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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