Some of the most dedicated fans of Mick Jones’ rock group Foreigner can be found at auto racing events.
And the band, which has sold more than 70 million albums since its eponymous 1977 debut record and its hit singles “Feels Like the First Time” and “Cold As Ice,” has made more NASCAR appearances than any other classic rock group.
Jones, 67, a race fan who cheers for fellow Brits Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button on the Formula One McLaren team, enjoys driving a few laps himself.
“It’s wild, it’s wild. You have to hang on. The car kind of takes you,” says the guitarist and songwriter. “I’ve done 180-190 miles an hour, and that’s pretty wild. I don’t know how those guys do it for two hours, or three hours sometimes.
“What astounds me is their stamina. It’s astonishing how you can be that focused, because you have to be focused every inch of the way.”
Jones says he’s a sensible driver on the road, although he enjoys the chance to open it up on the autobahn in Germany, “the best place in the world to drive.”
Music has given Jones fame and fortune. He was recently nominated for induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, along with Foreigner’s former lead singer and co-writer, Lou Gramm. The induction is to take place in New York next June.
Jones, whose hits with his New York-based British-American band include “I Want to Know What Love Is,” “Juke Box Hero,” “Waiting For a Girl Like You,” “Urgent,” “Hot Blooded” and “Double Vision,” says he is honoured by the special nod from fellow songwriters. “It’s one of those nice little things that comes along once in a while.”
But tooling around London in the early 1960s in his first car — a white Mini he bought from his mother in a sweetheart deal for about $50 — the teenager’s career in music was far from certain.
That despite working as a session musician with the likes of Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, and opening for the Rolling Stones with his band at the time, The Hustlers.
Getting around to various gigs in the Mini helped Jones pay his dues.
Nowadays the iconic British Mini is made by BMW, and it’s just as popular as the hip and quirky original.
“I remember getting a couple of amps in there and a drum kit,” Jones recalls. “I look at those cars these days — and the new ones are much bigger — I can’t imagine how we used to get these instruments in there, and two or three people, too.
“But they were astounding cars. I had a lot of fun. They’re great to drive.”
Jones remembers his little car groaning under camping gear strapped to a roof rack for a family vacation in Europe. “It wasn’t that powerful with four people in it, loaded down. It was definitely faster going downhill,” he says with a laugh.
As a young man, Jones worked in an architectural firm. But deep down, he knew he had to follow his dream: “I just had stars in my eyes.”
The Mini was passed on to his brother, and Jones moved to France, lured by the Brigitte Bardot glamour he found in the pages of Paris Match magazine. There, he got a gig as a backup musician and began writing songs in about 1966 for French singing legend Johnny Hallyday. (In an emotional reunion last month, Jones jammed on stage with Hallyday at the singer’s first New York concert.)
Jones says he gained valuable experience in France, meeting and playing with such rock and roll legends as David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix (with whom he briefly toured) and The Beatles.
“I kind of lived through ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ with them,” Jones says of The Beatles. “It was crazy: girls screaming everywhere. I just got carried away completely.”
In France, he put many kilometres on a Volvo 134 S, the classic long-living Swede of the ’60s. “It was great. For me, it was a fantastic car. It was kind of a workhorse, but it was fast and safe and I had a few adventures in that. Because I was touring in France with it, it lasted me several years.
“Then I started to change, and I had an Alfa Romeo — like a coupe — and finally, I got to a 911 Porsche.”
For many people, buying a Porsche is a sign of having arrived. For Jones, in the early 1970s, it signalled his departure.
“At that point in my career, I thought, ‘Wow, this is great. I’m playing with the biggest star in France and writing songs and I’m starting to make my way.’ And that’s when I kind of realized . . . I sort of stopped one day and I just thought, ‘Just a minute. What am I doing? I’m in France, I’ve got a Porsche. (I was like 26 or 27.) I’m middle-aged already!’ ”
Jones went back to England, joined the band Spooky Tooth and eventually wound up in New York. He formed Foreigner there in 1976, with Gramm, former King Crimson musician Ian McDonald, bass guitarist Ed Gagliardi, drummer Dennis Elliott and keyboardist Alan Greenwood.
The band’s debut single went to No. 4 on the pop chart, and Jones recalls hearing it for the first time on the highway.
“I was driving across the Triborough Bridge in New York and I was listening to the radio station WNEW. They played ‘Feels Like the First Time’ and it was just, ‘wow!’ It was the first time I heard it on the radio and the deejay said, ‘Now there’s some music to roll the window down and floor it!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I meant.’”
Foreigner has changed since then — Jones is the only original member left — but its music is still popular, featured this year in the movies Rock of Ages and Magic Mike and on an episode of Glee.
Jones’s car has changed, too, from Mini to maxi. He now prefers a larger-model Mercedes for its safety and ease of use.
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