British-American rock band Foreigner hit the big time in 1984 with their power ballad I Want to Know What Love Is. Written by the band’s chief songwriter Mick Jones, it topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and remains an enduring hit around the world to this day. Here, Mick tells us the story of how he wrote it…
I remember there was a fair amount of pressure on us to deliver the goods back then and it was a huge responsibility for me as the leader and songwriter of the band. I was almost possessed with trying to dig deep inside me to bring up experiences, ideas, memories – anything that sounded convincing in a song.
‘The song almost wrote itself and I just tried to steer it in a way that felt right.’
The night the song came about, I was thinking about the basic human emotions we all feel. Once I started to open up to what was moving me, it all happened very quickly. It was quite late, about 2am, and my mind was just starting to close down. As soon as I played the first three chords, which ended up being the intro, I had a feeling something special was happening. The song almost wrote itself and I just tried to steer it in a way that felt right.
A couple of hours after I’d found the chords, I came up with the song title. I like to have a title because it can help me navigate through the song. I know where I am going and what I am building up to – and can approach it in sections. I was trying to keep the emotion in the intro so I used a very simple organ sound. From there it was almost like I was being directed to write the pre-chorus. That section took about 10 minutes to complete. At that point I didn’t have the end section but I did have the big, major chorus.
Afterwards I spent a couple of days piecing the story together. I wanted to recreate the feeling in the song from a lyrical standpoint. Its formula is intro, verse, verse again, pre chorus, chorus – the old, hackneyed pattern – but somehow, something lifts it out of being cheesy. You think to yourself, ‘How many times have these chords been used?’ But there is something about the pattern I used them in that makes it unique.
I remember thinking, ‘Where the hell did this come from? Why is this having such a big effect on me?’ Sometimes you need to be open and in the right frame of mind for the musical messages to come to you. You need to take the emotions the song is giving you and translate them into something that moves people. When you feel that you’ve reached that point, you want it to be heard.
I took it to the rest of the band and everyone thought it was a powerful, beautiful song. I worked with Lou Gramm on it, and he delivered such an amazing vocal. We cut it at Right Track Studio, which was on 48th Street in New York, right by the old music store, Manny’s. I was co-producer and we were determined to keep it as simple as possible. Tom Bailey from The Thompson Twins played the synth parts using a Jupiter 8. He really got into it.
Around the same time, I was having lunch with Jerry Wexler, co-founder of Atlantic Records, and a friend of his. I mentioned that I was thinking of approaching Aretha Franklin to sing on the track, almost as a duet with Lou, to enhance its soulful vibe. Jerry’s friend said he had an entire catalogue of choirs and played me some. The New Jersey Mass Choir was the best one I heard and I thought it would be a great idea to work with them.
It was the first time the choir had ever been recorded in a proper studio so it took us about an hour to get them comfortable. I had never conducted a gospel choir before. It was new for all of us. We did a couple of run-throughs, but I felt we could get a bit more feeling out of their performance. At their suggestion, we stood in a circle holding hands and recited The Lord’s Prayer together. I was shivering with goose bumps. It was a moment I will never forget. We started rolling tape and they came in on the chorus. Wow. It was unbelievable.
Everyone we played the finished song to had some sort of physical emotion, tears of joy or happiness. I told Ahmet Ertegun [co-founder and former President of Atlantic Records] that I had something to play him, so I took him into a room, just the two of us, with the lights down low. As I moved over to him after the first chorus, there were tears rolling down his cheeks. This was the guy who had a big part in the success of artists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and many others. It was an incredible moment for me at the time and still to this day. I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life.
I Want to Know What Love Is
Written by: Mick Jones
Published by: Somerset Songs Publishing