Dear Guitar Hero: Mick Jones Talks Foreigner, Producing Van Halen's '5150' and Hanging Out with The Beatles
He's the lead guitarist for one of the world's best-selling classic rock acts of all time. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is ...
I love your tone on the early Foreigner material. What was your setup on songs like “Feels Like the First Time” and “Hot Blooded”? — Shannon Decker
My gear then actually wasn’t too far away from what it is now. My guitar was a ’57 Les Paul Custom. It was originally a three-pickup, and I took out the middle one. And it had switches that would take the signal straight from the pickup to the amp, bypassing the volume and tone control. So the guitar was always at full-on 10.
That gave me a little bit of an edgier tone for solo work, because when the signal goes through the controls it loses a little bit. For amps, I used 100-watt Marshalls, which is what I still use today. And back then I had Hiwatt cabinets with Fane speakers, which was a good combination.
You produced Van Halen’s 5150. What was that experience like? — Patrick Gottheil
The idea for that came through Sammy Hagar and [A&R legend] John Kalodner, who had worked with Foreigner early in our career. And I remember Sammy met me at the airport and drove me up to the studio at Eddie Van Halen’s house. He was talking to me in the car, and he said, “Mick, we’ve done some crazy things together over the years and we’ve had some crazy times. Get ready. Because this is gonna be pretty crazy!”
So I thought, What have I let myself in for? [laughs] And there were a few crazy times. There was a little incident where things got a little wild with [engineer] Donn Landee, whom I had tremendous respect for. I don’t know how it started, but it ended up that he locked himself in the studio with the master tapes and threatened to set the place on fire. But it all got sorted out. So it was a challenging album in a way, but I was really just giving my input as far as song construction. The playing was all the band. They’re so talented that it wasn’t the most difficult thing to do. I just had to get it down on tape. And it was incredible working with Eddie. I spent some time with Jimi Hendrix way back, and I think Eddie sort of had that same gift that comes down from somewhere above and goes through you. He’s able to express it.
Who were your early guitar influences? — Michael O’Brien
When I formed my first band at around 15, it was based on a lot of Chuck Berry stuff. And my parents had a collection of Les Paul and Mary Ford albums, and that sound stayed with me all through my life. It was otherworldly, some of the sounds Les came up with. And then, obviously, the Beatles and the Stones. I was a great fan of George Harrison and Keith Richards. I think that’s how I sort of developed my style as a semi-rhythm/semi-lead player. And, of course, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. I think you start out emulating these people you admire and then you gradually develop your own style. That’s what I tried to do.
Your solo in “Cold as Ice” is so different from a standard pentatonic-based rock lead. How did you come up with it? — Chris Bingham
Well, that solo now opens Kanye West’s live show. So he must like it, too! It was actually pretty spontaneous in the studio. That song is constructed in a way where it keeps building up. And in the middle it breaks down and then builds up to something where it needs to go even higher. And that little solo takes it to where the a capella part starts. I double-tracked it as well. I thought at the time it was a little bit Queen-y. But it sounded cool, and we went with it.
Is it true the song title “Double Vision” came from a hockey game? — Darren Caldwell
It is. Lou [Gramm, original Foreigner singer] and I were big New York Rangers fans, and we used to go to quite a few games together. At one of the games, the Rangers’ goalie, John Davidson, got hit in the head with the puck and was taken off the ice. The announcer said he was suffering from double vision, and I had never heard that term before.
We figured it could be a real cool name for a song. And there’s a bit of a double entendre there because people always think about other reasons a person might be seeing double. Now when I’ve been asked about it, I usually say it’s a bit of a mixture of both those things.
How was it working with Mutt Lange, who produced the 4 album in 1981? — Dennis Dorany
It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had with a producer. Mutt had really wanted to do our second album [1978’s Double Vision], I believe. But he didn’t seem quite ready at the time. So we did the next one [1979’s Head Games] with Roy Thomas Baker, and then Mutt was kind of knocking on the door again. I must say, he was quite enthusiastic.
And based on what he had done with other bands, I thought he could be good. He was the first producer I worked with who really challenged me. He was not only very insightful with the songs and in helping to bring them to fruition but he was also really great at achieving sounds. He was just unbelievably dedicated to the process…to the point where I think we kept Def Leppard waiting six or nine months because Mutt was still working with us on 4. It went that long!
I’ve heard you once played on a bill with the Beatles. How did that happen? — Liz Morales
In the early Sixties I was living in Paris and playing with a French singing star named Sylvie Vartan. We played on a three-band bill with the Beatles, and we were the middle band. It was the show right before they came to America for the first time. After we played, the curtain came down and the Beatles ran onstage carrying their amps.
There were no roadies in those days—the term didn’t even exist! But I remember the curtain came down and it snagged my guitar. Pulled me down to the ground. I started cursing in English, and John Lennon came behind me to help pick me up, and he said, “Hey, lad, didn’t know you were British! Come out and have a drink with the boys after.” They took me under their wing for a bit, and going out with them was like living A Hard Day’s Night. Then they went to America without me!
So many artists have covered “I Want to Know What Love Is” over the years. Do you have a favorite version?
There’s an obscure reggae version that was recorded by a guy named Lucky Dube, from South Africa, that I’ve always rather liked. I also remember that, after the song first came out, I was down in the Caribbean, and I was driving along looking for a little church where they do their equivalent of gospel. I stopped by this little place and sat down in the back and suddenly the choir broke into “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
It was one of those moments that stayed with me. Just so emotional. I’ve actually heard that the song has been sung worldwide in churches, which is nice. People have gotten the universal message of the lyrics, as opposed to just interpreting it as a love song. They get married to it, or celebrate and even mourn people they’ve lost to it. You sometimes take it for granted, but when those things like that happen, it’s very satisfying.
How was it to play with Foreigner at the Led Zeppelin reunion show in 2007? — Anthony Sigro
It was phenomenal. I had done some session work in London with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones in the Sixties, so I’d known them since those days, but I had never seen Led Zeppelin live. So for me it was a moment I had been waiting a long time for. And they didn’t let anybody down. I remember when “Kashmir” started, the power and the darkness…it was amazing. And it’s funny—the original idea of the concert was to celebrate the life of Ahmet [Ertegun, Atlantic Records founder and president], with all these Atlantic bands involved. Then Led Zeppelin came into the picture, and I think everybody kind of dropped out! It turned into a Led Zeppelin reunion. But it was so great to be there. Everybody was in the spirit.
Is it true that when you and Lou Gramm met in the early Nineties to discuss reuniting together in Foreigner, you got trapped in a hotel when the L.A. riots broke out? [The 1992 race riots were incited by the police beating of Rodney King. The rioting last six days and resulted in 53 deaths.] — Brandon Miller
Yes. I was working in L.A. at the time, and the record label approached us to ask could we could possibly get back together. Lou had done a couple of solo albums at that point, and I had been producing. I think we both felt we had some unfinished business together. So we decided to give it a shot and scheduled a meeting at the Sunset Marquis in Hollywood. Lou flew in just about the day the riots erupted, and we wound up being sequestered together in that hotel. There were armed guards and everything all around. So we didn’t have a choice but to talk! And that was the beginning of that chapter of the band.
How often do you get confused with the other Mick Jones, from the Clash? — Aaron Kettering
It happens, but it used to happen more in the Eighties. A long time ago, I remember, we passed each other in a hallway in a recording studio, but neither of us knew who the other was. Then about six years ago we were on the same bill at a show in Portugal and we finally got to meet. Mick said to me, “Yeah, it’s great—sometimes I get your royalty checks!” We had a good time. He was very complimentary, which was nice, because Foreigner was a bad word in the punk world way back when. But it’s surprising how many musicians I meet from that period who were actually closet Foreigner fans.