The Number Ones

February 2, 1985

Foreigner-I-Want-To-Know-What-Love-Is

The Number Ones: Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is”

6/10

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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The semi-anonymous studio-rockers of the late ’70s did not disappear in a puff of smoke the first time Michael Jackson hit the moonwalk. The invention of MTV made things a bit more complicated for arena-rock institutions like Journey and Boston, but those bands kept moving units in the ’80s. And once that first burst of MTV dazzle started to wear off, plenty of those one-word bands came surging back onto the charts. The public still wanted power ballads, and those bands were still around to supply them.

Just before MTV first began to reshape America’s taste in pop music, Foreigner had been one of the biggest bands in the world. With their very first single, 1977’s breezy and blandly muscular singalong “Feels Like The First Time,” Foreigner made it up to #4. (“Feels Like The First Time” is a 7.) Over the next four years, Foreigner landed six-different top-10 singles.

With 1978’s hornily frustrated rocker “Double Vision,” Foreigner ascended as high as #2. (“Double Vision” is a 6.) With 1981’s grandly drippy “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” the band again made it to #2, and the song stayed in that spot for 10 weeks, stuck first behind Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” and then Daryl Hall and John Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).” To this day, “Waiting For A Girl Like You” holds a bittersweet chart record: It’s the single that spent the longest at #2 without ever getting to #1. (I’m not going to give “Waiting For A Girl Like You” a score right now, for reasons that will be apparent in a few weeks.) Four years later, though, Foreigner had their moment. All they had to do was come up with a power ballad even more grandly drippy than “Waiting For A Girl Like You.”

Before Foreigner, the British guitarist Mick Jones had been a journeyman for a long, long time. As a teenager in the early ’60s, Jones had been a member of an instrumental rock ‘n’ roll band called Nero And The Gladiators. Then he’d spent years in France, playing with the French star Johnny Hallyday. After that, he’d joined Gary Wright’s band Spooky Tooth. After moving to New York, Jones met Ian McDonald, a former member of King Crimson, at a session for the “Brother Louie” singer Ian Lloyd. Jones and McDonald decided to form a band.

Jones and McDonald auditioned a bunch of different singers before they found Lou Gramm, a guy from Rochester who’d been in a band called Black Sheep. (To be clear: Lou Gramm had not been in the Native Tongues-affiliated New York rap group who peaked at #57 with “The Choice Is Yours.” That’s a different Black Sheep. Maybe I should also clarify that the Foreigner Mick Jones is not the Mick Jones from the Clash and Big Audio Dynamite. That’s a different Mick Jones.) The new band was a six-piece — three Americans and three Brits. They wanted to call themselves Trigger, but a different band already had that name. So Jones instead named them Foreigner, figuring that, wherever they went, at least half the band would be foreigners.

Foreigner’s sound was a big, loud, unashamed take on ’70s arena-rock. Gramm sang everything in a strangulated white-blues yowl. The rest of the band played with a slick, professional crunch, and they were never afraid of synth textures or dramatic backup harmonies. Foreigner’s style could get exhausting at album length, but it made for some fun singles. (I’m especially fond of 1981’s cinematic, proudly ridiculous “Juke Box Hero,” which sadly only made it to #26.)

Some of Foreigner’s studio-rock peers, bands like Journey and Boston, had isolated moments of greatness. I don’t think Foreigner ever did; I can’t name one Foreigner song that I love. But Foreigner were craftsmen, consummate professionals. They’re the platonic ideal of the band you hear all the time on the radio because you never bother to change the station when one of their songs comes on.

By 1985, Foreigner’s lineup had shifted a bunch of times. Jones had fired founding members Ian McDonald and Al Greenwood, making it entirely clear that this was his band. Foreigner had gone on as a quartet, using touring and studio musicians to fill in the gaps. When Foreigner finally scored their sole #1 hit, Lou Gramm was 35, and Mick Jones was 40. Jones and Gramm weren’t the sort of flashy showmen who did well on MTV, but they did have a grasp on synth-streaked ’80s aesthetics. They’d worked with Mutt Lange and Thomas Dolby, and they understood what sounded good on the radio in the high ’80s era.

Mick Jones wrote most of “I Want To Know What Love Is” at his keyboard one night while his fiancee Ann Dexter slept. Jones had already gone through a divorce, and his relationship still felt new. When Jones played what he’d written for Dexter, her response, as he remembers it, was entirely reasonable: “What do you mean you want to know what love is? We’re about to get married!” (Jones and Dexter would get married, divorce, and get married again. Mark Ronson, Dexter’s son and Jones’ stepson, will eventually appear in this column.)

On “I Want To Know What Love Is,” the narrator has already been through it: “In my life, there’s been heartache and pain/ I don’t know if I can face it again.” He’s battered and bruised, and he’s not sure if there’s love for him out there in the world. But he meets someone who makes him believe that things can get better. He’s still a little guarded and unsure about where things were going, but he’s at least hopeful that things can get better. He wants to know what love is. He wants her to show him.

Jones has said that wanted to make something big and soulful. He thought about bringing the song to Aretha Franklin, which is funny to think about. Instead, Jones went to the well where so many aging rockers go. He went to work with a gospel choir. Foreigner recorded “I Want To Know What Love Is” with the New Jersey Mass Choir, who had never sung on a pop song before. Jones loves to tell the story about how the group sounded a whole lot better, nailing their take, after they recited the Lord’s Prayer together in-studio.

“I Want To Know What Love Is” has a supporting cast that goes beyond that choir. The song also has backing vocals from Jennifer Holliday, star of the Broadway show Dreamgirls, who happened to be recording in the same studio that day. (Holliday’s highest-charting single, her 1982 version of the Dreamgirls standard “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” peaked at #22.) Also, Tom Bailey, frontman for the UK new-wave group Thompson Twins, played keyboards on the track. (Thompson Twins’ highest-charting single, 1983’s “Hold Me Now,” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.)

Really, there’s not much about “I Want To Know What Love Is” to suggest that it’s the work of a rock band. It’s a grandly hammy adult-contemporary slow-dance jam with no big guitar parts, no musical reminders that this is the same band who made “Feels Like The First Time.” The rest of Foreigner noticed this, and they weren’t too happy about it. Lou Gramm, who wrote at least a little bit of the song without getting songwriting credit, wasn’t too thrilled with “I Want To Know What Love Is” or with the decision to release it as the first single from the Agent Provocateur album. Later on, he said so.

But Gramm still sings the song with hacky expertise. He sells the idea that he’s struggling through the early verses, and then he hits big, waily notes when they’re required. (I especially like the way he hammers the word “heartache.”) There’s a nice glassiness to the synthed-out groove, and the gospel choir never gets too overbearing. “I Want To Know What Love Is” is smooth and clenched at the same time, and you can probably draw a straight line from the track to early-’90s soft-rock hitmakers like Michael Bolton, guys who reached for soulfulness by sounding as pained as possible. Still, the song finds a goofy majesty that I can’t quite shake.

Mick Jones co-produced “I Want To Know What Love Is” with the Bob Marley/Grace Jones/Thompson Twins producer Alex Sadkin. (Later on, Mick got more and more into production for other artists. Jones will appear in this column again, but only as a producer.) “I Want To Know What Love Is” started to take off during the 1984 holiday season, and it eventually became Foreigner’s only #1 hit in both the US and the UK, Foreigner’s two homelands.

For the video, director Brian Gibson, who would later make the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It, makes the smart decision to focus on the choir rather than on the band. We see these people working unglamorous day jobs, and I love the shot of the construction worker walking out on the skyscraper girder when Gramm hits the line about the mountain he must climb. Until halfway through, we don’t know who these people are; the reveal that they’re all there to sing with Foreigner is pretty cool. Gibson manages to make the track visually compelling — not a given when you’re talking about a band as unshowy as Foreigner.

After “I Want To Know What Love Is,” Foreigner only had two more top-10 hits. (1987’s “Say You Will” peaked at #6. It’s a 4. 1988’s “I Don’t Want To Live Without You” peaked at #5. It’s a 3.) Lou Gramm left the band in 1990, though he’s returned and then departed again a few more times since. Foreigner are still a going concern. They release music, and they tour; before the pandemic, they were scheduled to spend this past summer on the road with Kansas and Europe. Mick Jones is the only original member who’s still in the band. I bet he’s rich as fuck.

BONUS BEATS: The 1985 TV special Motown Salutes The Apollo ended with Diana Ross and Patti LaBelle, two artists who have appeared in this column, singing “I Want To Know What Love Is” together. The other musicians on the show made up the backing choir, and plenty of them have appeared in this column, too: Stevie Wonder, George Michael, Smokey Robinson, Levi Stubbs. Here’s that performance:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Memphis Bleek rapping over producer Duane DaRock’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” sample on his 2000 track “In My Life”:

(Memphis Bleek’s highest-charting single is the 1998 Jay-Z collab “It’s Alright,” which peaked at #61. Bleek stayed one hit away his whole career, but as long as Jay’s alive, he’s a millionaire.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Mariah Carey released her “I Want To Know What Love Is” cover as a single in 2009. Here’s Carey’s Hype Williams-directed video for her version:

(Carey’s version of “I Want To Know What Love Is” peaked at #60. Carey will appear in this column many times.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the frankly terrifying scene in the 2012 movie Rock Of Ages where Tom Cruise and Malin Åkerman sing an atonal rendition of “I Want To Know What Love Is” at each other while preparing to bone:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the triumphant montage from the supremely watchable 2019 movie Good Boys where Brady Noon sings “I Want To Know What Love Is” in his middle-school production of Rock Of Ages:

THE 10S: Prince’s lush, skittery synth-funk swooner “I Would Die 4 U” peaked at #8 behind “I Want To Know What Love Is.” It’s not your lover. It’s not your friend. It’s a 10.

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