Special Interview: Rock Legend Mick Jones of Foreigner Talks About Writing The Band’s Classic Songs
By Dale Kawashima
Mick Jones, founder, songwriter & lead guitarist for Foreigner, has been the band’s driving force since its inception 40 years ago. He recruited the band members, and he’s written or co-written all of the group’s hit songs. Foreigner is best known for their classic rock hits from the late ’70s and 1980s, including “Urgent,” “I Want To Know What Love Is,” “Feels Like The First Time,” “Hot Blooded,” “Waiting For A Girl Like You” and “Cold As Ice.”
Jones continues to lead Foreigner, which remains a very active, touring band. The group is currently on a U.S. concert tour called The Hits Unplugged, where they are performing acoustic versions of their hit songs. Notably, on October 25 they will be performing at the famed Carnegie Hall in New York City for the first time. This show, which is in partnership with the GRAMMY Foundation, will help raise money for music in school programs. Foreigner’s concert will also mark the release of their live acoustic album, In Concert: Unplugged.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Mick Jones, which focuses on how he wrote or co-wrote the band’s classic hit songs. But before we start the interview, here’s a brief rundown of the band’s history and hit discography.
Jones formed Foreigner in 1976, after first working with French star Johnny Halladay and British rock band, Spooky Tooth. After leaving Spooky Tooth, he wrote some key songs which included “Feels Like The First Time,” which became Foreigner’s debut hit single. Jones assembled the band’s original lineup, which included Lou Gramm (lead singer & co-writer), Dennis Elliott (drums), Ian McDonald (rhythm guitar & keyboards), Al Greenwood (keyboards) and Ed Gagliardi (bass). In 1977, they signed with Atlantic Records and released their debut album, Foreigner.
Subsequently, the band went on to sell 75 million albums and had 16 singles which became Top 40 U.S. hits. Foreigner had nine Top 10 hits, including the #1 hit ballad “I Want To Know What Love Is,” “Feels Like The First Time,” “Cold As Ice,” “Hot Blooded,” “Double Vision,” “Urgent,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” “Say You Will” and “I Don’t Want to Live Without You.” Their other Top 40 hits were “Long, Long Way from Home,” “Blue Morning, Blue Day,” “Dirty White Boy,” “Head Games,” “Juke Box Hero,” “Break It Up” and “That Was Yesterday.”
Impressively, in 2013 Jones and Gramm were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, for writing Foreigner’s classic songs.
Foreigner’s current lineup includes Jones (lead guitar), Kelly Hansen (lead vocals), Jeff Pilson (bass), Thom Gimbel (rhythm guitar & sax), Michael Bluestein (keyboards), Bruce Watson (guitar) and Chris Frazier (drums).
In addition to his work with Foreigner, Jones has produced and/or written songs for other artists. He co-produced Billy Joel’s Storm Front album (which included the hit “We Didn’t Start The Fire”) and Van Halen’s 5150 album (which Included the hits “Why Can’t This Be Love” and “Dreams”). He has also written songs with Eric Clapton and Duncan Sheik.
Here is our interview with Mick Jones:
DK: Back in the 1970s, you had already worked with Johnny Halladay and Spooky Tooth. How did you decide to form Foreigner?
Mick Jones: Well, I had come to America with Spooky Tooth in the early ’70s. We recorded a couple of albums over here. So we’d come over to tour and base ourselves in America, and that was good for a little while. But eventually, things kind of disintegrated. I was kind of left in New York…stranded almost (laughs). At the time, Gary Wright was basically the leader of Spooky Tooth, and he had left to do his (solo) album, Dreamweaver. So I was kind of left high and dry in New York. It was a real turning point in my life. I’d gotten a lot of experience working with Spooky Tooth, but there were too many ex-musical problems with personnel and stuff like that.
So I was stuck in New York and I thought, I’d better do something here, otherwise I’m just going to head back to England and see what I could piece together as a career. It was then, that maybe out of desperation, I’d started to write songs and feel really creative. I started writing by myself. Before I knew it, I had two or three songs, and I wondered what to do with them. One of those songs was “Feels Like The First Time.”
DK: Is that when you put the band together?
Jones: Yes, I held auditions in New York. My manager (Bud Prager) had a studio in his office, and it was like a very homegrown type of situation. We’d turn up everyday at his office, with a stream of different people coming through. But it was fun days. I had a list of people that I wanted to work with—(drummer) Dennis Elliott was the first member when it came to rehearsing my songs. Also, (keyboard player) Al Greenwood joined.
We didn’t have a singer until we were nine months into it. I think I auditioned at least 50 different guys. I knew what kind of voice I needed (for the band). Having come up in England, and having toured with Steve Winwood & Traffic when I was with Spooky Tooth, I was so blown away with Steve Winwood. He was the benchmark—he was such a great soul vocalist for a white guy (laughs), and he still is a wonderful singer.
Here’s the original video of Foreigner’s hit “I Want To Know What Love Is.”
Anyway, that led me to searching for a vocalist with that quality. I had met Lou (Gramm) on tour in the States, and I happened to have an album of his (with the group Black Sheep) lying around in my house. I put it on one day. When I heard Lou’s voice, it suddenly clicked. It became very clear that this voice was going to be the voice of Foreigner.
DK: Your second hit with Foreigner was “Cold As Ice,” which starts out with a piano intro. Did you write this song on the piano?
Jones; Yes. This was really the first time I started to write on the piano. I’d written a fair number of songs before in France (for Johnny Halladay) and with Spooky Tooth, but this was sort of a different approach. I had a little, mini piano in my apartment. I started tinkering around on it, and somehow it led me forward to a whole different landscape. Up to that point, I’d been playing and writing on the guitar. So “Cold As Ice” was the first time I ever played piano in the studio, and it really worked out. From that point on throughout my career, I’ve written about half of the songs on piano and half of the songs on guitar.
DK: When you write songs, do you usually come up with the music first, or do you come up first with a title or lyric?
Jones: It works in all different ways. Very often, it’s what’s closest at hand (laughs). “Cold As Ice” was a bit of an odd song, as far as the songwriting of it. It’s a song that starts out with the chorus. It’s sort of an ass-backwards type of song (laughs). The interesting thing was, I wasn’t very adept at piano playing and I kept it really basic. It was really me just searching around on the piano and playing very simply. I can play a little better these days. My father was a piano player, and he taught me a few things when I was younger. I must say, that I’m still not really an accomplished keyboard player (laughs). But playing piano has helped me throughout my career, because I wrote a number of our hits on a keyboard.
DK: You wrote several of the band’s hits with Lou Gramm. When you wrote with Lou, what was the songwriting process? Did he mostly write the lyrics and you did the music?
Jones: It was pretty much even, I’d say. What would usually happen, is I would try to come up with a riff or something to start the ball rolling. Then we’d sort of throw it back to each other. I would send him a [work tape] with me humming the melody, and Lou would take that and write some lyrics and bounce it back to me. Or it could happen the other way, too.
DK: One of your biggest songs is “Urgent,” which starts with a cool guitar riff. Can you tell me how you wrote “Urgent”?
Foreigner performs their hit “Urgent” live in 2010.
Jones: Well, that song sort of came together in the studio. I had a guitar riff—(producer) Mutt Lange had come to see me before we started working on the album. He demanded to hear everything that I had, even little bits and pieces that I had in my private collection. He dug it out of me, and I played him this guitar riff. (He sings the riff to “Urgent”). So we recorded it—we had sort of a melody, but we still didn’t have the lyrics yet.
So one afternoon, I was at home. It was challenging (on this song), to come up with a melody over a track that we already kind of recorded. So I went home and just sat down, and wrote the lyric to the song in about 20 minutes. It was just like a flow, and somehow it worked. It was an odd song in a way. It was half soul and half rock, really. It also had the influence of Thomas Dolby, who played a lot of the keyboards on that album.
DK: I also loved the saxophone solo on “Urgent.”
Jones: Well. the sax solo was played by (Motown legend) Junior Walker. That was such a moment for me, because he was one of my idols when I was growing up.
DK: How did you decide to get Junior Walker to record the sax solo?
Jones: We were in the Electric Lady Studios in New York. We were playing the track back in the control room. We had a little break, and I was thumbing through the Village Voice newspaper, seeing who was playing in town. I suddenly saw that Junior Walker & The All Stars were playing, and I said…Wow. So out of curiosity, I went down that evening and saw a couple of his sets. Junior was just sounding the same as he ever did. I thought, Wow, this could be fantastic, because “Urgent” had a soul, funky kind of vibe to it. So I invited him down to the studio. Junior had no clue who I was—his son kept prodding him and telling him, “Do you know who this is? He’s from Foreigner.” Junior said, “Oh…Yeah? Oh…Sure.” (laughs).
Then we were finally able to get him down to the studio. Junior had never overdubbed a solo before in his whole career—everything he’d done was live. So it was a bit of a strange environment for him. For the first half hour, we started to do a few takes, and he was playing a different style than I heard down at the club. He said, “This is my new vibe,” and it was a lot softer and not so raucous as he’s known for. So we had to gently prod him, and ask him if he could play his signature style. He asked, “Do you want all that high, squeaky stuff? (laughs). I said, “Absolutely…Exactly.” So we proceeded, and he did about seven or eight takes. And then Mutt and I spent three or four days piecing together a solo from each of those takes. The funny thing was, when the album was done and we were on tour, I invited him out several times. And although he wasn’t there at the compiling of his solos, he played the solo note-for-note (laughs), exactly as we almost fabricated it on the album.
Foreigner performs their hit “Feels Like The First Time” live in 2006.
It was sensational—I was so pleased, because he was one of my idols. Even though he was a sax player, he still influenced a lot of musicians, including guitar players. So it was a major moment for me…I’m so proud of that.
DK: My favorite Foreigner song is probably “I Want To Know What Love Is.” It’s such a beautiful ballad. Can you tell me how you wrote this song?
Jones: Well, the song came to me…I had an apartment in London at that point. I had gone back to London to just hang out. I think we had a few shows there and I was on an extended break. So I was writing, and the song came to me about 2:00 in the morning. I was sitting in a little room…it was dark and very quiet. And the first three chords of the song just popped up and I thought, Wow, that’s interesting. I think that’s what dictated the feeling of the song, and I felt it was something very strong.
Then gradually through the next couple hours, I pretty much finished the song. Then I went to my wife—or soon to be my wife…she was asleep in bed. I woke her up and said, “Darling, I’ve got this really great song!” She looked at me bleary-eyed and said, “What’s it called?” I said, “I Want To Know What Love Is.” Then she gave me an odd look and said, “What do you mean…You don’t know what love is?” (he laughs). “No Darling, I know [what love is]…it is about you.”
From there, the song, when it began, was sort of leading me. I wasn’t writing the song…the song was leading me. It was such a powerful, soulful feeling.
DK: When did you decide that you would record a gospel choir for this song?
Jones: I was at lunch a few days later back in New York, and one of the guys at lunch had just acquired a gospel choir catalog. I played him the track. (Legendary producer) Jerry Wexler was there as well. Jerry said, “Did you ever think of putting a choir on it?” And I said, I had thought about it.
Just through a series of little things like that, I suddenly got a whole bunch of gospel albums sent over from this guy’s office. These great choirs were on it. I chose one—the New Jersey Mass Choir.
The next thing I know, we’re in the studio, and I’ve got 30-plus singers standing in front of me. It was a bit overwhelming—I had never worked with a choir, and they had never worked in the studio with a rock band (laughs). I think it was the first time that a gospel choir had appeared on a record with a rock band. We did a couple of takes and it was good, but it wasn’t quite where it could be with it. So the leader of the choir said, “I’d like to stop and just do something quickly.” And they all got around in a big circle in the studio, and we all held hands, and we said the Lord’s Prayer. And suddenly, the whole thing became magical. I was in tears…I was crying tears of joy. It was an overwhelmingly spiritual experience. I think the gospel feeling made it more of a universal song. It’s not just necessarily about love between a man and woman, but also love in its general context—Love for your neighbor, Love for your fellow man. I think that where it changed the song from being about a personal relationship, to a universal feel.
Foreigner performs their hit “Dirty White Boy” live in 2010.
DK: Thank you for telling me this story. Do you have any other favorite Foreigner songs, which have special meaning to you?
Jones: Yes. With Foreigner, we didn’t tend to purposefully write albums [full of] singles, or write songs orientated towards singles. Most of the songs that were hits came out of the albums that we were principally making. Obviously, (the first single) “Feels Like The First Time” was a key song that started the ball rolling. There’s a song called “You’re All I Am” on the Double Vision album. That was an early song—maybe the first time I’d written a power ballad. There’s a song called “Spellbinder” which is also on the Double Vision album. There are a number of songs that haven’t really seen the light of day.
Next year, which is our 40th anniversary, we’re going to be releasing a compilation—a boxed set to include all of the songs that Foreigner recorded.
DK: Currently, you’re on a tour of the U.S., performing acoustic shows. Can you tell me about this tour?
Jones: We’ve started to do acoustic shows, for the past year now. Up to that point, I had never thought about doing some of the songs acoustically. But they have come through amazingly live. We’re really enjoying it—it’s almost a new market for us. People are really interested in hearing those songs as they were written pretty much. So our acoustic tours are now challenging our regular tours (laughs). Obviously, in the future we’ll be doing electric tours again, but the tour we’re doing now is acoustic.