40th Anniversary of Foreigner
Interview with Ian McDonald – From King Crimson to Honey West
Giveaway: Autographed “Bad Old World” – Honey West CD
By Warren Kurtz
IAN McDONALD was first heard on the late 1969 progressive rock debut album by King Crimson, “In the Court of the Crimson King,” the one with the painting of a screaming face of the “21st Century Schizoid Man.” In addition to co-writing, Ian McDonald played saxophone, flute, keyboards and other instruments on this classic album. 40 years ago, in 1977, he was part of another group’s debut album with a painting on the cover, the sextet Foreigner, and remained with them for their three ‘70s albums. Now Ian McDonald is a key member and co-writer in a new band, Honey West. Goldmine spoke with Ian McDonald about all three of these groups, T. Rex, and even Doc Severinsen.
GOLDMINE: Before we get to the 40th anniversary of Foreigner, we must talk about your new group Honey West. I love the band’s name. I used to watch that detective show on TV in the mid-‘60s, the year before “Batman” debuted. How did you become part of that New York group?
IAN McDONALD: Well, I have been living in New York since the mid-‘70s. Just a while back Ted Zurkowski and his wife Lynnea Benson were in a Shakespeare company and I was writing music for it and playing live piano, too. Ted had a band, initially alternative country, called Honey West. I saw them, was impressed and I wondered if they would have me. The back cover of the CD is a photo of Long Island that I took when I was on Ted’s boat with Ted and Lynnea.
GM: You and Ted have created one of my favorite albums of 2017. I like the entire dozen song collection. I enjoy Ted’s lyrics on “Brand New Car” where “life’s so easy now” on this break-up song, and the humor contained too, including the line, “Think I’ll get a job, maybe one I like.” With the song “Sylvia Strange,” he is “sorry to see her go.”
IM: Ted’s lyrics are witty and smart, such a strong point for him and Honey West. With “Brand New Car,” the music in the middle is a bit of a psychedelic throwback to the ‘60s. On “Sylvia Strange” we don’t pretend to play reggae, but we did it in a similar style. My son Max plays bass on that one and two other songs on the CD. I am proud to have him in our live band. He is a great bass player and great guitarist, too.
GM: I really enjoy the imagery in the opening lines of “California” and song reference, “Never saw a girl so fine with your sunshine eyes, your mountains and your valleys and your ocean and you’re eight miles high.” The music sounds like a Hollies solo song to me while “A Girl Called Life” reminds me of the Searchers. When Ted hits the high notes on the lines, “I’m a guy who can never keep his thoughts to himself. I think and sing anything that pops in my head,” I think this is one of highlights of your album.
IM: “California” is one of my favorites. This was a breakthrough song for us as a songwriting team. When struggling with the lyric, we took a ten minute break. Then picking up a guitar, our partnership was born. I have sort of a soft spot for this one being our first. I also particularly like “A Girl Called Life,” and it might be my favorite on the CD. With a title like that, it had to be a good song.
GM: Your synthesizer strings and Steve Holley’s percussion provide a nice backdrop on “She’s Not Your Life,” a song with Bee Gees-like gentleness, yet a song like “Terry & Julie” sounds like punk-pop, and “Dementia” as the album closer is wild, fun and funny.
IM: “She’s Not Your Life” certainly is beautiful. “Terry & Julie” was inspired by the acting couple Terrance Stamp and Julie Christie, who starred in the 1967 film “The Maddening Crowd.” We made a small film too, a video, for the single “Dementia,” with the lyrics on tarot cards while I am featured musically on a baritone sax, recorded live in the studio with a live vocal. This can be viewed on our band’s website.
GM: The first time I heard you play saxophone was on T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get it On).”
IM: Here is a little bit of trivia for Goldmine, “Bang a Gong,” called “Get it On” in England, where it reached number one, is my only number one claim to fame.
GM: My friend John and I were huge fans of that song in 1971, the same year you released the beautiful McDonald and Giles album. It seemed that King Crimson split into thirds with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, McDonald and Giles, and King Crimson with John Wetton joining that group. I offer my condolences on the recent losses.
IM: So sad. In a ten month period I have lost three of my contemporaries, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and John Wetton. Thank you for mentioning the McDonald and Giles album. There was a 2002 reissue on Virgin as a CD, where they tightened it up. I recommend this version.
GM: My friend John is also a big April Wine fan. It was good to hear their version of your “21st Century Schizoid Man” on FM rock radio as the finale on their 1979 album “Harder…Faster.” The biggest surprise was when my jazz loving friend Tim played me Doc Severinsen’s 7:30 version of your “The Court of the Crimson King” as the opening number on the 1970 album “Doc Severinsen’s Closet.” The high notes are incredible. This is my favorite Doc Severinsen recording.
IM: It was quite a compliment being recorded by him. What a great trumpeter. All the members of Doc Severinsen and the Tonight Show Band that we would see, watching Johnny Carson, were fantastic musicians. Here’s more trivia for you. His tenor saxophonist, Pete Christlieb, played on “Deacon Blues” from Steely Dan’s “Aja” album and on “FM (No Static at All.”
GM: Those songs were back to back singles in the summer of 1978, when I was selling records at Peaches Records & Tapes.
IM: Peaches! I loved Peaches. We did in store appearances there, autographing Foreigner albums.
GM: We had a big album art board painting on the wall of Foreigner’s second album “Double Vision,” which was in our Top 10 at the store for weeks. When “Hot Blooded” was the first hit single, I would play side one of the album in the store, which ended with your song “Love Has Taken Its Toll.”
IM: We got a lot of FM airplay with that song, for a non-single. I had fun with the sax break. It was a simple rocker and all the band was included.
GM: From side two of the “Double Vision,” the title tune was released as the next hit single. Then I could flip the album over and introduce our customers to your instrumental “Tramontane,” which was also the flip side of “Hot Blooded” and the next song, the gentle “I Have Waited So Long,” with your beautiful saxophone work, which became the flip side of “Blue Morning, Blue Day.”
IM: Thank you. Yes, three Top 40 singles just like our debut in 1977.
GM: In May of 1977, my girlfriend Donna, now my wife, and I tried to see you in Cleveland at a concert of three new acts with debut albums. At that time, Heart had two hit singles, “Crazy on You” and “Magic Man,” so they were considered the headliner. You had your first hit single with Foreigner, “Feels Like the First Time,” and Walter Egan didn’t have any hits yet, so when Ann Wilson was feeling ill, the entire show was canceled last minute as we were standing in line to get in. Like you mentioned, ultimately you had three hit singles from your debut with “Cold as Ice” following and one you co-wrote, “Long, Long Way from Home.”
IM: On that one, Al Greenwood played the synthesizer while I played saxophone and clavinet as a rhythm keyboard, tied to Dennis Elliott’s drumming. I still stay in contact with Al and Dennis. In July, we had a 40th anniversary of Foreigner reunion at Jones Beach in New York. Lou, Al and I joined Mick and the current lineup in concert for three songs including “Long, Long Way from Home.”
GM: Donna and I were married on the final weekend of the ‘70s as the title tune “Head Games” from your third album reached its peak. It’s flip side, “Do What You Like,” has a nice mid-tempo rhythm, like a Badfinger song.
IM: That is a nice song and I would like to re-record it. I have a couple of projects planned. I am working with Ted on re-recording some of the earlier Honey West recordings and I’ll be working on Steve Holley’s next solo album, too.
GM: Congratulations again on the 40th anniversary of Foreigner and thank you for the “Bad Old World” CDs. We anticipate having many readers entering the giveaway contest.
IM: Thank you and we also hope to have more Honey West live shows to showcase the new songs. You and the Goldmine readers can finally see me live again.
To win an autographed copy of Honey West’s “Bad Old World” CD, all you have to do is put your email address in the box below by September 30, 11:59 p.m. You will immediately be entered in the Giveaway and as a bonus you will receive Goldmine’s informative weekly eNewsletter (collecting news/tips and exclusive articles and interviews with your favorite classic artists). We will randomly draw a winner from the entrants. We have two autographed CDs to give away, so your chances are doubled.