“Don’t play games that you don’t understand, even if you see lots of other people making money from them. ”
You might never have heard Mick Jones' name, but if you've spent any time near a radio since the late 1970s, you've probably heard plenty of his music. Because the founder and guitarist of the rock group Foreigner rarely sings lead vocals and also because the band touts its brand name rather than its individual members, the UK native has never become particularly well known in his own right. But he and his cohorts have sold lots of records-70 million of them, in fact.
The group scored five consecutive top-10 albums between 1977 and 1984 and produced a long list of singles that became radio staples-"Feels Like the First Time," "Cold As Ice," "Hot Blooded," "Double Vision" and "Waiting for a Girl Like You," to name a few. Last year's two-disc No End In Sight: The Very Best of Foreigner includes 32 tracks, many of which were major hits.
Jones-who wrote or cowrote every one of those songs and coproduced all the group's studio albums-developed Foreigner's signature sound early on and has never strayed far from it. The band's frequently guitar-driven music, which he has described as "powerful but sentimental," employs high-energy vocals, arena-shaking percussion, indelible melodies and hooks, and lyrics that almost inevitably talk about love or lust. Jones also has a habit of embellishing tracks with surprises, most notably the legendary Junior Walker's sax solo on "Urgent" and the gospel choir that enlivens "I Want to Know What Love Is," the group's chart-topping biggest single.
Such hits stopped coming after 1987, however, and by the time lead vocalist Lou Gramm quit the group in 2003, he was just one of many players in a big game of musical chairs. The band counts 30 present and former members, including four lead vocalists and seven drummers. Today, Jones is Foreigner's sole original member and the only musician to have played on all of its albums.
How long have you been flying privately?
Since the late '70s. In those days, we used the [Gulfstream] GI, which is a turboprop. And then later, when the record business was in full swing, everybody had private jets.
How has flying privately helped you?
Well, the buses are quite comfortable, but I just can't sleep in those things. Tomorrow, there's a road trip of about 400 miles from Atlantic City to Williamsburg [Virginia]. If you drive, you get there at like six in the morning, but it's a 55-minute flight. A bus can end up costing a lot. Even if we do just one extra show a month, we'll be able to afford to fly to all the inconvenient places and take opportunities to arrive in time to rest. Because it's very tiring-the touring, the whole business, day by day, checking into hotels. We'll probably end up doing about 150 shows this year.
And you're using charter?
Not all the time. We'll use charter for trips over about 300 miles. We've used a [Embraer] Legacy 600 or [Gulfstream] GIV when we have to move the whole crew and some equipment, but we generally use a [Cessna] Citation V if it's over 500 miles. If it's less and there's a [Beechcraft] King Air 350 available, we go with that. We generally move eight people, so the Citation works well for us. The advantage of the King Air is that it gets us into most any field we want to go to. Sometimes there's a little municipal airfield that the Citation can't get into but the King Air can. And sometimes they're five miles from the gig instead of 15.
Have you considered moving to a fractional share or even full ownership?
I'm thinking about it. I'm looking into the possibility of a King Air next year for part or full ownership.
Who arranges your flights?
We call her Captain Babe but her name is actually Lisa Johnson. She checks out the safety records and the crew and all that stuff. And she's a pilot. If we're in California where she's based, she'll come fly us around.
Let's talk about your music. What do you think made your first six albums such big sellers?
It was as big a surprise to me at the time as it was to everybody else. We were on Atlantic Records in the company of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Genesis, and none of those bands had sold over a million at that time. Our first album sold four-and-a-half million.
And why do you think your subsequent releases sold disappointingly?
Well, the music changed in that period and for a while any classic rock band was regarded as a bad word. And during the '90s, there were problems within the band. Things about the lifestyle had started to take their toll.
Why so much turnover in the lineup?
That came down through the dynamics between me and the lead singer at that time, Lou Gramm. We had a number of battles and usually in those battles some member of the band would suffer. That's a reason the band was very unsettled during that time-all the changes in personnel.
Might you ever play with Lou again?
We would if it was a special event. I don't rule out working with Lou but I've really embarked on a new chapter of the band. And I think, whatever the changes have been, the band retains its identity.
It is remarkable how much the current group sounds like the old records even though it's a totally different lineup except for you.
Yeah, I train 'em well! On this new CD, you'll know it's a Foreigner album but I think it's also got quite a contemporary touch.
In 2005, you said you didn't know whether you wanted to continue making music. Then after a break, you said, "Suddenly I got a new lease in life. There was a chance that I could do this honorably and feel right about it." What changed?
After trudging through the '90s and the early 2000s, I wasn't having fun anymore. But the new band was so fresh and energetic that it reignited the passion in me.
You'd gotten away from music for a while. What were you doing?
I came to terms with the fact that I had to look after myself better and I went pretty drastically into a program of recovery. From that point on, my life just changed.
You had drug problems?
Alcohol, drugs. I don't publicize it, but I'm not ashamed of it. [The recovery program] really helped me to be clear-headed, to feel good about things, to know what to do when things aren't going so well.
Are there any covers of your songs that you particularly like? I heard a Wynona Judd rendition of "I Want to Know What Love Is" that was quite good.
Oh yeah, I like that one. There was also a London Symphony Orchestra version of that which wasn't bad. It's nice to hear your work performed by a classical orchestra of that repute.
When you first got into rock and roll, did you think you'd still be doing this at 64?
I thought 30 would probably be the limit. But it's the only thing I really know how to do and it's a passion. When I'm having fun doing it, it's just the best thing in the world.
NAME: Mick Jones
BORN: Dec. 27, 1944, in Horsell, Surrey, England
HOME: New York City
OCCUPATION: Lead guitarist, songwriter and producer for rock group Foreigner, which he founded in 1976. Former member of such groups as Spooky Tooth and Leslie West Band. Also, guitarist for George Harrison and Peter Frampton and album producer for Van Halen, Bad Company, Billy Joel, Ben E. King and others.
TRANSPORTATION: Usually chartered King Air 350s and Cessna Citation Vs.
PERSONAL: Divorced, seven children. Enjoys tennis, boating.
"Flying Privately Is Not a Luxury"
After meeting with Foreigner founder Mick Jones, we caught up with group manager Phil Carson, a music industry veteran who ran Atlantic Records in the UK during the 1980s and has managed a long list of leading rock acts. Carson mentioned that Foreigner is performing this month in Orlando, Fla., at the National Business Aviation Association's yearly convention. He also told us more about the group's reliance on business aviation:
"Flying privately is not a luxury for us. It's a business tool because it takes wear and tear off the band members. It makes their lives easier. And if I make their life easier, I get to do more shows. And one extra show a month pays for five or six jet rides.
"Touring would be very wearing on a bus. And if you fly commercially, even first class, you've got to leave your hotel three hours before takeoff and then you're landing at an airport that you might not want to be at. Moving between smaller markets has become almost impossible using commercial aviation because there are few direct nonstops. With careful planning, we can cover three markets with one day's use of an airplane. A private plane allows us to get to an airport closer to the venue and affords us more time to rest.
"We find flying privately not outrageously more expensive than leasing a bus. The bus might sit outside your hotel three nights in a row. Well, during that time, you've had to pay for the driver, his hotel, the bus lease and all the little charges that creep up on you, like cleaning the bus and servicing the generator. If you're not paying those costs and take the jet only when you actually need it, it works out very well."