“I was blessed to land a gig as life-changing as Foreigner,” the London-born drummer Dennis Elliott says. “It was a band I totally believed in.” Elliott played with the group for seventeen years, powering solid-gold tracks like “Urgent,” “Feels Like the First Time,” “Hot Blooded,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” and “Double Vision” with flair, soul, and efficiency. He also had a penchant for unexpected choices, like the series of fills at the end of “Cold as Ice,” a top-ten single from the group’s eponymous 1977 debut album.
Perhaps less obvious was Elliott’s ability to keep the group’s slow to mid-tempo arena rockers perfectly in the pocket. “The tempos and grooves to some of those songs can be a bear to play,” the drummer says today. “It’s much easier to play things up-tempo, but I think that’s part of the beauty of those songs.”
Elliott was encouraged by his father to play drums in their family band at a young age. By sixteen he’d earned a professional gig with the Shevelles, which was followed by a stint with the popular British club band the Ferris Wheel. At nineteen Elliott joined the highly regarded jazz-rock group If, with which he recorded a handful of albums over four years. A subsequent stint with the British rocker Roy Young led to a session with Ian Hunter; Elliott recorded the former Mott the Hoople singer’s self-titled debut, including the hit “Once Bitten Twice Shy.”
After the Hunter recording, Elliott found himself unemployed and in New York City. While he had to take work as a mechanic to make ends meet, he met guitarist Mick Jones, himself marooned in New York following the dissolution of the Leslie West Band, at a jam session. “A few weeks later,” Elliott says, “I got a call from Mick saying that he was forming a new band, and would I care to come down to Manhattan to play some songs and see what happens.” That band became Foreigner.
“The songs were so good that I just felt comfortable with them,” Elliott recalls. “In fact, I remember playing ‘Feels Like the First Time’ at that audition and thinking to myself, I KNOW this song. It felt like we’d been playing together for years. We’d never played live on stage together, and yet we were in the studio making this music that I just knew would do well.
“On our first tour,” Elliott continues, “the album took off up the charts, and we were forced into a headline situation. That’s wonderful news, but we only had the material from one album, which was about forty-five minutes, and we had to do ninety. So it was exciting times. The second album, Double Vision , was an even bigger success, and the touring became even more demanding.” A private plane helped simplify the travel, and, Elliott says with a smile, “The police were more than happy to assist us out of town.”
According to Elliott, every song Foreigner recorded was treated as a potential single. “And why not?” he says. “There was always a lot of thought about structure and tempos, to make the song stand out.”
That thought process involved paying particular attention to the act of streamlining. “My playing with Foreigner on record can be very simple in approach,” Elliott explains. “And in fact Mick has said on numerous occasions that he chose me as much for what I didn’t play as for what I did. I think any drummer on this planet can play everything that I played on those albums with ease, but the question is, would they have?
“Mick Jones and [singer] Lou Gramm were indeed the main songwriters in the band,” Elliott goes on, “but I can tell you that some of those songs were anything but complete when I did the drum tracks. The drum tracks were laid down first, and I was usually finished with my part of an album within two or three weeks. But as the other instruments were added, those songs could go through transformations, and I often said that if I’d known how they would have ended up, I would have played differently. And in fact on many occasions we started from the top, as what was played originally was no longer relevant. But that’s creating music, I guess. And this really only started to take place after about the third album. The songs were now being written in the studio, because we were touring so much and there was so much pressure to put out another album.”
Those live shows were a constant highlight for the drummer. “There was so much energy coming from the guys,” Elliott says. “To be able to perform such a strong set for people and feel what they give you back is such a blast. I also really enjoyed it when we would soundcheck before a show. We would often get new ideas from just jamming. Mick would start off playing a riff, and I would jump right in, and many times I would come in at totally the wrong place. I could tell by the grimace on Mick’s face that it was wrong. But you know what? Instead of stopping and telling me where the count should be, he would turn to anyone nearby and yell, ‘Record this!’ And many new ideas for songs can be forged this way. You just have to be open-minded. Having someone hit the ‘record’ button in those circumstances is the key to some really interesting riffs.”
Elliott left Foreigner in 1993 and began devoting more time to wood sculpture, and he’s had exhibitions in a number of galleries. “Our days seemed to be a continuous string of interviews, radio call-ins, in-store appearances, and TV shows to promote the latest single,” Dennis says, “and I used to look forward so much to the evening, when we could just get on stage and play. All in all, it was a wonderful time, but very hectic. That’s what it was like for the seventeen years I was with the band, and it takes a toll. I just felt I’d had enough, and it was best for me to stay home.”
The door wasn’t closed for good, though, and Elliott still sits in with the band from time to time. “We’re all still good friends,” he says, “so you never know what might happen in the future.”