"Feels Like the First Time" appropriately introduced the world to Foreigner — nearly four decades ago. While the band, helmed by Mick Jones, has gone through changes over the years, they're still making music and, this spring, touring.
Their Soundtrack of Summer Tour reunites them with Styx with The Eagles's Don Felder rounding out the lineup. They'll release a compilation album to accompany the tour, which kicks off in the U.S. on May 14, and it will include a new version of "Hotel California," which Felder co-wrote, that the co-headliners recently recorded.
While the dynamic of Foreigner has changed though the years, Jones has remained the constant. And on one very snowy winter morning, Yahoo Music visited him in his New York City home to have him share memories of making some of the group's most memorable songs ("I Want to Know What Love Is" almost featured Aretha Franklin), his ups and downs with former bandmate Lou Gramm (surprisingly, the Los Angeles riots brought them together), and how Foreigner's touring days have changed (buh-bye, booze!)…
"Foreigner" (1977): "I was kind of high and dry in New York," the British-born Jones, 69, says about the period right before the formation of Foreigner in 1976. After starting his career in France (and opening for the Beatles), he came to America with the band Spooky Tooth, but they parted ways. "I was 28 or 29 and thought, 'Jesus, I don't know whether this is gonna happen for me or not.'"
It was then that Foreigner was born with three Englishmen (also Ian McDonald and Dennis Elliott), three Americans (Lou Gramm, Al Greenwood, and Ed Gagliardi), and what was, at the time, a "risky" name.
"At the time, I was a green card holder, so I was in limbo. You can't really leave America because you're sort of semi-legally allowed to stay. And there I go choosing a name like Foreigner. I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, immigration service is gonna deport me,'" he laughs. "But the idea behind the name was that if we went to England, there'd be foreigners in the band, and if we were in America, there would be as well. So that plus the fact that it had nine letters, which was my lucky number," is how the name was decided upon.
Their first album, which included "Cold as Ice" and "Long, Long Way from Home," was released in 1977 and was an instant hit. "I don't think anybody could have predicted that," he says. "I was prepared to just get a foot on the ladder — on the first rung — and work up. So it took everyone by surprise: the record company, us, just everybody."
"Feels Like the First Time," which he wrote, reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and remains a sentimental favorite. "I still get goose bumps when I play that song. I really do. It was the foundation of everything."
"Double Vision" (1978): There was no sophomore jinx for the band. Their second album landed near the top of the charts again with hits including "Double Vision" and "Hot Blooded," which he co-wrote with Gramm. They also received a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist.
As for any big spurges he made at the time, Jones moved out of his small, no-frills New York City apartment which was unairconditioned and had small black-and-white TV.
"I didn't go too crazy. I bought a house in Westchester [County, outside New York City] and that was nice. It wasn't the time do anything much except we were in demand on tour immediately, so we toured like hell," he says. "Luckily, thinking back to my days in France, I learned to deal with success a bit because I was working with Johnny Hallyday, who was like the Elvis Presley of France. Living with him and watching the way he handled his life, sort of prepared me I think."
"Head Games"(1979): What Jones remembers most about the band's third album — featuring hits "Dirty White Boy" and "Head Games," which, again, were collaborations with Gramm — was controversy over the cover. It featured a woman, actress Lisanne Falk, in a men's restroom. It was edgy for the time and ended up getting banned.
"Some people didn't get it," he says. "They thought it was distasteful or something. A lot of the record distributors in the Midwest and the Bible area would't carry it. They figured something like a million or so people didn't buy the record. I remember thinking, 'What are you talking about? It's a cover — don't take it seriously.' It certainly wasn't meant in anyway to be degrading to women, hedonistic, or anything."
Regardless, the album, which he says had a "rough-and-ready approach" and they "dirtied up a bit" was a blast to make. And the time period was fun in general.
"That was actually probably the most excessive period," he says. "We moved over to L.A. and I remember I rented a Rolls-Royce for a couple weeks — white Rolls, Beverly Hills. It was fun. Expensive fun."
"4" (1981): The decision was made to pare down the band to four (Greenwood and McDonald were out; Gagliardi had previously been replaced by Rick Wills), a move that was necessary but also "emotional and kind of sad." The number later inspired the title of the album, which was an immediate hit, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard album chart for 10 weeks. His hits included "Urgent" and "Juke Box Hero," as well as "Waiting for a Girl Like You," which he wrote with Gramm.
"It sort of became our iconic album," Jones says. "I'd always tried to make albums that you could listen to from beginning to end without feeling like there were filler places in it. That's the closest I came to achieving that."
It almost had a different name though. Up until the 11th hour, it was going to be called "'Silent Partners,' which was sort of about broaching on the Big Brother-type of surveillance thing," he explains.
"I think we were ahead of our time though with that. The cover was done by the English company called Hipgnosis — they did the Pink Floyd albums — and it was hundreds of people with binoculars and buildings and people spying on each other. Very intricate and heady. It got to the point where I thought: This concept is so immense. And the cover was so busy with everything on it. It was like: What about the album itself? And I think it was Rick Wills, our bass player, who said, 'Well, why don't you call it '4'? It's the fourth album, four people. So at the last minute — almost literally the day we delivered the album — we scrapped this whole intricate idea, changed the artwork, and used that Hollywood [film leader]. I think we made the right decision. It just was very eye-catching, straightforward, simple."
The one thing that drove him crazy about the album? Despite it being a number one album, they still didn't have a number one song. "Waiting for a Girl Like You" came very, very close, enjoying a long run in the No. 2 spot — in fact, it set a record for the longest standing number No. 2 song on the Billboard charts — but never topped the list.
"It came out at the same time as Olivia Newton-John's 'Physical.' I remember each week the figures would come in and I'd think: 'Please! Please!' I got to hate her," he says with a laugh.
"Agent Provocateur" (1984):
The band finally got its No. 1 song when "I Want to Know What Love Is," Jones's gospel-inspired ballad backed by the New Jersey Mass Choir, topped the charts. Interestingly, the classic song almost had a different sound — from the Queen of Soul.
"I had originally had the idea to ask Aretha Franklin if she wanted to do a duet on it. Somehow that didn't come together, but that got me thinking about more of a spiritual-type of approach and I followed that idea through and discovered this incredible choir in New Jersey."
Recording the song was a spiritual experience.
"They had never been in a recording studio before, I had never worked with a gospel choir before either, and it was a little tense in the beginning. Everybody was kinda figuring each other out. We did a take and it sounded great, but it wasn't quite there. Then the choir leader brought everybody together, in the middle of the room, holding hands, and we recited The Lord's Prayer together."
And that did the trick.
"I remember very well my mother was in the control room, and I looked at her — she's a very spiritual type of person — and could see the tears coming out. And I started crying — it was tears of emotional joy and just, oh, something. It was just such an incredible, powerful moment. And, then, bang, we did it in one take."
"Inside Information" (1987): The year this album came out, Gramm also released a solo project and it caused friction the pair.
"It was a difficult time," Jones says of his relationship with Gramm in the late '80s. "I think with the success and everything combined kind of got away on us a little bit. I felt like I needed to get out of town for a while in a way and Lou had this desire and hunger to do an album by himself. I thought at that point that it was a little premature while the band was still cementing itself firmly in the public eye and the ear."
When Gramm's album came out, Jones, who put out his own solo project in 1989, thought it sounded too much like a Foreigner album and thought it would be competing with the band.
"I remember the first track I heard and it was like: That's a Foreigner song. Well, pretty much. 'Midnight Blue' started with a guitar figure that was very much in my style. It was a great song, but I thought, 'Whoa, is this gonna be competing with Foreigner?' I got very concerned about that. A lot of it came from the pressure that we'd been under through those years and the inability to have settled a lot of things that we should have cleared up and talked about earlier."
He compared it to marital difficulties.
"If anything, that was the price of the fame and success," he says. "Like in a marriage, things got brushed under the carpet and there started to become resentments. We never really cleared those things up and it kinda caught up with us."
After the "Inside Information" tour, Gramm, who put out a second solo album in 1989, left the band in 1990.
"Unusual Heat" (1991): Although Gramm was out, Jones and Foreigner continued on, recording a new album.
"Obviously the band was in a bit of disarray because there were four of us and one of us had left the band, and I didn't quite know here to go from there," he admits. "I figured, well, I'm just gonna let the music take it though. What else can I do?"
Jones was introduced to singer Johnny Edwards and brought him into the group as the lead vocalist.
"Somehow we got a tape of this singer Johnny Edwards, and first time I heard him it was just — wow. It really fit the bill. So I just went headlong into it, and had a lot of fun making an album that… I had to put Foreigner — the original Foreigner — [aside] and then say, 'Well, this is a new phase.' But we had a lot of fun and that got us through that time, which was great. And we had a few blasts on that tour."
"Mr. Moonlight" (1994): In 1992, Jones and Gramm reconnected under unusual circumstances. It was during the Los Angeles riots and, orchestrated by someone at their record label, they met in Jones's hotel room to talk.
"I was in L.A. writing, and it just so happened that the day Lou was flying out was the beginning of the riot, and it was pretty dicey. [Rioters] were shooting at planes landing at the airport. So he came to the hotel and that night there was a [lockdown]. You couldn't go out on the streets after 6 p.m. So we were stuck in this place — the Sunset Marquis — for like a week. Roger Waters was there, the bass player for Tears for Fears, Curt Smith, and we had quite a love-in. We couldn't get out of there. We didn't have a choice. We had to see each other. Go to your room, you walk around, and you can't leave — [like] Hotel California," he laughs.
Gramm returned to the band and they released "Mr. Moonlight." His favorite track? "White Lie," with its harmonizing that is "reminiscent of the Everly Brothers era."
"I think it just was slightly just ill-timed," he says of the album. "It was heavy grunge time in music. It just fell between the cracks. But when I listen to it — and I do listen to it occasionally — there's some good stuff on there, emotional."
"Can't Slow Down" (2009) and Beyond: Gramm, who underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor in 1997, left Foreigner again in 2003, and a year later Jones reformed the group, bringing on frontman Kelly Hansen. The new lineup reinvigorated the group.
"If you had asked me [in the '90s] I would have said, 'No, I probably won't be doing this much longer.' But we started to get this resurgence when I reformed the band in 2004 and it's just been getting better and better. There's so much energy on stage and everybody’s having fun. There are no long faces, or problems, or attitudes. And Kelly's become a master frontman and he just gives so much every night."
For "Can't Slow Down," which came out in 2009, Jones asked his stepson, Mark Ronson — who's known for his work with Bruno Mars, Adele, and Amy Winehouse — to produce a song.
"I said, 'I'd love you to do a track just for the fun of it,' and I was quite surprised that he chose 'Fool for You Anyway.' That was the first ballad that we recorded with the band on the first album, and it was popular — a lot of women like that song. It was never a single, but they really loved it; it was voted the No. 1 song by all the girls at the record company. So Mark came up with that — it happened to be his favorite [Foreigner] song — and it sort of lent itself to a retro feel. Mark's very much into organic, old equipment — all the stuff from the '50s and '60s and that raw sound, recording everybody at the same time. Real old school. So it really, really worked well and we had a lot of fun doing it."
Jones is looking ahead to Foreigner's upcoming tour, which will crisscross America this spring and summer. Though things have changed quite a bit since the early years.
"It used to be like your favorite bar backstage. Now, it's like a health spa," he admits. "There is a little alcohol somewhere to offer to guests, but it's a pretty clean life these days. There's no way you could party, keep this kind of schedule, and give everything every night. Everybody is aware of that. It used to be crazy, but and that was that and then you move on. You gotta be in shape to do this."
With that, Jones pointed to some exercise equipment across the room and readied for a workout, and we headed back into the snowy streets thinking: Nope, he "Can't Slow Down," but why should he?