More than anyone else, Mick Jones knew that something was drastically wrong with the band. But Jones, an amiable, easygoing sort, dreaded the thought of a confrontation with keyboardist Al Greenwood or multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald, neither of whom, he felt, was contributing as much as he could to the group. In April, the six men started getting together again to work out new songs, but nothing seemed to click. “It was ugly,” says Gramm. “We knew Ian and Al had it in them, but they wouldn’t show their stuff. It was breaking our hearts.”
Robert John “Mutt” Lange, known for his work with bands like City Boy and AC/DC, had been hired to produce the fourth Foreigner album. In late summer, he met with the group and listened to its new material. He was not impressed.
“We had about sixteen or eighteen songs,” Gramm says. “They needed work, but I thought they were strong. Mutt didn’t beat tactfully around the bush; he told us that if we released ten of the best songs out of this batch, we’d be lucky if we had a Top Twenty album. Then he left for two weeks while we frantically rewrote everything.”
Lange’s verdict on the new tunes brought Foreigner’s internal crisis to a head. Jones knew what he had to do, but he wasn’t happy about it. He and McDonald had founded the group in 1976, convinced that they would spark each other’s songwriting talents. McDonald, a member of the original King Crimson in the late Sixties, was a gifted musician, equally adept on keyboards, guitar and saxophone. Yet he had never become an integral part of Foreigner’s songwriting scheme: of the thirty songs recorded during his tenure with the band, he cowrote four, and only one of them, “Long, Long Way from Home,” was a hit. So in September 1980, McDonald and Greenwood walked.
“It was a relief in a way,” says McDonald. “There had become less and less for me to do in the band, and I was really ready to branch out on my own.” Greenwood, a bit more peeved, says, “It was almost like a power play by Mick and Lou. Mick wanted to do everything, really.”
Whatever the case, Foreigner was suddenly a four-piece.
We had a very successful formula,” says Rick Wills, poking at a bowl of chicken vindaloo, “and I suppose it would have been quite acceptable to a lot of our fans to go on that way. But from a professional point of view, it was no good at all.”
Wills and Dennis Elliott, Foreigner’s resident jokesters, are sitting in their favorite Indian restaurant, reflecting on the band’s tumultuous recent past and pondering its future. Following the departure of McDonald and Greenwood, Jones called in synthesizer wizards Larry Fast (Synergy) and Tom Dolby (who played on Bruce Woolley’s version of “Video Killed the Radio Star”), keyboardist Bob Mayo (formerly of Peter Frampton’s band) and sax specialist Mark Rivera (who, along with Mayo and another keys player, Peter Reilich, will be augmenting the group’s stage lineup) to take up the slack. It worked out well – now there seems no limit to what the group can achieve. Of course, hard-core critics may still call them faceless, but so what?
“To us,” says Wills, “the records speak for the band. When we’re onstage, I think we look as good as anybody. But mainly, we’re just not image conscious.”
“Rick,” Elliott interjects, “you’ve gotta face it –— we’re just ugly.”
“I was gonna get around to that,” Wills mumbles.
Wills and Elliott, like the rest of the group, are in their thirties, and they’ve been around. Wills knocked about Europe in the mid-Sixties with Joker’s Wild, a band that also included his old buddy David Gilmour, now with Pink Floyd. Since-then, he’s played with Peter Frampton, Roxy Music and a re-formed (and rather awful) version of the Small Faces. Elliott, a noted session drummer in England, has put in time with If, a British jazz-rock outfit, and Ian Hunter’s band. They are pros, and together constitute a redoubtable rhythm section, one capable of swinging in a genre that has largely degenerated into sludge. Now that they’re no longer in need of money (all four Foreigners are family men with homes in a fashionable area of upstate New York), Wills and Elliott are looking forward to stretching out stylistically in the future.
“From the outset,” says Wills, “I think Mick was determined that we would not stand still in any way, that he was gonna try everything in the book to get what he considers to be an ongoing situation. I think he would definitely stop this band, give up, if he didn’t feel it was ongoing. And we would feel the same.”
Mick Jones is a gent in the old British-rock-pro tradition, a decorous presence even in his rumpled, frumpy jacket and faded Misfits T-shirt. Now on his fourth vodka and tonic, he’s been rambling at great length about the highs and sometimes heartbreaking lows of a life in music, his gently articulated anecdotes strewn with a wit as dry and benevolent as crumbled communion crackers. He holds no grudges and has no regrets. It took a long time, but he’s made it to the top. Life is good.
“The further I go on. I keep thinking, ‘Christ, I should be starting to feel differently about all this,’ he says, calling for the tab. “I guess I may exude an air of maturity sometimes, but I find I’m actually getting a bit crazier as I get older.” Jones takes a drag on his cigarette, then leans forward with a smoke-seething grin. “And I really want to stay that way.”