Classic rock survivors Foreigner on lasting the course and finding new fans
Touring with Def Leppard, Journey and Whitesnake, making a 40th anniversary album, readying a Broadway-style musical – at 73, Mick Jones hasn’t been this busy in years.
More than three decades after Foreigner’s 1984 ballad I Want To Know What Love Is topped the charts in several countries, the group’s founder and sole original member says that – yes – he does know now.
“The amount of times I get asked that,” Mick Jones chuckles over the phone from Australia ahead of the Anglo-American band’s upcoming Hong Kong performance on November 3.
“The song took its own course. It ended up as a universal message of love thy neighbour, in a way. I think I know what love is now. I’m grateful for my family and my health, and for what’s happened to me in my career.”
And a lot has happened in the 73-year-old British-born guitarist’s career, from playing guitar on George Harrison’s Dark Horse album to producing albums for the likes of Billy Joel and Van Halen.
But he is best known for being the driving force behind the rock act Foreigner, one of the bestselling bands of all time, who will be performing many of their memorable hits next month at the Hong Kong Rugby Union Charity Ball at the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre.
Fans will get to hear such classic-rock staples as Waiting for a Girl Like You, Hot Blooded, Double Vision, Urgent, Jukebox Hero and more.
“We don’t play much filler,” Jones says. “It’s more about what we have to leave out. We’ll pretty much cover every album, so I think the audience will recognise that right at the beginning. I like to hear the hits, and we deliver that and more.”
Although they came together 41 years ago in New York, the group have suddenly become a more popular live act than ever.
Last year’s compilation album 40 introduced the band to a new generation of fans, while touring with such acts as Cheap Trick, Whitesnake, Journey and Def Leppard helped remind arena and stadium audiences why the group had 16 top-30 hits from the late 1970s through to the early 1990s.
That they’re doing it with a new lead singer in Kelly Hansen and a group of musicians who weren’t around when the group made their debut (save for Jones) makes it all the more surprising.
“The band have become a very powerful live act over the past year,” says Jones. “Especially Kelly, who replaced [original lead singer] Lou Gramm. The whole stage presentation has taken a huge lift. It’s fun to play and have a physical purpose around you.”
While Gramm left the band in 1990 due to disputes with Jones over what he perceived to be a softening of the group’s trademark rock sound, his subsequent lengthy and successful battle with a rare brain tumour made the duo realise what they had achieved together.
Gramm has periodically appeared onstage to sing with the group, and in August two versions of Foreigner – the original and the 21st-century version – performed side by side at a motorcycle festival in Sturgis, in the US state of North Dakota.
“It was a biker rally with 10,000 bikes, a cool crowd and everyone got into it,” says Jones. “We thought it would be cool to get the original and current band together and play a variety of songs. Everyone gets on like a house on fire. I never thought it would turn out that way.”
As a result, four additional shows featuring the old and the new Foreigner have been scheduled in the US before the end of the year. Jones is also adamant that he will work with Gramm on new recordings in the future.
“We’re starting to look at songs that are incomplete and there are a lot of possibilities,” he says. “We’re going to take a look at that and see where we’re going in the next year or two.”
However, Jones has several other projects to get off the ground first. Jukebox Hero: The Musical, which features Foreigner songs reworked into a Broadway-style musical, will open next year in Toronto. The group also plan more performances with orchestras around the world after their surprise Billboard chart-topping classical release, Foreigner With the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
“If you told me 20 years ago that would happen, I wouldn’t have believed you,” says Jones. “It’s another phase we’re going through, another avenue we’re exploring and thankfully, very successful.”
Successful to the point that Foreigner may return to perform shows in Asia, specifically China, late next year. Jones notes that the group last performed in Hong Kong in 1978 (a concert he described as a “cool gig with a lively audience”, though he does not recall the venue). Talks are just beginning, but the seeds for performances with Chinese orchestras have been planted.
“We’re doing the same type of shows on a number of Australian dates right now, and it’s working very, very well,” he says. “This is a rumour that we hope will come to fruition and we would very much enjoy doing that. It would be an honour.”
When they started out, Jones says he knew exactly what Foreigner should sound like. More than 40 years later, illness, age and new opportunities for the group have allowed him to reflect without a sense of urgency.
“We intend to carry on,” he says. “Music is the most effective tool for change. As you get older, you get the full meaning of what the words are. And as for love, it’s been the foundation of most rock 'n' roll songs, and still is.”
HKRU Charity Ball presents Foreigner, Nov 3, 8pm, Convention and Exhibition Centre, 1 Expo Drive, Wan Chai, HK$2,588 (including dinner and drinks)