From Foreigner to Songwriters Hall of Fame: A Conversation with Mick Jones

Photo Credit: Bill Berenstein

A Conversation with Mick Jones

Mike Ragogna: So how do you feel about being inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, Mick?

Mick Jones: Well, I was pretty taken aback when I first heard the news. It was my first induction into a hall of fame, so I guess the first one is always good. It's nice to have been voted in by members of the public too. It's very rewarding, obviously, for both of us. We look forward to the event. You think about the number of people who have been inducted and I'm in awe a little bit.

MR: Let's go back, like all the way back to Johnny Hallyday since it kind of starts there, doesn't it? Your songwriting for him was a big breakthrough for you.

MJ: Oh, it was. That was the period where I really learned my craft, as it were. I had the opportunity to play and work with a lot of different people. That's where I met Jimmy Page and Tom Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and The Beatles. It was just a magical time for me.

MR: You were right in the middle of the "hey, there's really something going on here" period in music.

MJ: Yeah, something was, and I was kind of honing my skills in France. I realized at one point that, although I was having some level of success over there, I didn't really feel like I could go much further. I knew inside that I had to get back to England at least, and I was pretty sure I had to head for the States. I'd always been fascinated with America. I had never really spent any time here at that point, but I had a sort of fascination with names like Nashville and Memphis and all these images that I had of them, which were totally untrue.

MR: Didn't they live up to your expectations?

MJ: No, but we enjoyed it still. We really enjoyed playing in those places. You know, there is always going to be a bunch of musicians in the crowd.

MR: Okay, so you worked with Gary Wright, helping to reform Spooky Tooth, and you worked with Wonder Wheel, and all these other great associations along the line as you were honing your craft. Now that seems to have been the jumping off point for you into Foreigner. Did it feel like something big was on the horizon back then?

MJ: Well, working with Gary was an eye opener for me. I loved the way he was able to blend R&B and rock into his style--the style of Spooky Tooth. I took a bit of a back seat with him and I looked at it as a little bit of a learning process, but that's where I kind of found my flavor, around the time I was working with him. So that was an important step or a rite of passage, I guess you would call it. Even when I played with Leslie West, I gleaned something from that--I wrote all the songs on the album we did with him. So yes, I've been through a round about way to get there, with no regrets. It was a great journey.

MR: Peter Frampton and George Harrison were a couple of your other major stops on the road to Foreigner. You hooked up with Peter for the Winds Of Change album, and George with the Dark Horse album. Can you tell me about those experiences?

MJ: Well, I had gotten to know Peter Frampton--he had come over to France with Humble Pie to do some sessions in Paris. I hit it off pretty well with him, and then when I eventually went back to England in the early '70s I hooked up with him. I just happened to be around in the studio that day, I think, and he asked me to come in and play. Then with George, I had met him originally in about '63 or '64 in Paris. Gary had performed on quite a few of George's records, and he reintroduced me to him, so that's how that came about.

MR: And then we get to the next slice of your career, which is Foreigner. Take us back to the beginning, how did that all come together?

MJ: Well, after Spooky Tooth had broken up and Gary had gone on to pursue his solo career, I was left kind of high and dry in New York. I was just sort of getting by...surviving, really. I was at a crossroads and I was starting to second guess if I had made the right move coming to America. Then I got to this period where I just started writing. Up to then, I had mainly been a co-writer, but I found that I was writing songs myself. Then I figured, "This is great, but what do I do with them?" So the mad cap idea came to form a band and try to form a band with new faces with a couple of pedigrees in there like Ian McDonald and Dennis Elliott. We kind of locked ourselves away in my manager's office in New York, and every two days or so, we were trying different people. The last one to greet the group was Lou, actually. The idea, for me, was just to make an album. That was the big thing, and then we'd see where it goes from there. Basically, it just zoomed away and I just had to hang on.

MR: Exactly. There was that initial burst of all those hit singles plus FM staples like "Starrider" and "Headknocker." It must have been overwhelming.

MJ: Oh, it was. It was unbelievable. Obviously, I had no clue that we were going to have anything like that kind of success. It was phenomenal at the time. There were only a handful of artists in that day that had even gone platinum, especially on the label we were on, Atlantic, where there was Genesis, The Stones, Zeppelin... None of those bands had sold a million copies. Here we are, two months in, and we're platinum. It just kept going on and on and on. I was sort of prepared, in a way. I had glimpsed a crazy sort of life in France with Johnny Hallyday. But I wasn't really prepared for what happened. I just literally had to hang on and ride it.

MR: One of the things that happened was you became a "coming of age" rock band for the young. I say this because you had songs like "Dirty White Boy," "Hot Blooded," "Waiting For A Girl Like You," "Urgent," all with pretty overt subject matter. It's like you tapped into horny, adolescent America.

MJ: Yeah, I'm still not quite sure how we did that. I was drawing from my experiences. Lou had been a fan of some of my previous work, but we had a common ground--he was very Anglo-influenced. Really, we were just making it up as we went along. I did have a fairly high standard that I wanted to live up to, but right from the word "go" we had a tremendous amount of pressure on us to maintain that level of success of our first album.

MR: And you absolutely did it, album after album. Then you wrote and recorded one of the most memorable singles of pop, "I Want To Know What Love Is." The hit became a pop culture staple. That had to have been another "Oh my God!" moment for you.

MJ: Oh, it was. We had been accustomed to putting about two ballads on each album--that was sort of the ratio, two out of ten. "Waiting For A Girl Like You" had been a big hit a couple of years earlier. I wasn't one hundred percent comfortable with bringing that out as the first single, but the record company won, and of course it's just been a phenomenal song for us. It still gets an incredible amount of play these days. I'm very proud of that song. It did cause a few problems between Lou and I, and I think it created the perception that we had gone kind of soft, but that's just the way it went. We had two back to back ballads.

MR: And those tensions led to the point where band members left, and then you reformed again in '92.

MJ: Well, it's always been a labor of love for me. I've invested my life into this--obviously everyone else in the band did too--but Foreigner represented, to me, very strong melodies, and obviously, the ability to rock too. I never saw it as anything thing different.

MR: Another of your credits along the way came in writing "Bad Love" off the Journeyman album from Eric Clapton.

MJ: Yes, that was pretty cool. I was actually in the middle of producing Billy Joel's album, Storm Front, and I got a call from Eric's producer asking if I could come over the studio right then. It was a special month, obviously.

MR: Tell me about producing the Storm Front album for Billy Joel, one of his biggest and probably most creatively successful albums. It seems like working with you led him to a change in direction and sound. It could be argued that he explored his soul a little bit more.

MJ: Yes, I think he did.

MR: Was it your mission to further explore what Billy Joel was about?

MJ: We both have a respect for each other as songwriters. I knew that there was a lot going on in his life at that time too, and I thought that we could capture some of that angst and some of the depression that he had and let it come out through music. I think it did. I worked pretty intensely with him on the vocals. We had a great respect for each other, and it was a great experience.

MR: That was during a really hard period for him, and the album does capture that. It was a little cathartic and there was even a little mournfulness going on.

MJ: Yeah, there are definitely some very moving moments on that album.

MR: Let's move forward to the song "On Her Mind," which you co-wrote with Duncan Sheik. What was that experience like and what inspired the song?

MJ: Well, my step-daughter Samantha was doing an album with Duncan at the time and that's how we met. We figured we should get together and write a song or two. I think he's a fantastic musician, and it was a refreshing sort of change of direction.

MR: Is it gratifying to have your children in music?

MJ: Yes, it is. I hoped that they wouldn't, in a way, because I know what my life has been like, and I've had a lot of luck involved in my career apart from a lot of hard work, so I've never encouraged them particularly. But obviously, if you want to be a writer or a musician, you'll get there somehow, and they have. I never put anything in their way, but as I said, I never really over-encouraged them. That said, I'm very happy with the results. I'm very happy that they are able to make a living in music.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

MJ: Well, I think just going back to my beginning, I believe that you have to make sure that you have passion. If someone were to ask you what you can't you do without in life, the answer must be that you couldn't do without your music, so that's the first requirement. When you have that passion, it's the most important thing in the world because you have to make a lot of sacrifices, and music has to have passion in it somehow in order to attract the attention of the listener. You just have to dig deep down inside and ask the question are you really cut out for music, because it's not just a walk in the park as a lot of people imagine it is. It's a very demanding and emotional business. Being involved with music is an emotional experience. Otherwise, go for it. [laughs]

MR: You also have transitioned into this new era of the music business quite smoothly, being a top seller on iTunes. What do you think about that?

MJ: Well, it's a continuing trend with us. As my manager points out to me, a lot of people, although they know our songs very well, are not quite sure who the band is. A lot of people listen to and love the songs, but are not necessarily aware of who it is. So I think, actually, there has been a rediscovery of the band, and now people are starting to be more aware of the band than they were perhaps nine or ten years ago.

MR: And you guys are constantly playing, right?

MJ: Yes. I had some health issues last year and had to come off the road, but the band kept on. I've been back with the band now, playing for about two months. I'm just easing my way in and getting back in the saddle. The band...there just aren't enough superlatives to describe the way I feel about the band. It's a powerful, powerful lineup. I think, without any disrespect to any of the past musicians, that it really shows off the music and the songs.

MR: So, after all these years, also having worked with Van Halen and Ozzie Osbourne, the temptation isn't there to run away and just go play with them?

MJ: [laughs] No, I'm quite happy doing what I do. I've got a lot invested in it emotionally, and I'm very proud of what we've achieved. I'm very much looking forward to the Hall of Fame, as a celebration to a lot of the work that Lou and I did together. That was then, but it has provided the backbone for my life, really, so we have a lot to be happy about.

MR: That's beautiful. Mick it's been a really great experience and I really appreciate you talking to me. That was a lot of information, and you seem so attached and entrenched in your music to this day. It's really a beautiful thing.

MJ: Well, thank you very much. It's nice to speak with somebody who is this well informed. It's been nice talking with you.

MR: My pleasure, thanks.

Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney