By Brian Ives
Chief among bands with insane amounts of ubiquitous hits and little critical acclaim sits Foreigner, alongside the likes of Journey, REO Speedwagon and upcoming tourmates Styx. Foreigner have, of course, sold millions of records, but traditional approval metrics for rock bands of a certain era — a Rolling Stone cover or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame consideration — have eluded them.
Last year, however, another institution — the Songwriters Hall of Fame — honored Foreigner’s original songwriting team of Mick Jones (guitar) and Lou Gramm (vocals). Billy Joel presented the Jones/Gramm team at the ceremony, where he said, “They were jukebox heroes, back when there were jukeboxes!”
But despite the multiple platinum albums, the lack of formal props can still get under one’s skin. “It used to bother me a bit,” Mick Jones tells Radio.com. “Gradually, I found out that some of our detractors were closet fans.”
One of the more surprising examples can be seen, according to Jones, in perhaps the most famously curmudgeon rock critic of them all, Lester Bangs. “He ripped us to pieces in the press, and I found out that he had these parties at his house on weekends, where he would play air-guitar, and he always played at least two Foreigner songs,” Jones claims. “He had air-guitar movements to both of them!”
Bangs faux rocking-out to ‘Hot Blooded’ is a pretty great visual, but here’s an even better one: Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten playing air-guitar along to the classic rock hit.
“Then I discovered that even [Sex Pistols frontman] Johnny Rotten was a closet Foreigner fan,” Jones continued. “I found this out from his ex-girlfriend who had to sit there when he got the first pressing of ‘Hot Blooded,’ which was on red vinyl; she reminded me of that. She said, ‘I just had to sit there all f***ing day listening to him doing all these moves and air guitar-ing to it!’ She said, ‘It drove me crazy!'”
“There was almost resentment from the press at one point, because the press were not responsible for building us,” Jones explained. “We came out of the blue,” referencing the success of Foreigner’s 1977 self-titled debut album, which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard album chart and yielded three Top-20 hits (“Cold As Ice,” “Feels Like The First Time” and “Long, Long Way From Home”). “It wasn’t like we had slogged away [for years], although I had paid my dues, and a couple of other guys in the band had, too.”
For his part, Jones had played in the backing bands of French stars Johnny Hallyday and Sylvie Vartan (opening for the Beatles with both acts); he’d also been a member of Spooky Tooth, and played on albums by George Harrison and former Mountain man Leslie West.
“We were regarded as a flash-in-the-pan, a one-hit-wonder,” Jones says, “but we went quite a bit farther than that, I think,” which is quite a bit of an understatement looking back on it all.
Later this year, they’ll kick off a co-headlining tour with Styx, which ex-Eagles guitarist Don Felder will open. To promote the tour, members of Foreigner and Styx, along with Felder, recorded a new version of “Hotel California.” A Styx/Foreigner/Felder jam on the classic rock hit would seem to be a logical encore for the tour, but Jones says, “We haven’t discussed that yet, but anything’s possible, my mind’s completely open. We’ve been hanging out together in the past few days, and playing together, and the chemistry is incredible. We’ve never done anything like that with anyone we’ve toured with before.”
After those dates, Foreigner will do a tour where they play their 1981 album, 4, in its entirety.
“That was a close as I think we came to a perfect Foreigner album,” Jones explained of the choice. “I think it is the best one, I think you can hear through the first three albums, how the band evolved, and I think we really had a clear picture of where we wanted to go with that one.”
He’s quick to note that the band is also planning their first new album since 2009’s Can’t Slow Down,” featuring new material and some guest appearances (“we’ve gone to several friends and prominent artists”). That album will be their second with singer Kelly Hansen, who joined the band in 2005.
Last year at the Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony, Jones and Lou Gramm reunited to perform “Juke Box Hero” and “I Want To Know What Love Is.” So, with all due respect to Hansen, fans are asking if a more large-scale reunion is in the cards?
“The award really, in a way, validated us to our peers,” Jones said. “We were both very humbled by the bestowing of that honor, and and it was great to share that with Lou. It was a great chance to hang out and get to know each other a little bit again. I think anything is possible, there’s more of a cordial feeling between us. I’m sure at some point, something like that could very well happen.”
And does he still lose sleep about that other Hall of Fame?
“When I see some of the decisions they make, it’s mind-boggling,” Jones said. “It’s quite elitist, to say the least. I just don’t think they’re in touch with the tastes of the audience. I just don’t think they get it. Even though we were incredibly successful and popular, they continue to ignore artists of our era.”