Travel Music 3: Foreigner in a foreign land, 1985.


Kiddies, here’s the way it used to work, before personal devices, downloads and YouTube: A song was released, became a hit, was played in endless repetition on a limited number of radio stations, and could not be avoided. You made your peace with it, or you plunged knitting needles into your ears. I’ve been known to embrace both strategies.

Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” was released as a single at the close of 1984, and proceeded to hit number one in early 1985 in the United States, the UK, Australia, Ireland and several other countries. As I prepared for my first trip abroad in the spring of 1985, the song was everywhere.

When I arrived in Europe in May, it invariably was heard on virtually any radio I encountered at a time when there weren’t any satellite stations or iPod playlists. Nowadays, about the only way a song becomes an ear worm is to be used to promote a mass market product. Then, a hit could be painfully ubiquitous.

Much to my surprise, I actually liked “I Want to Know What Love Is.” Still do. Go figure.

From inception in the 1970s, Foreigner had been a guitar-oriented, hard rock kind of band — fodder for the testosterone-laden. Mostly I was bored, because to me, Foreigner generally sounded corporate and derivative. But the sound slowly seemed to mature, and with “I Want to Know What Love Is,” the group became the equivalent of the journeyman pitcher who throws a perfect game.

The lyrics are the least of it; basically, the structure is verse/chorus/verse/extended chorus and fade. The guitar is relegated to rhythm status, with layers of keyboards and synthesizers throughout. Vocalist Lou Gramm is in fine fettle, but of course the stars of the show are the gospel choir’s singers. Their backing vocals are muted to the point of absence in the first chorus, submerged beneath the ethereal synths. The choir comes to the front of the mix during the first half of the extended second chorus, and then there’s a barely noticeable bridge; then the choir sings the lead vocal, and Gramm offers great fills.

It’s gorgeous, and utterly inexplicable. How did the band get from “Feels Like the First Time” to this? No matter; the relevance to me is that I cannot think back on 1985 without “I Want to Know What Love Is” bobbing up to the surface.