At the turn of the 20th century, hawkers at baseball games would sell rosters to fans, crying out to them, “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.”
One hundred and more years later, the old-fashioned peddler is needed again, this time at concerts by classic-rock bands whose lineups often bear little resemblance to their original rosters.
Next week, the veteran arena rockers Foreigner, continuing their 40th-anniversary tour, will play to fans in Toronto, Ottawa and Kingston in configurations that count only founder Mick Jones as an original member. When asked to justify touring of the band under the Foreigner banner, Jones, 73, makes a sports-world parallel. “People still go to see the New York Yankees, without all their players from the past, don’t they?”
So, Lou Gehrig no longer suits up for the Yankees, and Lou Gramm no longer sings for Foreigner. These days, band membership changes, but the music does not. To paraphrase Abbott and Costello: Who’s the singer, I don’t know is the guitarist, what’s the bass player and I don’t give a darn is on drums.
Old comedy routines aside, the question of authenticity is a legitimate one. Is the newly reformed Stone Temple Pilots genuine without late singer Scott Weiland? Can the Eagles fly without Glenn Frey? Peter Cetera is long gone from Chicago, Steve Walsh isn’t in Kansas any more and Toto doesn’t look the same as it used to either.
Jones, who spoke to The Globe and Mail while in Toronto recently to attend auditions for the upcoming Foreigner-based stage musical Jukebox Hero, admits that comparing a legacy band to a sports franchise is a “loose analogy.” He’s firm in his belief, though, that he has every right to tour as Foreigner, with or without any other original members.
“The group as it now is the best form of this band I’ve ever had,” he says, referring to a lineup fronted by the talented but uncelebrated singer Kelly Hansen since 2005. “They’re dedicated to bringing the band back to headline status. It’s been blood and guts over 12 years to get back to that level, and I’m not going to throw it all away.”
I want to know what Foreigner is
Foreigner was formed in 1976 by former Spooky Tooth songwriter and musician Jones, a Hampshire native. Some of the members were British, while others, including singer Gramm, were American. On the strength of hits Feels Like the First Time and Hot Blooded and slow-dance staples Waiting for a Girl Like You and I Want to Know What Love Is, Foreigner has sold more than 80 million records worldwide.
In 1980, a pair of original members were let go by Jones, and, in 1990, Gramm (dubbed by Rolling Stone magazine as the “Pavarotti of the power ballad”) left for the first time. He came back two years later, but health issues caused him to leave again in 2003.
Replacing a singer is a delicate operation. The voice of a band is deeply identified with its songs, which often contain lyrics written by the vocalist. Outfits past their prime tend to replace departed singers with anonymous sound-alikes. Journey’s current singer, Arnel Pineda, was in a cover band when his YouTube videos were noticed by Journey guitarist Neal Schon. In 2007, the Filipino vocal clone of signature singer Steve Perry passed an audition, and he’s been Don’t Stop Believin’ it ever since.
Likewise, the 2001 film Rock Star was loosely based on the experiences of Tim (Ripper) Owens, a Rob Halford imitator who replaced that singer in the metal-band legends Judas Priest in 1996. (Halford is now back with Judas Priest, which currently tours without long-time guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, who recently announced he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.)
Van Halen, on the other hand, replaced its charismatic howler David Lee Roth with frontmen much different in style from the original. With the well-established singer-guitarist Sammy Hagar on board – and later with Extreme singer Gary Cherone – Van Halen became a supergroup of sorts. (Roth would eventually return to the band.)
Asked about replacing Gramm, Jones says that while he wanted to avoid hiring a karaoke artist – “I wanted someone who was able to interpret the songs properly and gradually be able to carve their identity out too” – he recognized the need for a familiar vocal sound. “The audience wants to get that chill they had when they first heard the songs.”