Looking back on their classic third album
Standing at the corner of commerce and art, Huey Lewis & The News made the decision to go for commerce and survival.
Their album, Sports, released 40 years ago today, emerged from an atmosphere of, if not desperation, an acknowledgment of the pressures of being on a major label in the 1980s.
Lewis and keyboardist Sean Hopper had spent the latter half of the ’70s trying, without success, to break through as Clover.
The group, rootsier in sound, tried a move to England to try to make it. The members, except for Lewis, were Elvis Costello’s uncredited backing band on his debut album My Aim Is True. “I tell people, “All the harmonica that isn’t on the Elvis Costello record was played by me,” Lewis quipped to Rolling Stone in 2013.
The singer did appear on records by Thin Lizzy, Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe. A pair of Clover albums, even with songwriting help and production from the soon-to-be-huge Mutt Lange went nowhere.
Clover split up in 1978. Guitarist John McFee landed on his feet as Skunk Baxter’s replacement in the Doobie Brothers. Lewis and Hopper formed a band with bassist Mario Cipollina, saxophonist/rhythm guitarist Johnny Colla and drummer Bill Gibson who’d been in Soundhole, a competing Bay Area band.
By the end of 1979, the group had added guitarist Chris Hayes, picked up a deal with Chrysalis Records and gained a new name, as the label wisely suggested that continuing as Huey Lewis & American Express could result in unwanted litigation.
The band’s self-titled 1980 debut flopped, despite the obvious potential at what was to come in its best moments.
Picture This, two years later, yielded their first Top 10 hit in the melodic “Do You Believe in Love,” a song that Lange wrote and sang with his band Supercharge as “We Both Believe In Love.”
VIDEO: Huey Lewis & The News “Do You Believe in Love”
The appealing charm of the follow-up “Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do” stalled at 36. And “Workin’ For a Livin'” just missed the Top 40, experiencing more success on album rock radio.
It was progress, though. The album went gold and the group had some name recognition. But they knew Chrysalis wanted more, as they did, too.
“Our first record stiffed, our second record broke even. So the third album, we had to have a hit, so we aimed most of the tracks right at radio,” Lewis told the Tampa Bay Times in 2013. “In 1982, it was a radio-driven world. You needed to have a hit single to exist. We knew we needed a hit — we didn’t know we were going to have five of them.”
The first album was produced by Bill Schnee, who’d produced or engineered the likes of Steely Dan, Neil Diamond, Pablo Cruise, England Dan & John Ford Coley and Leo Sayer. The band’s manager felt their demos sounded better. Along with the lessons they’d learned from their own mistakes rushing things on the debut, they’d begun to apply them on Picture This.
The band took advantage of the situation to keep producing themselves, given that they were far away from possible interference from the suits 6,000 miles away.
The creative process itself went pretty smoothly, but the group hit choppier waters with Chrysalis afterwards.
The group withheld the master tapes initially, due to a large amount of turnover in Chrysalis’ promotional staff. Knowing how much was riding on the album, they didn’t want to depend on unprepared or indifferent staffers to give it the needed push.
The first single came from the songwriting team of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, the team who’d had a hand in U.K. hits (some of which crossed over here) for the likes of Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Smokie and Mud.
The pair had also written the 1978 chart topper “Kiss You All Over” for Exile. An intended hit for Exile in 1981, “Heart and Soul,” went nowhere.
While Exile would successfully reconfigure themselves as a country band after that, the song was still out there.
VIDEO: Huey Lewis & The News “Heart and Soul”
The demo of it wound up in Lewis’ hands through a publisher. The singer was eager to record it. He had no idea it had already been done by Exile until part way through recording. Then during the production stage, Lewis was walking the studio hallways when he heard some familiar sounds. He went towards the studio door where he heard The Bus Boys recording the same song. Although miffed at the publisher, Lewis still felt good about the version he and the band had recorded.
It’s no surprise that Lewis’ version was the one that clicked as a hit. The production was tighter. Whereas Exile’s version had a more cluttered new wave feel, the News emphasized the hooky nature with its guitar leads and the clear keyboards. Lewis’ soulful vocals, with that nice echo on the verses (“I knew she’d be electric (‘lectric)”), didn’t hurt.
The song, which hit No. 8 on the charts, would be followed by as a single that the label was hesitant to go with because of the title — “I Want a New Drug.”
The song’s origins would later be unintentionally ironic as the idea for the lyrics popped into Lewis’ head as he was driving to his lawyer’s office. Upon his arrival, he asked for a pen and paper to write them down.
The rest of it was a tougher nut to crack. Lewis and Cipollina tried it, but it wasn’t working. Hayes broke the code. He called Lewis to let him know, then drove over and played the guitar lick. The rest fell into place.
Chrysalis’ first thought was “drug song,” which is understandable. The opening lyrics alone were “I want a new drug, one that won’t make me sick/One that won’t make me crash my car/Or make me feel three-feet thick,” after all.
But Lewis insisted it was a love song (“One that makes me feel like I feel when I’m with you”).
VIDEO: Huey Lewis & The News “I Want a New Drug”
The song was built off a drum machine part and sequenced, with all the live instrumentation over and through it. The idea was to mix old and new school ideas. It worked because of its mix of wit and irresistable catchiness, reaching No. 6 on the charts in early 1984.
Did someone say lawyers?
The following summer, the comedy Ghostbusters was a huge hit. The title song, written (in a couple of days against a deadline crunch) and sung by Ray Parker Jr., became a No. 1 hit, one which sounded too familiar to Lewis.
He sued for copyright infringement, resulting in a 1985 settlement which included a confidentiality agreement. Then, 16 years later, Lewis spoke out about it on an episode of VH-1’s Behind the Music, resulting in a suit from Parker Jr., costing him money back.
Even if Lewis keeps quiet about the suit these days, it’s understandable why he thought his song was ripped off, especially knowing now that “I Want a New Drug” was used by director Ivan Reitman in test screenings.
The third single, “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” had its origins in the band’s 1980 tour. They were scheduled to play the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland. Having never played the city before, they were skeptical upon hearing that it was a good rock-and-roll town, unaware the market was among the first in the country to take to Springsteen, Bowie and Queen.
The show went over really well. The following morning, Lewis said, “You know, the heart of rock and roll is in Cleveland,” then thought, “Aha! Song title!”
VIDEO: Huey Lewis & The News “The Heart of Rock & Roll”
His bandmates were skeptical of the “in Cleveland” part making a song, which lead to it being changed to “still beatin'”. The city still gets its shoutout later in the song, which had predictably had space for “place name here” yells wherever the group has played ever since.
“The idea being that, although the music business is in New York and L.A., you know, music, good music, is wherever you find it,” Lewis said in a track-by-track video for Billboard.
The song, co-written with Colla, may have been a collection of place names, but it was delivered with enough bar band on a good night charm to make it a third straight Top 10 hit.
The fourth single, by Colla and Lewis, “If This Is It,” would be a throwback to doo-wop, transferred to polished ’80s pop. Less of a full-on homage than Billy Joel’s hit “The Longest Time” from the same period, it was clearly aimed at radio.
VIDEO: Huey Lewis & The News “If This Is It”
Colla wrote all the music, so Lewis had to come up with lyrics to fit the track’s timing. He knew it was a love song, but exactly what to say eluded him. Of course, the idea hit him one night on a tour bus as he was about to fall asleep. An internal debate of “Should I get up and write this down or wait until after I wake up because I could really use the sleep” followed before Lewis reluctantly got up to write his ideas down.
It became the third straight single from Sports to peak at No. 6, the summer hit Colla hoped it would be.
The final single, “Walking on a Thin Line”, came from Kevin Wells (Clover’s last drummer) and Andre Pessis, a friend of the band. The two asked Lewis if he’d sing a demo of the song so they could shop it around to publishers. He agreed, but as he recorded it, he liked it enough to use as a Huey Lewis & The News song.
It was more serious lyrically than the rest of Sports. It was written from the point of view of returning Vietnam veterans who’d not only been in a losing interventionist war fought primarily with drafted forces, but encountered an often hostile response back home.
It certainly wasn’t as desperately anguished (or as misappropriated) as Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” would be the following year. It stayed in the lane of radio-ready guitar rock, its heart in the right place even if Lewis couldn’t inhabit the character like the Boss did.
Of the non-singles, “Bad is Bad,” dated back to the Clover days in England. One can find versions from them where the song is much more uptempo blues, to the point where one can almost picture the J. Geils Band taking it on.
And indeed, Dave Edmunds (on 1979’s Repeat When Necessary) and Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott (unreleased) maintained the tempo in versions which featured Lewis on harmonica.
For Sports, they made the odd choice to slow the song down, playing along to a drum machine. The net result swaps blues for sedation, as if Lewis wanted to change the title to “Nap is Nap.”
“Finally Found a Home” also began on the road, well, on the way to the road. Driving past some small, lookalike tract houses on the way to the airport, band manager Bob Brown said something to the effect of, “Look, boys, finally found a home.”
Lewis tucked it away for a title, then went metaphorical with it. The “home” is the song itself as Lewis turned it into a song about manifesting the dream of being able to sing for a career into reality. If not as sharp as the singles, it’s held up well as an album track.
The early days of gigging in their 20s inspired Lewis’ and Cipollina’s peppy “You Crack Me Up.” Its lead character is a composite of a number of friends and acquaintances who could be seen at Uncle Charlie’s, a long-gone strip mall bar in Marin County where the guys had played in the early days.
Whether the protagonist would still be around is debatable, given their apparent propensity to have a few too many a few times too often. Although they wouldn’t be the first to act differently in their 60s after luckily making it through their 20s.
The closer was where the quest for radio was clearly abandoned. Lewis just wanted to cover a country song, so he sang Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues”, with the idea of mashing up Hank with the Status Quo (who used to “Chuck Berry everything” as Lewis put it). Lewis may not have been able to twang, but the band put enough energy into it that they received a nice seal of approval.
“That year at the Grammys, Hank Jr. was also performing. And he sent for me, to tell me how much he liked ‘Honky Tonk Blues’. Pretty cool,” Lewis told Billboard with a smile.
Sports was a bigger hit than the band expected, aided by videos that often played on their regular, goofy guy charm. It spent a week at No. 1 in 1984 when a record-low five albums topped the chart — Thriller, the Footloose soundtrack, Born in the U.S.A. and Purple Rain being the others. Going platinum seven times over, it was the second-biggest selling album of 1984, trailing only Thriller.
The commercial magic Huey Lewis and the News found on Sports would hold for a few more years. Their next eight singles would return them to the Top 10, with three — “Power of Love” from the Back to the Future soundtrack and “Stuck With You” and “Jacob’s Ladder” off the follow-up Fore! reaching No. 1.
From there, the combination of experimentation that didn’t click (much of 1988’s Small World) and bad timing with shifting tastes (1991’s Hard Play, which contained their final Top 40 hits) knocked Huey Lewis from their chart-topping perch.
Huey Lewis and the News’ greatest strength was that they were a likable pop-rock band. But they were also not suited for the particular coming trends. Adding beats and raps would have sounded silly. They were too much like your golfing dad or uncle to have sounded convincing if they’d tried to detune and turn up their guitars to compete with the heavier alternative acts.
Even if Huey Lewis & The News were living in a world that wasn’t going to allow them to scale the heights of Sports anymore, they were also living in one where they still had a stable enough audience to allow them to tour regularly (as well as put out albums, albeit less frequently).
The group never went away until Lewis was forced into indefinite hiatus in 2018 due to Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder resulting in fluctuating symptoms like vertigo, tinnitus and hearing loss.”
When the group was striving for hits, they had no idea that they’d be indelibly tied to a horror film 17 years later. As anyone who’s seen the bloody yuppy satire American Psycho can attest, Lewis is referenced in a highly memorable scene.
Patrick Bateman, the psycho in question, murders a rival banker he’s jealous of. He gets dressed in gear to keep his suit free of blood while extolling the virtues of Lewis’ work on Sports and Fore!. He caps it with a riff on 1986 hit “Hip to be Square” as a “personal statement” about the band before driving an ax into the man’s skull. The whole thing later took on a second life in memes and was even parodied on Funny or Die by Lewis with Weird Al Yankovic in Jared Leto’s role.
It’s Bateman trying to come across as normal while committing an abnormally violent act, with Huey Lewis & The News as a symbol of that normalcy. And if he missed the joke of “Hip to be Square,” well, he wasn’t the only one, thanks to Lewis’ decision to change the song’s perspective to first person.
There was no mistaking the very normality of Huey Lewis & The News. They had the image of a local bar band who got lucky, but beyond the fortune required for anyone to have a hit, there was more to it.
They’d been putting years in to build to where they were when they recorded Sports. Some tastemakers were quick to deride them as “corporate” or “bland”, but yet the people they crossed paths with in the U.K. didn’t seem to think so.
I remember Blender, many years ago, placed “Heart of Rock and Roll” fifth on its list of 50 “worst songs” of all time, which seemed more than a little harsh for a catchy pop hit. It seems even more harsh when one realizes that, for some odd reason, they couldn’t find room for Paul Anka’s “(You’re) Having My Baby” anywhere on the list. Seriously, even if Lewis & Co. aren’t your bag, making it through that Anka hit (which was a No. 1!) remains an endurance test.
If Picture This is underrated today, Sports definitely accomplished what Huey Lewis & The News intended and then some, a commercial success thanks to the craft on display.
As easy a target as they might have been, there’s something to be said for delivering hooks with enough skill to have commercial success, especially when your competition includes the likes of MJ, Springsteen and Prince at their peak.
Huey Lewis & The News were never going to be edgy. Trying wouldn’t have suited them. Sports, now available as a luxe 40th anniversary vinyl edition on UMe, shows they made the right decision to travel the road they did, making solid pop in the process.
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