“I Want to Know What Love Is” is a power ballad by the British-American rock band Foreigner. It was released in November 1984 as the lead single from their fifth album, Agent Provocateur. The song hit number one in both the United Kingdom and the United States and is the group’s biggest hit to date. It remains one of the band’s best-known songs and most enduring radio hits, charting in the top 25 in 2000, 2001, and 2002 on the Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary Recurrents chart. “I Want to Know What Love Is” has continued to garner critical acclaim, and is listed as one of Rolling Stone Magazine’s greatest songs of all time at #479. The song is also featured in a number of films.
“I always worked late at night, when everybody left and the phone stopped ringing. “I Want To Know What Love Is” came up at three in the morning sometime in 1984. I don’t know where it came from. I consider it a gift that was sent through me. I think there was something bigger than me behind it. I’d say it was probably written entirely by a higher force.”
– Mick Jones
Written and composed by Mick Jones, with an uncredited portion (somewhere between 5% according to Jones and 40% according to Gramm) by Lou Gramm, and produced by Jones and Alex Sadkin, “I Want to Know What Love Is” was the first single released from Foreigner’s album Agent Provocateur (1984). The song features backing vocals from the New Jersey Mass Choir affiliated with the Gospel Music Workshop of America, Dreamgirls star Jennifer Holliday, and featured keyboard work by Thompson Twins frontman Tom Bailey. The choir also appears in the song’s music video.
“I Want to Know What Love Is” reached #1 in the UK Singles Chart on January 15, 1985, displacing Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, staying there for three weeks, and knocked Madonna’s long-running “Like a Virgin” out of #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on February 2, 1985. It was Foreigner’s first and only pop chart-topper in either country, although the band had four #1 Mainstream Rock hits and a #1 Adult Contemporary radio hit in the US. This was the band’s third of four #1 singles on the Mainstream Rock chart. The song spent five weeks at #1 in Australia and also hit the top of the charts in Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden, peaking at #2 in Switzerland and South Africa.
The song has received positive retrospective reviews from critics, with Bret Adams of AllMusic writing: “It’s not hard to see why it became Foreigner’s first #1 single. Its dreamy, hypnotic feel is due in part to Lou Gramm’s soulful lead vocals and the New Jersey Mass Choir’s background vocals.”
The song was also issued as a 12″ single with a longer time length of 6:23. This version contains a slightly longer intro and an extended vocal chorus/fadeout ending. The single’s B-Side “Street Thunder (Marathon Theme)” is an instrumental track originally appearing on The Official Music of the XXIII Olympiad – Los Angeles 1984 and later on the band’s 2-CD compilation Jukebox Heroes: The Foreigner Anthology (2000).
Soon after Foreigner’s single topped the charts, the New Jersey Mass Choir released its own similar-sounding version of the song on an album that it also titled I Want to Know What Love Is. The choir’s single peaked at #37 on the Hot Black Singles chart and #12 on the Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales chart.
The Foreigner song was ranked by Billboard as the #4 Billboard Hot 100 single of 1985. It was the band’s third Platinum single in the U.S. and their first and only Gold single in the UK.
Originally consisting of three verses, a pre-chorus and a chorus, the song was extended with a bridge written by original songwriter Mick Jones specifically for Tina Arena’s cover in 1998.
“We did a few takes, and it was good, but it was still a bit tentative. So then they all got round in a circle, held hands and said The Lord’s Prayer. And it seemed to inspire them because after that they did it in one take. I was in tears because my mum and dad were in the studio too, and it was so emotional.”
— Mick Jones on recording with the choir.
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