The Outfield singer passed away on October 21 at age 62
This week, the music world lost Tony Lewis, the lead singer and bass player of power pop-rock trio The Outfield, and I’m in mourning.
If you were a music fan in the 1980’s, you know who The Outfield are. If you were in a coma for the calendar year of 1985 or not born yet, I have four words for you: “Josie’s on a vacation…”
If you try to tell me The Outfield are a footnote in 80’s music history or a one-hit wonder, I will cut you. I take no Outfield prisoners. “Your Love” is such an iconic track, that walking around Nashville in 2017, I heard the strains of a countrified cover of it drifting out of a Broadway honky-tonk. But the entire Play Deep album is a desert island disc for me.
VIDEO: The Outfield “Your Love”
When “Your Love” hit radio and MTV in 1985, I was mesmerized. The stabby-then-jangly guitars. The harmonies. I’ve always been a sucker for harmonies. I had to have it – the whole album. I paid no mind to the critic’s reviews that wrote off the band as derivatives of their influences. I was twelve years old and didn’t need a stranger to tell me what was good.
At the time, I was too young to articulate what I liked about The Outfield. Now I appreciate that each element of The Outfield’s music is a separate and crisp layer, with a defined border that abuts the next without a millimeter of air. Like the rolling notes of the opening of “I Don’t Need Her,” your attention flits between the simple drums, bass and guitars before the melody expands and Tony’s distinctive vocals soar in on top. The sounds don’t blend into a watercolor, but like the Play Deep cover art, each geometric slash of paint coalesces into a portrait in the wide shot.
It all strikes me as metallic. Not heavy metal, but like musical chrome – bright, sharp and reflective. The guitars in “Talk to Me” and the bass in “Mystery Man” never fail to elicit an image in my mind of metal guitar strings – I can see the notes being created. In a world where thundering bass is king, The Outfield lives unapologetically in the treble but manages to create shading and a sense of danger or melancholy when needed, like the slow-burner “Nervous Alibi.” Tony Lewis’ bass playing is a perfect support, not fighting for attention.
The lyrics are standard-fare pop – yearning for, loving, or missing someone, cheating, and the inevitable break up. They did have a random secret agent tale for variety in “Mystery Man.” But familiarity doesn’t rule out creativity. One of my favorite lyrics of all time is buried in “All The Love in the World” – “I only live for today, but I’m one day behind.” And, of course, there’s the undeniable power of “Josie’s on a vacation far away / come around and talk it over” as an opening line. What a set-up.
VIDEO: The Outfield “Say It Isn’t So”
Play Deep was the first cassette I ever purchased (preceded by a less-than-legally acquired Falco 3 tape), because the vinyl I owned was always bought for me by adults. But I was in middle school now, old enough to drop cash on the counter at Book & Record in New Paltz, New York and walk out with ten perfect songs that would stay with me thirty-four years and counting. I was drunk on my own purchasing power and high on Aqua Net fumes from my increasingly overly-teased bangs.
It went into heavy rotation on my mint green Sharp QT-50 mini boombox. Part of the reason this album became so ingrained in my psyche was because it was one of my first portable music experiences. Previously, I could listen to albums in front of the turntable or on the radio, where I had no control over the content. Cassettes freed me to move around the world and listen to the songs I wanted – my lifeblood. My Culture Club records were indoor music. The Outfield was with me on my bicycle, in the yard, and by the pool. Later, they followed me to high school, to other states, college, and eventually on walks through the streets of New York City.
On paper, Play Deep should have been one of the many, many albums I purchased, listened to in its time, then reduced down over the decades to the one or two best songs. But I’ve always thought of these songs as part of their whole. “Your Love” is track #2, not a hit single. I couldn’t separate them. Through every format change, I re-purchased it, because my collection would be empty without it.
I must confess, on the whole, I’m not a very diligent Outfield fan. I never saw them live, I didn’t wear their T-shirts, I didn’t have their photos taped to my walls. I bought Bangin’ and Voices of Babylon, but I didn’t listen to them the way I did Play Deep. I didn’t keep up with the later releases or solo releases. What I did was cling to that one perfect album all these years.
When the group’s guitarist and songwriter John Spinks passed away in 2014, I was sad, but I thought, “Well, we still have Tony Lewis.” Now they’re both gone and a piece of my musical foundation has ceased to wander the Earth. (Not to overlook drummers Alan Jackman or Simon Dawson, but John and Tony were the songs and the voice of the group.) But what The Outfield created will live on in whatever future technologies I consume music through, and in my heart.
Tony and John, I’m sending you all the love in the world.
VIDEO: The Outfield “All The Love In The World”