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Foreigner Plan ‘Real Celebration’ With 40th Anniversary Tour: Exclusive Interview

Photo Credit: Bill Bernstein
Photo Credit: Bill Bernstein

When Mick Jones looks back on the release of the first Foreigner album from 1977, it’s a period of time he remembers as one that left his head spinning.

“It was such an event for everybody involved with that first album,” he recalls in an interview with Ultimate Classic Rock. “I was just hoping to get a foothold and maybe get an album that reached the mid-charts. That was the highest aspiration I had at that point. You know, the multi-platinum era hadn’t even come yet — we were sort of on the crest of that. So it was just a dizzying experience of being neck and neck with Led Zeppelin and the [Rolling] Stones and then going on to outsell those artists, the reason I was on Atlantic Records in the first place. [They were] very heady, dizzy times that started when the first album came out. It was unbelievable, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, that first year.”

Jones and the members of Foreigner, including singer Lou Gramm, wondered how they would be able to sustain the momentum that they had generated with their debut album, which had performed beyond expectations, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard album chart. Their first single, “Feels Like the First Time,” was a quick hit, also reaching No. 4. “Starrider,” the album’s second single, was a dud — but they were able to quickly rebound and match the success of their first single in short order when “Cold as Ice” was released, followed by “Long, Long Way From Home” in late 1977. Both singles hit the Top 20.

It was a massively successful year for the group, having three hit singles and an album that did equally well, so it’s understandable that they might have had some trepidation about what would lie ahead. But as they discovered, they didn’t have to worry.

“We were lucky enough to be able to sustain that over the next four or five albums and improve on it in fact,” Jones says. “There’s a whole chunk of my life there that was magical and I’ll be reliving that as I usually do, on tour, seeing the response of the fans and wondering how on earth they’re still listening to this music after 40 years. But they are, and it makes me very grateful and I’m incredibly lucky to have been able to live a life like this and make money at it too. It’s been wonderful, so this will be a real celebration this year.”

Watch Foreigner’s Video for ‘The Flame Still Burns’

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The 40th anniversary celebration will feature a number of things for fans to look forward to. The band will follow last year’s release of its classic 4 album on red vinyl with a picture-disc edition of the Head Games album that will be released at the end of the month. A new anthology, 40 – Forty Hits From Forty Years, will arrive in May from Rhino, collecting 40 tracks from across the years. The new collection will include two new songs by the current lineup of the band, including “The Flame Still Burns,” a song that Jones originally penned for the movie Still Crazy in 1998. Foreigner recorded their own version of the song in 2016; it was initially released on 10” vinyl for Record Store Day. “Give My Life for Love,” a new song Jones wrote with longtime collaborator Marti Frederiksen, will also appear on the upcoming anthology.

Foreigner will celebrate their 40-year legacy this summer with a headlining tour featuring special guests Cheap Trick, who mark the 40th-anniversary milestone of their own debut album, plus Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience.

Both Jones and current Foreigner singer Kelly Hansen are looking forward to the tour, which will mark the first time that the group has done a summer headlining tour of outdoor venues since it relaunched in 2004 after a short break.

“I think we’ve been working really hard and trying to put everything into the show for quite a while,” Hansen tells us. “We’ve just been building and growing and that’s been a really gratifying thing to see. So for us to be able to do this huge summer tour with Cheap Trick and Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience, it’s a big deal for us. We’ll get to play more songs and do more than before and that’s really great. I’m really looking forward to it. There’s nothing better than touring across the U.S. in the summertime. We had a great time with Kid Rock in 2015. It was a great vibe backstage, great vibe onstage and I expect that we’re going to have exactly the same thing this year.”

According to Jones, when the band first came back together, it was really like starting over again.

“The band had sort of floundered a bit during the ‘90s, and things weren’t so easy in the early 2000s,” he says. “When this band sort of came together almost 12 years ago, we had to fight and claw our way back tooth and nail, basically. To me, it’s a recognition of the fact that we’ve really fought back and won back some of the popularity and prestige and we’re ready to do this headline tour finally.”

Both Cheap Trick and Bonham have long-running connections with Foreigner, and Jones is quick to give special credit to Bonham, who played drums with the group from 2004-07, for being a very important piece of the puzzle when it came to moving forward with the band after Gramm’s departure.

“Jason was probably the main motivator of me putting the band back together. He called me up one day and said, “Mick, what are you doing?” Because Lou had left the band a couple of years prior and I kind of was sitting around twiddling my fingers a bit, and I got a call from Jason,” he recalls. “He’s a huge fan, apart from anything else — and I’ve known him since he was a kid. So he put a lot of momentum into it and before I knew it, I was reforming Foreigner! So I owe him one there! Cheap Trick, I think they opened for us on the first headline tour we did way back in the ‘70s. I’ve kept in touch with them over the years. It’s the kind of deal where you don’t even have to see somebody and you can pick it up right away. I talked to Rick Nielsen recently and he’s still as wild as ever — and funny. It’s really going to be a bit of a family affair.”

Keeping things in that family spirit, all of the surviving members of Foreigner’s classic lineup have been invited to share the stage with the group this year as they celebrate the important milestone. After a bit of initial confusion, Gramm confirmed recently that he had received an invitation and indicated he will make an appearance at an upcoming show.

“I think it’s going to happen,” Jones says. “There was a little bit of a lost in translation going on there for a minute, but I think everybody’s pretty clear about it now. We’re looking forward to that. Also, some of the other original members are going to be popping up here and there.”

Hansen says he’d welcome the opportunity to share the stage with Gramm. “There’s always been kind of an open door policy about that,” he says. “We’ve had [former bassist] Rick Wills play with us, and [former drummer] Dennis Elliott has sat in with us, so this year would be a great time for that to happen.”

“It was a great experience when we first started out,” Jones adds, reflecting on how things began. “There was a real magic in the air. It’s good not to lose sight of that, I think and just to remember how things were and how much everybody fought to make this whole thing a success in the first place.”

Listen to Foreigner’s ‘Headknocker’

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With this being the 40th anniversary for the debut album, there’s a chance the band might revisit the track listing to perform some of the deeper cuts on the record. Songs like “Headknocker,” “The Damage Is Done” and “At War With the World” are just a few of the album cuts that have become fan favorites outside of the more familiar hits. They performed a heavy selection of material from the 4 album a couple of years ago, so it seems possible.

“We’re going to obviously settle all of that when we start preparing for the tour,” Jones says. “But songs like ‘Headknocker,’ that’s a no-brainer — and there will be a concentration on that first album a bit more than usual. It’s an open book.”

“The problem is trying to figure out what songs to leave out,” Hansen adds. “Because if you’re going to put one in, that means another one that people know is going to get left out. So that’s our constant battle. But sometimes, we go to different parts of the world and different songs were different hits in different parts of the world, so we’ll adjust our set accordingly. We’ll see what happens with the summer tour, but it should be fun, being able to play more tunes. That will be fun.”

Hansen is already having fun, with a new video he took part in, which has been circulating online to promote the upcoming summer trek.

Watch Foreigner’s Kelly Hansen Surprise Elevator Riders

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“I went to the Live Nation offices in Hollywood, and we were filming on two floors,” he explains. “The doors of an elevator open up and I’m singing Foreigner songs. That means I have to get in the elevator, go down a floor, wait for them to tell me go, and I would press the button to go up a floor. But while I’m down there a floor below, people are trying to get on the elevator to go up, and I’m like, “Oh, sorry, we’re filming something in here,” and they look at me and they’re like … ”

He admits he has a lot of respect for Gramm’s vocals on Foreigner albums over the years — and he can identify with what the singer was up against, both in the studio and on the road.

“I knew about the challenges and differences about doing something in the studio, where you can take your time and have multiple takes and you know, you put it together,” he says. “You have really the best of the best of your takes compiled together. And then you have to say to yourself, “Now I have to go out on the road and sing that same stuff every night.” That’s an incredible challenge. And listening to those records, I could only imagine and I could identify with what kind of challenge that is and was for Lou. And I think maybe even in a couple of interviews, when he was talking about the 4 record with Mutt Lange, [he spoke about] how Mutt really pushed him to sing high and hard. That becomes something that you now have to carry the torch forever, and it’s very difficult.”

Night after night, Hansen takes the stage with Foreigner and navigates his way through, what he says, is  “a very challenging set of songs.”

“This catalog is no joke, and Lou did an amazing job with these songs — as evidenced by the success and how these records have lived on for so long,” he says. “So I can totally identify. You really have to take care of yourself to be able to do that night after night. Personally, I don’t want to go out and suck three nights and then have one good night, and then suck three nights. I just can’t do that. I have to do whatever it takes to make sure I’m trying to be the best that I’m trying to do as best as I can every night.”

He also has a lot of respect for what the original band accomplished at the time with their debut album, when the odds were stacked against their potential success.

“It’s very difficult if you weren’t there at the time, but you have to remember, disco was really big and punk was making the scene for the first time,” he says. “For this band to come out with these straight-ahead rock tunes was just a different thing at the time. It was right at the period of music history where record labels had discovered that if they had a good band, they could make a huge amount of money off of these bands. And so record labels started becoming these really big entities. Foreigner was one of the first bands to sell multiple millions of albums and it all started with that ‘Feels Like the First Time’ [single].”

The band (and many of their peers from that era) faced their share of critics over the years, battling against labels like “faceless” and “corporate rock,” something Hansen thinks is unfair. “Rock critics never like anything if it’s popular,” he says. “To me, if you’re making art to communicate, if you’re communicating to more people and you’re popular, isn’t that the point of why you’re creating that art? And then the other thing with the critics is that they don’t like something that’s popular, so they like something that’s really obscure and interesting, but as soon as they say that, it becomes popular, because people read it and go check it out. And then if that band becomes popular, then they don’t like it anymore — they say it’s a sellout. So it’s like, you can never win with those guys. What I’ve always done is just try to do music that I think is good and means something to me.”

Even though the band completed work on “Give My Life for Love” for the upcoming anthology, Hansen says there are “several” other songs “in various stages of completion” that they’ve been working on during their downtime. But he’s not sure if there’s another Foreigner album on the way soon.

“It’s hard to think about the possibility of doing another full record,” he says. “I just don’t know if that works in today’s music scene. You’ll spend so much time and so much energy and so much money to make an album, and then the day it’s released, it’s for free on the internet everywhere, and that’s a difficult thing to deal with, coming from the era that I come from. I think it makes more sense to do a couple of songs at a time and kind of do a mini-promotion of each of them. I think you get more mileage out of it and more people get to really absorb it better that way.”

As far as the new music that both Jones and Gramm have mentioned that they’ve wanted to work on together, they still need to carve out the time to look at the material and figure out what they might want to do with it. Jones has remained busy with Foreigner commitments and, more recently, he’s been working to complete his book, A Foreigner’s Tale, which will be released this year. But he indicates that he still wants to get together with Gramm.

“Lou has a bunch of tracks that were sort of unfinished that we left at one point,” he says. “We’re going to sit down and listen to a few things — it’s a non-committal kind of thing — we just want to sit down and see if anything would make sense to redo a track or put something on an album. It’s just an idea that’s been ruminating.”

For the moment, Jones says, he’ll be focused on finishing the book, which he describes as one which will be “more like a coffee-table presentation” with a “bunch of photos and all sorts of stuff that’s never been seen before.”

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