“When I come off the stage after a show and sit down quietly for about ten or fifteen minutes,” says long-time Foreigner leader Mick Jones, “I like to reflect on how many faces I saw out in the crowd, and think, ‘How fortunate I am to be in this position. I’m giving some music that can seriously affect people to bring a lot of love and joy and help when it’s needed … maybe to someone who is sick, or others who the music has been a positive backdrop for.’”
Born Michael Leslie Jones in Somerset, England, 71 years ago, Jones has had a very successful career. In addition to his work with the British band Spooky Tooth and productions for the likes of George Harrison, Van Halen and Bad Company, he is probably best-known as the long-time leader of Foreigner, famous for such hits as “Waiting For Girl Like You,” “I Want To Know What Love Is,” “Cold As Ice” and “Feels Like The First Time.”
Sunday evening, Jones, and company will be performing a special sit-down acoustic concert at Morristown, New Jersey’s Mayo Performing Arts Center. The band will also be at Red Bank, NJ’s Count Basie Theatre on Monday.
Of the proposed shows, Jones explains, “I think people who attend them will understand why I’m enjoying this band so much. and won’t be let down because these songs sound so good, acoustically. It’s really a nice change of pace for us from the electric shows.”
But will they be able to pull off rockers like “Dirty White Boy,” “Urgent,” and “Hot Blooded” with acoustic guitars?
Laughs Jones, “People will just have to come out and see for themselves.”
Elliot Stephen Cohen: When you were growing up in England, were you first inspired by American guitarists like Chuck Berry, or more by British ones like Hank Marvin?
Mick Jones: Well, when I was about 12, the first things that caught my ear were pretty much American guitar players. I think that was pretty much the “M.O.” for a lot of English guitarists, to try to emulate the blues or R&B sound that came out of America. My dad had turned me on to Les Paul when I was very young, and that always had a lasting effect on me. I was also listening to people like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent who I don’t think most people remember any more.
ESC: Being that you were 15 during that famous British tour that featured Vincent and Eddie Cochran, did you by any chance see any of the shows?
MJ: Yes. As a matter of fact, I did. I took the bus with my friend Colin Green who was playing in one of the backup bands.
ESC: Did you ever get to meet Vincent or Cochran who, of course, died tragically in a car crash when the tour ended. He was only 21, but accomplished so much.
MJ: I had wanted to just get a glimpse of either one of them, and Colin sort-of briefly introduced me to Gene. I was just shaking ! (Laughs.)
ESC: At what age did you start playing professionally?
MJ: Well, when I was about 15, my first professional gig was with a band called Nero and The Gladiators who had a few hit singles in England reworking classical pieces like “In The Hall of The Mountain King.” The catch was, we all had to dress up as gladiators, onstage. Shortly after I joined them, they got an offer to go to France to first showcase themselves, but also to back up Johnny Hallyday. It was supposed to be a one month tour, but I ended up staying in France for about seven years, on and off.
ESC: Most Americans would not be familiar with the name “Johnny Hallyday,” but he’s been like the “French Elvis” since the early ‘60s.
MJ: Yes. I became, I guess you call it, his musical director, because I was leading his band as well as writing songs for him. It was very prestigious for me, to be making a name for myself. We got to go to The States, and I’d round up musicians, like when we went to Nashville, or to record in New York with someone like Ben E. King. I worked with Otis Redding and spent about four weeks touring with Jimi Hendrix who was opening for Hallyday. During that time, I got to know Jimi quite well. We used to hang out and travel in the bus together every day.
ESC: Now, backing up a little bit, chronologically, while working with Hallyday, you had a chance to open for The Beatles during the early heyday of Beatlemania. It must have been hard performing on the stage, with all the girls probably shouting, “We want the Beatles !”
MJ: Yes, it was wild. It was like experiencing A Hard Day’s Night firsthand. They took me under their wing, as it were, because I was the only other English performer on the tour. I learned so much from just being around them. After the shows, we would all go back to the hotel and just sit around, playing guitars. They would play me all these new records they got from The States. That’s when I first heard people like Marvin Gaye. So, I guess, I was like a little bit on the cutting edge of what was going on musically in America.
ESC: Of course, ten years later, you got to play with George Harrison, on his Dark Horse album. How did that come about?
MJ: I hadn’t seen George for a good six or seven years, at that point. I was kind-of reintroduced to George through Gary Wright, who was frequently playing piano or organ on George’s solo albums. I had some really wonderful times, playing and recording at George’s old home in Henley.
ESC: 2016, so far, has been a very bad year in terms of the great musicians we’ve lost, like Don Henley, Paul Kantner and David Bowie. Did you know or have any connection with Bowie?
MJ: Not really, apart from having the same last name. (Bowie’s real name was David Jones – Ed.) I guess I was very influenced by certain periods of his career. He was one of the leaders of art, sound and fashion. He defined categorizing. He was just a bright star which showed the way for a lot of people to evolve, musically. Just an incredible adventurer in the arts in general.
ESC: When you were putting Foreigner together, it was quite a unique concept, bringing together three American and three British musicians. When Andrew Loog Oldham took over as manager for the Rolling Stones, he fired founding member Ian Stewart because he felt six members were too many for fans to be interested in. Obviously, you didn’t share the same opinion when forming Foreigner.
MJ: Quite honestly, it was never really a consideration. At the time we were forming the band, we were just getting used to each other and still working on the direction and sound of the band. So, originally everything was a work in progress but, as one can now see, historically we went from a six-piece band down to a four-piece, on the fourth album. I guess we really were meant to be a four-piece band, but it just took a while to sort out the elements and writing direction of the band. It was still very raw when the first album came out.
ESC: Although the band obviously had the right combination of great songs, great musicianship and great singing, were you still surprised at how quickly Foreigner became one of the world’s biggest musical attractions?
MJ: I wasn’t quite prepared for that kind of celebrity status so fast, but I got used to it pretty quickly. (Laughs.) You know, it was all really like a dream, in a way, but beyond my wildest dreams. As a kid, I just wanted to play music, but now I was also getting the chance to play the kind of music that I wanted to play. So, in a way, I had been preparing for this for a long time prior to my career with Foreigner.
ESC: Let’s talk a little about the inspiration behind some of Foreigner’s most famous songs. I would imagine “Juke Box Hero” is kind-of semi-autobiographical.
MJ: It sort of is, in a way. The song started out to be a bit satirical, even. But a lot of it was based on a true experience. There was this kid who was waiting in the rain near the backstage area at one of our shows. We went back to the hotel, but when we came back, he was still there … soaked. He was obviously such a “die-hard” fan that we kind of took him under our wing for the rest of the evening. We took him backstage and then, during the show, brought him onstage with us… That look in his eyes, he was just completely dazzled by that whole rock experience. So, being that we had a real person and event to write about, we took the idea into the studio and wrote a song about it.
ESC: So the song isn’t really about you, as most people would assume.
MJ: Well, it is about me, too. It’s me, also reflecting on what I’d been through and the path I had taken. When I was young, I picked up a guitar in a music store … just the whole fascination of what it would be like to be in a band..then one day living that dream of being in a band and doing something glamorous … Of course, in the beginning it’s not that glamorous. I mean, I am invested in the song’s story and I think it also really covers a lot of hidden things, here and there.
ESC: Now with “Double Vision,” Lou had once told me how he had attended a hockey game, and when one of the players had to come out, after being injured, the announcer said it was due to experiencing double vision.
MJ: Yes, Lou came up with the title when we were both sitting together going to see The New York Rangers. We were both very big hockey fans, and towards the end of the game, the goal tender got struck in the head and had to be taken off the ice and, as you said, later the announcer stated he was suffering from double vision. Lou and I both looked at each other and agreed, “Wow! This could be an interesting song title.” I had never heard that term before, but Lou was familiar with it because he was following hockey a lot longer than I was.
ESC: Of course, the song’s title could be interpreted many different ways.
MJ: It is sort-of a double entendre. It’s fun to do that once in a while. It’s just a funny little title, and it stuck. A lot of people thought it was a drug song, but it wasn’t meant to be that at all.
ESC: Too many beers could have the same effect.
MJ: I guess so! (Laughs.)
ESC: What was “Dirty White Boy” about?
MJ: I was sitting in a hotel lobby in Memphis with a bunch of fans discussing the evolution of rock music and how Elvis Presley was the person who sort-of opened the door for it, to begin with. Lou and I wrote the song together, but I couldn’t tell you who wrote what. The song just somehow emerged …. To me, Elvis Presley was the original dirty white boy, simple as that.
ESC: Do you have any comments about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which ignores Foreigner for induction every year?
MJ: Please, don’t get me started on that ! (Laughs.) Well, I’ve decided, for me, it’s not really worth worrying about. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I think, is pretty detached from reality and truth of what was happening in those years from the mid-’70s, through the mid-’80s. Those years have pretty much been ignored, especially for bands that were extremely successful and had a tremendous following. I mean, it’s ignoring the public that filled those arenas and stadiums. I mean, Madonna, I actually know quite well, but what’s she doing in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Same as a lot of those one-hit wonder groups. It’s not really a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They can call it whatever they want, but I don’t think it truly represent what Rock and Roll is, in a fair way. That’s all I have to say about that. (Laughs.)
ESC: It’s been written that one of the main reasons Lou left Foreigner was that he wanted the band to stay more with hard rock, while he claims you were leading it more into ballads like “Waiting For a Girl Like You,” and “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
MJ: Apparently, that was partly to do with it. I couldn’t fathom that myself, because if you listened to the makeup of Foreigner’s albums, there were always one or two ballads on them. It was just after the 4 album, there was like a three or four-year break from recording. The last big hit we had was “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” and the first single we released from the Agent Provocateur, at the request of the record company, because it was Christmas time, was “I Want To Know What Love Is.” I don’t think there was any kind of conscious shift at all at making Foreigner a softer band. If anyone listens to the Inside Information album, which followed later in the decade, I think there’s really more rock than on any of the previous ones.
ESC: So, what was the real reason that made Lou leave such a hugely successful band, especially when very few lead singers ever achieve anywhere near the same type of success when then go solo?
MJ: I don’t know … it was just part of … I don’t want to use the word “vendetta,” (Laughs.) I think Lou was just very set on doing his own thing. You know … maybe a lot of that had to do with me. Maybe I had been a bit too forceful with some of the ideas I had, but it definitely wasn’t my intention to take the band into a softer direction.
ESC: So, will we ever see a full-blown reunion of the original band with Lou and the other surviving members?
MJ: Well, you know, if it was for some special occasion, I don’t see any problem with that … God forbid, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (laughs), but that doesn’t seem too likely with the way they’re choosing the inductees. There’s really no bad blood between Lou and I any more, but he wants to do his own thing, and after he left, I had to get on with my life and my band. I think we just had exhausted the time we could spend together, but we’ve talked about kicking around some new ideas. So, who knows …
ESC: I know a lot of old Foreigner fans miss the old band, but you seem to have a very strong fan base with the current lineup.
MJ: I’ve had so much pleasure with these musicians. Besides, the musicality in the band, it’s a family again … a family that’s been together through thick and thin for the past 11 years. In the beginning, it was like putting a new band together, but we’ve really paid our dues as a band that has dug its way back. I feel, we’ve regained a lot of prestige that the name Foreigner lost in the ’90s, so I’m very happy with what we’re doing.
ESC: It’s great to see you back, touring with the band again. How are you feeling these days?
MJ: What I had was really a circulatory problem. It wasn’t actually a heart attack, but I did have to have a fairly serious operation. I guess I was paying the price for all the bad stuff I did in my earlier years (laughs), but everything’s improved tremendously. I’m leading a very healthy lifestyle … no vices any more … just a good, clean-living person, and glad to be so, especially with the way people are falling around me. I’m just glad that now I’m giving myself a chance to hang in there.