the nail delay had been fully tamed. Unlike a basketball a Frisbee is not spun on one’s finger; rather, it rotates on the fingernail. The lesser the friction the longer the disc will spin, and thus the longer the time for tricks. Freestylers realized over the years that sanding the bottom of the disc with super fine paper and coating the sanded area with silicone lubricant significantly reduced drag, and then some genius (seriously) added cheap plastic fingernails to the mix. No matter how well they are trimmed natural fingernails have little friction adding ridges. Cheap plastic nails could be filed smoothly, and because they are so thick breaking in the middle of a routine was unlikely.
So by the Eighties jamming (Freestyle Frisbee) evolved from throws and catches to a truly remarkable array of moves involving manipulation of a rapidly spinning Frisbee held captive (“delayed”) on one’s finger. Not that delays were limited to fingernails: Freestylers would spin the disc on their toes, on their teeth (a Crazy John Brooks specialty), and even atop a mighty Jewfro.
The technology was much improved but overall the athleticism remained in the Stoner Seventies. Few pros actually made a living competing — tournaments were a weekend hobby for most — and the adult (mostly) males most likely to stick with the friz weren’t willing to move on from their younger selves’ jamming in the park lifestyle. And so the majority of competitors looked like hippies past their expiration dates: Pot bellies swelling beneath their tie-dye, and unruly ponytails and beards flecked with gray. Their routines were essentially the old throw and catch stuff peppered with some of the newer stuff.
The hippy stuff was cool, but I was a card-carrying member of the International Frisbee Association, membership form included with your purchase of an authentic Wham-O Frisbee. I knew there was more. Frisbee World, the IFA’s magazine featured photo spreads of the new guard looking tan, fit, and graceful.
Nobody embodied this on the pages of Frisbee World better than Donny Rhodes, a Southern Californian who incorporated his ballet training into his freestyle, and he was at the tournament in Charlotte. Warming up with his partner — shirtless, running shorts slit up the sides, leg warmers — Rhodes was the poster boy for the new decade. I don’t remember anything about his partner, nor do I remember the music to which they performed their routine. All I recall is that Donny Rhodes was all grace and flowing movement, lines. The hippy freestylers acted upon the disc — they performed tricks. Rhodes incorporated the Frisbee like a dance partner.
Up next was Deaton Mitchell, who I remember as Spiccoli from Fast Times At Ridgemont High though I couldn’t have had that frame of reference at that time. He was a Southerner but he looked more Southern California than did Donny Rhodes: tan, tight cords of lean muscle, shaggy blond hair. Deaton was intense. Where Rhodes sort of held court before his routine — joked and enjoyed his niche fame — Mitchell carried himself like he was ready to deliver an ass whipping, and he was. He didn’t dance with the Frisbee — he bent it to his will, rolled and leaped around it. That man squeezed more explosive athleticism out of 160 grams of white plastic in five minutes than you will see in a full day watching ESPN.
I was done after that. I couldn’t go back to watching another group of out of shape stoners pass the disc between their legs and then look at the judges as if they’d pulled off the coolest move in the history of sports. I left the freestyle field and walked around the vendor booths: tee shirts, hacky sacks, collectible discs, golf discs, freestyle discs. WBCY-108 FM had a booth, too.
“Come on, give it a try.”
“What do I have to do?”
“See that hoop over there? If you can throw a Frisbee through it I’ll give you an album.”
No problem. I whipped a disc through it and she handed me a copy of The Police’s Ghost In the Machine. An old hippy stopped me a few booths down. “Hey man, where’d you get that?”
“Nothing. You just have to make it through a target.”
“Police album, that’s worth a little time.”
I wandered back to the radio station booth a little later, hoping that someone else was working and I could snag another record. Donny Rhodes ran up to the guy next to me and cackled, “Did you hear what that old man said! ‘Oh, I know what my problem is, I’m aiming too much!'” His friend looked embarrassed while Donny laughed and pointed at the old-timer.
The hippy dude was taking his turn, easily making shot after shot and piling up free records. I didn’t feel quite so bad about conning The Man out of some more albums after that, but I didn’t want to be greedy. I left after grabbing a couple more records. My haul for the day included:
- A WCBY tee-shirt
- Several WCBY Frisbees
- Donny Rhodes’s autograph
- The Police Ghost In the Machine
- The Motels All Four One
- Foreigner 4, which is what began this whole Frisbee digression in the first place.
Foreigner 4 is a solid album, and in many ways is the template for the Keyboard Eighties. The album was produced by “Mutt” Lange, who is best known as a superstar producer but will always be known to me as:
- Satan’s evil minion who unleashed onto humanity the schlocky “Sad Eyes” in 1979 under the pseudonym Robert John.
- The guy who had E-ticket access to Shania Twain’s vagina but opted for his buddy’s wife instead. This ties him with Fisher “I Can Do Better Than Michelle Pfeiffer” Stevens as the all-time stupidest man on the planet.
Foreigner 4 also features the keyboard wizardry of Thomas Dolby long before that careless woman ravaged his vision with science. All of which is to say that 4 is a great album for games like Record Geek Trivia or Six Degrees Of Shania Twain’s Vagina, but all of that aside it is a great album that contained three huge hits.
“Jukebox Hero” is the first of the three, at least in terms of track listing. Great story song. I’m going to keep it simple: Fourteen year old me put up a lot of air guitar time to this cut, and so did you if you are roughly the same age. See, you looked up and to the right when you thought no I didn’t. I knew you were lying.
Now the next track was hit was the monster, no doubt about it. This is the beast that launched a thousand shitty power ballads. “Waiting For A Girl Like You” is slinky, sexy, and a little heartbreaking. This song was probably responsible for more finger banging than the short-lived wood shop class at the Piedmont School For the Blind. (I am not proud of that joke.) (Yes I am.) As a member of The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam I could not publicly like this song, so consider this my belated coming out. “Waiting For a Girl Like You” is not “pussy shit,” as I’m sure I told at least one person at the time, but I’ll still never forgive it for paving the way for Heart’s “What About Love.”
“Urgent” marks the third of the album’s huge hits. You know the song — what am I going to tell you that you don’t already know? Put on the headphones and listen for that plucked bass. Toss in Junior Walker’s sax (yet another 4 trivia question) and this cut borders on funky.
This brings us to what for me was the high point of the album, even if it wasn’t a hit: The hypnotic “Girl On the Moon.” Love the groove, the imagery, everything. If I was allowed only one 4 track for my playlist this would be it.
The album closes with “Don’t Let Go,” which cements the Foreigner 2.0 sound. The keyboards were here to stay, weaving around the guitar and Lou’s falsetto. At this point the wildly popular Agent Provocateur had to happen eventually, and I would have to hate Foreigner for becoming another bloated Seventies survivor sucking in the Eighties.
But there were two more albums in my WCBY Frisbee Fly-In swag bag. Where Foreigner 4′s keyboards were a wildly successful volley blazing a trail for Seventies rockers in the new decade, The Police and The Motels seemed completely of The Eighties. Granted, both bands released albums during the prior decade, but they were never “Seventies.”
I’ve never been quite sure why there seemed to be such a leap between the two decades, but I think it might be because the blues-based model was abandoned by the New Wave, and in 1981 (at least in Boiling Springs, South Carolina) The Police and The Motels were New Wave. One can trace the musical DNA from Chuck Berry’s “Hail Hail Rock and Roll” through AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie” to Foreigner’s “Luanne.” The three songs are unique, but there is a common fingerprint that in no way resembles “Invisible Sun” from Ghost In the Machine. “Demolition Man” from that same album comes closest to resembling a traditional rocker and Grace Jones New Waved the hell out of that track.
The Motels are pretty much forgotten now, but Martha Davis deserves diva pioneer status. Check out “Mission of Mercy” from All Four One. Granted it’s dated, but what a vocal.
Ghost In the Machine and All Four One — two free albums lacking the endorsement of SNL or The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam. Two albums completely mine, sitting in my stacks, quietly suggesting that maybe it was time to find my own thing. Fuck The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam. If my buddy Mitch could break ranks and buy The Kinks I could shed my skin again and become New Wave. A whole new musical aesthetic started finding its way onto my notebook covers, but it would still be a while before I fully gave up the jam.
Related “Why It Matters” pieces:
Mitch introduces The Kinks: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/40-to-learn-how-to-love-and-forget-how-to-hate/
More complaints about Seventies rockers sucking in the Eighties: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/13-never-before-have-i-turned-on-you/