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Mick Jones on Songwriting, Working With Lou Gramm + the Legacy of Foreigner

Tim Tronckoe/ Foreigner

One of classic rock’s greatest songwriting teams will be celebrated in June when Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones is inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame with his former longtime collaborative partner, vocalist Lou Gramm.

Although they might have been like oil and water at times on a personal level, there’s no arguing the fact that together, Jones and Gramm packed one hell of a punch when it came to writing memorable words and musical hooks.

Jones’ signature guitar riffs, mixed with the unmistakable vocals of Gramm, were a big part of the mojo that carried many a Foreigner song to high charting positions. So the recognition of their collective talents is something that is long overdue and well justified. Just listen to the ‘Records’ and you’ll hear most of the story.

We spoke with Jones to get the rest of the tales, and since he’s being recognized for his songwriting, we took the opportunity to dig into the methodology and important formative elements that helped to steer the veteran guitarist towards his eventual path of success.

It’s great to talk with you and it’s great that you’re back in good health at this point.

Thank you, yeah, it’s good to be back and healthy! It took a year or so out of my life, I guess, to get through that last year, but everything is straight ahead now and I’m pretty much back in the saddle.

You’re being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame this year. That has to be a pretty cool validation of what you’ve been doing all of these years.

Well, it certainly is. It took a few moments when I heard the news, for it to sink in, but it certainly is. It is, as you say, a validation in a way, by my peers and the board members that voted for us. Especially for songwriters — you don’t hear quite as much about songwriters as the band personnel and all of that kind of stuff. I’m very proud and I’m very happy and it’s really elevated my mood.

I’ve heard some artists say that getting into the Songwriters Hall of Fame almost means more to them than being voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Well, I don’t know quite how it’s structured, but I think there is a certain amount of public involvement in this [with] the voting. I think that when you’ve written the songs that have been really the foundation of what your career has been, I think that the songs are the important factor.

They’ve been well-performed and incredibly well-sung in different instances, but being the songwriter as well has really been the foundation of what Foreigner is, I think. We really are a song-oriented band and it’s nice to be recognized for that.

You had a pretty interesting path as an artist leading up to the formation of Foreigner. From your point of view, how did working with Otis Redding, George Harrison and Peter Frampton help contribute to your growth as an artist and songwriter?

Well tremendously, really. I was so fortunate to have had that apprenticeship in a way, and be able to be in a studio right next to people like you mentioned and getting inspired by them and gradually learning, “What they do, maybe I can do that myself someday.” But above all, the influence of having been a huge fan of those people and admiring them [helped out a lot].

You know, George for his songwriting, Jimi Hendrix for his playing and for his writing as well, [it] was all part of my learning process. It brought me into music — not only writing, but then it developed into production in the studio and at times, I was just surrounded by people that I was just in awe of, completely. And then I began to realize that they’re just ordinary people, really. You know, they’re just like me. They gave me a lot of inspiration and in some ways, they helped me a lot to figure out what was going on in music.

Your guitar tone is so distinctive. How did you develop that?

Well to me, I was never really a virtuoso guitar player per se. I always felt that the guitar style I play was the foundation of the writing of a lot of the songs. I would say that I am perhaps more oriented towards the Pete Townshend/Keith Richards type of guitar playing, which is really no frills particularly.

But I think the chordal approach and the riff type of thing, I think, was my specialty and hopefully still is! I put myself more in that field as a player. I’ve never particularly attempted to be flashy or too brazen as it were. But I think the guitar style I play has been responsible for a lot of the feel of different songs and I think it’s been an important part of the writing of the songs.

I would say that the guitar hooks that you write, whether it’s a song like ‘Head Games’ or whatever it is, take care of the flash that you don’t perceive as being part of your playing, just because they’re so instantly memorable.

[Laughs] Well thank you, I’m very flattered. I think that’s probably it. I try and come up with things that will grab your attention and grab my attention, really, and then if I play something and get goosebumps well then I think, ‘That might give a few other people some goosebumps too.’

But it’s really as I say, it’s part and parcel of the whole stage of a song, you know, like writing from the beginning and starting out with a riff or idea and you just throw it in; or in those days, Lou would come up with an idea and throw it over to me and I’d put a guitar signature on it, and then we’d build it that way. Or it would start with a guitar trigger and then we’d build it on that. It was always, in those days, a very integral part of the personality of the song.

I look at those power hooks, whether they came from a guitar riff or a particular vocal or in the case of ‘Cold as Ice,’ that keyboard part that became a signature. What were the important building blocks and influences when it came to learning how to write a song that would be memorable?

Well, when I was in France and I was learning and I got to play with all of those people that you had mentioned earlier. I came up obviously with the Beatles generation and as everybody else was, I was struck and amazed by the songs that they wrote and the simplicity of them, really. Being able to write simple songs that didn’t sound corny. You’d never really heard that style before. So they were a huge influence on me. I gradually just started to put ideas down on a tape recorder, and I started to write for a few different French artists.

Johnny Hallyday was one — he was the Elvis Presley of France. I was lucky enough to have a few No. 1 hits over there. As I said, that was sort of my apprenticeship in a way. It was a different language, so I didn’t write the lyrics necessarily, but I wrote the music. And then later when I went back to England and I hooked up with Gary Wright, we started to write together. That’s when my writing started to get into an area that I really felt that I was heading in the direction that I should be heading in.

That early ‘70s English rock thing, [with] people like Steve Winwood and Traffic, that was the kind of music I was listening to, and I gradually started to find my niche a bit and then I started to write. I was kind of high and dry in New York in the mid-’70s and I was on the verge of pretty much throwing it in and returning to England.

The band had broken up over here and I just didn’t know what I was going to be doing. And then I just started to write songs again. I found I was able to write complete songs by myself and represent them and actually sing them partially, but I had this voice in mind somewhere in my head. After listening to like 50 different singers, I got a demo from Lou and pretty much from that point on, I really started to develop what would become my real writing style and then obviously, a co-writing style with Lou that blossomed from that.

Bud Prager [the late longtime manager of Foreigner] tells a story in the liner notes of ‘Classic Hits Live’ about how his office was essentially ground zero for the incubation process that would produce the band that would become Foreigner. Was that story romanticized at all? It was no doubt an invaluable thing to have that space to really build things up piece by piece.

No, he’s absolutely correct in that portrayal of what was going on. You know, later when the band came out, the word was going around, “Oh, this is one of those bands that was put together in the boardroom at Atlantic,” and/or pre-planned or pre-fabricated, etc. Though it was very modest, Bud happened have a studio in his office that had been built by his ex-partner, Felix Pappalardi.

It was there and it was just a storeroom and we kind of cleaned it up a bit and turned into a rehearsal space for us. Everything literally went on in there for a year, just auditioning and after the auditions, Bud and I would get together and brainstorm and talk about the songs that I was writing. It was a real close partnership at that time. Bud was an integral part of it.

He used to come in and critique stuff that I was doing and I’d go into his office and critique his ideas. [Laughs] It was quite funny and it was great. We used to open up a bottle of something and sit there and just let go at each other pretty much. But it was a great chemistry. In that room indeed is where the band came together, basically.

‘Feels Like the First Time’ was the first song that you wrote for Foreigner. Did you see a change in the kind of material that you were writing as a songwriter?

Well, I just somehow got this confidence back. I kind of lost my confidence [prior to that]. It was a great experience playing in Spooky Tooth then with Gary, and it had helped me to focus on what direction I wanted to go in. But as I said, I was kind of high and dry in New York in the mid-’70s and it was a pretty cold city in those days. There was a lot of crime, and it was kind of quite a feat to just survive here.

And I think the combination of that helped, [along with the fact] that I was really down and didn’t know what I was going to do. I think out of that, I sort of got the courage to stand up and make a last stand as it were and see if I could crack it. It was very modest beginnings, as I say, with Bud. He provided that rehearsal space and I think I was living on about a hundred bucks a week, really, if that. I don’t know. Somehow we survived and [we kept] just endlessly going through the songs and we were writing as we were rehearsing, and new people would come in for auditions.

So it went through that process, and all of those people I guess in a way contributed to the mix, and [we] gradually started to hone down into the real focus of what the band was going to be doing and we focused in on the direction. Which was really just a follow-up for me of the things that I’d been into and inspired [by] since childhood. I wanted it to be soulful and I knew Lou could deliver that vocally. All of his favorite singers were some of the great black soul singers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, you know.

We both shared that and we both were fans of people like Marvin Gaye, the Motown stuff and the Stax stuff — it was all part of our common ground. Lou had a great affection for a lot of the British bands, so it was sort of a meeting of those two influences and just him reminding me that I was an English guitar player and me reminding him that he was an American singer! [Laughs] Somehow we met between the two. I think that was part of what gave the distinctive sound to it, that there was that, almost like a mid-Atlantic sound to what we do.

That debut album certainly seems to reveal that you had found a front man who could really sing a lot of different kinds of material, no matter what you came up with.

Yeah. And I think it was a huge thing for him. I don’t think he had ever pushed himself as a vocalist in the bands that he had been in before. In fact, when I made the call to him, he was just about to start this little band up in Rochester with him playing drums and being a part-time singer in it. He had never been exposed to the kind of areas that we were venturing into. He just brought a tremendous amount [to the band]. He unlocked the key in a lot of these songs and unlocked the door and was a vital part of bringing these songs alive.

Looking back at those songs now, do you think that maybe you pushed the vocals too far, as far as the range of the material? Because in that era, so many of the songs that were being done in rock music were so high vocally.

Yeah. Well, maybe I did. But it was exploration. It was, “How can we take this song way over [the top] and really bring it home?” There was a lot of competition I guess in those areas. I think Lou picked up the corners as it were, and he really came through on those songs. I know some of them were right at the extreme end of his range, but it was what we were going for.

We were going to make a statement about how strong this band was and how these songs really needed that. They were built towards sounding powerful, sounding really convincing and I think a lot of the songs were in a comfortable range for Lou. I think you have to push yourself sometimes too, to go that extra [mile]. All of the most talented people, I think it’s what they have. They have that little extra reserve that when you need to push it just that little bit more to make it stand out from anything else. That was really what we were doing and Lou cursed me a few times about that, but I was relentless. [Laughs]

When did Lou start to expose himself as someone who would be an important collaborator with you on the Foreigner material?

Well, I knew he had been a writer in his previous bands and so I encouraged him right from the word go, really. I thought that it was important that if he was going to be singing the songs that he had some kind of [input] so he could express them. If he was involved in them personally as well in the writing stage, he would be able to express the real feeling of the songs.

So he began to share and I opened it up and said, “Look, come in and I think it’s very important that you be involved, because you’re going to be singing the songs and you need to have that involvement.” It really gelled great very quickly, and then we gradually built that partnership and writing relationship.

There was no real method to it. He would come up with an idea or I would come up with an idea and we’d throw it back and forth and see what it did for us, and then if there was something that sounded like it had potential, we’d focus in on it and try and finish it. It was just a very natural way of going about it. We never sat down and tried to construct hits — the main focus for me was just making good albums. Obviously, they had to have some appeal commercially, but I was an album kind of guy.

For me, what counted was being able to make an album that people could listen to from the top to the bottom with no fillers. But [we were] never consciously putting anything tacky in there, it was all pretty natural [and] from the heart. There was no formula. The only formula is the sound of the guitar and the vocal, really. That’s the only thing that obviously goes through every song.

The resurrection that you’ve made with this current lineup is really great. Looking back, when you brought in Johnny Edwards for the ‘Unusual Heat’ album, that was at a point where it wasn’t as common to do that and do it successfully as perhaps it is now. What did you learn from that experience? Because obviously you really pulled it off the second time around when you brought in Kelly Hansen for this current lineup.

When it came to the point that Lou left the band for the first time, I was kind of stunned, as were the other guys in the band, [bassist] Rick [Wills] and [drummer] Dennis [Elliott]. So I didn’t quite know what to do, whether to carry on with the band or not. But I had so much [invested in the band]. You know, my personal career and life had been so invested in the band [that] it was so important to me to carry on in some way. I chose an earthier approach, more of a raw rock sound with that album. Johnny was a great bluesy singer and a great front man, too.

But as you say, I think it was probably a different time. It wasn’t the greatest musical climate for us at the time. It was the grunge period and we were old farts already at that time. But it was fun doing that with Johnny. He’s a great guy, and we had a lot of fun making that album and touring as well.

With the final departure of Lou in 2002, it was a different situation. I took a couple of years off just to get myself together, really, I think. It had been a nonstop journey for so many years and I just needed to step back and spend some time with my family and get to know my kids again, and just generally try and improve my lifestyle and just get an overhaul basically. Lou started to go out with his band called the Lou Gramm Band at that time and we hadn’t talked about it. But I suddenly was told that Lou was going out on the road and that he had been out on the road and I was pretty upset at the time.

I thought, ‘Well, I’ve tried to keep the flag flying for all of these years and now what do I do?’ I guess it was my livelihood and something that was very important to me and I was very proud of what had been achieved. I didn’t really have any great enthusiasm for going out as myself as a solo artist. But I was constantly getting these messages from people saying, “What’s Foreigner doing? People out there, they want to hear the songs.”

I got a lot of encouragement from a lot of people, amongst them [drummer] Jason Bonham, who had been a fan of the band. I’ve known Jason since he was a little boy. He hounded me and hounded me [to put the band back together] and I said, “Well okay, maybe we’ll get together for a jam or something.” We met up in Los Angeles and we got into a studio and we just let it rip. It was a lot of fun and he knew all of the Foreigner songs by heart, pretty much. As I say, he’d been a huge fan over the years and he suggested that he would bring this bass player friend of his down, and that was Jeff Pilson.

The three of us were down there jamming and it just sounded really cool and really strong. Gradually, I sort of got talked back into it in a way and I thought, ‘Well, this is a challenge.’ I was a bit reticent about it, based on how the experience with Johnny Edwards had gone.

But again, as you say, it was a different era and a different atmosphere musically. And indeed, I didn’t know it, but there were obviously a great number of people that still felt the music and they still were out there. So we moved on from there and began an eternal search for a lead singer, which took about nine months, I think.

Kelly popped up from under a rock in LA and came down. I’d heard a demo that he had done, singing a couple of the songs and I heard immediately that he had what it took to be able to do it. Within 10 days time, we did the first show, in Santa Barbara, I think it was and basically within a few months, we were out on tour. It was so refreshing. The band, all of the guys were so enthusiastic and they had so much admiration for the music, and it really became the best atmosphere I’d ever had touring. It was the most enjoyment that I’d had for so many years.

You know, the ‘80s was a little dark with all of the problems that Lou and I had going on, and we were out in a sort of musical wilderness I think, during those years. But [with the new lineup] it just became such a pleasurable and joyful thing to do. I looked forward to playing every night and really got the old spirit back. Kelly really came through and just got better and better. The band is rockin’ along today and I’m getting back into it from my health problems I had last year. So everything’s clear now and I’m having fun again.

But I’m also very much looking forward to the Songwriters Hall of Fame awards function. I’m so proud of what Lou and I achieved in those early years and throughout the time that we were together, and I think it’s the first time that we’ve been recognized for our work and our writing, which was really the foundation of what we did together as much as the performing. The writing was the foundation of everything.

I think this band has always been a song-driven band and so that has its place for me, and it’s very important, and it’s going to be great to share that with Lou. It will help us to move along in our relationship, which has been fairly quiet in the last seven or eight years.

I was able to talk to him last week and we had a really good chat on the phone, and we’ll be getting together soon to start to prepare that. We’re going to perform two songs together, so that’s going to be cool.

What songs are you going to do?

Well actually, Lou suggested both of them. [He suggested] that we do ‘Juke Box Hero’ and ‘I Want to Know What Love Is.’ Two songs that push him to the extreme! [Laughs]

Two different sides of the band, for sure, as well. ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ brought the band their first number one single. That song has had quite a life. What do you recall about putting that one together?

I wrote the beginning of the idea for that in London. I was just up late one night. I had met the person who was becoming my wife, basically and I think I walked into the bedroom about two in the morning and I said, “I’ve got this great idea.” I had the first two chords of the intro and the title. And she said, “Well, what’s it called?” I said, “Well, it’s called ‘I Want to Know What Love Is.’”

She looked at me and said, “What do you mean you want to know what love is? We’re about to get married!” [Laughs] “Don’t you know what love is?” So that was funny. But it was very simple, it was that keyboard sound and it started off as I guess a romantic love [song], but I was listening to it one day and I just suddenly had visions of a gospel choir in the song.

A friend of mine owned a catalog of gospel music and gospel group recordings, and he suggested a particular group that was in New Jersey — the New Jersey Mass Choir. They came in and it was an awesome two or three hours in the studio. I had never conducted a gospel choir before! [Laughs] They were nervous, and I remember that just before we wrapped it up with the final take, we all got together in a circle and said the Lord’s Prayer, and it was such a moment. I think my mother was actually in the studio too. Everybody was in tears and we rolled the tape and they nailed it the first time.

From a production standpoint, I think it’s one of the great recordings from the era. How much time did you have to spend to get it right in the form that we’re now hearing?

It wasn’t really that long. There wasn’t any real gimmick [besides] one instrumental hook that Tom Bailey from the Thompson Twins [contributed]. I had met him a few months earlier [when] he was on his way to New York. He came in and put the instrumental line on top of it and that was the only outside electronic sound really on it. So it was pretty easy.

Next: The Top 10 Foreigner Songs

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