I Want to Know What Love Is

Album: Agent Provocateur (1984)
Charted: 1 1
Play Video


  • Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones wrote this song. In a Songfacts interview, he said: "'I Want To Know What Love Is' started off on more of a personal level. I'd been through a lot of relationships that eventually failed, and still searching for something that could really endure. And that sort of took a life of its own as well. It became more of a universal feeling. I adjusted that during the recording of it, and ended up putting a gospel choir on it. And you know, realized suddenly that I'd written almost a spiritual song, almost a gospel song. Sometimes, you feel like you had nothing to do with it, really. You're just putting it down on paper, or coming up with a melody that will bring the meaning of the song out, bring the emotion out in the song."

    Jones' relationship that sparked the song was with his then future wife Ann Dexter-Jones. Ann Dexter-Jones had previously been married to Laurence Ronson, a music publisher who discovered the British group Bucks Fizz. Their oldest child is the successful producer Mark Ronson, the man behind Amy Winehouse's Back to Black album. Jones raised Ronson from the age of 7, providing a rich musical environment that led to his success. On Foreigner's 2009 album Can't Slow Down, Ronson produced a new version of Foreigner's 1977 track "Fool For You Anyway."
  • The New Jersey Mass Choir was brought in to sing the backing vocals, becoming the first gospel choir to appear on a #1 pop hit. Mick Jones knew he wanted a choir on the song and found the New Jersey Mass Choir through a bit of serendipity: they had the same lawyer. According to Jones, the choir's first attempts to sing their part in the studio didn't have the magic, but then they gathered in a circle, said the Lord's Prayer, and nailed it on the next take.

    The New Jersey Mass Choir recorded their own version of the song a short time later, which they included on an album of the same name with their take on contemporary songs like "Yah Mo B There" and "Time After Time." Their rendition of "I Want to Know What Love Is" was released as a single and bubbled under at #101 on the Hot 100 in February 1985, the same month Foreigner's version was #1.
  • Foreigner recorded for Atlantic Records, and their 1981 album 4 spent more weeks at #1 than any album released by the label. Ahmet Ertegun, who was the head of Atlantic, cried when he first heard this song. Mick Jones explains: "Part of my dream at the beginning was to be on Atlantic Records, because of the heritage: all the R&B stars of the '50s, people like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. It meant so much to me and my growing up in music. So it meant a lot to have Ahmet Ertegun, who had been a part of that magical era and a person who I respected and looked up to, come into the studio. I took him aside and I said, 'I have a song to play you, Ahmet.' I took him into the studio, and we just sat there in two chairs, and I put the song on. Halfway through I looked over and indeed, there were tears coming out of his eyes. I thought, Whoa, this is a major moment for me. I've been able to impress this man who has heard some of the best, and produced some of the best music in the world. And here he is, and I've reached him emotionally. By the end of the song we were both in tears. Wonderful moments like that, they're just very meaningful."
  • Jennifer Holliday sang backup. She is an R&B singer who has sung for Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, and Barbra Streisand, among others. She starred in the play Dreamgirls.
  • Most of Foreigner's songs were co-written by Jones and their lead singer Lou Gramm, but this was a solo composition for Jones, and a song that was not met with enthusiasm by Gramm, who felt it might push the band into adult contemporary territory and away from their rock base. Jones spoke to Billboard magazine about Lou Gramm's reservations over this song: "If you look at our whole history, each album had a couple of ballads on it. I think that Lou aired his opinion about it at the time, and that's what led to people jumping on it as a reason for our differences. But I can never really think that having a worldwide #1 song would be detrimental to a band."
  • The video was directed by Brian Gibson, whose next project was the film Poltergeist II: The Other Side. The clip has an interesting concept, showing folks at their quotidian jobs during the day, then coming together to form the choir to this song.

    Gibson later directed the films What's Love Got to Do with It (1993) and The Juror (1996). In 1998, he released a film called Still Crazy, featuring the song "The Flame Still Burns," co-written by Mick Jones and performed by the fictional band Strange Fruit. The song got a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song.
  • In 2009 Mariah Carey covered this song for her second single from Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel. When we asked Jones what he thought of her version, he said: "I think she's actually retained the integrity of the song. You know, the arrangement is very similar to the original. They haven't tampered with the song too much. She's captured a certain emotional thing, a feeling. And you know, it's always flattering to have people cover your songs. Well, sometimes not so flattering (laughs) depending on who it is. But I think she's put a lot of emotion into it. You can feel that she's gotten inside of the song."
  • This is one of several very popular songs that was used on the first season of Miami Vice, appearing in the 1985 episode "Rites of Passage." Other TV series to use the song include:

    Big Mouth ("I Survived Jessi's Bat Mitzvah" - 2017)
    Orange Is the New Black ("Trust No Bitch" - 2015)
    New Girl ("Teachers" - 2014)
    Glee ("Tested" - 2014)
    Modern Family ("A Fair to Remember" - 2013)
    Parks and Recreation ("Practice Date" - 2009)
    Cold Case ("Shuffle, Ball Change" - 2007)
    Quantum Leap ("Temptation Eyes" - 1992)

    Movies to use the song include:

    Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)
    Bad Moms (2016)
    The Boss (2016)
    Rock of Ages (2012)
    Happy Feet Two (2011)
    Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
    Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (2009)
    'Til There Was You (1997)
    Mr. Wrong (1996)
  • Country star Kenny Chesney covered this for his 2016 album, Cosmic Hallelujah. It wasn't the first time a Nashville singer has recorded the tune - back in 2004 Wynonna Judd laid down a version for her album What the World Needs Now Is Love.
  • This play briefly in the Toyota Tundra commercial "One Team," which aired during the Super Bowl in 2018. In also appears in a British ad for KFC.

Comments: 39

  • Christinelistereen from Detwat MichigoneI really like this song. I think it's about trauma, OR being in a chain of really toxic relationships like, everywhere! Not just intimate ones, but all. It's easier to think about it being about God though, and not a human being, otherwise it tends to get a bit cringe-y. Still a classic song, and the vocals and choir are super.
  • Wg Davis from Johnston Co., N.c.In the video a lady says "Let's Talk About Love", who did this part?? Sounds similar to Ms. Patti LaBelle.. W.G.
  • Seventhmist from 7th HeavenJ. Garcia: Great story. I always thought this song had a strong spiritual feel to it, but now I will also think of your story whenever I hear it. Thanks for sharing.
  • J. Garcia from DallasIn November of 2015, I had a bad reaction to Doctor prescribed pills. The side effects of the drug caused insomnia, anxiety, claustrophobia, hot flashes and much more. The Doctor told me to stop taking the pills, but my life was quickly spiralling out of control. I could not work and stayed at home, fearing the end was near.

    My family did not understand what I was going through and thought I was just going crazy. When at the very bottom of my life and there seemed to be no way out, I turned to the Bible for answers (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Upon reading this verse my heart was suddenly filled with an overwhelming feeling of Love. A Love never felt before.

    Shortly thereafter, while watching music videos, this song played. This was my older sister's wedding song. I never really cared for this song, but in that moment, the words began to have a new meaning. As the song played, the Love again filled my heart. It was as if this song was a prayer to God. A person at the end of their rope, with no where else to turn. In that moment, that conversation with God, he finds Love.

    This song literally changed my Life and gave me Hope. This is my new favorite song. Thank you and know that every time I hear this song, through the tears, I get a little stronger and my heart fills with Love.
  • John from MichiganTom Bailey of The Thompson Twins played keyboards on this.
  • Anton from EarthI have a susceptibility to good gospel chorus singing. This song has always had a powerful emotional impact which has endured from first hearing. Yes, brings tears to eyes, still to this day. Reminds me of another song from way back to Woodstock era, Melanie Safka singing "Candles in the Rain". Either she, or some other inspired genius, got the Edwin Hawkins Singers to back her up on that song. Fifty+ years later, still get duckbumps and copious eye moisture listening to it. What other songs have similar effect?
  • David from Orlando, FlWhile the song can mean a number of things (the hallmark of a great song), I certainly sense spiritual overtones even in the lyrics alone. Climbing mountains, seeing love (perhaps in the form of the sun) shine through the clouds, the need to "read between the lines" for Biblical purposes, even knowing above all that the one and only God can truly show us what love is. Lou Gramm's passionate vocals and the keyboard melody add the artistic ingredients. While I do feel sorry for Gramm that he couldn't appreciate these types of songs, they fit me and other listeners like a glove. I used to think the lead character was simply begging his or her would-be love interest to give love in return, but careful listening and closer research revealed so much more.
  • Sean from Syracuse, NyPatti Labelle is not the soulful chick wailing on the end of this song. It is Jennifer Holliday.
  • Sheryl from Kennewick, WaAbsolutely love this song, such a classic I was in high when I first heard this song and now my fiance and I have marked it as our song!!!!
  • Larry from Coral Springs, FlWhen I first heard this song..I liked it. Mariah Carey does a good version of it too
  • Scarfgoat from Buffalo, NyHearing the entire audience, which consisted of folks from 18 to 40+, sing the chorus of this song was POWERFUL and awe inspiring. Wow! I get duck-bumps just recalling it.
  • Paul from Detroit, MiI agree, Victor. Too bad their best song was shut out of the #1 spot for 10 weeks. But 10 weeks at #2 is one hell of an achievement.
  • Gilles from Hull, Canada, QcI remember listening to it in the new house we got in my new girlfriend and I on a saturday mornig with the sun rising in the windoe during the winter of 1984. Warm memories, we are stil together after 25 years. Guess it was a sing.
    Gilles, Canada
  • Adrian from Toledo, OhAn amazing song, that in my youth, like other's that have posted, I dismissed as "girly" or "too sappy". With time and experience I have matured. As part of this maturation process, I have come to recognize things I had written off in the past and have rediscovered them. I can honestly say that this is one of the most powerful songs that affects me almost to the point of haunting. I'm surprised no one has mentioned the eery, though happy enlightenment, that one who is Christian and seeking God's love and guidance can experience from listening and thinking about the lyrics. The subject is searching for divine love and what it feels like. In my interpretation, the subject is seeking a higher power to answer this. Quite a spiritual song for me. The wondeful choir reaffirms this emotion, and feeling, brilliantly in this song. Just my viewpoint of this awesome song.
  • Marcel from Singapore, SingaporeA great tune till I figured it was actually a "remake" of Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd. Try Gilmour solo at the end, and the end of I want to know what love is. Plus the intro sound and the tempo (starting with the cymbals) is just faster for IWTKWLI.
  • Martin from Los Angeles, CaGuy from Washington, that was Patti Labelle as I stated earlier.
  • Martin from Los Angeles, CaI love the Patti Labelle rift at the end of the song.
  • Debra from Lee's Summit, MoI think Lou Gramm's great voice and all the powerful, emotional singing keep it from being just another ho-hum love song. "Waiting for a Girl Like You" used to be my favorite, but, for me, this one has surpassed it. It cuts straight to the heart.
  • Pam from Circleville, OhLou Gramm is a GREAT SINGER.I fell in love with this song the first time I heard it and am still in love with it.Not a better song about what love is and how to find it than this one.
  • Deanne from Harrisonburg, VaI thought this song was sooooo sappy when I was a teenager (like Daniel from Springfield, MA). Then I grew up, got married and found out about being "in love". You have to face heartache & pain, and there are always mountains to climb. This song reminds me that love's a commitment, not a fairy tale, and now that I'm older I understand why Lou Gramm sings it the way he does. Blessings to all of us trying to figure out what love is..........
  • Susan from Westchestertonfieldville, Varighteous song, the first verse and first 2 lines for that matter set you up for a great song a comin!
    and yes, jukebox hero is a fist pumpin shoulder junting hit! love it!!
    oh and I hate Cold as Ice ( puke)
  • Bertrand from Paris, FranceForeigner enjoyed a number of hits in the '80s, but none reached a level of over-the-top romantic longing as this keyboard-heavy love ballad. Guitarist Mick Jones has always been an underrated songwriter, and his command was never on finer display than when the calmness of this tune's verses explode into a crescendo of a chorus perfectly suited for Lou Gramm's impressively high vocal range. When the gospel chorus kicks in at the end, it's a perfectly appropriate topping for this confection.
  • Jovanka from New Orleans, LaI love this song so much I had it and it was destory in Hurraine Katrina,I was looking at cold case and this song was playing and it took me back in the days, and I said I have get this song again, Because its beautiful.

    Jovanka, N.O La./Duncanville Tx.
  • Dean from Plettenberg Bay, South AfricaSorry Tita...Tina Arena's version of this song was'nt bad......it was awfull !!!!!
  • Guy from Woodinville, WaSo, who's the woman who adds the vocal highlights, "Let's talk about love" etc? One of the New Jersey Mass Choir? She's the best part of the song. I hope she's been compensated accordingly.
  • Daniel from Springfield, MaMick Jones is a great tunesmiths. His sense of melody is simply impeccable, as is the raw emotion of his writing. I used to think this a cheezy love song when I younger, but I've come to revere Foreigner's songs with time. Only better-"Jukebox Hero", makes me cry like a girl.
  • Rhonda from Miami, FlThis song made me 'stop in my tracks' the first time I heard it back in the '80's, as it does today. The genius of the combination of words and music is magical; the rhythm and timing is from the heavens. It truly is 'other-worldly' to me and, hopefully, will be the finale song in play I'm writing. Dreamer, Rhonda, Miami, FL
  • Luke from Manchester, EnglandAnd 'Cold As Ice' is the best foreigner song, in my opinion
  • Luke from Manchester, EnglandHey Alex, if you're such a rock fan, why say "peace" like some chav hip hop fan?
  • Matthew from East Brunswick, NjThis song is amazing. This is arguable their best hit. In my life.
  • Jorge from Mexicali, MexicoThis song, a favorite of mine, is also the favorite of Bill Pullman's character in the 1996 comedy "Mr. Wrong", where at one point is sung in spanish by a kids' choir.
  • Alex from San Diego, CaI don't know what's wrong with you people, this is one of the greatest songs ever created. Just cause some people think it's a "cliche" to like this song are just being ultra-conforming robots who couldn't hit good music if they crashlanded in Robert Plants private collection.

  • Nessie from Sapporo, JapanTheir biggest hit. And their biggest steaming turd. Does no-one have any taste?
  • Merritt from Dublin, IrelandTom Bailey from Thompson Twins played piano on this UK No.1
  • Victor from Vienna, Vathis isn't the best song by Foreigner...it's "Waiting for a Girl Like You"
  • Janet from Perth, AustraliaIn my opinion "That was Yesterday" is a better song than "I Want to Know What Love is",equally dramatic but stronger.
  • Pete from Nowra, Australiabig hit in Australia as well, they had another song similar called Live without your love , it was even soppier, but didn't chart that well in Ozz, film clip featured a young Ronald Reagan and some footage of Grace Kelly's wedding. It was a good song Lou Gramms got a great voice ,by the way Lous real surname was Grammatico.....
  • Nora from Richfield, MnTina Arena did an amazing cover of this song.
  • Tita from Bandung, IndonesiaDetective Dee Dee McCall sang I wanna know what love is in the tv serial Hunter in the 80s
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Edie Brickell

Edie BrickellSongwriter Interviews

Edie Brickell on her collaborations with Paul Simon, Steve Martin and Willie Nelson, and her 2021 album with the New Bohemians.

Graham Nash

Graham NashSongwriter Interviews

Graham Nash tells the stories behind some of his famous songs and photos, and is asked about "yacht rock" for the first time.


RamonesFact or Fiction

A band so baffling, even their names were contrived. Check your score in the Ramones version of Fact or Fiction.

Justin Timberlake

Justin TimberlakeFact or Fiction

Was Justin the first to be Punk'd by Ashton Kutcher? Did Britney really blame him for her meltdown? Did his bandmates think he was gay?

Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull

Ian Anderson of Jethro TullSongwriter Interviews

The flautist frontman talks about touring with Led Zeppelin, his contribution to "Hotel California", and how he may have done the first MTV Unplugged.

Songs in Famous Movie Scenes: Tarantino Edition

Songs in Famous Movie Scenes: Tarantino EditionMusic Quiz

Whether he's splitting ears or burning Nazis, Quentin Tarantino uses memorable music in his films. See if you can match the song to the scene.