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The History of Foreigner’s ‘Head Games': Mick Jones Looks Back in Exclusive Interview

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On the afternoon that we spoke with Mick Jones, he was phoning us from a somewhat unusual location – a table at Starbucks where he stopped in with his assistant in the midst of a busy day of appointments.

So, if you happened to be at the coffee shop and heard a guy reminiscing nostalgically about the Foreigner catalog, it wasn’t just some uber-fan of the legendary classic rockers. It was, in fact, the founding mastermind and guitarist from the group, looking at his own back pages — with a focus on the anniversary of Head Games, an album released on Sept. 11, 1979 which had the unenviable task of following two blockbuster releases.

First, of course, came Foreigner’s self-titled debut in 1977, which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard charts, giving the fledgling group its first three Top 40 hits – “Feels Like the First Time,” “Cold as Ice” and “Long, Long Way From Home.” Foreigner’s second album, Double Vision, released in 1978, also did big business, again landing inside the Top 5 of the Billboard charts while adding three more hits to a growing stack with the title track, “Hot Blooded” and “Blue Morning, Blue Day.”

Head Games would be the third chapter in the Foreigner story, and the third album in three years, a staggering achievement considering that the band was touring in support of each successful album nearly non-stop. This project would also find Foreigner working with the third producer in as many albums. Roy Thomas Baker, who Jones had wanted to work with going back to Foreigner’s debut, finally had an opening in his schedule.

Baker would add an extra amount of grit to Foreigner’s sound, something which you could immediately detect listening to tracks like “Seventeen” – which had a rawness in the recording that sounded as if Baker had simply set up his equipment in the jam room and pressed “record.” Overall, Head Games had a sound that was noticeably less polished as the albums that had come before, which was exactly what Jones was hoping to achieve.

They lodged their third straight appearance in the Billboard Top Five and notched a couple of additional chart hits with the title track and “Dirty White Boy,” while the third single “Women” just missed the Top 40. Album tracks like the previously mentioned “Seventeen,” “Love on the Telephone,” “I’ll Get Even With You” and especially “Rev on the Red Line” made Head Games an engaging listen – and one that offered proof that Jones had really found the right rhythm in his collaborative partnership with vocalist Lou Gramm.

Mick Jones talked to Ultimate Classic Rock about the creative process that helped to produce this now-legendary release, and we also got an update on some of the other things that Foreigner fans can look forward to.

It’s the anniversary of Head Games. What was the scene when the band went in to begin writing and recording?

Well, we were coming off the second album Double Vision, which you know we basically toured behind that for probably a year. We started that album up in New York in the studio that we recorded the first two albums, which was Atlantic Studios as it was then, and the mood — everybody was quite high on the incredible couple of years that we had just had with the explosion of the band. So, we were high on that and I think we sort of discussed that maybe we would take a bit more of a raw approach on the Head Games album. So initially, I just started to rock out with some riffs.

Listen to Foreigner Perform ‘Women’

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It’s interesting to hear you say that about the raw approach, because that’s something that struck me when I was listening to the album today, how pleasantly raw some of this stuff is from a recording standpoint. Hearing a song like “Seventeen,” at least to the listening ear, it doesn’t sound that far removed to how it might have been recorded in the demo process. There’s a good amount of stuff on Head Games that while it certainly sounds finished, it isn’t too polished.

That’s really sort of what we had intended, for it to have a little swagger to it, as well. You know, as you say, I had forgot that “Seventeen” was very straight-forward with no embellishments really particularly outside of the guitars, drums and bass. It was a fairly long album – it took a while – I think we were still recovering from the touring and so that delayed the start a bit.

There was always a feeling from the word “go,” really, of pressure to deliver after that first album. It was intense and I guess it built up even more for the Head Games album, because that would be following two mega-platinum albums, you know, when we had no idea a couple of years earlier that we’d be making mega-platinum albums. [Laughs.] The whole thing was exciting, but that was a conscious approach to simplifying things a bit.

Head Games was the band’s third album in three years, which is incredible when you consider the amount of touring that was probably going on — because the first two albums had been very successful. Did you really feel like you were able to carve out the creative time necessary to write and record those albums?

I was working as much as I could. I was spurred on by the success of the first album, and never really felt too pressured. When I look back at it, the first album came out in 1977, Double Vision came out in ‘78 and Head Games came out in ‘79. So I’m dazzled by that. [Laughs.] When I look back, I know that the end of the Double Vision album was a little crazy, because we had a tour set up and we had to not rush it, but we had to spend a lot of time in the studio in order to get that out on time.

But you know, I’d say that I think it’s not a bad thing to have deadlines and set that kind of system up for yourself. I think it keeps you aware. I certainly wasn’t going to let anything go through that we weren’t 100 percent about, at least from our standpoint and then the rest is up to the listener, obviously. As amazing as it is – three albums in three years – I never felt as much pressure as that schedule might dictate.

You had different producers associated with each of those three albums. Was that a purposeful move?

Yes, it was. First of all, the idea to have a producer in the first place was something that we weren’t quite sure of in the beginning. I had had a fair amount of experience in the studio. I produced stuff, and I was accustomed to that. I had spent time with two or three of the great producers at that time and learned quite a lot. But nevertheless, I felt that it was necessary to have a second opinion and somebody to bounce things off of. I tried to make sure that those people were those kind of people that we would respect, and that we would listen to and learn from.

On that album, we finally got Roy Thomas Baker and I had actually wanted him for the first album, but he was working with Queen or something, so that didn’t become reality. Then on the second album, he wasn’t available and Mutt Lange applied, but I didn’t know too much about Mutt Lange at that point. Then Roy came in for the Head Games album and Mutt finally made it for the 4 album. I really think it’s very important to bounce off of somebody that you respect and somebody that is confident enough in what they do to suggest things that sometimes might not be received that well by the band, you know? [Laughs.]

In my case, I like to have somebody that I have a fair amount of respect for that basically has the power to suggest something and even if it’s completely wrong, they’re not afraid to contribute their ideas and challenge some of your things that they may feel could be stronger.

Listen to Foreigner Perform ‘Dirty White Boy’

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It certainly feels like you can hear the sound of some of the work that Roy had done with Queen. As I mentioned, there’s some of the songs on this album that are really raw and rockin,’ and then you have a song like “Blinded by Science” that has quite a bit going on with the production. It really seems like he was able to help harness whatever you wanted to do with each of the songs on this album.

You know, we had a lot of fun with Roy in the studio. He’s a very eccentric kind of guy, through his own admission. Somehow, he kept the wheels rolling really well and I think that’s what helped us to achieve that album, in a relatively short space of time. His sense of the studio, he came up as an engineer originally and put the work in before calling himself a producer, which many didn’t. They went straight from engineering into production and production is not just engineering, you know?

I liken it to perhaps a director in a movie. It’s more about the getting the performance out of the musicians and out of the band and an ability to have opinions about melodic structure, whatever it may be. But it requires a certain ear. So, Roy filled that and although he had an engineer, Geoff Workman, he was pretty much overseeing everything all of the time. So, it worked very well.

I love the song “Women.” Things seem to build lyrically throughout that song and by the time you get to the end, you really lay it out, “Women that you write songs about / Women that turn around and kick you out / Women you dream about all your life / Women that stab you in the back with a switchblade knife.” First of all, you probably deserve a mention somewhere in the Guinness Book of World Records for all of the mentions of “women” in that song.

[Laughs.]

But it seems like there must have been an incident or a series of them that helped to fuel the birth of that song.

Well, not all of them were literal. You know, it was supposed to be a fun song, tongue-in-cheek a little bit. But yeah, it’s one of the band’s favorite songs to play. Throughout all of the years, it always comes up, you know, the fans bring it up sometimes. There’s certainly a nice little strut to it.

When you look at this album, with that song, “I’ll Get Even With You,” “Head Games” and “Love on the Telephone,” is it right to think that you might have had an overall theme in mind with this album?

No, I don’t think there was a particular theme. Maybe the fact was that Lou and I were starting to really sort of gel together as a writing unit. You know, we were both sort of thrown in the deep end at the beginning — rather I guess, Lou more than I, when he came and joined the band. His vocal prowess and quality, that was one thing, but I wanted him involved in the writing and he did have writing experience.

With that first album, we did some collaborations and on the second album, we got more of an understanding of each other and for Head Games, I guess it was just following on in that kind of still getting to know you a bit. But by that time, we were feeling a lot more comfortable with each other. So, it was a united sort of album. We kind of liked where it was taking us. I’ve never been one for themes or for a concept, let’s say, but sometimes those things just happen naturally anyway, you know. You don’t really realize it but, like, you put those songs together just then and that has got a musical sound theme to it — and maybe somewhere in the lyrics, too.

Listen to Foreigner Perform ‘Rev on the Red Line’

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That opening guitar riff to “Head Games” is classic. Can you tell us a bit about the writing process of that song?

We wrote it in my apartment. I had just bought a piano and Lou had a keyboard at his place and he would play two-fingered riffs – and it kind of worked with me because they were in the black keys, which I always wrote on anyway. He kind of put this sort of rough idea of the chords of that riff at the beginning and it sounded pretty mean with an electric piano – like almost like clavinet sounds – and we blended that in with the guitar sounds and that’s what gave it a bit of a unique sound.

I don’t know. I guess, in a certain way, it was a bit of a connection there with “Feels Like the First Time,” as far as being a Foreigner sort of riff — and that’s probably the song that, with “Feels Like the First Time,” represented what people sort of tended to think was the Foreigner sound.

This was Rick Wills’ first album with the group. How much did that change the dynamic?

It did. I had known Rick for many years. When the band got together originally, there were six of us and we’d never really had that much experience playing together, except for while we were putting the band together in a rehearsal studio for nine months to a year. The way I saw it originally was that we would put an album out and, if we were lucky, maybe we’d get a little success with it — enough to build and do another album after that.

The way things happened, we were forced in a way to this kind of maelstrom, this whirlwind, that was kind of like being in a blender almost. So as that developed, we started to realize that there were certain areas that we could possibly improve on. I had always been used to drums and bass being the foundation of the band.

There was a little bit of difficulty with the communication between [drummer] Dennis Elliott and Ed Gagliardi, who was our first bass player. Rick Wills was coming through New York, he gave me a call and came down to the studio and we didn’t talk specifically about him joining the band, but we did sort of start to stay in communication. Then, one day, Dennis asked if Rick could come down and maybe jam with the band and he did.

Immediately, it was sort of the rhythm section that we had really yearned for, and it was really so good that there was no question that there was going to be a change there. Because basically, I played bass on the first two albums on maybe 90 percent of the tracks, so I definitely needed someone to come and relieve me. I do enjoy bass playing, but I keep it simple. I felt it was really important to have a real understanding between the rhythm section, and that’s really how that came about.

Listen to Foreigner Perform ‘Seventeen’

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How many songs did the band record for this album? I know that a reissue of Head Games added one song, “Zalia,” which hadn’t been previously released. How much more stuff from the sessions for this album is there in the vaults that people haven’t heard?

I think there is. Lou said he had found some stuff from way back. I’m not sure. We haven’t gotten together to listen to them yet. But he seems pretty excited about some of the stuff that he’s pulled out. So you never know. I don’t personally have anything else. I’ve got [lots of] cassettes and ADATs and you know, whatever format I keep changing into. There’s a lot of stuff hanging around, we just need to comb through it at some point. I thought that “Zalia” was a beautiful song, too. [Original Foreigner member] Ian [McDonald] and Lou worked on that one.

You see, that’s kind of what I wanted to do from the very beginning, as opposed to just being a heavy hard-rock band. I wanted the band to be able to rock, but I also wanted it to be able to show off some of the other talents in the band that might go a bit deeper melodically. Little things like “Zalia,” putting that on there, I thought that was a really great touch. It was a very different sounding song than what we’d done at that point. It’s just one of those things that added a little different dimension, and we always sort of sought to do that, definitely throughout those first four albums.

Do you think that, with the 4 album, Mutt Lange helped you to flesh out that diversity in the songwriting that you were looking for?

Yes, I think he did. It was the first time working with Mutt and he was the first producer that wanted to come around to my place, and he wanted me to play every single idea that I had on cassette. He said that it didn’t matter if I was embarrassed or whatever, he just wanted to hear everything.

So I played him everything and out of that, he picked two or three gems and he did challenge me — and there were definitely ideas that I never would have played for anybody. I had the riff starting out “Urgent,” and he picked that out and I said, “That’s like an experimental instrumental thing that I’m working on.” And he said, “No, it isn’t anymore. Let’s take that one, because that’s got a lot of potential.”

There wasn’t even a song with it. It was just the introduction at the start of that. But he really did, he challenged us and I think that’s what added to the magic of that album. You know, we were seriously battling together and battling each other to get what we thought we wanted from that album. It ended up that it almost ended a few weeks into it, just through arguments and a whole bunch of stuff going on. But, by the time we finished, we were the best of friends — and, thankfully, we still respected each other very much. I know I respect Mutt for what he’s done. He definitely gave us a tough time, but he got it out of us.

Will you be playing the entire 4 album on the tour this fall?

I think we’ll play about eight of the tracks, which will include three or four that we haven’t played before – which would be, “Break It Up,” “Woman in Black,” “Night Life,” which we’ve played very rarely. And then there’s a ballad called “Girl on the Moon,” and that’s something I’ve wanted to play for many, many years and finally playing it, it sounds great. So, we’re looking forward to including that in the show.

Listen to Foreigner Perform ‘I’ll Get Even With You’

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There’s been word that you’re working on an album of Foreigner songs with guest vocalists. What can you tell us about that?

Well, it’s developed into something where I think it might be working with other artists who write and co-writing some songs, and perhaps having them sing those songs that they co-write. There could be two or three versions of classic hits, but I think that would be well balanced out with songs that would be written by the specific artists who would probably be songwriters [themselves].

I know you’ve been writing with Sammy Hagar. Will that music find a home on this project?

Well, we don’t know yet. We had a lot of fun getting together. You know, I’ve known Sammy right since the very beginning of my career in America. It was great, because we came up through the whole thing with the same kind of influences, the same sort of musicians, the same circle of fans and stuff like that.

So, we go back a long, long way and it was really nice just getting together with an old friend. It was a really good time that we had, and we came up with a couple of great ideas. That could develop into something. We’ll see. At the moment, it’s just getting together with friends and seeing what we can come up with together and then we’ll figure out some way to get it out. [Laughs.]

What can you tell us about the documentary that’s in the works?

You know, the history of my life is that my friends and the people that I work with have been asking me desperately to try and document some of this stuff and some of the crazy stories and events that have happened and the musical experiences throughout my life. We’ve done some filming already — and, as you may know, I spent several years before I came to the States, working in France with a French rock idol, Johnny Hallyday, so we’ve started out with interviewing and talking with him and taking it from there. I guess I’m not sure where it’s going, whether it’s going to be a documentary per se or if it’s going to be more performance-oriented.

At the beginning of it, we’re filming and getting sort of a sense of where we want to go. I’m thinking about writing a book too — not a memoir so much, but something funny and light-hearted. I don’t want to get profound like some of the other books I’ve read. [Laughs.] I just want to keep it light and a little bit of humor in there, I think would be good.

What’s the latest on some of the stuff you’ve talked about working on with Lou? I know that it’s not necessarily Foreigner stuff, but you guys have both talked about working on stuff with each other.

Yeah. Well, first of all, we want to delve back into some of the ideas that we both knew we had. Then there’s this little trove of goodies that Lou’s got that I haven’t heard. So we’ll start basically just messing around with those ideas and maybe that will inspire us into something new. You know, you never know. I think we’re both going into it quite openly, just let it come naturally and we have no specific plans to do anything more than that at the moment. But it will be fun and it will be a great way of us reestablishing more contact with each other, so I’m very happy about that.

What else is coming up?

2016 will be the actual anniversary year of when the band got together. So we’re gearing up for that and we’ll be announcing plans for that as the year goes by. We’ll try and have a few special events going on in that year. If you had told me that this band would still be playing 40 years after we started, I would not have believed you. [Laughs.] It’s all good. We’re having a lot of fun on tour.

The band is really rockin’ and I’m doing a great deal of the shows with the band. I had to miss some due to illness in the last couple of years, but the band’s really rockin’ and I’m back and everybody’s really happy. This is really a fun band to work with. You know, the guys are very special guys. I don’t know how it happened, but we’ve got an amazing musical connection and everybody likes jamming with each other — and, if you see us on stage, I think everybody’s smiling from the beginning to the end of the shows. So, it’s really great and it’s very exhilarating for me to play on stage again for me with that kind of approach from the rest of the band.

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