"I Want To Know What Love Is" by Mick Jones and Lou Gramm (pictured above, receiving an award from Billy Joel, for this song at the Songwriters Hall Of Fame) is a seriously great rock ballad, written and produced with great care to elevate it above the mundane love song we hear all to often. Yeah, there are tons of rock love ballads, and some of them are pretty decent, but these guys were able to write one that stands head and shoulders above all the rest in that crowded genre.
The greatness of this songs begins with the lyrics. Gramm and Jones start this song off in a reflective mood, " I gotta take a little time, a little time to think things over", analyzing a past relationship, trying to learn and grow from it, to better prepare for a possible future one, "I better read between the lines, in case I need it when I'm older". The imagery in this song leaves the meaning quite clear while avoiding the cliché. Obstacles are "mountains I must climb", and "the world upon my shoulders", instead of lines like "oh my, life is so tough", or "I've had such a hard time, woe is me". Hope and optimism are "through clouds I see love shine" and "keeps me warm as life grows older", with "love" also being the sun, generating the "warmth". It's not lines like "Gee, I feel so good now" or "life is really going great" and so on. You get the idea. The imagery sets this song in motion and sets up both the pre-chorus and the unforgettable killer chorus.
There's really only one more short verse in this song, then another pre-chorus and chorus. Then as the song builds through the use of the chorus,there are few lines that ab libbed and interspersed over the extended outro chorus. And what a chorus it is!
Everyone knows these lines, everyone.
" I want to know what love is
And I want you to show me
I want to feel what love is
And I know you can show me"
Simple, effective, memorable. Great songwriting.
Musically, again, simplicity is best. Written in the key of G, the verse starts off with the IV chord, Em, which sets the mood for the switch to the V and I major chords, (D and G) at the end of the first line. Then continues with the IV major chord (C) before return back to the VI (Em) chord at the end of the verse. This switch between the minor and major chords really works well. And the order is the reverse of what you usually see, by starting with the minor, very clever. This structure essentially weaves throughout, with a transitional seventh chord (D7) at the end of the chorus. In songwriting, remember that seventh chords are always connectors, or transitional chords, and effective ones. A seventh chord has to go somewhere, it just doesn't hang out there.
The other great aspect of this song is Mick Jones and Alex Sadkin's production. They got exactly the right tempo for this song, perfect instrumentation, and above all, the absolute genius use of the choir. It's the choir, the CHOIR, that everyone instantly associates with this great chorus. The fullness of the sound, of the voices that bring an almost overwhelming feeling of joy and hope to this song. It's insanely moving, a musical religious experience. Enjoy a live acoustic performance of the this song from the Grammy Museum with the current Foreigner line up featuring Kelly Hansen on vocals, and a student choir. It's really a great version. Watch it !