Sep 09

FOREIGNER – “I Want To Know What Love Is”

FT + Popular66 comments • 8,510 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.



1 2 All
  1. 31
    LondonLee on 9 Sep 2009 #

    Starts off lovely and intimate (nice warm synths on it) but does rather over cook it’s own goose by the end, that bloody choir is a Cecil B. DeMille flourish that just tramples the song. They still trot out an obligatory choir in the American Idol finals to add a note of rapture to whatever “climb every mountain” cliche they’ve written for the poor contestant to sing.

    Still like this a lot though, if just for the first bits, at least a 7 from me. I liked ‘Feels Like The First Time’ too while we’re rating Foreigner singles.

  2. 32
    Kat but logged out innit on 9 Sep 2009 #

    I think 5 is way too harsh! At least a 7 for me, which immediately goes up to 8 once it starts up on the Lucky Voice screen.

  3. 33
    johnny on 9 Sep 2009 #

    like my fellow americans, i never realized this was a number one in britain. i really like this one. i understand what some of you are saying about the bombast, but this really speaks for its time and place. it sounds like a rainy saturday morning in the midwest. it smells like the office building my dad worked in – stale coffee and air conditioning.

    i also think the simple lyrics match the feel of the song. lou gramm is the Everyman here. no symbolism or extended metaphors here, as in the aforementioned REO Speedwagon tune. just heartache and pain, simple as can be.

  4. 34
    Erithian on 9 Sep 2009 #

    I’m really sorry about this, but although it’s earnest and sincere, and although the intro is warm and enveloping, and although it’s a fine vocal performance, somehow it just doesn’t move me. And there’s not a lot more I can say about it.

    Number 2 Watch – a week each for its predecessor and successor, plus a week for Prince’s “1999”.

    And it must have been during this run at number one that we had one of the all-time great lines from John Peel on TOTP: “That’s Russ Abbot with his cover of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”…”

  5. 35
    CarsmileSteve on 9 Sep 2009 #

    @26 and @27: sorry tom and rory, not the vogons, although it was hitch-hikers, when arthur dent says “i seem to be having some difficulty with my lifestyle” on magrathea and it gets sent back in time/space to some aliens whose name i can’t remember and they end up getting eaten by a dog.

    i remember being sad that DTKIC wasn’t number one anymore, especially as this was clearly a boring grown up song (and about LOVE as well, ew) i was 28 at the time.

  6. 36
    Rory on 9 Sep 2009 #

    Steve @35, I was actually referring to how that big F looks on the picture sleeve: hanging in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.

    The alien invasion scale mix-up is an old SF idea, certainly pre-Hitchhiker’s (which Adams was no doubt referencing in that joke).

  7. 37
    ottersteve on 9 Sep 2009 #

    Tom. I feel I know you so well now that I dare predict your score for the next song….. 4

    ottersteve (formerly steve)

  8. 38
    Jonathan Bogart on 9 Sep 2009 #

    @23: On the subject of Christian codings, I’ve mentioned before (during the reign of Bonnie Tyler) that I was at certain points in my life involved with church youth ministries. At one point I was assigned the task of updating a Christian symbolist skit written in the 1980s which suggested “I Want To Know What Love Is” as the soundtrack for a scene in which the teenage protagonist discovers the God-shaped hole in their life. That, we were certain, was far too old and corny a reference for millennial teens. I can’t for the life of me remember what we replaced it with; Natalie Imbruglia?

    (No rights were ever paid.)

  9. 39
    anto on 9 Sep 2009 #

    The most apposite number one to start 1985 for 3 reasons that come to mind.

    1-The Geldof effect.
    A few number ones in the second half of 85 seemed to benefit from the post-Live Aid climate while some in the first half of the year seem to reflect how Band Aid had caught the public interest.
    I’ve no doubt this would have been a big hit for Foreigner regardless of context even so this of all songs suceeding Do they know.. at #1 –
    A song with a choir on it hhmmm could it just be possible that record-buyers were still in the mood for a mass singalong even if Band Aid had become ubiquitis?

    2-Love Songs
    Obviously there are plenty of love song topping the charts in any year but just looking at the list of 1985 number ones it seems particularly noticable that love songs were very much in fashion.

    3-Grown-up Matters
    Foreigner are seen as a quintessential AOR band and I want to know… is very much a song of experience rather than innocence (love is elusive but has left its wounds nontheless as oppossed to Springsteens callow “I wanna know if love is real” on Born to Run).
    1985 must have a case for being pop musics most adult-orientated year ever. Looking at that list of #1s again with the odd exception one can’t help notice the number of songs that broach adult emotions or records released as acts of altruism or even the odd track that looks back at past times.
    If we took Rock Around the Clock as pops proper starting point and it’s not uncommon to do so then 1985 would of course be the year of Saturns Return.
    I dunno it seems to me if ever there was a period where pop wore a suit and sensible shoes, attended meetings and showed it’s serious, responsible side then this was it.

  10. 40
    MikeMCSG on 9 Sep 2009 #

    Foreigner were always a more interesting band than their AOR contemporaries (REO Speedwagon,Styx,Journey et al) probably because their main man Mick Jones (not Gramm) was an Englishman with a long track record in British rock. That made them always open to new influences and Thomas Dolby had made a telling contribution to their previous LP containing the aforementioned “Urgent”, a great track.

    Personally I can’t stand Gramm’s balls-in-a-vice vocals (thankfully we won’t have to discuss Michael Bolton on here )so that mighty chorus coming in to drown him out is what makes this record for me.

    As someone else mentioned Tom Bailey of the Thompson Twins is on the chorus here though you can’t tell and after a couple of recent near-misses this was his only contact with the number one spot. His year began with this,took in appearing with Madonna at Live Aid and ended with his band becoming ,along with (the to me ,more palatable) Blancmange, the first victims of the Great Cull we’ve alluded to in the Band Aid thread.

    The TTs are I think the least-loved of all the early 80s bands which goes back to what happened in 1982. In 1981 the approx 7 -piece band were the press darlings and heirs apparent to Joy Division amongst the raincoat brigade. Then after a few non-hits Bailey sacked all the real musicians keeping two musically inept “percussionists” who happened to be respectively a woman and a black guy for image purposes and went for the pop dollar. Their former champions went ape particularly when they started having big hits and were only too pleased to jump on the grave when their fortunes nosedived at the end of 1985.

    Apart from “Sister of Mercy” I didn’t like them much but compared to late 80s horrors such as Transvision Vamp or T’Pau they were gods!

  11. 41
    wwolfe on 9 Sep 2009 #

    Back when this single ruled the world, I was riding back to the office with a few co-workers after attending some work-related party. I loathed “I Want to Know,” so when it came on the car radio, I prepared to make some scathing remark about it. Before I did, I saw that one of my co-workers had become teary-eyed at the sentiment expressed in the song. While I didn’t understand that response to this song, the record clearly inspired something like that response in a lot of people. So while I still don’t share, or even understand, that reaction to this record, there must be something significant about any piece of work that causes a reaction like that in so many people. I guess I think of this as the musical equivalent of Ayers Rock: it gives me no pleasure asthetically, but there’s no denying it’s a very big rock.

  12. 42
    ottersteve on 10 Sep 2009 #

    Anto #39 – it’s ubiquitOUS by the way. Agree with some of your comments. Looking back over previous januarys you can see a pattern emerging whereby occasionaly a really big Xmas chart topper was followed by a bland or “novelty” record. My theory is that once xmas/new year euphoria is over, the next No.1 just happens to be the fortunate leader of the “also rans”. E.g january 1971,74,78,82 and a few others, I’m sure

  13. 43
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 10 Sep 2009 #

    speaking as an actual ancient grown-up who has now and then known love, I think the idea that “adults in love” are merely the sensible shoes of pop is exactly and precisely and utterly RONG: the reason teenagers are so freaked out by their parents spooning etc is because it is TOO WEIRD TO CONTEMPLATE aargh gah

    one of the strangest glitches about recent modern culture is that there has been this decades-long pop-cult spasm where ONLY teenagers thought they knew anything about sex and stuff and made a tremendous big noise about same — as i grew up right throught the miggle of same i am fond of this glitch, and indeed shaped by it, but its energy is that it is speaking extreme nonsensical silliness to power…

  14. 44
    ledge on 10 Sep 2009 #

    This is of course a great song for the ‘replacing “love” with “lunch”‘ game.

  15. 45
    MikeMCSG on 10 Sep 2009 #

    #42 ottersteve – It’s a fair point and I agree with some of your examples. However The New Seekers record in 74 was a million seller in it’s own right and I think Slade only overtook them in sales in the 80s when it was resissued.

    I also think a lot of people would object to you characterising “Uptown Top Ranking” as a fortunate also-ran. Because it wasn’t overtly a Christmas record Mull Of Kintyre stayed at the top beyond the festive season and Althia and Donna hadn’t been in the Christmas Top 20. They came as fresh faces dethroning a record we had all got fed up with.

  16. 46
    Tom on 10 Sep 2009 #

    The first two months of the year were traditionally the slowest month for singles sales – no idea if this is still true in the download/streaming era. There are certain notorious records in the 90s which have a reputation for only reaching #1 because of the time of year but I’ve no idea whether the stats stack up – we will of course discuss them nearer the time!

  17. 47
    Erithian on 10 Sep 2009 #

    I don’t know how well this particular January hit sold in relation to others of the time – although as I mentioned on the relevant thread, “Pipes of Peace” had until recently the lowest weekly sale of any number one ever – but coming after the late-‘84 sales peak, it seemed to be part of a general hangover.

    Harking back to my frequent theme of the all-time top 100 UK best-selling singles (as shown on probably the most valid of those Channel 4 list shows), here’s an interesting comparison.
    Number of singles in the all-time top 100 released between 1981 and 1984: 17
    Number of singles in the all-time top 100 released between 1985 and 1993: 5

    I don’t know whether this reflects the overall level of singles sales, but as we enter the post-New Pop period it seems the big hits get smaller – and the two biggest hits in the latter period are tracks that had double-figure runs at number one while being cross-promoted by the films to which they were the theme songs (I think I dodged the bunny there).

  18. 48
    mike on 10 Sep 2009 #

    Now, I’m a broad-minded sort of chap, with a range of musical tastes that could kindly be labelled “eclectic” – or perhaps more accurately “indiscriminate”. Although it’s generally said that one’s tastes fossilise with age, my experience has been quite the opposite, and this is something in which I take a certain measure of pride.

    But despite all of that, I still CANNOT FUCKING STAND POWER BALLADS. Along with metal (whose craft I can at least grudgingly admire), this is my one remaining genre prejudice – and it’s a prejudice that is going to become increasingly problematic on Popular, as the dreariest, dirgiest, hammiest, most preposterous Power Ballads have a distressing habit of ALWAYS FUCKING GOING TO FUCKING NUMBER ONE, AARGH!

    In the spirit of fairness, and mindful of the esteemed commenters above who have given it the full 10 points, I’ve delayed writing anything about “I Want To Know What Love Is” until I had a chance to listen again properly. Perhaps the scales would fall from my eyes, as the full majesty of this song was finally revealed unto me?

    Nope. Sorry. It’s every bit as awful as I remember it. Actually, it’s worse. Lumbering, forced, and just plain silly… and that’s before the entrance of the dreaded gospel choir, always guaranteed to drag an already awful Power Ballad even lower.

    The blinkers stay on, then. And they’ll doubtless be staying on for many, many more years to come.

  19. 49
    MikeMCSG on 10 Sep 2009 #

    47 # Ian, there’s no doubt single sales generally fell off the chart from the late eighties onwards due to a pincer movement from the CD boom boosting albums rather than singles and computer games diverting the teens. I recall Alan Jones in Record Mirror pointing out that the UK Subs’ “Party In Paris” (we all remember that one don’t we ?)which just scraped into the Top 40 in 1979 would have been at least Top 5 10 years later with the same sales. That’s why you had those freakishly long runs in the 90s from the odd single which did achieve mass appeal.

  20. 50
    wichita lineman on 10 Sep 2009 #

    Re January sales. I can’t see why legal downloads would have altered the picture as people are still too broke/overburdened by turkey fat and cocoa solids to pay for new music.

    Great fact about UK Subs, Mike. I have a memory of the Frank & Walters’ After All being the lowest selling Top 10 hit ever, up to that point (Jan ’93). But I just checked everyhit and it says it got to 11. Maybe it was just the weakest sales week ever.

    I wonder if Pilot were the first group to viciously cash in on slow January sales.

  21. 51
    swanstep on 11 Sep 2009 #

    @47,49: I’m sure the musical diversity/chaos of post-punk/new pop is part of the story, but might the bulge in big singles hits between 1981-1984 also be a result of 12″ singles taking off, say from the glorious color-coded Human League 12″ singles in 1981 through to Frankie taking the ’12″ as cultural event’ as far as it could go in 1984?

    After that, IIRC, dance/club mixes became more or less universal, but also separated somewhat from the main charts (and more just for djs, both as routine remixers and as those who played the stuff), and without adding personality to the whole pop-charts enterprise in the same way (except for m/a/r/r/s and a few other bunny-able things).

  22. 52
    poohugh on 13 Sep 2009 #

    Two years ago Julio Iglesias did a version of this song on X Factor, it was great/made me weep slightly. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZ0G9sjkS0A

  23. 53
    intothefireuk on 15 Sep 2009 #

    I can tell you what love isn’t. Actually I didn’t mind Foreigner, back in ’77 I’d bought a 12″ single featuring both Feels Like The First Time and Cold As Ice – both sterling pop tunes from a bunch of ex-proggies. However things seem to have slid somewhat in the interim as 70s rock bands seemed to find refuge in the power ballad – basically a slow rock song with everything inflated. Big guitar chords, huge washes of keyboards, strident and strutting vocals, big drums, and in Foreigners case, a huge gospel choir. It’s well played, nicely produced but totally vacuous (ditto Heart, Chicago, REO Speedwagon, Starship, Toto etc etc etc).

  24. 54
    Brooksie on 11 Mar 2010 #

    @ MikeMCSG # 40: “Foreigner were always a more interesting band than their AOR contemporaries (REO Speedwagon,Styx,Journey et al)”

    I dispute that. The only things those bands have in common was their US popularity and being middle-aged rather than young. Each of those bands are interesting in their own ways, while being different to Foreigner.

    Good song. I thought it was dull and ‘mature’ when I was younger. But we all grow up.

  25. 55
    AndyPandy on 12 Mar 2010 #

    Brooksie at 54: I grew up too – I remember having a lift in a friend’s Granada in about 82/83 and as he was blasting out “Rosanna” by Toto on his cassette-player sitting smugly in the back thinking (he was 17 or 18 too at the time)”how can you be into this shit?!”

    Years later I came to realise that “Rosanna” (like a lot of the kind of soft rock I wouldn’t have gone near back then) was actually a bloody good track.

    Like you say as you mature the pretence slips away and it comes down to (what it should always have been) whether the music is actually any good…

  26. 56
    Auntie Beryl on 10 Feb 2013 #

    Years removed from the original conversation, but one of the biggest selling weeks of the year for downloads is now the week after Christmas – iTunes vouchers, this decade’s Record Tokens, being gleefully spent without the need to leave home to do so; and newly received devices starting to be filled up. Online sales are huge in general that week, as internet shopping is a good excuse to get away from making small talk with relatives, or being forced to watch the Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas special.

    This in contrast to the week before Christmas, where the sales split is still as one sided as 90% physical,10% digital; not that the media ever mention that as the story remains “everyone is downloading now and if you still buy discs you’re a dinosaur”.

  27. 57
    punctum on 12 Jun 2014 #

    TPL deals with the album. A cold, pitiless new dawn indeed.

  28. 58
    Lazarus on 22 Nov 2014 #

    Making a return to our screens (pity about the brutal editing …)


  29. 59
    hectorthebat on 23 Dec 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Blender (USA) – Standout Tracks from the 500 CDs You Must Own (2003)
    Blender (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Songs to Download Right Now! (2003)
    Blender (USA) – Top 500 Songs of the 80s-00s (2005) 47
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 730
    Life (USA) – 40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs for Each Year 1952-91 (Updated 1995)
    Rolling Stone & MTV (USA) – The 100 Greatest Pop Songs Since the Beatles (2000) 83
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 54
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 476
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 479
    Steve Sullivan (USA) – Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings (2013) 21-100
    Swellsville, Chuck Eddy (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 80s (1990) 4
    VH-1 (USA) – Nominations for the 100 Greatest 80s Songs (2006)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  30. 60
    Adam on 27 Mar 2015 #

    Woohoo Stork boy! Learned something new today, as Like a Virgin was #1 in Canada I believe… which I prefer. This one’s not so bad though, not something I’d normally comment on, but gives me nostalgia for evening shifts in a gas station as a teenager when I couldn’t switch it away from the 80s dial. I’ve never considered the chorus’s lyrics anything other than carnal… kind of harkens back to the 50s/60s that way, I guess, leaving a bit to your imagination.

  31. 61
    Mostro on 16 Apr 2015 #

    Oddly, when I think of “I Want to Know What Love Is”, it’s always the atmospheric intro and verses (mainly the longer first one) that I associate with it, not the massive gospel-backed chorus.

    This works to its benefit for me. I don’t hate the chorus, but I’m not fanatical either, and it plays on a bit too long towards the end fade out.

    Anyway, I think this verse-centric association means I have it mentally filed in a somewhat different place to someone who thinks of the chorus first.

    To some extent it’s two songs in one, and this makes me wonder if people I’ve read expressing like or dislike for it over the years are judging it on the same merits- or associations- as I am.

  32. 62
    Phil on 16 Apr 2015 #

    Another vote for the verses, which seem to me to express something a bit rawer than your average #1. Reminds me oddly of one of Abba’s later bunnies, which I tried SingStar-ing one Christmas & couldn’t get through for choking up. Both seem like very middle-aged songs to me, but maybe that’s just because I’m middle-aged…

  33. 63
    sbahnhof on 11 Oct 2015 #

    Re 34 Erithian — so, this *wasn’t* Peel’s scathing description of “I Want to Know What Love Is”? Cos it sums it up well for me:

    “And it must have been during this run at number one that we had one of the all-time great lines from John Peel on TOTP: ‘That’s Russ Abbot with his cover of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”.'”

  34. 64
    Mark G on 12 Oct 2015 #

    I think it was during the chart rundown, and very ‘blink/missit” but yes it definitely happened.

  35. 65

    You know what the biggest problem is with our current era? Not Brexit, not Trump, not Piers Morgan, but:
    Faux-passionate piercings.
    Faux-passionate pink hair dye.
    Faux-passionate craft beer culture.
    Faux-passionate Day of the Dead sleeve tattoos when the closest you’ve been to Mexico is an Old El Paso kit.
    Faux-passionate pretending political passion is a fashion because Paloma Faith told you to think that.

    But this was 1985, and things were different then.

    It’s also no less a gloriously January pure as driven snow, wallowing in glorious melancholy song than Still Ill by the Smiths. And unlike their frontman in 2018, 1,985,000 times less problematic.


    Similar better song I wish had got to number 1: A-ha – Manhattan Skyline

  36. 66
    Gareth Parker on 30 Apr 2021 #

    Starts out brooding, then builds to an uplifting crescendo. 7/10.

1 2 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)

If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page