Sep 09

FOREIGNER – “I Want To Know What Love Is”

FT + Popular65 comments • 7,960 views

#544, 19th January 1985, video

Jim Diamond be advised: this is what a power ballad sounds like. Even lined up next to the moral weight of Band Aid it’s like someone’s gone and parked a Hummer in the British charts’ car park – something unbelievably enormous and unspeakably wasteful has rolled into town and it’s best just to stay well out if its way, while maybe sneakily admiring quite how shiny and huge it is.

The structure of “I Want To Know What Love Is” is the same redemptive one as “Hey Jude”, except here’s there’s never any intimacy, and happiness doesn’t come through your friends, but through simply growing as vast as you have to to fill the space provided. Which is pretty bloody vast. The gospel choir? Stained glass window dressing, something else to be rolled up into Foreigner’s katamari of need that by single’s end is ready to engulf the world. “I WANT YOU TO SHOW ME”. “B-but o great one we have shown you everything.” “I KNOW YOU CAN SHOW ME.”

As is often the case, abjection is more interesting than salvation: bluster turns out to be the single’s main appeal, but there’s some lovely stuff going on in “I Want To Know”‘s first section (also the only point I can make any kind of emotional contact with Lou Gramm): the slow-breaking wave of sound at 45 seconds in, the Martian war machine stomp just after a minute. They hint at a stranger, stronger, icier single under this one’s unstoppable carapace.



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  1. 1
    Tom on 9 Sep 2009 #

    5 already feels too low, BTW, but I think that’s just the nostalgia trying to get a toehold. It’s no “Waiting for a Girl Like You” or “Cold As Ice”.

  2. 2
    col124 on 9 Sep 2009 #

    This is a tough one to rate. I initially hated it, then came around after reading (I think) Dave Marsh’s boost of it in his “1001 Singles” book, ca. 1989. Then I hated it again, then enjoyed it again. Hard to say. But at the core of it, it’s really about Lou Gramm’s vocal, which is wonderful and, somehow, is even slightly restrained in the midst of the imposed grandeur. Gramm really was an underrated singer, one of the best of the ’80s, IMO. The song on paper is pure schlock, pretty much, but the record’s redeemed by something one can’t quite pin down–Gramm’s vocal, or the slightly inaccessible emotions the song generated in its listeners. And U2 totally ripped this off–in sentiment, if not in song–with “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” (even the idea of the “spiritual black choir” became a ridiculous cliche after this, didn’t it?). Hell, I’ll give it a 7.

  3. 3
    TomLane on 9 Sep 2009 #

    The best song Bono never came up with. A power ballad that turns into a Gospel song. Slow moving until the choir (and Jennifer Holiday) kicks in? Come on, Gramm’s vocals are what keep you tuned in until the big finish. This is his moment and he’s riding every bit of emotion he can get from the lyrics. But, still, the gospel choir DOES comes in, the song turns into something else. But the building, anticipation for that moment are what make this a blueprint for any future Rock and or Pop song that tried to add Gosepl elements to it. A 10.

  4. 4
    epicharmus on 9 Sep 2009 #

    I don’t hear a will-to-gigantism here. I hear it roughly along the terms with which the video presents the song: at first Lou Gramm is solo, isolated, dejected (AOR rarely gets as dejected as this); his spirit is lifted once he joins New Yorkers from all walks of life in purposive, communal activity where Lou plays only a part–it’s then and only then that he gets the girl, only then can he even begun to understand what love is.

    Yeah, I gave it a 10.

  5. 5
    swanstep on 9 Sep 2009 #

    Let’s face it, irrational detestation like dumb whooping love (I don’t want to defend ‘Girls just wanna have fun’, I just want to revel in it, or something) has a place in our response to pop music. The beginning of the vid. with the fat-faced f*** squinting through the corporate blinds thinking over how hard his live is, grrrr…. anger rising, must control impulse to hit, feeling Fight Club-ish need to detonate buildings…
    0 (my hell hath its soundtrack)

  6. 6
    Jonathan Bogart on 9 Sep 2009 #

    “Holy shit,” quoth yr correspondent when this came up in my RSS feed. This was a UK #1? I don’t know why I was surprised — Foreigner is just as English as they are American — but they’re redolent of the US experience of the 80s that I remember: halfshirts and unironic mullets and strip malls crisping in the sun. It’s rare, in other words, that the experience of the avg British listener as represented by Popular has coincided so nearly with not my own experience exactly, but what I recognize as belonging to my American peers in the 1980s.

    Of course, being American, I think of the impact of British music on the landscape of American pop, and rarely think of the reverse effect. (And a bit of nationocentrism is implied in the very fact that I think of Foreigner as American. There’s something in there too about how, as we’ve seen Americans instictively code British as gay, so that the masculinized pomp-rock (although that’s problematic too, thinking of the high notes and ballad format) of Foreigner is claimed as American.)

    Anyway, I’m overthinking my response to it because I’ve got nothing to say about the song. It’s one of those things I’ve heard a lot and has never meant anything to me except as a period signifier.

  7. 7
    lonepilgrim on 9 Sep 2009 #

    I hated it at the time because it didn’t tick the boxes of ‘authentic’ soul or UK artifice – but now I rather like it. There’s a nice balance between the grandeur of the arrangement and the controlled humility of the central performance. I had exactly the same thought as col124 at 2 – Bono must have been taking notes – but his preening bombast rarely, if ever, matches this performance.

  8. 8
    punctum on 9 Sep 2009 #

    What made “Waiting For A Girl Like You” almost unique among Anglo-American AoR ballads was its hallucinatory background, the song’s yearning, wandering like the singer’s dazed uncertainty between keys major and minor, echoed by the alien high drones of treated guitar and synthesiser suggesting that Fripp and Eno had gatecrashed the session (Foreigner’s keyboardist Ian McDonald was an early member of King Crimson, so the comparison is not far-fetched).

    “I Want To Know What Love Is” aims for a wider statement of the same basic theme – love found after repeated rejection and pain, and the singer’s resultant confusion – but its canvas is broader and coarser. While there are minute traces of Trevor Horn’s pre-production work to be glimpsed – for example, the sudden zoom-in on the synth chorale halfway through the first verse – and although Lou Gramm gives a fine vocal performance (he always reminds me of a slightly more rockist Cliff Richard) the lyric’s climb-ev’ry-mountain metaphor is shop soiled and the whole track sinks into regrettable bombast with the entrance of an entirely unnecessary mass choir, including among its curious number Jennifer Holliday and the Thompson Twins. It foresees with some shivering accuracy the post-Band Aid trend for Big Statements sung by Lots Of Voices with Proper Passion.

  9. 9
    Mark M on 9 Sep 2009 #

    (Re 6: of course, in the 80s, Americans fleeing the invasion of “gay English bands” frequently took solace in the sounds of Judas Priest).

  10. 10
    Stevie T on 9 Sep 2009 #

    I remember being utterly baffled when I came across Greil Marcus raving about the sax break in this somewhere. I find this track inextricably linked up in 80s memory with Jonathan King’s No Limits, where the witless Tony Baker and Jenny Powell would troll around Doncaster and Runcorn to the cognitively dissonant soundtrack of Foreigner, Huey Lewis and Bruce Hornsby. I’m sure Robin Carmody has already written a thesis on the subject. “We hate all American AOR pensioners” as Frankie said.

  11. 11
    Lex on 9 Sep 2009 #

    This is Mariah Carey’s new single!

  12. 12
    Lex on 9 Sep 2009 #

    I should probably provide a link for that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsIfJNOzWAo

    I doubt it’ll be bothering Popular, and I have no opinion on the original, but Mariah does exactly the kind of excellent job you’d expect of her covering a huge wind machine song like this – the entrance of the gospel choir is gloriously inevitable. As a “lead single” it’s a tad desperate in the face of “Obsessed” flopping, this is the kind of awesomely overblown thing which Mariah should save to be an album track.

  13. 13

    A sub-editor writes:
    Lou Gramm’s real name is GRAMMATICO! Why ON EARTH did he change that?

  14. 14
    punctum on 9 Sep 2009 #

    Are we ever going to hear this new Mariah album?

    “NEEDS” to go back into the studio is rather ominous.

  15. 15

    Gearchange keyshift at 2.58: oh mariahpaws :(

  16. 16
    Billy Smart on 9 Sep 2009 #

    Ah, what I find interesting about this is that it has become, for me, a bona fide guilty pleasure, in that I’ve really started to enjoy it as I’ve grown up, but only for the bombast, certainly not for the emotion. It sounds like Zeus is singing, not a mere man! I generally can only listen to it on headphones, probably because I don’t wan’t any passer-by to think that I’m emphatising with it.

    Spool back to January 1985, and whenever this comes up on Top Of The Pops or Radio 1 it makes my parents laugh.


    Michael Smart: Oh dear. He sounds troubled. Has he sought counselling?

    I generally think that loneliness and seeking another should sound a bit more vulnerable and humble than this.

  17. 17
    Conrad on 9 Sep 2009 #

    I wonder what “Street Thunder Urgent” is about.

  18. 18
    Pete on 9 Sep 2009 #

    There is something pleasurable in assuming there might be some autotune in the Mariah version, and her almost singing like there is, but she does have the chops to sing it. The rest is as expected!

    My sister I think possible bought every number one in a long run around here (perhaps skipping diamond) as she would have been fourteen and was working in a bakers, and wanted to flash the cash. We fought a tiny battle over this one because of its bombast she believed that it needed to be played at top volume. I on the other hand liked its gentle contained intro which I preferred to be played quietly (as I sang along). Needless to say she won and was right, at eleven I couldn’t really sell the line “In my life, there’s been heartache and pain”. These days I nail it at karaoke. 7.

    It was always a pity that I Can’T Fight This Feeling, by REO Speedwagon, this songs spiritual brother, never went to number one. Firstly because it is ace and has a really dumb metaphor that confuses boats and ships. But secondly because I would pay to see a fight between the aging REO Speedwagon, and the younger but one assumes less hard The Feeling.

  19. 19
    Lex on 9 Sep 2009 #

    #15: surely you mean: oh mariahpaws :D

    #14: while I think this is a pretty great cover done exactly how you expect (and want) Mariah to do it (cf. her version of “Bringing On The Heartbreak”), it’s the sort of thing which should be an album track rather than a lead single, let alone a fake lead single as Def Jam tries to pretend that “Obsessed” never existed, and its status as such is emblematic of an album campaign which has come off the rails a bit. Weirdly despite it heading straight for flopsville, I still think Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel will be a really strong album.

  20. 20

    You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!

    Signed the Lady Galadriel

    ps Miss you wish you were here huggles from yr wubsybear galadkins

    (^^^This is what the song’s about: Mariah has the chops to pull this off but really not the temperament: Whitney maybe? I kinda like the conceit of Lou G trying it: the disconnect between the vast self-centredness of it and the total insecurity is a nice glimpse into the ordinary male head; also, I think Foreigner were quicker than most to grasp exactly the ambiguity that Pete and hs sister argued over — synth-arrangements can simultaneously be intimate and delicate, and pan-galactically splendid, in a way that no prior instrumentation could manage… it may be the reason that the choir destabilises the illusion; you’re forced to accept a scale and a sense of a world outsde gramm’s deluded head…)

  21. 21
    Pete on 9 Sep 2009 #

    Terminology note: Lou G is Lou Gehrig, not Lou Gramm.

  22. 22

    Salad of all the Lous: Reed, Rawls, Gehrig and Grammatico

  23. 23
    Rory on 9 Sep 2009 #

    Jonathan @6 – you weren’t alone in thinking this was American; I did too until I read the Wikipedia entry the other day. It’s right there in the band name, of course, but who takes those literally? Next they’ll be telling us that Chicago hailed from Chicago and Boston were from Boston. But to be fair, Lou Gramm was so much of what made Foreigner memorable that a lot of us never paid much attention to the band itself.

    Mark M @9 – oh, the delicious irony!

    Billy Smart @16 – your father wins the thread.

    Number one in Australia for five weeks, so we had plenty of time to ponder what love was. That picture sleeve, which I might even be seeing here for the first time, sums up my impression of the song: a big, solid weight dropping onto the charts of the world, like a giant brick plummeting to earth from the void. HERE IS THE QUESTION, it shouts, AND THE ANSWER IS IN HEAVEN. Gospel choir; Lou Gramm’s latest release a Christian rock album. Could this in fact be considered part of the 1980s boom in Christian rock? Stryper by stealth?

    It’s all too bombastic for me, in a way that U2’s gospel choir experiments never felt. I acknowledge the craft, particularly in Gramm’s performance, but it didn’t move me to part with my hard-earned then and wouldn’t now. 4.

  24. 24

    B-but you can’t tell the scale of the brick! It could be alphabetti spaghetti, or like that alien invasion story where the entire stellar fleet all drown in a small puddle when they land

  25. 25
    Billy Smart on 9 Sep 2009 #

    Definitive pop memories: 1985 and 12 year old Billy is listening to Marillion’s ‘Misplaced Childhood’;

    Fish: Do you REMEMBER!? DANCING in STILLETOS in the SNOW!?

    Michael Smart: No I don’t. What a stupid thing to do.

    1989, and 16 year old Billy is listening to ‘Bloodbath’ by Phranc;

    Phranc: Reagan, Thatcher, Boatha, I’m white like them – and it makes me ashamed of the colour of my skin!

    Michael Smart. There’s a lot of false guilt around, isn’t there?

  26. 26
    Tom on 9 Sep 2009 #

    #24 the slightly indistinct grey/whiteness of it makes me think of those nanotech demonstrations where a band logo is shown built out of 5 atoms or whatever.

  27. 27
    Rory on 9 Sep 2009 #

    It’s a Vogon spaceship, innit.

  28. 28
    wichita lineman on 9 Sep 2009 #

    Ooh, some fine posts here.

    I wanna know what Mariah tackling I Should Have Known Better would sound like!

    Re 26: Not only did Mick Jones hail from Portsmouth, he decamped to Paris and wrote a slew of great fuzzy ye-ye songs for Sylvie Vartan (check C’est un jour pour rester coucher) before ending up in NYC and writing Cold As Ice et cet. I’d like to think such worldliness meant he felt comfortable writing for the voice of Zeus.

    Tom, the “stranger, stronger, icier single” is Waiting For A Girl Like You, isn’t it? The bombast of IWTKWLI is what spoils it for me (5 is about right) and neatly summarises the change from ’82 adventure to mid eighties vacuous largeness. Architecturally, this is a modest office block with Corinthian columns blu-tacked to the front door – and plenty of that went on in the mid eighties.

    Re 3: The spiritual black choir, or at least black female b vox, had become a slightly embarrassing pop staple earlier in the decade for acts as ill-suited as Aztec Camera. Hence the opening line of The all’s The Classical in 1982: “Bring on the obligatory niggers”. Then the choir got bigger and bigger until it imploded, with a hilarious pompous splat, on Rattle And Hum.

    Re 17: Street Thunder and Urgent, sadly, are two separate songs. Reminds me of seeing Alternative TV’s new single in the shops and wondering what How Much Longer You Bastard sounded like.

  29. 29
    Pete Baran on 9 Sep 2009 #

    On the B-Side issue, I vaguely remember the UK version just having an instrumental version on it, which I would thusly sing along to. But I could be completely wrong. Will check when I get home.

    (This was the period of a lot of instrumentals on B-Sides. Careless Whisper’s prepped me for Karaoke!)

  30. 30
    wichita lineman on 9 Sep 2009 #

    Re 28: That The Fall, rather than The All…

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