Huey Lewis and the News
Huey Lewis and the News burst out of San Francisco onto the national music scene at the beginning of the decade, with their self-titled rock pop album released by Chrysalis, though they really didn’t come into their own, commercially or artistically, until their 1983 smash, Sports. Though their roots were visible (blues, Memphis soul, country) on Huey Lewis and the News they seemed a little too willing to cash in on the late seventies/early eighties taste for New Wave, and the album—though it’s still a smashing debut—seems a little too stark, too punk. Examples of this being the drumming on the first single, “Some of My Lies Are True (Sooner or Later),” and the fake handclaps on “Don’t Make Me Do It” as well as the organ on “Taking a Walk.” Even though it was a little bit strained, their peppy boy-wants-girl lyrics and the energy with which Lewis, as a lead singer, instilled all the songs were refreshing. Having a great lead guitarist like Chris Hayes (who also shares vocals) doesn’t hurt either. Hayes’ solos are as original and unrehearsed as any in rock. Yet the keyboardist, Sean Hopper, seemed too intent on playing the organ a little too mechanically (though his piano playing on the second half of the album gets better) and Bill Gibson’s drumming was too muted to have much impact. The songwriting also didn’t mature until much later, though many of the catchy songs had hints of longing and regret and dread (“Stop Trying” is just one example).
Though the boys hail from San Francisco and they share some similarities with their Southern California counterparts, the Beach Boys (gorgeous harmonies, sophisticated vocalizing, beautiful melodies—they even posed with a surfboard on the cover of the debut album), they also carried with them some of the bleakness and nihilism of the (thankfully now forgotten) “punk rock” scene of Los Angeles at the time. Talk about your Angry Young Man!—listen to Huey on “Who Cares,” “Stop Trying,” “Don’t Even Tell Me That You Love Me,” “Trouble in Paradise” (the titles say it all). Huey hits his notes like an embittered survivor and the band often sounds as angry as performers like the Clash or Billy Joel or Blondie. No one should forget that we have Elvis Costello to thank for discovering Huey in the first place. Huey played harmonica on Costello’s second record, the thin, vapid My Aim Was You. Lewis has some of Costello’s supposed bitterness, though Huey has a more bitter, cynical sense of humor. Elvis might think that intellectual wordplay is as important as having a good time and having one’s cynicism tempered by good spirits, but I wonder what he thinks about Lewis selling so many more records than he?
Things looked up for Huey and the boys on the second album, 1982’s Picture This, which yielded two semihits, “Workin’ for a Livin’” and “Do You Believe in Love,” and the fact that this coincided with the advent of video (there was one made for both songs) undoubtedly helped sales. The sound, though still tinged with New Wave trappings, seemed more roots-rock than the previous album, which might have something to do with the fact that Bob Clearmountain mixed the record or that Huey Lewis and the News took over the producing reins. Their songwriting grew more sophisticated and the group wasn’t afraid to quietly explore other genres—notably reggae (“Tell Her a Little Lie”) and ballads (“Hope You Love Me Like You Say” and “Is It Me?”). But for all its power-pop glory, the sound and the band seem, gratefully, less rebellious, less angry on this record (though the blue-collar bitterness of “Workin’ for a Livin’” seems like an outtake from the earlier album). They seem more concerned with personal relationships—four of the album’s ten songs have the word “love” in their title—rather than strutting around as young nihilists, and the mellow good-times feel of the record is a surprising, infectious change.
The band is playing better than it last did and the Tower of Power horns give the record a more open, warmer sound. The album hits its peak with the back-to-back one-two punch of “Workin’ for a Livin’” and “Do You Believe in Love,” which is the best song on the album and is essentially about the singer asking a girl he’s met while “looking for someone to meet” if she “believes in love.” The fact that the song never resolves the question (we never find out what the girl says) gives it an added complexity that wasn’t apparent on the group’s debut. Also on “Do You Believe in Love” is a terrific sax solo by Johnny Colla (the guy gives Clarence Clemons a run for his money), who, like Chris Hayes on lead guitar and Sean Hopper on keyboards, has by now become an invaluable asset to the band (the sax solo on the ballad “Is It Me?” is even stronger). Huey’s voice sounds more searching, less raspy, yet plaintive, especially on “The Only One,” which is a touching song about what happens to our mentors and where they end up (Bill Gibson’s drumming is especially vital to this track). Though the album should have ended on that powerful note, it ends instead with “Buzz Buzz Buzz,” a throwaway blues number that doesn’t make much sense compared to what preceded it, but in its own joky way it amuses and the Tower of Power horns are in excellent form.
There are no such mistakes made on the band’s third album and flawless masterpiece, Sports (Chrysalis). Every song has the potential to be a huge hit and most of them were. It made the band rock ‘n’ roll icons. Gone totally is the bad-boy image, and a new frat-guy sweetness takes over (they even have the chance to say “ass” in one song and choose to bleep it instead). The whole album has a clear, crisp sound and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that gives the songs on the album a big boost. And the wacky, original videos made to sell the record (“Heart and Soul,” “The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “If This Is It,” “Bad Is Bad,” “I Want a New Drug”) made them superstars on MTV.
Produced by the band, Sports opens with what will probably become their signature song, “The Heart of Rock ‘n Roll,” a loving ode to rock ‘n’ roll all over the United States. It’s followed by “Heart and Soul,” their first big single, which is a trademark Lewis song (though it’s written by outsiders Michael Chapman and Nicky Chinn) and the tune that firmly and forever established them as the premier rock band in the country for the 1980s. If the lyrics aren’t quite up to par with other songs, most of them are more than serviceable and the whole thing is a jaunty enterprise about what a mistake one-night stands are (a message the earlier, rowdier Huey would never have made). “Bad Is Bad,” written solely by Lewis, is the bluesiest song the band had recorded up to this point and Mario Cipollina’s bass playing gets to shine on it, but it’s really Huey’s harmonica solos that give it an edge. “I Want a New Drug,” with its killer guitar riff (courtesy of Chris Hayes), is the album’s centerpiece—not only is it the greatest antidrug song ever written, it’s also a personal statement about how the band has grown up, shucked off their bad-boy image and learned to become more adult. Hayes’ solo on it is incredible and the drum machine used, but not credited, gives not only “I Want a New Drug” but most of the album a more consistent backbeat than any of the previous albums—even though Bill Gibson is still a welcome presence.
The rest of the album whizzes by flawlessly—side two opens with their most searing statement yet: “Walking on a Thin Line,” and no one, not even Bruce Springsteen, has written as devastatingly about the plight of the Vietnam vet in modern society. This song, though written by outsiders, shows a social awareness that was new to the band and proved to anyone who ever doubted it that the band, apart from its blues background, had a heart. And again in “Finally Found a Home” the band proclaims its newfound sophistication with this paean to growing up. And though at the same time it’s about shedding their rebel image, it’s also about how they “found themselves” in the passion and energy of rock ‘n’ roll. In fact the song works on so many levels it’s almost too complex for the album to carry, though it never loses its beat and it still has Sean Hopper’s ringing keyboards, which make it danceable. “If This Is It” is the album’s one ballad, but it’s not downbeat. It’s a plea for a lover to tell another lover if they want to carry on with the relationship, and the way Huey sings it (arguably the most superb vocal on the album), it becomes instilled with hope. Again, this song—as with the rest of the album—isn’t about chasing or longing after girls, it’s about dealing with relationships. “Crack Me Up” is the album’s only hint at a throwback to the band’s New Wave days and it’s minor but amusing, though its antidrinking, antidrug, pro-growing-up statement isn’t.
And as a lovely ending to an altogether remarkable album, the band does a version of “Honky Tonk Blues” (another song written by someone not in the band, named Hank Williams), and even though it’s a very different type of song, you can feel its presence throughout the rest of the album. For all its professional sheen, the album has the integrity of honky-tonk blues. (Aside: During this period Huey also recorded two songs for the movie Back to the Future, which both went Number One, “The Power of Love” and “Back in Time,” delightful extras, not footnotes, in what has been shaping up into a legendary career.) What to say to Sports dissenters in the long run? Nine million people can’t be wrong.
Fore! (Chrysalis; 1986) is essentially a continuation of the Sports album but with an even more professional sheen. This is the record where the guys don’t need to prove they’ve grown up and that they’ve accepted rock ‘n’ roll, because in the three year transition between Sports and Fore! they already had. (In fact three of them are wearing suits on the cover of the record.) It opens with a blaze of fire, “Jacob’s Ladder,” which is essentially a song about struggle and overcoming compromise, a fitting reminder of what Huey and the News represents, and with the exception of “Hip to Be Square” it’s the best song on the album (though it wasn’t written by anyone in the band). This is followed by the sweetly good-matured “Stuck with You,” a lightweight paean to relationships and marriage. In fact most of the love songs on the album are about sustained relationships, unlike the early albums, where the concerns were about either lusting after girls and not getting them or getting burned in the process. On Fore! the songs are about guys who are in control (who have the girls) and now have to deal with them. This new dimension in the News gives the record an added oomph and they seem more content and satisfied, less urgent, and this makes for their most pleasingly crafted record to date. But also for every “Doing It All for My Baby” (a delightful ode about monogamy and satisfaction) there’s a barn-banning blues scorcher number like “Whole Lotta Lovin’,” and side one (or, on the CD, song number five) ends with the masterpiece “Hip to Be Square” (which, ironically, is accompanied by the band’s only bad video), the key song on Fore!; which is a rollicking ode to conformity that’s so catchy most people probably don’t even listen to the lines, but with Chris Hayes blasting guitar and the terrific keyboard playing who cares? And it’s not just about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends—it’s also a personal statement about the band itself, though of what I’m not quite sure.
If the second part of Fore! doesn’t have the intensity of the first, there are some real gems that are actually quite complicated. “I Know What I Like” is a song that Huey would never have sung six years back—a blunt declaration of independence—while the carefully placed “I Never Walk Alone,” which follows, actually complements the song and explains it in broader terms (it also has a great organ solo and except for “Hip to Be Square” has Huey’s strongest vocals). “Forest for the Trees” is an upbeat antisuicide tract, and though its title might seem like a clich'e, Huey and the band have a way of energizing clich'es and making them originals wholly their own. The nifty a cappella “Naturally” evokes an innocent time while showcasing the band’s vocal harmonies (if you didn’t know better you’d think it was the Beach Boys coming out of your CD player), and even if it’s essentially a throwaway, a trifle of sorts, the album ends on a majestic note with “Simple as That,” a blue-collar ballad that sounds not a note of resignation but one of hope, and its complex message (it wasn’t written by anyone in the band) of survival leads the way to their next album, Small World, where they take on global issues. Fore! might not be the masterpiece Sports is (what could be?), but in its own way it’s just as satisfying and the mellower, gentler Huey of ‘86 is just as happening.
Small World (Chrysalis; 1988) is the most ambitious, artistically satisfying record yet produced by Huey Lewis and the News. The Angry Young Man has definitely been replaced by a smoothly professional musician and even though Huey has only really mastered one instrument (the harmonica), its majestic Dylanesque sounds give Small World a grandeur few artists have reached. It’s an obvious transition and their first album that tries to make thematic sense—in fact Huey takes on one of the biggest subjects of all: the importance of global communication. It’s no wonder four out of the album’s ten songs have the word “world” in their titles and that for the first time there’s not only one but three instrumentals.
The CD gets off to a rousing start with the Lewis/Hayes-penned “Small World (Part One),” which, along with its message of harmony, has a blistering solo by Hayes at its center. In “Old Antone’s” one can catch the zydeco influences that the band has picked up on touring around the country, and it gives it a Cajun flavor that is utterly unique. Bruce Hornsby plays the accordion wonderfully and the lyrics give you a sense of a true Bayou spirit. Again, on the hit single “Perfect World,” the Tower of Power horns are used to extraordinary effect. It’s also the best cut on the album (written by Alex Call, who isn’t in the band) and it ties up all the album’s themes—about accepting the imperfections of this world but still learning to “keep on dreamin’ of livin’ in a perfect world.” Though the sang is fastpaced pop it’s still moving in terms of its intentions and the band plays splendidly on it. Oddly this is followed by two instrumentals: the eerie African-influenced reggae dance track “Bobo Tempo” and the second part of “Small World.” But just because these tunes are wordless doesn’t mean the global message of communication is lost, and they don’t seem like filler or padding because of the implications of their thematic reprise; the band gets to show off its improvisational skills as well.
Side two opens smashingly with “Walking with the Kid,” the first Huey song to acknowledge the responsibilities of fatherhood. His voice sounds mature and even though we, as listeners, don’t find out until the last line that “the kid” (who we assume is a buddy) is actually his son, the maturity in Huey’s voice tips us off and it’s hard to believe that the man who once sang “Heart and Soul” and “Some of My Lies Are True” is singing this. The album’s big ballad, “World to Me,” is a dreamy pearl of a song, and though it’s about sticking together in a relationship, it also makes allusions to China and Alaska and Tennessee, carrying on the album’s “Small World” theme—and the band sounds really good on it. “Better Be True” is also a bit of a ballad, but it’s not a dreamy pearl and its lyrics aren’t really about sticking together in a relationship nor does it make allusions to China or Alaska and the band sounds really good on it.
“Give Me the Keys (And I’ll Drive You Crazy)” is a good-times blues rocker about (what else?) driving around, incorporating the album’s theme in a much more playful way than previous songs on the album did, and though lyrically it might seem impoverished, it’s still a sign that the new “serious” Lewis—that Huey the artist hasn’t totally lost his frisky sense of humor. The album ends with “Slammin’,” which has no words and it’s just a lot of horns that quite frankly, if you turn it up really loud, can give you a fucking big headache and maybe even make you feel a little sick, though it might sound different on an album or on a cassette though I wouldn’t know anything about that. Anyway it set off something wicked in me that lasted for days. And you cannot dance to it very well.
It took something like a hundred people to put Small World together (counting all the extra musicians, drum technicians, accountants, lawyers—who are all, thanked), but this actually adds to the CD’s theme of community and it doesn’t clutter the record—it makes it a more joyous experience. With this CD and the four previous ones behind it, Huey Lewis and the News prove that if this really is a small world, then these guys are the best American band of the 1980s on this or any other continent—and it has with it Huey Lewis, a vocalist, musician and writer who just can’t be topped.