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The Band: Articles: "What's in a name?"02.21.03

This article was written by Keith Sharp from Rock Express Magazine. It was published in middle 1988, and appeared in issue #123 of the referred publication.

To find Foreigner's office and rehearsal space, you have to take the elevator to the 20th floor and then climb an additional set of stairs to a penthouse suite overlooking New York's famed Central Park.

"This is where Foreigner was born", explains guitarist Mick Jones, beaming paternally as he provides the grand tour. "Of course, we had to reinforce the floorboards, we don't want the neighbors complaining".

Jones has poured a large chunk of his life into Foreigner, a group which has enjoyed enormous success since releasing "Foreigner" in March 1977. And though the band has historically been linked with some of rock's finest melodic compositions over the past decade, Foreigner seemed to flounder in disarray after the release of 1984's ill-fated "Agent Provocateur".

Dismal sales fueled dissension within the ranks, followed by a solo album ("Ready Or Not") by vocalist Lou Gramm and widespread speculation that the band was about to fold.

Jones theorizes that the rift within the band stemmed from the problem-plagued recording of "Agent Provocateur".

Mick Jones

"It was one of those sessions where nothing went right", says the former Spooky Tooth guitarist, quivering at the memory of the ordeal. "We started out with Trevor Horn producing and I thought it would be great - but unfortunately things didn't work out. We spent three months with him in New York, went to London and were in the studio with him for one day before things fell apart".

"I had to spend another month in England trying to find a new engineer and by the time we hired Alex Sadkin, the whole project was on the verge of collapse". Sadkin helped salvage the recording, but to Jones' mind, the damage had already been done. "It seemed the recording would never end. The sessions weren't focused; it was dogged from the start".

Although his concerns were well-founded, "Agent Provocateur" did provide one sparkling gem in the form of "I Want To Know What Love Is", a song so majestic (and so un-Foreigner like) that it totally overshadowed the rest of the album.

"It started out as a simple love song, but as it evolved, it was suddenly apparent that it had the feeling of something stronger than just a man-woman relationship. It wasn't conceived that way, but it led its own way and we just followed".

The song's crowing moment was its use as the finale on the "Live At The Apolo Theatre" television special with Diana Ross and Motown's finest artists, backed by The New Jersey Massed Choir, providing a show-stopping performance.

"Funny how that all happened", Jones reflects. "I met Diana in an airport lounge and we sat together on the flight. She was telling me about how much she liked our songs and I couldn't believe she even knew them. Next thing I know, she's singing our song on the show. It was a moving experience".

As "Agent Provocateur" slid gracelessly into retail delete bins, Jones and Gramm mutually agreed to a respite. They, and for that matter, bassist Rick Wills and drummer Dennis Elliott, were beginning to feel stale and the consensus was that a break would help rejuvenate their creative juices and set the stage for another Foreigner album. Easier said than done!

Jones went on to co-produce the Van Halen "5150" album while Gramm worked on a solo project.

Jones is justifiably proud of his contribution to Van Halen's chart-topping comeback release. Although he joined the project in midstream, he was instrumental in refining Eddie Van Halen's keyboard efforts and spent additional time working with Sammy Hagar's vocals.

"Ideally, I would have liked to have been there at an earlier stage because certain things were already locked in. I think of songs like 'Dreams' and I think I can take some credit for shaping that track. I'm very proud of the work I did with Sammy; I seem to have a way with vocalists".

Lou Gramm

Gramm's leisure time wasn't quite as productive. Finally able to record the solo album he'd always dreamed of, Gramm's attempt to establish an alternative identity was as jinxed as similar efforts by the likes of Mick Jagger and Roger Waters. The fans just wouldn't buy him as a solo act.

It didn't help matters that Jones had reportedly been critical of Gramm's decision to tour solo, and was generally less than enthusiastic about the making of the album.

"Not quite true", counters Jones. "I had no problem with Lou doing his album. He'd always talked about doing it and I don't think I ever held him back. But when I listened to his record, I got the feeling he'd been holding songs back from Foreigner. I'd always given my songs to Lou, I'd hoped he'd done the same".

It was another classic Mick Jagger / Keith Richards showdown. Lead vocalist splits from group and suddenly conjures up a bunch of hot new tracks. Accusations fly in all directions as the solo album stiffs and band members get pulled both ways in an emotional tug of war.

"Funny you should mention that Rolling Stones comparison. I mean they'd been together for 20 years before things fell apart. I suppose there are similarities but what happened to us shouldn't have happened".

"I've always felt the band was democratic, but you always need someone to lead the way. I've always felt that if things weren't going great then it was up to me to take the responsibility. Maybe Lou didn't always like that but I've never given anyone the impression that Foreigner is my band".

"The band was on shaky ground, and for one day we did actually break up. So I called Lou up and said it's pretty stupid end such a great career like this. So we got together and talked about the situation, which is something we hadn't done in months. It was a very emotional time, but somehow we got the air cleared enough for us to carry on".

Though Jones and Gramm buried the hatchet to record Foreigner's latest release, "Inside Information", the rapport between the two is business-like at best.

"Things aren't like they used to be. But that's not to say it's not better than it used to be. Maybe it wasn't so good that we hung out together in bars. I think we now have a more professional relationship".

The immediate results of Foreigner's decision to give it one more shot are encouraging to say the least. At the time of writing, both the album and debut single, "Say You Will", are riding the charts and the band's up-coming North American tour will be Foreigner's first major jaunt in almost six years.

"The sessions were so spontaneous it was incredible how easy it was to record this album", says Jones, marvelling at how the band members rallied to repair the obvious wounds. "Lou hasn't sung as well since 'Foreigner'. There seemed to be a genuine desire to get things happening".

Mick Jones

Jones is enthusiastic about the possibility of still another Foreigner album and is determined to keep the band's name out of rock's history books for at least a little while longer.

"Things were much more fun when we started out. We didn't have the internal hassles. It was a question then of simply surviving and getting the band off the ground. They were scary times, full of uncertainty. It was a bread line existence but there was this genuine excitement that we were about to create something special".

"It bothers me that we don't get the recognition we deserve. I think, historically, we've earned our place with the best of them. We came out right at the time of the punk movement and were supposed to be anti-everything that new music stood for. Yet our first album sold three million copies and had three number one singles".

"And more important", says Jones railing at criticism of the band's supposed corporate-rock image. "I think we've maintained that consistency throughout, even with all the drastic changes in musical trends".

Over the years Foreigner has created a legacy of tasteful rock recordings as mirrored by their albums, "Foreigner", "Double Vision", "Head Games", "4", the much-maligned "Agent Provocateur", and the current "Inside Information". These albums have spawned hits like "Cold As Ice", "Feels Like The First Time", "Hot Blooded", "Waiting For A Girl Like You" and "Urgent" to name but a few.

"Somehow, and don't ask me how we do it, we've always come up with good songs. I think we've also been fairly innovative in our time. 'Urgent' from the '4' album was a pretty aggressive move at the time and 'I Want To Know What Love Is' turned into something special. I guess the point is that we've never tried to go backwards and for that we've gained people's respect even if the critical acclamation isn't always there".

As Jones walks from the rehearsal room he mutters the word Foreigner to himself.

"You know, there's a lot of power in a name. I never had any special connotation of the word but Lou and I have both found out that we'd have a hard time getting along without it".

"It's like David Gilmour was saying to me: 'man, you can't believe the power of the words Pink Floyd. To the kids the name means everything'".

After what Mick Jones and his Foreigner cohorts have gone through over the past three years, they know exactly what he's talking about.

Document credits
Thanks to David V. Deming and Heather Christine Castillo, who provided the article.

The Band: Articles: "What's in a name?"02.21.03
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