The Meaning Behind “Head Games” by Foreigner and How a Band in Flux Still Managed to Put Out One of Its Finest Singles

The fellows in Foreigner recently received the news the band has been inducted into the latest class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Their consistency helped them rise to that hallowed level, as they were able to constantly churn out top-notch singles and albums in the midst of changing musical tastes and intra-band turmoil. Of their singles, “Head Games,” released in 1979 off the album of the same name, ranks as one of their finest.

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What is the song about? What changes were the band making on that album? And how did the song show off the band’s songwriting tandem of Mick Jones and Lou Gramm? Let’s go back and play some “Head Games,” shall we?

A Band in Flux

Few bands start off their careers with a 1-2 punch as potent as Foreigner did with their self-titled debut album in 1977 and Double Vision the following year. Those albums contained four Top-10 singles between them. But that didn’t mean the band was in any way standing pat. Chief songwriter Mick Jones, who was, by and large, the architect of the band’s sound, was constantly tinkering with the formula.

To that end, he decided the band would make their first lineup change after having the same six members on their first two records. Original bassist Ed Gagliardi occasionally clashed with drummer Dennis Elliott. Hence, the decision was made to fire him, with Rick Wills, a veteran of several top British groups, called upon to take over that spot.

Foreigner also decided to go with a big-name producer in Roy Thomas Baker, who had established himself through his work with Queen. Even though Head Games turned out to be another success, it didn’t stop Jones from trying to find just the right combination. Hence, it would be the last Foreigner album with keyboard players Ian McDonald and Al Greenwood.

Jones and Gramm

One of the distinguishing aspects of the Head Games album is that it saw the songwriting partnership between Jones and lead singer Lou Gramm continue to blossom. The pair together wrote both of the hit singles on the album (“Head Games” and “Dirty White Boy”). In the case of “Head Games,” Gramm explained to Ultimate Classic Rock how it went down:

“We wrote it in my apartment. I had just bought a piano and Lou had a keyboard at his place and he would play two-fingered riffs—and it kind of worked with me because they were in the black keys, which I always wrote on anyway. He kind of put this sort of rough idea of the chords of that riff at the beginning and it sounded pretty mean with an electric piano—like almost like clavinet sounds—and we blended that in with the guitar sounds and that’s what gave it a bit of a unique sound.”

“Head Games” did what Foreigner did as well as any of their peers, which is to combine tough, bluesy rock with an accessible pop sheen. The opening section of the song sort of stands out on its own, but carries a great introductory hook. That’s before Gramm even sings a note and delivers the emotional gut punches. There’s a great urgency to the music on the track that mirrors the desperation of the narrator’s situation.

What is the Meaning Behind “Head Games”?

“Head Games” is fascinating in that the narrator is somewhat befuddled by what’s transpiring in his relationship, to the point he’s in a kind of limbo world of confusion. Daylight, alright, Gramm begins. I don’t know, I don’t know if it’s real / Been a long night and something ain’t right.

The disconnect continues as the song progresses: These daydreams, what do they mean? / They keep haunting me, are they warning me? In the pre-chorus, the narrator snaps out of it and gets back to reality in an effort to shake his girlfriend out of complacency: So near, so far away / We pass each other by ’cause we don’t know what to say.

Finally frustrated, he decides if you can’t convince ’em, you might as well join ’em: It’s so clear, I’m sorry to say / But if you wanna win, you got to learn how to play / Head games. Foreigner stayed on top of its game with this song and album, even as they stood poised on an even bigger commercial leap with the album to come.

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Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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