The Number Ones

The Number Ones Bonus Tracks: Foreigner’s “Waiting For A Girl Like You”

Welcome to the Number Ones Bonus Tracks, the addendum to our regular Number Ones column. We at Stereogum recently wrapped up our fundraising campaign, and we’d like to thank everyone who donated to support this site and keep it going. To those All Access donors who pledged $1,000, I promised that I’d write a Number Ones-style column on a song of their choosing, as long as that song charted on the Billboard Hot 100. This is the last of those bonus columns.

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PEAKED: #2 on November 28, 1981

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical

This column is at the request of the Stereogum donors at Domino Records. They write: “Most weeks at #2 without going to #1… Those great synth pads courtesy of pre-fame Thomas Dolby.”

When Foreigner put that big number two on the cover of their single, they were just riffing on the cover art from 4, their 1981 album. But maybe they were also putting something out into the universe, setting a metaphysical chain reaction into motion. The single with that big number two would become, to that point, the band’s biggest-ever hit. And yet it would hover right outside the #1 spot longer than any song had ever done — a historic humiliation, the rock-star equivalent to the fate of Tantalus.

In the days before a digital release could suddenly upend the Hot 100, the singles chart behaved in a pretty orderly way. Songs would move their way up and down the charts — sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. If a song made it up to #2, then stayed there for a while, that song would be well-positioned to rise up to the top spot. But Foreigner’s power ballad “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” a truly massive hit, had the misfortune of going up against an even more massive hit.

Olivia Newton-John’s pulsing aerobics-class jam “Physical” made itself at home at #1, occupying the spot for 10 weeks. It was only the second song ever to last that long at #1. For nine of those weeks, “Waiting For A Girl Like You” was stuck behind it. Then, when “Physical” finally fell from that spot, Daryl Hall and John Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” leapfrogged “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” jumping from #3 to #1. It’s like a witch put a curse on “Waiting For A Girl Like You.”

Years later, talking to Songfacts, Foreigner singer and “Waiting For A Girl Like You” co-writer Lou Gramm said, “Being that close to #1 with such a strong song and not quite making it leaves you with a little sour taste, I admit.” But you can’t really consider “Waiting For A Girl Like You” a failure. Foreigner were already a huge band, and that song made them a ton of money. It also helped establish a template for the synthed-out rock ballads that would conquer the world in the decade ahead. Nobody should feel bad for Foreigner, especially when you consider that “Waiting For A Girl Like You” is a pretty mediocre song.

Before “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” Foreigner had already been to #2 once, with their horny 1978 rocker “Double Vision.” (“Double Vision” is a 6.) Foreigner were indisputably one of the biggest bands of the bright, commercial late-’70s studio-rock wave, and they were a constant pop-chart presence. But things were changing in pop, and things were changing in Foreigner, too. Before they recorded 4, guitarist Mick Jones, who co-wrote “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” had fired founding members Ian McDonald and Al Greenwood, replacing them with session musicians. (Foreigner called the album 4 in part because there were only four guys left in the band.) After asserting total control over Foreigner, Jones looked into ways to update the band’s sound.

Maybe Mick Jones could sense something coming in the air — the arrival of MTV, the slow drift away from the band’s established brand of bluesy, yowly arena-rock. Or maybe he just got lucky. But Foreigner found themselves a producer who knew how to adapt to the moment. Jones co-produced 4 with Robert John “Mutt” Lange, the man who would become one of the driving forces behind the sound of ’80s rock.

The South African-born Lange had started producing in the early-’70s UK, and he’d made some fairly big records with mainstream pub-rock acts who were vaguely adjacent to punk: Graham Parker, the Motors, the Boomtown Rats. (Lange also produced a few commercial failures for Clover, the American band that included harmonica player and future Number Ones artist Huey Lewis.)

Lange got his big break when he produced 1979’s Highway To Hell and 1980’s Back In Black, two absolutely massive albums from AC/DC. When AC/DC singer Bon Scott died, Lange set them up with new wailer Brian Johnson. Lange also streamlined the band’s sound, and Back In Black went on to sell 22 million copies in the US alone. (For all their album sales, though, AC/DC have never been a big pop-chart act. Their highest-charting single, 1990’s “Moneytalks,” peaked at #23.)

Foreigner’s 4 was Lange’s first project after the triumph of Back In Black. Foreigner were already a commercial, streamlined band, but Lange knew how to make them sound even bigger. He made their production bright and clean and crunchy and loud, and he brought in chilly synth sounds that added a new texture. Lange had been impressed by a demo tape from Thomas Dolby, a 19-year-old British keyboard player who made his money busking on the Paris Metro. Lange brought Dolby to New York, where he joined Foreigner for the 4 sessions at Electric Lady Studios.

You can hear a whole lot of Dolby on the first single from 4. “Urgent” is a bottled-up rocker with a slick, expensive coke-sweat sheen and some convulsive saxophone action from Motown legend Junior Walker. (Walker’s highest-charting single, 1965’s “Shotgun,” peaked at #5. It’s a 9.) Just as much as Walker’s saxophone, Dolby’s streaky, staccato synths dominate “Urgent.” they make it sound like nothing else. (“Urgent” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.)

Dolby might’ve had an even bigger impact on “Waiting For A Girl Like You.” Dolby wrote and played the song’s searching, near-ambient synth intro, though he didn’t get a songwriting credit for it. Instead, Mick Jones and Lou Gramm got credit for writing the track together. Jones has said that writing “Waiting For A Girl Like You” was an almost mystical experience, that he was plugged into the currents of the universe. I don’t know about all that.

Lyrically, “Waiting For A Girl Like You” rests squarely in standard power-ballad territory. The song’s narrator sees a girl and immediately falls for her, confessing all his feelings on the spot. “When you love someone,” he groans. “When you love someone, it feels so right, so warm and true/ I need to know if you feel it too.” And then: “Maybe I’m wrong/ Won’t you tell me if I’m coming on too strong?” You probably are! It seems to work, though, since Gramm is singing about “when we make love, it’s understood” on verse two.

In his memoir, Gramm writes that a mysterious and beautiful dark-haired woman wandered into the studio when he was laying down the vocals for “Waiting For A Girl Like You” and that her sudden appearance spurred him to sing the song better than he’d ever sung it: “I began serenading her as if she were the girl I’d been waiting for all my life. I gave it my all for about 45 minutes, and just as I finished my final take, she smiled at me, waved good-bye, and walked out of the control room.” In the memoir, Gramm says he never even found out who she was. Later on, he pretty much admitted that he’d made up the story.

In any case, Gramm does not exactly give the vocal performance of a lifetime on “Waiting For A Girl Like You.” He sings it just fine, and he does it in the adenoidal white-blues way that he sang every Foreigner song. He purrs on the verses, and he howls on the choruses. The high notes on the hook — “I’ve been wait-eeeen” — are impressive, but they’re not exactly pleasant. There’s a nice little slow-burn groove to the track, and I like the way Mutt Lange layers the murmuring backup singers behind Gramm. (One of those backup singers is Mutt Lange himself. The other is Ian Lloyd, who almost became Foreigner’s singer and whose band Stories hit #1 with the 1973 jam “Brother Louie.”)

If “Waiting For A Girl Like You” stands out among the power ballads of the early ’80s, it stands out because of the synths. The two keyboardists on “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” Thomas Dolby and former Peter Frampton collaborator Bob Mayo, give the song all its weird, glowing texture. Some of those keyboard sounds are dark electric-piano pulses. Others are glassy little cascades that remind me of Tangerine Dream film scores. Mutt Lange saw the future, and those sounds were it.

Thomas Dolby went on to play with Foreigner on tour, and then he used his Foreigner money to fund his herky-jerk new-wave solo career. (Dolby’s highest-charting single, 1983’s delightfully goofy synthpop jam “She Blinded Me With Science,” peaked at #5. It’s an 8.) Mutt Lange went on to become one of the most dominant producers of the ’80s and ’90s; he’ll eventually appear in The Number Ones, as both a songwriter and producer. A few days after Foreigner released 4, the Sheffield band Def Leppard released High ‘N’ Dry, their second album and their first with Lange on board as a producer. High ‘N’ Dry wasn’t a huge album, and none of its singles charted in the US. But the Leppard/Lange connection would yield great returns in the years ahead. Eventually, that partnership will appear in The Number Ones.

Three years after “Waiting For A Girl Like You” finally fell from the #2 spot, Foreigner released another synth-aided power ballad, 1985’s “I Want To Know What Love Is,” and took it to #1. “Waiting For A Girl Like You” still holds the record for most weeks stuck at #2, but it doesn’t hold that record alone anymore. 21 years after “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” another artist came out with a big song that got stuck behind an even bigger song for just as long. Missy Elliott’s 2002 classic “Work It,” like “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” spent 10 weeks at #2. (“Work It” is a 10.) But Foreigner eventually got their make-good #1. Missy Elliott is still waiting.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 1984’s Footloose where Kevin Bacon and Lori Singer dance to “Waiting For A Girl Like You” in a cowboy bar:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil B quasi-rapping over the “Waiting For A Girl Like You” instrumental on his 2011 freestyle “It’s Alright”:

(Lil B has never had a Hot 100 single as a solo artist. As a member of the Pack, his highest-charting single, 2006’s “Vans,” peaked at #58.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2012’s Rock Of Ages movie where Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough sing “Waiting For a Girl Like You” to each other, complete with horny and nonsensical mid-song dream-sequence sax break:

(Julianne Hough’s highest-charting single, 2008’s “That Song In My Head,” peaked at #88.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 2016 Stranger Things episode where the poor viral character Barb gets demon-killed while her friend listens to “Waiting For A Girl Like You” and gets it on:

Thanks, Domino Records!

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