Juke Box Hero: Mick Jones of Foreigner Talks 40 Years of Hits with Billboard
They've yet to be nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- and are understandably wary about their chances of ever getting in -- but standard-setting classic rockers Foreigner have had a career whose achievements can only be matched by a handful of rock bands in history.
They have five RIAA-certified multi-platinum albums, and another two multi-platinum compilations. They had nine Hot 100 top 10 hits, including one No. 1 and a record-setting No. 2. Their songs have appeared in TV shows such as Arrested Development, The Simpsons, Stranger Things and (for nearly an entire episode) Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Their debut single featured in both Magic Mike and Pitch Perfect within the same year -- 35 years after its original release. They've been covered by Mariah Carey and sampled by Kanye West. They came up during punk's moment, peaked during the new wave era, and stayed popular through the rise of hair metal, without ever really having cred in any of those scenes.
And they're still touring 40 years later. Foreigner start their latest trek Tuesday (July 11) in Syracuse, NY, hitting amphitheaters across North America all the way through November. Mick Jones, the band's founding guitarist, principal songwriter and lone remaining original member, says you'd never know from the live crowds what a veteran band he's leading. "The attendance of young people at the shows is interesting," he tells Billboard. "You look out there, and sometimes it’s just like it could be 30, 40 years ago. The crowds are going bananas."
Billboard sat down with Jones before the band's tour to talk about Foreigner's decades of hits, how they've managed to stay relevant with newer audiences, and what advice he has for his musician stepson -- who's on the way to a decades-spanning pop career in his own right.
You had a number of bands before Foreigner. When you decided to form Foreigner, what was the principle idea behind the band? What did you want to do differently?
Well, I had a pretty interesting career up until then. Which had led me to France, [where] I got to play with a lot of musicians who were coming in and out of Paris, and did sessions with quite a few people, and started to learn a little about writing. And it was the time of The Beatles, so obviously everybody was trying to write songs [like The Beatles]. I was learning the songs just to educate myself, really, as to chord structures and melodies.
But what led me to forming a band eventually -- my own band -- is that I had been in a couple of bands. I went back to England, and finally started [playing] again in my mid-20s, and my dream was always to come over here. From an early age, y’know, America represented this mecca. And gradually, I started to increase my focus on writing, alongside playing with a band called Spooky Tooth. I played in a band with the guitar player Leslie West [of Mountain] for a while. Unfortunately all those things sort of came to a fizzle, and I was kind of left high and dry in New York for a while, not really knowing what to do... I decided it was time to make a decision. Either I make a stand, or I let the water wash over me.
So that led to me just starting writing, really. Just sitting down all day, just trying to get some flow going, trying to write some stuff that I would be comfortable with. Not pandering to any particular style or commercial style. And that was sort of the code I had. Even though some of our music may be regarded as poppy, I think the basis of it has always been rock, and infusions of soul here and there. I didn’t really know where we fit, actually… there were a few older bands in those days, too. But there wasn’t a new scene for bands like mine. It was the dawn of punk and new wave, so [what I was doing] was the exact opposite.
You tried out a number of vocalists, before you had the kid of epiphany to reach out to Lou Gramm. When you first heard him with the band, was it instantly like “This is the guy”?
Well, we had a shortlist [of candidates]. I still wasn’t really happy, ultimately happy, because I’d worked with some pretty good vocalists. I wanted something that could capture the rock element, and also capture more of a diverse range. I had heard Lou -- he’s a native of Rochester, NY, and Spooky Tooth were playing a show up there. And he was brought along with his then-manager, who happened to be our local A&R guy in upstate New York. And he said, “If you’re interested in this band at all, I’ll send you an album.” And he did, and I just… it got stuck on the shelf, as most things do when somebody hands you a CD or whatever.
I was writing [Foreigner's first single] “Feels Like the First Time” at the time. And it sounds so corny, but it really was starting to feel like the first time. And I heard Lou’s voice from one side of the room -- I was sitting at the piano, or the guitar -- from the other side of the room, and somehow, [snaps], it just stuck, y’know? And I knew pretty much immediately that this could be the voice.
“Feels Like the First Time” was a top 5 hit in the U.S. Did that catch you by surprise?
Oh, completely! I mean, I thought we had a decent shot at perhaps a top 20 song with “Feels Like the First Time,” I thought the album is gonna be more difficult, we have to see if people like the rest of Foreigner, not just a hit song. And luckily, they did.
Were you satisfied with how the first album met your vision, or was there stuff you were still trying to correct with the second album?
Well, I definitely saw it as a beginning. Certainly didn’t see it as encapsulating everything I wanted to do in one album. If I had a plan, it was to try to establish ourselves as an album band, and try to create albums you were able to listen to from top to bottom without too much filler -- or without any filler. And people seemed to embrace that first album. It was very contagious. And that’s what sent us spinning into this whole craziness of outselling all these huge bands.
If you listen to some of the singles on [1977's] Double Vision, they’re not punk songs, but they are very lean, kind of straight-ahead, fast-paced rock songs. Was that you in any way trying to keep up with punk, or inspired by the stripped-down nature of it?
Yeah, I think definitely on an album like Head Games, to a certain extent, it had that stripped-down [quality] for us. And yeah, I figured that the bands that we had sort of once looked up to were still great bands -- Free and Bad Company and McCartney was at the time a big influence -- they were kind of falling back a bit, and we were emerging. But we were emerging in this weird backdrop of punk and disco. Those were our two main competitors.
Did anyone ever try to convince you to make a disco single? So many rock bands were doing disco songs at the time.
No... probably the closest [we came] was “Urgent.” It’s got that [funky] sort of disco bass line. But I never shut myself off --- I wanted consciously to stay open about the direction, the future of the band, the longevity of the band. My favorite band at the time was Chic. I became quite friendly with Nile [Rodgers].
When it came time for [1979's] Head Games, I know that album kind of got some bad press because of the cover. Do you remember what the inspiration behind that was? Did you feel like it was misinterpreted at the time?
It was purely the imagination of the head of the art department, or the vice head of the art department, at Atlantic Records. And we really had nothing. I just said, “Come up with something.” And it hit the Midwest, and it just hit a wall. Nevertheless, it was a great-selling album.
Yeah, if that was your “flop” from the time, it still got certified 5x platinum. Do you get to a point where you’re almost feeling invincible in commercial terms? Did the slight dip in momentum worry you at all?
Well, I’d been used to so much -- how can I put it it? I had to learn how to take all that and process it. And make a positive outcome of it. So I toughened up a bit, and I wasn’t going to let myself be intimidated. I had more amazing gratitude for what we’d done, what we’d achieved so far. But I knew we had one more album in us.
So did it all kind of come together for [1981's] 4?
Yeah, I mean we started rehearsing some songs, and then it became a little -- it became apparent that things weren’t working quite, being run, properly. And it wasn’t for a lack of musicianship or input, it was just that I felt that we had to redefine the movie, the direction, the style, a little bit... Even though it may not necessarily sound like it, 4 was the most simple, direct album.
It's a pretty good ace in the hole to have, to have Mutt Lange on your side as producer.
Oh yeah. The relationship that he and I developed over a few rocky beginnings was -- I’d never really felt that before. And he definitely, he was the taskmaster, but he was also a complete professional, and was the only person I’d really let into my box of snippet tapes and guitar riffs and vocal lines. I just was embarrassed -- I didn’t want anybody hearing my shower tapes, you know? But he stormed in and demanded to hear them.
Did you feel Foreigner's early embracing of synths prepared you for the transition to the ‘80s better than some other bands of your era?
I think we were pretty well-prepared to face the ‘80s. During that album, I realized that more than ever the importance of the song, and the ability to capture people through the actual song. Of course, the interpretation of it, but the song had to do something to me, I had to get, you know, goosebumps and stuff like that. The importance of melody, no matter how simple it is. I mean, the simplest melodies are the hardest. Literally. I mean, coming up with an original, simple melody with 10 notes in it is not such an easy thing. It’s easier to do an indulgent, sort of big, glossy piece.
When you heard Thomas Dolby's "Waiting for a Girl Like You" synth riff, did you know that it was going to be your biggest hit to date?
Well, no. I felt something very strong. This time, I was an expecting father. And somehow the song got into my [soul]. And it was so powerful, I couldn’t even sit in the studio and listen to it without breaking down. I believed it was for my son -- eventually I had a son -- so it wasn’t…
The title didn’t quite work out.
It was definitely [still] the presence of something major happening.
Obviously, that song took on a life of its own. You guys had hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 before with “Double Vision,” but “Waiting For A Girl Like You” was No. 2 for 10 weeks. Were you thumbing through the Billboard charts every week?
Do you have a permanent vendetta with Olivia Newton-John for keeping it out of the top spot?
No, those were the times, you know. That was kinda Saturday Night Fever territory... But we did celebrate when we eventually, I think it was, did we have a number one with that?
No. You’re still in the record books [along with Missy Elliott's "Work It"] for the song with the longest stay at No. 2 without hitting No. 1.
Yeah. That's not bad. [Laughs.]
Do you feel that 4 is the best encapsulation of Foreigner?
Yeah. I think all the albums represented something of a [progression] for me. I think, you know, the innocence and naivete of the first album was very important, too. But I remember bringing the first mixtape of the album and playing it at home one night, with a little bit of tobacco laced into something. It was the first time I’d really listened to it from top to tail, and I was just floating. I was going, “What is this? What is this? There’s something in this.” And I started to have the feeling that this was destined for something. So it was a pretty cosmic experience.
So after the 10 weeks of waiting, with “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” you finally hit No. 1 on your next single, on [1984's] Agent Provocateur, “I Want To Know What Love Is.” Was that a huge celebration point for the band, when you did hit number one?
I think we knocked Madonna off. Yeah, I remember, we were performing in Stockholm. I was just about to leave for the show, and I get a call from Robert Plant, announcing that I was number one. He said, "If you write any more songs like that, I want it.” It was like, “Wow. Sure, you can have them, if you want them!” Never got around to that, but yeah, it was a special moment.
Did you know that, when recording “I Want To Know What Love Is,” that this was going to be a pretty special song for you?
I did. I knew it was going to be special. The thing was how to keep it out of the traditional pop-rock ballad thing, with playing guitars and stuff like that. Plus apart from the little “ding-ding-ding-ding” riff, which was a synthesizer, pretty much everything else on there was acoustic. No electric guitar. Which wasn’t a purposeful thing, but as the song progressed, I took a lot of pains in holding back any ideas about augmenting it with unnecessary frill.
I didn’t feel that I could touch it, it came so quickly. I tried a few things, I tried putting a little different direction in it, and nothing [else worked]. It did end up being a bit of a double-edged sword for us.
Because it brought you to such a new audience?
Well that, and the fact that I guess the 4 album had had a big ballad, and now this album is coming out, opening with a big ballad, and I think people started to question a little bit about, “Were we headed in a different direction?” Unfortunately, at the time, Lou became a little vocal about [not wanting to go in that direction], which sort of added a bit of confusion.
It was a little bit of the beginning of the unraveling. It’s funny, when you’re experiencing all these things, sometimes you just lose sight of the main thing, which in our case was the music.. Gradually, it chipped away at the core, it chipped away a bit of the relationship Lou and I had. And then he pretty much left the band [in 1990], taking his voice with him, the one that I cultivated over a period of 10 years.
Even though you guys were going through this strife in the second half of the ‘80s, you stayed a pretty consistently popular band. You had multiple top 10 hits off of [1987's] Inside Information, and Lou had his solo success. Do you feel like Foreigner gets the credit you deserve for how long you stuck around the top of the charts?
Yeah, I guess it was 11, 12 years. You know, I discover as I meet more and more people -- younger people, musicians -- they’re kind of in awe of my of our band. A lot of bands that I respect, newer bands, really just openly come out and tell me, “Man, your band is just [great], the proof is that you’re still playing all over the radio, every day.” They're kind of in awe of it. I’m very modest! [Laughs.]
So in the ‘90s, you tried things out with a new singer [Johnny Edwards], but the commercial success wasn't’ there anymore. Did you feel like you were going to hit those same heights without Lou, or did you feel that something was missing?
I didn’t know. I just sort of.. there was a period when I wasn’t too sharp on the ball, let’s put it that way. I let a lot of things slip.
In terms of what?
Just health and recreational habits, and stuff like that. Alcohol played a big part.
Did you have any kind of relationship or appreciation for the grunge explosion, when that happened in the early ‘90s?
Yeah. Again, I was interested in the bands like Guns N’ Roses first, but then… Nirvana, definitely. That was a striking album... Pearl Jam, obviously. Chris Cornell. There were some good vocalists.
Did you look at that and say, “this isn’t us anymore?”
Yeah, I had to. I mean, I wasn’t going to go out and try and compete with them on their ground... I kind of had lost my enthusiasm. Or I’d let it slip. And it took a while for me to get through that. And a little while for the ‘90s music to get through, and to be able to feel like there was still an audience for us out there.
Is it true that sort of around this time, you reconciled with Lou because of the 1992 L.A. riots?
Well, we ended up being in L.A. I was working on songs for a new album, and Lou had expressed some interest in talking again, because I guess his career wasn’t moving. So we decided to put a few songs together.
When he came in, we were staying on the Sunset Strip. And we were literally forced to be together for 10 days [during the riots]. You couldn’t go anywhere. So we ended up [hanging] with Roger Waters and one of the guys from Tears For Fears. And everybody was just hanging around the pool all day. It was interesting. It was scary.
As the ‘90s gave way to the 21st century, did you feel fans starting to come around to Foreigner again?
If touring has anything to do with it, in a big way. We're well on the way back to a successful touring band, at least. And who knows, maybe we’ll release an album in the summer.
Your songs have been popping up a lot in movies and TV shows this century, too. Do you have any favorites of those -- ways your music has been used in other media?
Yeah, I mean, you don’t really have that much to do with it. You do the deal for the song. And then it’s really up to the advertisers to, they’ve chosen it, so they’ve got a concept. I know we’ve got one [in the Super Bowl this year], for Wendy's. "Cold As Ice."
That one seems to have endured -- it gets sampled a lot in rap songs. Is that flattering?
Yeah. That was cool. What was the name of the band, it’s four letters?
Yeah. I felt pretty hip. [Laughs.]
One thing I had to ask you about -- have you ever seen the Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode with the Foreigner belt?
What did you think of that?
Somebody had one last week.
Really? A Foreigner belt?
Wore it to a show, yeah.
It must be interesting for you to watch Mark [Ronson, stepson] now go through so much of what you probably went through 30, 40 years ago. Are there things that you tell him to avoid? Do you ever kind of counsel him on his way, or does he ever come to you and ask for advice?
Yeah, I mean, he’s a very bright guy. He’s got his head screwed on. I like the way he does, you know, he chooses the artists he wants to work with. He’s got that luxury. There’s not a lot of advice I can give him, just give him support. There’s obviously a few things that I observe, that I hope he doesn’t overwork himself, and try to do too much at the same time. But apart from that, he knows that anyway. I’m very proud of him.
I’m sure you saw that Journey are getting inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall Of Fame soon. You’ve toured with them, and sometimes you get grouped in with them. Do you think that now that they’ve gotten in, there’s a chance Foreigner might get in, too?
That’s asking a lot, that question. I don’t know. I would think we deserve to be in there, and our friends and fans feel that way, too. And considering the success and the popularity the band still has, I think it would be fitting. I’m not holding my breath. But I was very honored with the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction.