Legendary Foreigner Founder Mick Jones Talks Legacy and Longevity on Band’s 40th Anniversary

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Foreigner is commemorating the 40th anniversary of its debut album this year. Music Life Magazine spoke with founder Mick Jones about the band’s continuing relevance and success.

All Mick Jones was looking for was a way to ply his trade as a musician and songwriter in the United States and hopefully make a bit of a mark on the music industry. The time was 1976 and Jones, a native of Portsmouth, England, was more or less stranded in New York City when his former band had suddenly splintered.

He needed to form a new band, get an album together and hit the road as soon as possible if his great American rock and roll dream was going to come true. What happened next is a story fit for a Hollywood script, as the band that he formed would eventually be called Foreigner, and his humble ambition of putting out a solid debut album exceeded the wildest of fantasies as their eponymous release in 1977 would go on to sell more than four million copies on the backs of hit singles Feels Like The First Time, Long, Long Way From Home and Cold As Ice.

 

Foreigner was more than simply a means to continue making a living. The band would go on to have 16 top-30 hits, 10 multiplatinum albums and more than 80 million records sold worldwide. The band would also endure an array of lineup changes, surviving seismic shifts within the music industry to the point today where they are still one of the top-drawing rock bands on Earth, playing more than 100 shows a year to rapturous fans of all ages.

Jones’s compositions and co-compositions for Foreigner still get regular airplay all over the world, with songs like Urgent, Waiting for A Girl Like You, I Want to Know What Love Is, Hot Blooded, Juke Box Hero, Dirty White Boy and Head Games the soundtrack of now three generations of music fans.

Jones himself chuckled when asked whether back in 1976 he ever thought the band he pulled together as much out of desperation as any other motive would still be a thriving entity all these years later.

“Not in my wildest dreams. I had a few upsets in my career at the time but I didn’t have any grand plans and didn’t envisage anything like what happened. I guess it would have been impossible for anybody to know at that point because it was sort of a new era in the music industry in terms of record sales and show attendance. Everything sort of started to take off around 1975 and 1976. I was in New York at the time and I could read that there was something happening. I really was at a crossroads, though, wondering whether I should try and stick it out in New York and see if something good was going to come along, or go back to England maybe and just rethink my career and my life,” Jones said, from his home in New York.

“And I chose the former. It really was a question of surviving in New York. Things were pretty tight in that year leading up to the completion of the process of choosing the members in the band. But I managed to hang in there, and as I have said before, I kind of felt a rush of musical ideas coming, rattling around in my head. And that sort of encouraged me and propelled me into another gear. I suddenly realized that some of the songs I was coming up with could possibly catch somebody’s ear. So it was exciting but also something that I had no idea what I was building towards. I just hoped it was a band where we could have a decent album, although I never realized how special that album was until later.”

Jones was already a veteran of the music industry, having been performing, recording and writing for more than a decade before his time in New York City. In his late teens he was a member of Nero and the Gladiators, who had some minor hits in the UK, before going on to work as a session musician and songwriter-for-hire in France, befriending The Beatles during the mid-1960s. In the early 1970s Jones helped reform the popular proto-prog rock band Spooky Tooth with its founder Gary Wright, as well as playing as part of former Mountain frontman Leslie West’s Band.

“I knew what I was looking for in a band. I saw how a bunch of the bands I had been in had difficulty sustaining themselves and had so much baggage and all that kind of stuff. So I felt if I started off with some fresh faces it might work. As it happened there also happened to be one or two people from the UK I knew in New York,  [guitarist/keyboards/saxophone] Ian McDonald who had been with King Crimson, and drummer Dennis Elliott, and from that sort of nucleus it built up into a band. It was very humble beginnings,” Jones said.

The next members of the band were all American, including synth player Al Greenwood, bassist Ed Gagliardi and a Robert Plant-esque lead vocalist from Rochester New York named Lou Gramm. After experimenting with a couple of names for their new creative enterprise, it made sense to call themselves Foreigner as the band was formed by non-Americans living in America and actual Americans – the best sort of transatlantic musical diplomacy.

“When Lou and I first had a chance to work together we took a few months, once it had been decided that he would be the new singer, to write and swap ideas. I wanted him to get comfortable and feel like he was a part of it. One of the things I liked about him and why I wanted him in the band was that besides being a great singer he was a writer and I really started to coax that out of him a bit more,” Jones said, adding that even though he wanted the involvement of all band members as a real cohesive unit, he became Foreigner’s main man by default

“The thing is I had a lot more experience than a lot of the other guys in the band at the time so I think they kind of chose me as their leader anyways. I had the experience – I had the production experience, I had writing experience and I had been around quite a bit and had learned a lot. So I was somewhat prepared for the role but nowhere near prepared for something as mammoth as what happened when that first album came out.”

In the intervening 40 years, the band ran off a string of hit albums including Double Vision in 1978, Head Games a year later and the massive 4 in 1981. A softer tone entered Foreigner’s music on the 1984 release Agent Provocateur, which featured the band’s only number one hit, the gospel-infused ballad, I Want to Know What Love Is. The band released two more studio albums before Gramm departed in the late 1980s, only to re-appear a couple more times before permanently leaving the fold in 2003. The list of other former members and touring members is lengthy but the constant through all the trials, tribulations and vicissitudes of Foreigner has been Jones – and the band’s fans.

In the early years of the 21st century, Jones found himself at another crossroads. By this time it wasn’t a case of survival, as he was now considered to be one of the best rock songwriters and producers in the business, after working with the likes of Van Halen, Billy Joel and Eric Clapton. But it was now about passion for his creation and preserving the legacy of his baby – Foreigner.

“You know what, those difficult times only last a few months and by then I usually decided to get back and put my heart and soul back into the band again. We had a lot of encouragement from fans and even friends saying, ‘you guys have to get out there man. People want to hear you, people love the songs.’ And it seems somehow that contingent would raise its voice whenever I was contemplating doing something else. I was never really ever detached from the band. It felt like my life’s work, really, was in there. So I have a certain amount of pride about what we have been able to achieve,” Jones said.

“If I wasn’t feeling redeemed and revitalized back more than a decade ago I would have probably considered doing something else, although I don’t know what, although I know it wasn’t going to be sitting around or spending my days walking around a golf course in plaid trousers. I had done that earlier in my life and it’s not for me. I have never wanted normality or a sort of regularly scheduled life. I don’t want to get a real job. And to be honest, I feel that’s been an achievement in itself – not having to get a real job over the last 40 years.”

As eluded too previously, Foreigner began during interesting times in the music industry. Rock seemed to be on the wane, seemingly imploding in itself through a combination of self-indulgent musicianship and overindulgent egos and substance abuse issues. But perhaps the time was more propitious than at first glance for a band like Foreigner, which would come to define the ‘arena rock’ sound, combining great crunching guitar riffs, with incredibly well-crafted melodies, powerhouse vocals and choruses that would be sung at parties, in cars, and school dances for the next 40 years.

“I think the songs obviously have a lot to do with why we’ve been able to be around for this long. We did come out a weird time. When we came out disco was big and we were at the dawn of Punk and there was New Wave a little while later. I was still kind of approaching things based on my tastes from a little earlier in the 1970s or even from the 1960s,” Jones said.

“It was interesting because we tapped into something. We tapped into an audience that was just ready for something like we had. And it’s not like there was some special formula that we came up with. It was about going in and trying to write songs that people will remember when they leave the show. And we were able to come up with quite an arsenal of those songs. At some of the shows I can see people whispering to themselves, ‘was that song them too? Did they do that one as well?’ Most of the bands who open for us, they see our set list and it’s like ‘of f***!’ It feels good to go on stage loaded with that.”

In 2004, much as in 1976. Jones was starting from scratch as he worked to rebuild a new lineup for Foreigner. After a one-off show in July of that year which featured former Dokken and Dio bassist Jeff Pilson, long-time sax player Thom Gimbel (who had been with the band since 1992) drummer Jason Bonham and Bonham’s own singer Chas West, Jones began booking extensive tours for the revamped Foreigner.

Those tours have continued, and grown, ever since. West was  replaced by former Hurricane singer Kelly Hansen, while Pilson and Gimbel have remained as anchor members of Foreigner, ably augmented by keyboardist Michael Bluestein since 2008, and drummer Chris Frazier (2012). With Jones enduring some serious health issues over the past five or six years, former Rod Stewart axe slinger Bruce Watson has joined fold, playing the dates that Jones can’t.

It’s a band that, while sometimes featuring no original members, manages to sell out practically every show and festival date they play, including two consecutive nights at Casino Rama near Orillia, Ontario, every year for the past decade.

“With this new incarnation of Foreigner, and I say new but it’s been more than 10 years, it’s been quite a big battle to get ourselves back to where we’re headlining this summer in sheds all across the country. And that, in itself, seems like a reminder of when we first started out. It’s almost like we paid some more dues over the past 10 years and worked our asses off to get back on top,” Jones said.

“And the band has never felt more like a band since the beginning. Everybody is really conscientious about how we play. And the quality of the musicianship within the band, and their attitudes, the dedication – it couldn’t be better. That is one of the major achievements for me throughout this whole thing is that we were somehow able to cling on and let some of the other modes and fashions of music take over for a while, as we sort of hibernated and didn’t play much. But we got through them all and got to where we are today and, as I say, it feels like it’s got similarities to the achievement I felt when the band first started.

“The energy and sentiment on stage is amazing every night. I do as many shows as my health permits and it’s getting better all the time. So this is not a permanent situation by any means, but I have the confidence in the band that they will go out and kill it every night. It makes me feel a lot better. It’s not like sending a replacement band our or something. This has become a real band again over these last 10 or 12 years I’d say.”

While crediting his current band for keeping the flame burning bright and helping to enshrine and even grow the legacy of Foreigner, Jones said he is even more grateful to the diverse multitude of the fans for truly being the steel that girds the band as it heads into its fifth decade.

“The fans have given me so much personally and this band so much over the last 40 years. I constantly feel indebted to the fans and the support that we have got from them. And we make sure there’s a real personal touch by meeting a lot of people at the shows and that kind of thing. I think it means quite a lot too that we try to involve members of our audience to participate in a more complete experience in terms of special events, meet and greets and then really delivering the goods on stage,” he said.

“And that philosophy stretches to encompass things like charity work. I am glad to say another part of giving back is that we dedicate quite a lot of money annually from the shows to the Grammy Foundation which is involved in supporting music programs in schools. It’s those early music and arts programs that are being slashed by the government now, even up in Canada from what I hear, and that makes this project even more worthy I think. Giving back is a large part of it for me.”

Being such a milestone anniversary, Jones said there are many special things in the works. A 40th Anniversary book will soon be available, as will a new anniversary greatest hits package. Also, the band is working on creating a symphony show which will be performed at a couple of select spots in Europe. If successful, it will be toured more extensively.

“We have a great arranger that I have been working with named Dave Eggar and he’s worked alongside Coldplay and a bunch of more modern types of artists. He is just very tasteful and we have been able to work very, very closely. He is really interpreting the music as opposed to just plunking an orchestra down and having us play beside them. We have made it a real interplay between the band and the orchestra, so it’s going to be quite event. We’re also going to have a 60 voice choir and having a big show in Switzerland which we will be filming and releasing as a special concert DVD later in the year,” he said, adding there will be another special symphony show in London.

“We’re also doing that same show at the Royal Albert Hall too and that will be a landmark for us. We have never played the Royal Albert Hall, not for all these years.”

As well at some of the shows on the band’s current tour, there have been and will continue to be guest appearances by former band members. Already this year Elliott and long-time bassist Rick Wills (1979-1992) have made onstage appearances.

“That was incredible to see what it meant to them really as they have sort of hung up their boots as far as touring and all that stuff we’re doing. But there are going to be more little one-offs like that and Lou’s is going to appear on a few of them, which is good. It’s all good.”

For more information on Foreigner’s 40th anniversary projects and tour, visit www.foreigneronline.com.

  • Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at jimbarberwritingservices@gmail.com.

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