544. ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’, by Foreigner

1984 saw a battle take place at the top of the British charts. A tussle to the death between high energy pop and glossy ballads. The final score, I think, was Ballads 5 – 7 Bangers. Dancefloors across the nation rejoiced…

I Want to Know What Love Is, by Foreigner (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 13th January – 3rd February 1985

Except. The contest isn’t finished yet. 1985 kicks off with what is perhaps the ultimate soft-rock ballad… The steady drums, the background synths. A painfully earnest voice: I’ve gotta take a little time, A little time to think things over… And boy, do they take a little time. It’s so slow. What might be a chorus arrives, and dissolves back into the gloop as we plod on.

I think fist-clenchers like this (the video below literally opens on a clenched fist…) were ten-a-penny on top of the Billboard charts in the mid-eighties. That’s the impression I have, at least: REO Speedwagon, Boston, Peter Cetera, Mr Mister… All hits in the UK, to some extent, but not chart-toppers. Foreigner made it, though. Something about this one caught the British public’s imagination in the deep midwinter, as couples snuggled together around the fire…

The chorus, when it finally does arrive, a minute and a half in, is instantly recognisable. I want to know what love is… I want you to show me… It’s one that’s become ingrained in the popular conscience, which is usually a sign of classic status. But it just doesn’t do much for me. It’s too serious, too constipated… For power-ballads to work they need to be in on the joke, to an extent.

I don’t think that Foreigner had their tongues in their cheeks when they were recording this. By the second chorus, a gospel choir has been added to the mix, and lead-singer Lou Gramm is adding some (admittedly impressive) soulful adlibs. I think there might be a moment, a time in life, when a song like this clicks for you. I have yet to experience it, though.

As I wait for the song to reach its conclusion, some questions come unbidden to my mind. Did Foreigner have big hair…? (Yes, but not quite as big as it might have been. I think 1986/7 was peak poodle-perm) And who is the woman singing those wild backing vocals…? (Broadway star Jennifer Holliday – she’s the best thing about the song.)

‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ was Foreigner’s only #1, on either side of the Atlantic. They were regulars to the US Top 10 for at least ten years. In Britain, though, this was only their second, and final, Top 10 hit. ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ made #8. ‘Cold As Ice’ – a much better contender for their sole number one – only made #24…! As it is, 1985 carries on from where ’84 left: slow, steady and earnest. Up next in our ongoing game of ‘Ballad or Banger’… It’s another slow one…

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17 thoughts on “544. ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’, by Foreigner

  1. I remember discovering Foreigner in 1977 through the first couple of singles, and instantly liked them. (Shock, horror – you could like ELO, as well as Sex Pistols, Stranglers, AND Eagles and Foreigner all at once). Seven years later, by which time ‘They sound like Foreigner!’ had become a standard insult in musical circles, I saw a clip of this on TV and thought ‘What a great record – but it’ll never be a hit in the UK.’ I was glad to be proved wrong. The worst thing you can say about about Foreigner was that they spawned a lot of mediocre imitators – well, what successful band didn’t? But I always thought this was one of THE ultimate soft rock ballads, smooches, end of evening songs, etc. I can unashamedly say that it still is – for me it stands head and shoulders above most if not all of the competition.

  2. Styx, REO, Foreigner, and Journey belonged in that late seventies early eighties rock genre I never cared for…they were all slick sounding…not a raw edge to be found. Journey was ok until they got Cain from the Babies and he turned them to mush.
    This song is about the only one I can stomach from Foreigner… for what it was it was ok. I do like the choir in the background and at least they didn’t hide behind walls of synths.

  3. The money shot is the gospel choir and jennifer hollidays “lets talk about love”. Its all about the build up to the climax. British band in part so theres a nice twist in them Foreigners moving in on Big Hair Rock which is American 80s defined. I still rate this one. I cant recommend enough the uk hit version of And Im Telling You Im Not Going. Jennifer did it first. Did it best. Jaw dropping vocal performance.

    • I agree that it improves with Jennifer Holliday’s vocal gymnastics… But I’m still not as hot on it as you and some other commenters. Wasn’t expecting this much love for it : )

      • Wow. They were damn popular here. I saw them, first, in 1987 in Greensboro during “Hysteria.” Then, 2006 & 2008, me and a crew of friends chased them all over Texas. Met the band during a double-header with Journey. Really nice guys…proper Brits. Shook our hands. Chased AC/DC all over Texas, too. Miss those days…

      • Oh wow, thats’s cool. I think the US had the best and the worst of 80s rock at the top of the charts… a lot of sludgy ballads (like Foreigner) but also #1s from GnR and Bon Jovi etc. The UK charts were definitely more dance/pop oriented, especially towards the end of the decade…

  4. Over here, Foreigner are one of those acts that have a bunch of hit songs you’ll hear on the radio that it’s almost astounding how many of them you recognize. They got close to #1 in their decade before “I Want To Know What Love Is” with the #2 hits “Double Vision” in 1978 and “Waiting For A Girl Like You” which is tied with Missy Elliot’s “Work It” for the most weeks in the runner up spot without hitting #1 at 10 weeks. Tom Breihan brings up how corporate rock acts like Foreigner that were big in the late-‘70s and early-‘80s before MTV became popular again by ‘85 after Americans tired of the British synthpop wave even if Foreigner were pulling collaborators and touches from that scene. Sure, the song sounds like pure ‘80s synth ballad schlock but I think Lou Gramm pulls it off in his delivery and creates one of the most memorable singalong choruses.

  5. Pingback: 552. ‘Frankie’, by Sister Sledge | The UK Number Ones Blog

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