Double Vision: Foreigner Then & Now
“We joined Atlantic, which had been a dream of mine since I was a teenager, and all of the sudden we’re outselling the Stones, we’re competing with Led Zeppelin, all the other English bands – Genesis, Yes, a huge roster of great bands,” says Foreigner co-founder and lead guitarist Mick Jones, recalling the exact moment his massive classic rock band broke through.
“We came in and interrupted the party.”
It was a late-70s party, disco in full swing, a nascent punk rock and new wave scene forming when in 1977 a cross-continental group aptly named Foreigner released its self-titled debut album and massive hit single “Feels Like The First Time,” suddenly propelled the band to the top of the world.
Karsten Staiger – Mick Jones
Karsten Staiger – Mick Jones
Two more massive hit singles would follow, with “Cold As Ice” and “Long, Long Way From Home” launching the band into the rock stratosphere.
“It was crazy,” Jones continues, “to suddenly be outselling these monster bands. But it was great, and Atlantic in those years, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, was a great place to be.” Jones had barely left his native UK for New York City, armed with his guitar and a cache of soon-to-be hit songs before even forming a band.
Joined by lead singer and co-writer Lou Gramm whose voice has been a staple on rock radio for more than 40 years, Foreigner would shortly amass 16 Top 30 hits over its career, making it one of the best-selling bands ever, with more than 80 million records sold.
They’ve also remained a touring force. In 2018 Foreigner ranked No. 107 on Pollstar’s Year End Top 200 North American Tours with
$11.3 million in sales from 53 concerts, averaging 4,459 total tickets per show.
In the past decade, Foreigner has ranked among the Year End Top 200 North American Tours four times: 2010, 2014, 2017 and 2018. The highest ranking was No. 90 in 2017 with $16.5 million at 79 shows.
Since 2000, Foreigner has participated in 523 concerts worldwide, as reported to Pollstar, with grosses totaling $140.9 million from 2.9 million tickets sold.
“We stuck to our guns and made great albums, apparently, and I’m quite proud of what we’ve achieved,” Jones said from Los Angeles, after just receiving yet another Gold Record certification for Juke Box Hero, a greatest-hits re-recording.
“I was their first agent and it was quite a remarkable situation,” Paradigm’s Dan Weiner told Pollstar. “They didn’t come up through the clubs and not with the groundbreaking you do now, it was just radio and boom.” Boom indeed, as Foreigner was almost overnight headlining large theatres, with everyone playing catch-up and watching history be made.
“The first real tour we had them on was with the Doobie Brothers,” Weiner said. “Every show, people didn’t really know who it was until they heard ‘It Feels Like The First Time,’ and it just grew so quickly. I would love to stand at the soundboard at shows and look at the audience get completely taken with these songs.”
Weiner, who co-founded Monterey Peninsula Artists with Fred Bohlander in 1975, says he connected with the band’s manager Bud Prager after getting a call from Jam Productions’ Jerry Mickelson and Arny Granat, who told him this band was absolutely blowing up on Chicago radio.
After not even a year on the road, Foreigner played to more than 200,000 people at California Jam II in 1978 and was playing around the world including Australia and Japan.
There was no sign of stopping, as the second album Double Vision sold 5 million records and spawned ubiquitous hits in “Hot Blooded,” the title track “Double Vision” and “Blue Morning, Blue Day,” 1979’s Head Games went five-times platinum in the U.S. and the 1981 release 4 peaked at No. 1 and held the position on the Billboard albums chart for 10 weeks.
After a few starts and stops, Foreigner re-formed in 2005 with lead singer Kelly Hansen breathing new life and bringing the hits to fans across the globe. The band has become a nearly year-round touring entity with performances ranging from regular rock band to being accompanied by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, to an acoustic setup, to inviting high school choirs onstage as part of music education program fundraising.
GETTING THE BAND BACK TOGETHER
“Obviously there’s been some ups and downs,” Jones admits. He pauses a bit to touch on the 800-pound gorilla in the room: In the ’90s the band temporarily ceased to be, with public disagreement between Jones and Gramm, who admitted struggling with drugs and was faced with a health crisis that involved brain surgery to remove what thankfully turned out to be a benign tumor.
“Lou and I had an interesting relationship. Different people, different characters, different backgrounds,” Jones said, adding that artistic differences were chief among the issues. “But we did come together for the songs, the music, and we created some magic I think, and that still exists today.”
The dark period for Foreigner saw Jones’ own music take a back seat. Although he did studio work including as producer for Van Halen’s 5150, Billy Joel’s Storm Front and other hit records, the experience while gratifying ultimately left him wanting.
“I thought that was kind of it,” Jones said. “I thought it was going to dwindle into the sunset with things to still achieve and still to represent what we had done up to that point. It was tough. As great as those records would sound, we’d finish the album and everybody’s talking about going on tour, and I’m sitting there saying where’s my tour? (laughs). It was frustrating.”
“It was Jason Bonham who instigated me starting the band again,” Jones says, adding that although the band had re-formed a few times previously, nothing felt quite right. “He said, ‘Mick, don’t you realize there’s all these people out there who love you and want to hear the songs? You’re crazy, you should be out on the road!’
“It took me a little while to digest that, but he was relentless. He battered me with it, and he succeeded and basically talked me into it,” Jones said of the drummer, son of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. “I owe Jason a lot for doing that, and he in turn put us in touch with Jeff Pilson, the bass player, and after a week or two after all the searching, we were sort of ready to present something, and we played a wedding I think in Santa Barbara. That was our debut (laughs).”
Karsten Staiger – Foreigner
Karsten Staiger – Foreigner
That search included finding a lead singer, a key component for a band with so many signature hit songs, from “Hot Blooded,” to “Head Games,” to “Juke Box Hero” and everything in between. Fans would need these staples faithfully represented on stage.
Enter Kelly Hansen, a noted session singer who formed the band Hurricane in 1984 and spent time with artists including Slash and Don Dokken, but at the time felt his career was at a standstill.
“I was unhappy where I was in my career. I was doing more studio work, producing and developing artists and engineering, and the way the business was going it was more and more work for less return,” Hansen said. “I finally had a realization when I wasn’t even considered for a particular project, and thought maybe I have to be more proactive and do what I do best, which is being a lead singer.”
Hansen connected with Jones after hearing they were in the area for a charity project and got wind that they were looking for a singer.
“There was some back and forth, and some stalls and restarts, and then finally they sent me a CD of five of the biggest Foreigner hits, the recordings but without vocals, and they said put your voice on these,” Hansen said. “I did the recording, and Mick heard that in New York, and I knew they were coming to LA to do some rehearsing. I asked if I could be the first guy – a little tip to anyone trying to get a gig in entertainment: once they find a guy, they stop looking, so you want to try to be there as early as possible (laughs).
“We jammed for about an hour and a half. I was really pretty nervous, it was pretty challenging, I was trying to remember all the lyrics. They called me back and said, ‘We’re booking gigs for this week, can you start rehearsal tomorrow?’” Hansen said, laughing. “After not being on the road for 14 years, I knew my world was going to change, really, and it did and it hasn’t stopped since.”
Co-manager Stewart Young, who’d begun with the group in the early ’90s, saw the strength of the renewed band.
“Very quickly the band started to build a following,” said Young, who also managed Billy Squier, Emerson Lake & Palmer and others. “They were so good live and the songs were so strong. Kelly is a fantastic frontman and singer, a great guy, and of course he got on great with Mick, had an immediate chemistry. Mick had always said to me, as far as he was concerned, that it was only worth being in the band and playing if he was enjoying it. And here he is, on tour having a great time in 2019, still there loving it.”
THAT WAS YESTERDAY
While the band was ready to go out, the time off from the road and the fact that it wasn’t the original lineup meant there was a period of building the band back up.
While the songs endured and everybody knows the tunes when they hear them, the name Foreigner wasn’t always automatic for concert audiences.
“One of the things I spotted very early on was that no one knows who Foreigner are,” said Phil Carson, who co-manages the band at Hard To Handle. “I know that sounds like a ridiculous statement, but you will be surprised at the number of people who say they’ve never heard of Foreigner, and then they know the songs.
“As a touring artist that’s very difficult,” said Carson, who was Atlantic’s London-based Senior Vice President from 1968 to 1985. “If you put Foreigner up on a billboard, half the people that go to rock shows have got no clue who it is. We started to integrate the song titles into everything we did. Slowly, slowly it took effect. It was constant touring that brought us to where we are now, where we’re able for the past three years to headline amphitheatre tours, but it’s been a struggle.”
Also helping to re-grow Foreigner was, putting them on a bill in 2011 with someone who might not seem the most obvious choice in Detroit’s very own Bob Ritchie.
“My friend Kid Rock kindly put us on his tour, and we got to play to a massive number of people – 10 nights with him in Detroit for example,” added Carson. That really put us firmly on the way back.” Carson credited Rick Franks at Live Nation, who’d worked with the band as far back as the ‘70s with Cellar Door Concerts.
“It was a new lineup and they hadn’t worked as much as they have over the last five years, so we said let’s try this thing, everyone says they’re great, and they are great,” Franks said. “Mick’s very particular about who will play in his band, and they’re all great musicians, have a great lead front-guy, and with the body of work they have and the number of hits, they go out for an hour and you know every one of them. It’s hard not to love them.”
“A lot of his fans never had a chance to see Foreigner,” Franks added. “They didn’t know it wasn’t the original lineup but couldn’t have been more entertained. We see what’s going on, we see the audience reaction and say we need to headline this band. This is a big-time rock band.
“We take a shot, and we book 40 cities and headlined them the next year as Foreigner, and put a bill around them with Cheap Trick and Jason Bonham, and we had a great run. It did just tremendous.”
Along with the right lineup – now with multi-instrumentalist Thom Gimbel, bassist Jeff Pilson, Michael Bluestein (keys, backing vocals), Bruce Watson joining on guitar and Chris Frazier on drums (although Jason Bonham has been part of Foreigner at times) – having such a strong catalog is a key piece of the puzzle.
“One of the things I said to Mick when we put this thing back together is it’s about the songs, and the execution of the songs,” Carson said. “Having been around Foreigner from the very beginning at Atlantic, I can tell you the execution has never been as high as it is right now. This band is incredible, everybody fits in, everybody plays a real solid part in making the songs come alive.”
FROM IRVINE TO INDIA
A big part of that build was growing the band internationally, which had been a conscious decision by Jones when Foreigner initially started to break.
“Back in the ’70s Mick decided, when the band became very popular and there was pressure from the record label to concentrate the energy and growth, Mick wisely wanted to make sure to get this band over to Europe and outside the continent as well,” Hansen said.
X-ray Touring (now part of Paradigm)’s Steve Strange came on board around 2010, working together with Georg Leitner’s GLP representing the band internationally. He mentioned a 2011 package tour with Journey that put the band back on the map across the pond.
“Obviously, Journey and Foreigner are very compatibly matched, and with Styx in the UK, Night Ranger in Germany, it really raised the bar at that point for Foreigner in Europe, just because we were strong compatible co-headline bills,” Strange said. “It just made sense. Following after that, we could see the trajectory increase in their profile. The next tour we came into after that, we had Europe as our special guest and that tour sold out Manchester Apollo, all the decent-sized rooms at the city hall and civic circuit throughout.
“Mick got to play Portsmouth Guildhall which is where he’s from, so that was good for Mick. His pride of being British has never been taken away even though he’s lived a lot of his years in the U.S. England still has a very soft spot in his heart.”The band’s appeal goes far beyond the UK and mainland Europe, however, as Strange noted tours in Australia and New Zealand, some with orchestra including Oct. 18 at the famed Sydney Opera House, selling between 2,500 to 3,000 tickets each.
Georg Leitner has helped take the band to territories not always quite as far as Australia, but much less traveled for Western artists.
“I have to give it to the guys,” Leitner said from Vienna, Austria. “It’s always been our ambition to expand on territories, to go beyond the trodden path and Foreigner has been extremely interested in joining us. We also did a five-date tour in India, and sold 3,000 tickets in Iceland, a country of only 300,000 people.
“This year we’re doing quite a few shows in Europe, including with Munich Philharmonic and so on. The good news is that with Foreigner, we can vary. Within any one given tour we do different formats. On this tour we have five shows on the symphonic format and the rest in the rock format.”
Getting The Band Back Together – Again!
Back on North American soil, recent touring includes a sold-out Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., Dec. 1 (7,155 tickets, $379,915 gross), and co-headline reports with Whitesnake including FivePoint Amphitheatre in Irvine, Calif., (7,879, $487,208), and White River Amphitheatre in Auburn, Wash., which moved 9,762 tickets and grossed $327,198).
Also included in 2018 were some personal milestones for Jones, including playing Royal Albert Hall in London for the first time, and getting the band back together – again again.
All surviving members of Foreigner, including Gramm, got together for a series of shows called Double Vision: Then And Now, with lead vocal duties split between Hansen and Gramm as well as some performed together.
“Getting together naturally made me feel a little awkward, about how the original guys would feel about doing it, but they really savored it and they gave a lot,” Jones said. “Lou and Kelly hit it off really well, that was my main worry.”
That handful of dates took place over November-December in venues including Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles, Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and the aforementioned Mohegan Sun Arena show.
“It did something to me, I almost transformed back into a 22-year-old rocker,” Jones says. “I really got the feel of those early days, and we plan on doing a few more here and there, and the audience seemed to love it. We’ll see how many we can put together this year.”
With other projects including the “Juke Box Hero” musical that kicks off Feb. 20-24 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto, charity work including with the Shriners children’s hospitals and contests benefiting high school music education programs, the band remains inspired and busy.
“It starts and ends with Mick,” Franks said. “He doesn’t get the credit he should in rock ’n’ roll history with everything he’s done. He’s produced platinum records for a bunch of artists, written platinum records, he’s a great player and has chops and surrounds himself with people who really excel.
“If there’s one thing consistent in the history of foreigner, it’s Mick. A big credit to him for a tremendous job and keeping the band current.”
So what’s left for the band that has been around the world, has 16 Top 30 hits and shows no signs of slowing down? “We’ve been talking about taking the orchestral version of the band to mainland China, so that’s kind of in the early stages of negotiations,” Jones said. “And I’d like to do the orchestral version at the Albert Hall, so there’s a few.”
Asked about his legacy and place in rock history, Jones adds, “I look back and listen to some of the stuff from that era and I’m very happy we were a part of that. Looking back I wouldn’t have had it any other way. To still be doing this today is phenomenal. I’m a very happy camper at the moment.”
Foreigner kicks off its 2019 touring in February with a Canadian run before another lengthy North American tour leg starts in March.