You may not be able to go home again, but you can at least get back to the starting gate.

Which is what Foreigner did Tuesday at the Bayou.

Eight years ago in March, they played their first American club date at the Georgetown bistro. Five weeks later, propelled by the instant hits "Feels Like the First Time," "Cold as Ice" and "Waiting for a Girl Like You," they were playing in arenas, opening for the Doobie Brothers. Six months later, they were headliners in the same venues.

And since 1977, despite being one of the most faceless bands around, Foreigner has also been the biggest selling rock group in the world, with 40 million records moving over the counter.

"This is the smallest place we ever played," said guitarist and songwriter Mick Jones following an afternoon sound check. "It sounds great."

Dressed in a dark blue jump suit and sequestered behind shades, Jones looked more like a would-be rock star than an actual one. He is chunky, and with his mats of dirty-blond hair he really looked more like a refugee from the World Wrestling Federation. It had been eight years since he played in front of fewer than 12,000 people, but the preparations for Tuesday night's specially invited 400 were familiar: tightening drums, restringing guitars, adjusting the sound levels, setting the color gels in the spotlights. The process was the same; only the scale was different.

The concert was not a case of incipient nostalgia for the band, however. While it normally needs more than 9,000 people to break even on a concert, and while there have probably been more people backstage at Foreigner concerts than the number fitted in the Bayou, the band had a pretty good reason for being there.


It was, in fact, an MTV promotion that brought Foreigner back to its roots. "Foreigner/Feels Like the First Time" was the latest in a long list of contests central to MTV's existence. Prizes have included a free home in Indiana (painted and housewarmed by John Cougar Mellencamp) and a band-hopping jaunt across four continents.

The rewards were typical for MTV: 110 contest winners from all over the country were flown to Washington (the trip included air fare, hotel accommodations at the Bristol House, transportation and $100 spending money). Four winners received instruments from the band. A grand-prize winner got the Washington trip, a similar trip to Europe to hear the band, $500 cash, 2,000 Bonkers fruit candies, a truckload of Coca-Cola and Sprite and a $1,500 wardrobe from Merry-Go-Round.

Five hundred thousand people entered the contest.

And Foreigner got, according to MTV promotions director John Sykes, "more than a million dollars worth of air time" in the form of promotions for the contest, not a minor consideration before the major summer tour that follows the upcoming European tour. And while the concert itself was originally supposed to be the culmination of the contest, it ended up being videotaped for a possible special somewhere down the line. The cost of the shoot itself: about $4,000, according to MTV vice president Les Garland.

There is some irony in the working relationship with MTV, according to Jones. "We were the last holdout," he said. "At one point we were the last major band not to have a video. We actually considered not doing one."

There were mitigating factors. Despite its highly successful predecessors, "Agent Provocateur," Foreigner's current album, is the band's first studio effort since 1981. And in 1981, there was no MTV, and therefore no need to make videos.

All that has changed, of course, and while the gorgeous ballad "I Want to Know What Love Is" would probably have risen to the top of the charts by itself, the excellent video made for it by director Brian Gibson ensured its No. 1 status. That was Foreigner's video debut, and MTV recently "world-premiered" its follow-up, "That Was Yesterday."

The Bayou represented certain challenges: It's a relatively small club and it had been several years since MTV film crews had had to work in such a tight space. There were the usual advertisements-for-themselves: Foreigner and MTV posters, T-shirts, a giant MTV/F logo on the stage behind the band. There was a minimum of sound equipment, less than half what the band usually uses when it performs. And there was certainly no room for the New Jersey Mass Choir, which made "Love" so intriguing. Four choir members and 400 fans would provide a sweet substitute.

"Everybody on stage is much closer right now," Jones, 41, pointed out. "We can't help but be close together. We're used to having the whole length of that club to move in."

When the "Back to the Bayou" idea first came up two years ago in a meeting between MTV and Foreigner manager Bud Praeger, Praeger responded, "That's a terrible idea. What else can we come up with?" Jones also felt "a bit of trepidation. It was definitely iffy. The first tour we did in England, we went into 1,500-seat cinemas with a huge PA, but it was just so dreadfully loud. We tried to fit a huge monster into a little matchbox and that left a funny feeling.

"But in rehearsal, it was amazing, it felt really good. I felt better than I've felt on stage the last couple of weeks."

Praeger agreed. "The sound is so powerful and so good, I'm going to suggest we do a club occasionally because the intimacy and the power go together so beautifully. Now I understand why the Stones always try to include some club dates when they go out on tour. It's good for the spirit."

"I felt nervous at first," Jones added. "But now, within an afternoon, I feel like putting a few more in there."

While Foreigner has quietly been outselling the Stones and Van Halens and Journeys of rock 'n' roll, they "haven't exactly been the darlings of the press," Jones said. Their straight-ahead power rock ("Well, I don't consider us a pop group," Jones laughed) has been dismissed as banal, uninspired, unimaginative, and the gossip columns have not found much fuel for their fires in the low profiles of Jones and lead singer Lou Gramm, who lives on a farm in upstate New York with his wife and two children.

Jones' separation and divorce last year was, by his own account, the inspiration for "I Want to Know What Love Is." "In my writing, I've always tried to capture the frame of mind I was in," he explained, "and that was a song that carried a brighter side to it as well. There was hope. I'd met somebody else."

"I Want to Know What Love Is" was originally supposed to feature a duet chorus. "One of Lou's dreams had always been to sing with Aretha Franklin, but we couldn't work it out," Jones said. Instead, Foreigner was joined by Jennifer Holliday and the New Jersey Mass Choir, at which point the song took on a decidedly spiritual cast.

It didn't take long for the song to reach No. 1.

But despite having played live before more than 5 million people, their situation isn't much different than it was several years ago when they were included in a Rolling Stone roundup on "faceless bands."

"They made a good point," Jones said. "I'm glad I've managed to keep it that way. I'm not interested in putting on a public image."

Rock success tends to come in cycles, and while Jones has quietly ridden the crest over the last eight years, many of Foreigner's fans probably don't know his history further back than his '70s stints in King Crimson and Spooky Tooth. In fact, Jones' first concert appearance was with the Beatles in Paris in 1964. Unfortunately, he was playing guitar for French pop star Sylvie Vartan on a bill opened by Trini Lopez.

"After Sylvie's show, the curtain would come down, there'd be a rustle-rustle backstage, and then the Beatles came on. They took me under their wing for a couple of weeks and they certainly didn't live modestly. They'd take over a whole hotel floor and something crazy would be happening in every room."

At the Bayou on Tuesday, the group raced through most of their 16 charted songs, including "Hot Blooded," "Double Vision," "Head Games," and "Juke Box Hero." Later, MTV's contest winners got to mingle with the band at the Hyatt on Capitol Hill, while a huge carved-ice "F" melted.

One contest winner was easily identifiable. Mark Ealy of Millington, Tenn., was not letting Mick Jones' gift guitar, a Japanese custom-built Hondo, out of sight, much less grasp. "It's worth about $4,000. If I had a strap, I'd carry it around my neck."

How long had Ealy been playing? Well, actually, he hadn't. "But I'm fixing to learn real quick. The guy who won the drums said his mother is going to kill him. It's the one instrument she didn't want him to get."