Transcript 104–I Want to Know What Love Is

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and I’m still a little sick, here.

Does it make me sound sexy—ier?  

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[MR BLUES]

I’ve got an interesting bit of trivia for ye this week.

Moby Grape’s self-titled debut album from 1967, with its various elements of pop, psychedelia, garage-band sound and maybe even a little bit of country, is nowadays considered one of the best rock albums of the 1960s. And to be sure, many artists have covered various tracks from the album. But Moby Grape’s poor record sales were largely blamed on a specific circumstance surrounding the release of the album’s singles, specifically the timing. What was so unusual about the timing?

I’ll have that answer, and the story behind it, near the end of the show.

Oh—before I get started, I should note that this episode was a request came to me from Jeremiah Coughlan by way of Instagram. Jeremiah is a comedian from the West Coast who has a podcast of his own along with fellow comic Jake Silberman, called Brine Time, a show that airs in Portland Oregon and is devoted to the Portland Pickles baseball team. And if that doesn’t sound like a lot, then you don’t know anything about baseball below the Major League level. ‘Cause let me tell you, I live 15 minutes from Camden Yards, but I travel more than twice that amount of time to see the Aberdeen Ironbirds, because it’s just so much fun watching the younger players turn into pros. Brine Time is between seasons just now, but you can find the show if you do a search for Brine Time Podcast in the Google Machine, or just go get a link from my website.

I have a theory about power ballads.

Rock bands like to do power ballads, and I think it’s for a number of reasons. I think they like to broaden their appeal, and certainly their sales numbers, it’s an opportunity to perhaps convey something they consider a little bit profound. Maybe it gives the lead singer a chance to lay back a little bit vocally. And it certainly provides them with the lighters or cellphones in the air moment for the crowd to show tribute. And every rock band has at least one in the repertoire. Aerosmith has “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” for Nazareth it’s “Love Hurts”, Poison gave us “Every Rose Has its Thorn”, and of course Guns ‘n’ Roses provided “November Rain”.

But once in awhile—once in awhile—the power ballad has an unfortunate effect on some bands. The song tends to take on greater importance than may have been originally ascribed to it, and suddenly an artist, or a band, finds themselves defined by it, which can lead to all kinds of identity problems. Michael Bolton was a hard rocker until his cover of “Dock of the Bay” became a huge adult contemporary hit.

[MORE THAN WORDS]

Chris DeBurgh was re-defined when “Lady in Red” was a monster hit and became a staple of mobile DJs forever. And do you remember this tune?…

…”More Than Words” was such a huge departure from Extreme’s usual sound that when it started getting airplay, radio stations wouldn’t even back-announce it, because they knew they’d get blamed when someone bought the album expecting more of the same, and never mind that the album’s title is Pornograffiti. It’s almost like the time I was working in a record store and a sweet little old lady came in asking for an album by the guitar god Joe Satriani. She was buying it for herself, not her grandson. Now, in that case she turned out to be Joe’s mother, and if you’re listening, Joe, Shame on You for making your own mother buy your album. But that one was a happy ending, and in the case of Extreme it often wasn’t.

And I think the same kind of thing happened with Foreigner. Their fifth album, Agent Provocateur, was—in my opinion—some really solid work although it took a little bit of a beating in the press. It wasn’t their biggest-selling album, but it was kind of ambitious, with some extra synth, and input from the Thompson Twins and, of course, Jennifer Holliday, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

As I said, it wasn’t a huge seller—bigger than Head Games but not as big as 4—but it also yielded their only Number One hit in multiple nations. And that’s the song we’re going to talk about a little bit today.

Guitarist Mick Jones wrote the song, he says, in the middle of the night. He explained to the website Ultimate Classic Rock that he’d been through a divorce, and he’d met someone else who he’d ultimately marry. And the band was feeling some of the pressure that comes with being in a band that’s expected to sell millions of albums. And around that same time, he and lead singer Lou Gramm were getting into what he called a “cold war situation.” He’d just returned to England from New York and was just kind of getting back in touch with himself, and so it was a very emotional period for him. So one night he’s up at 3 AM, and he sat down at the keyboard and wrote a little bit of what eventually became “I Want to Know What Love Is.” He says he knew he had something right away, so he woke up his sleeping fiancée so he could play it for her. At that point he had a few chords of the intro and the title. And, as he told Ultimate Classic Rock, when he told her the prospective title, she didn’t take it well. She asked him, “What you do mean, you want to know what love is? We’re about to get married!” But they did get married, so I suppose he was able to smooth that one over.

Now, while the rest of the band had a few suggestions here and there, this was largely Mick Jones’ song, which was a departure from their usual pattern, which had Jones and Gramm as co-composers on most of their songs. And the story goes that Lou Gramm did, indeed, push back on “I Want to Know What Love Is” at first, thinking that it could move the band as a whole into an adult contemporary sound and away from their rock roots. But Jones rationalized it, saying in an interview with Billboard Magazine that all of their albums had a couple of ballads on them. So while Gramm may have aired his opinion at the time, and given the earlier tension in the band, people started pointing to that as the reason for all the differences that led to Gramm leaving, and rejoining, the band later on. And sure enough, Gramm did point to that as being one of the reasons he wanted to leave. But in the moment, he said his piece and they all moved forward.

[FOREIGNER]

In addition to the basic band, Foreigner also brought in the Thompson Twins to assist with some of the synth work and backup singing, and Tom Bailey in particular gets credited on the album for working on this track. And while that buzzy synthesizer does help with the sound, it still needed something else.

Even as he was working on the song with the other band members, Jones began to envision the song as something bigger, trying to find a way to enhance it spiritually. He says he even considered approaching Aretha Franklin to get her to work on it.

But according to an interview with Louder Sound Dot Com, Jones said he was having lunch with a guy who ran a gospel music label. He sent over a bunch of albums, and one was by the New Jersey Mass Choir. When he heard them, he finally had the finished version in his head. So he drove out to New Jersey—it’s not 100% clear where they rehearse, but I think it’s in Newark—and watched them practice, and they were a fresh enough group that they’d never worked on a mainstream album before.

But that wasn’t quite enough to get the project completed. They needed one more dose of intervention from God. About thirty choir members piled into the Right Track Studio in New York City, and they did a few takes but it still wasn’t quite working out, Jones says, In that same interview, he explained that the choir got into a circle, held hands and recited the Lord’s Prayer, and that seemed to do the trick, because, he says, they managed to nail it on the very next take. And by the way, one of the members of that choir was Jennifer Holliday, who helped with the vocal arrangements. Jones said that he was in tears afterward, and it was a very emotional moment for him, in part because his parents were in the studio as well.

Jones also said that shortly after they finished the song, he invited Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun to the studio and told him, “Look, I just want to play you one song and hear what you think.” Ertegun reacted much the same way, and Jones was floored by this reaction. After all, this is the guy who discovered Ray Charles and Aretha Frankli

And sure enough, the song hit all the right places. It was released in time for Christmas of 1984, just a couple of weeks ahead of the album, and early in January 1985 it knocked “Do They Know it’s Christmas” off the top of the UK Singles chart, and held that spot for three weeks. In the US, it took a little longer to reach the top, but in February it finally replaced Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” in the top slot. And that makes “I Want to Know What Love Is” their ONLY Number One hit in either nation. It was also Number One in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and most of Scandinavia. And it was the Number Four song for the YEAR 1985 in the US, plus Number Three in Canada for the year.

In addition to the album version, which is 5 minutes and four seconds there and on the single, there’s also a 12-inch single with a longer intro and an extended fadeout, going to 6:23.

As far as cover versions go, there are a few notable ones. The first came from—go figure—the New Jersey Mass Choir, which released a similar-sounding record in the spring of 1985, and while it didn’t chart on the Hot 100, it did see some action on the R&B chart.

[TINA ARENA]

Australian performer Tina Arena recorded a cover in 1998 that went Top 40 in Australia and Top 50 across Europe. This version was produced by Mick Jones, who wrote an extended bridge for the song between the second and third choruses. And I’m not sure who’s singing backup, but there’s a strong resemblance to Lou Gramm there, enough that at first I thought he’d been sampled…

[WYNONNA]

In 2004 country singer Wynonna Judd released her cover of the song, featuring Jeff Beck playing a pretty bluesy electric guitar and Paul Franklin playing a subtle steel guitar. It’s a little overproduced by Narada Michael Walden, because that’s his thing, but I kind of like it…

This one went to Number 14 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart and made it to Number 15 in Sweden. OK. You can find that one on her album, What the World Needs Now Is Love.

OK, brace yourself a little for this one.

[MARIAH CAREY]

While Narada Michael Walden has worked with Mariah Carey, he was not present on this 2009 version of the song, which instead was produced by Carey, along with Tricky Stewart and Big Jim Wright. Now, except for the tempo, Carey didn’t really change it much, and even Mick Jones was happy with the result. The single didn’t see a ton of action, which had people worried about the rest of the album, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, but the album as a whole did quite well.

[OMAHA]

And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question.

Back on Page Two I asked you about Moby Grape, and the fact that the timing of the single releases in 1967 may have had something to do with the band’s poor reception among both radio and retailers. It’s really as simple as it being a case of “too much, too soon.” You see, Columbia Records made the peculiar decision to release all five singles from the album on the SAME day. It was basically a weird marketing stunt, but the net result was that Moby Grape became just one more counterculture band getting huge amounts of promotion, and while it got good reviews and eventually decent sales, the early perception is that they were way over-hyped, and only one of the singles managed to reach the charts, that one being this track, titled “Omaha.”

Incidentally, Moby Grape got its name from the punchline of the joke “What’s big and purple and lives in the ocean?”

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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we take a listener-suggested look at another set of songs you may not have known were covers.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.