Foreigner: Still Feels Like the First Time

For many, Foreigner epitomizes cheeseball '80s stadium rock. Their ultra-slick production, histrionic vocals and fist-in-the-sky bravado represents everything '90s acts ranging from Foo Fighters to Korn have strived to avoid. But Foreigner were far more musically accomplished than those who deem themselves "cutting edge" care to accept. Tunes like "Feels Like the First Time," "Cold As Ice" and "Double Vision" hold up as worthy nuggets of classic rock, and even the more obscure tracks such as "Starrider," "Long, Long Way From Home" and "Blue Morning, Blue Day" have stood the test of time.

To their benefit, Foreigner blended muscle and melody in ways that sacrificed neither. And unlike many bands who blew their wad in one or two powerful shots, the group sustained its writing chops, penning jukebox favorites like "Waiting For a Girl Like You" "I Want to Know What Love Is" and of course "Juke Box Hero" as many as seven years after its 1977 formation.

Scoffers and skeptics take heed: Foreigner needn't be considered unhip. These were no one-hit-wonders, spoon-fed crybabies or ungrateful celebrities. Like the best Behind the Music candidates - vocalist Lou Gramm, guitarist Mick Jones, guitarist Ian McDonald, bassist Ed Gagliardi, keyboardist Al Greenwood and drummer Dennis Elliott - suffered for their art, indulging in dangerous, hedonistic revelry, enduring the pressures of stardom and the challenges of fading popularity, and struggling through the near death of their lead singer.

And through it all, Foreigner has persevered. The band's new double-disc retrospective Foreigner Anthology: Jukebox Heroes, which features all the band's hits and rarities as well as cuts from Jones' earlier band Spooky Tooth and solo tracks by Jones and Gramm, reiterates Foreigner's longevity and continued relevance. Currently guitarist and songwriter Mick Jones is in the studio producing the next album by the Cult, and afterwards, Foreigner plans to record its first new material in five years. Renewed stardom could await right behind the next corner. Was putting together this career retrospective a real stroll down memory lane?

Mick Jones: Pretty much so. These are periods that completely absorbed my life. I found myself reflecting a lot on what was going on during those times. It helped put my career in perspective as well. That's very hard to do when you're in the middle of things. You deliver the album and it's out of your hands. What conclusions did you come to?

Jones: it's a pretty interesting, valid body of work. I could feel the development through all the different albums Any embarrassments?

Jones: Not really. I thought there would be. But I guess I'm feeling, "Well, that's where my head was at at that time, and it doesn't sound too bad now." It's kind of stood the test of time. What makes Foreigner music more enduring than that of REO Speedwagon?

Jones: I think our background is really solid. I came up through old soul music and blues perhaps even more than kids who were growing up in America at that time. I was getting my inspiration from the same place as the Stones and the Beatles - from American R&B and blues record. For kids growing up in America at that time, it wasn't so hip to listen to R&B and blues. That was black music. Whereas we kind of embraced. That's how my musical taste and style developed. Then I worked in that period in London in the early '70s along with Traffic and Free. And really that helped to define my musical direction when I got to having my own band. Your guitar style was an important part of the '80s hard rock sound.

Jones: Foreigner was a guitar-driven band from the beginning even though we had keyboards. I was fortunate enough in the late '60s to have played sessions with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones in London and that was sort of my foundation. Could you see that Jimmy was gonna become a guitar legend?

Jones: I had a feeling, definitely. And they were great inspirations to me. What they did with their talent and how they went for it sort of gave me an idea of what I wanted to do. I didn't dream I'd ever succeed in doing it, but on bit of a smaller scale I managed to create something myself. It was that English thing that was driving me. I was very much involved in that scene at the time. Being in a band called Spooky Tooth, I got to learn a great deal and it definitely helped me find my true voice as a writer. I had always been co-writing with people and then when it came time, I felt I needed to express my songs, and that was really how Foreigner started. When did you start playing guitar in bands?

Jones: I was playing in the local youth club when I was 15. I was in my first band and I had a solid body Burns. It was cherry red and it was pretty crappy. Then I had a Hoffner Senator and then a Guyatone, which is Japanese guitar that's something like a Les Paul. But the first real guitar I bought was an SG with a whammy bar on it. Then I joined Spooky Tooth, and I played a Gibson Stereo - the kind Chet Atkins and Chuck Berry Played - it was a semi-acoustic, big-body beautiful warm red guitar. Then I got a Les Paul when I was about 17. What's your approach to guitar playing?

Jones: I came up really by listening to records. I listened to the obvious people like Chuck Berry and the same sort of process that a lot of other English guitar players came from. I was also very interested in blues and found myself to be a rhythmic lead guitarist. I'm a rhythmic and melodic lead guitarist. To me, rhythm is very important element in both the chord playing and the lead playing. What's the secret to being a strong rhythm guitarist?

Jones: I think like being a great bass player, you have to realize what you?re playing and not try to play something else. If you're playing rhythm guitar, don't try to make it lead guitar or something else that it's not. Rhythm guitar has got a true place. Like a bass, it?s meant to create a foundation for the music with the drums. Sometimes a really great rhythm track is enough. AC/DC proved that. Great chord playing is really cool. Pete Townshend played that way too, and if anything, I'm in more that sort of area. Are you into playing leads?

Jones: I'm not a flashy lead guitar player. I do what I can do and I've never been one to get caught up in great speed and dexterity. To me, it's more about the feel and how it clicks with the song. And my satisfaction comes out of making songs work. In their place, leads are good. A lot of songs cry out for them. But I think you have to be careful where you put them. I consider our band to be headed by Lou's vocals and my guitar arrangements. And I think I know when I've gotten my point across and when I've played my effective part. I think less is more all the way down the road. What were some of more memorable moments in Foreigner?

Jones: Foreigner was a wild ride. I started off with pretty modest expectations. I figured this would be a band that gradually would develop over the course of a couple albums, as was the norm for the mid '70s. Then six months before our album came out, the Boston album came out. Bands would usually build their fanbase a bit gradually and do it the old fashioned way and I was fully prepared to do that. But our album came out and exploded, and suddenly it was a different ball game. We spent the next four or five years really growing up in public with an extreme pressure on ourselves to deliver and follow up with something even better than what we'd done, which was already stratospheric compared to everything else that was going on. That?s enough to drive a band to drink.

Jones: I did a lot of that and other stuff (laughs). It was the thing to do, the thing that was expected. I fell into it and somehow managed to not let the partying impede the music. I had such a hunger and a desire to sustain the success. But gradually it started to take its toll later in the '80s. It's a trap you can fall into because it's one of those things where you need certain things to create and you need to alter your mind a bit to be in that space where you're not thinking about the banalities of life. It wasn't constant but there were definitely binge periods when it fell a bit out of hand. What were your poisons of choice?

Jones: Alcohol and cocaine and grass. A lot of bands that discover sudden popularity go through that sort of self-medication.

Jones: Yeah, I did it for a long time. It's only recently that awareness has come in. It really wasn't there in the '70s and '80s. What led to this awareness?

Jones: I just looked around and had to be completely honest with myself. I asked myself if I was using my gift and talent to their full extent. And I asked myself if I was actually enjoying life and if I was happy with the way it was going. And I discovered I was really not happy at all. And I was trapped a bit into believing that the thrills I used to get 20 years ago would still come back. And obviously they wouldn't in that way. So I thought, maybe this is time to change while I've still got half a brain. Did your love for the music help see you through the tough times?

Jones: I started to realize that a tremendous number of people have been influenced by us, and instead of feeling like it was over and I was just an old fart, I started to think maybe I did mean something. I had managed to sustain my career and work with other people and my production capabilities were still pretty tight. So I had a lot to be thankful for. But I had problems writing and it wasn?t getting better. Since I have changed my ways the writing is just flowing now again. Everything is better. Will there be new Foreigner material anytime soon?

Jones: We're writing. We're doing some shows and revving up to do another album. We had a number of things that had gone on with Lou's health that have been a concern for the last couple years after his brain surgery. He had a brain tumor removed [in 1997]. But he's getting very close to being back to normal now. He didn't have any bad effects from the operation. Mentally he's very sound, but the steroids he was prescribed have affected his weight. So he's been battling for a while, but he's just got to get himself back in shape. And we have already got a number of songs prepared that were tucked away. And we'll do another big writing session before the next album. What will it be like?

Jones: I'm just going to let it happen. I don't really have a preconception about it. I know it will sound like Foreigner 2001. It will sound like us, but it will have a contemporary edge on it.

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