Huey Lewis knew his band had just one more chance for a hit record.
They were about to make their third album, the last in a three record deal with Chrysalis Records.
“After our first album, we insisted on producing the records ourselves, which was kind of a rare thing for an unknown band. In those days, conventional wisdom said, ‘Get a producer.’ But our label was Chrysalis Records in London and they couldn’t control us very well and our manager stuck up for us, and we elected to produce our own records. Therefore, the second record, Picture This, we had a hit, “Do You Believe in Love.” But it broke even. First record, stiffed. Second record, broke even. And this was the make or break record.”
That third record, Sports, not only gave Huey Lewis and The News the hit they were hoping for, but it made them households names for the rest of their careers. Sports – an album mixed with catchy pop, rock, blues, guitars, woodwinds and a harmonica – sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, was Billboard’s No. 2 album of the year in 1984 behind only Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and produced not one, not two or even three hit singles, but five.
“We had five hit singles out of nine tracks. And the other one, ‘Bad Is Bad,’ was kind of a hit because it was a hit video. They tried to make it a single but we wouldn’t allow them to do it. We said, ‘You can’t have six singles. You’ve gone too deep,” Lewis told the Deseret News recently in a phone interview during a day off on the band’s current tour. “Did I know that was going to happen? Of course not. But it’s OK.”
This year, the Sports album turns 30. To mark the anniversary, Huey Lewis and the News are out on the road for much of 2013, playing the entire album from start to finish at each of their concerts. Utahns will have two chances to catch the show. HLN will be in Layton on Monday at the Ed Kenley Amphitheatre and at the Sandy City Amphitheatre on Tuesday.
After Picture This was released in 1982, the band began working on the material that would become the Sports album. In those days, Lewis said wasn’t about making a song that could be put on iTunes or any social media page.
“It was 1982 when we’re making this record. Radio was king. There was only one avenue to success and that was radio. So we aimed five of those tunes right at radio. There was no Internet. Even FM radio was programed at that point.”
There was also a hot new cable channel called MTV.
“MTV was playing radio hits. Their playlist exactly mirrored radio and records’ playlists. They played videos according to how well the song did on radio. That’s why so many of those early videos were so terrible and got so much play,” Lewis said with a laugh. “Radio dictated the success of those records. Michael Jackson’s record and Madonna’s record and our record, it was all about radio. What MTV did was blew out the record sales. So instead of selling two or three million, we were all selling ten million records.”
In August of 1983, the first single, “Heart and Soul” was released, immediately becoming a radio and MTV hit. The full Sports album was released a month later. The album and the band kept getting bigger and bigger with each successive single.
“I Want A New Drug,” “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” “If This Is it,” and “Walking on a Thin Line” were all top 20 hits, and all but Thin Line were top 10.
“We didn’t know we were going to have five hits. We knew we needed one and wanted one,” Lewis said. “And that record today, to me, sounds like a record of its time. It’s a collection of singles, which is what was going on.”
In addition to playing the entire album at every show, the band also released a 30th Anniversary Edition of Sports in May that includes a remastered version of the original album and second CD of the Sports album played live. Each track was recorded at different concerts over the past three decades.
The band also returned this year to the 2 A.M. Club in Mill Valley, Cal. to recreate the infamous Sports album cover of the band members sitting around a bar. Guitar/sax player Johnny Colla, drummer Bill Gibson and keyboardist Sean Hopper are still members of the News. Mario Cipolina, the band’s original bass player, left in 1995. Lead guitarist Chris Hayes retired in 2000 to spend more time with family, but has occasionally sat in with the band since then.
One of the funnier salutes to the Sports 30th Anniversary came courtesy of the website Funny or Die.
In the 2000 movie American Pyscho, Patrick Bateman, played by Christian Bale, is an ax-wielding serial killer and big Huey Lewis fan. In one of the movie’s key scenes, Bateman talks about the Fore! album before hacking his unsuspecting victim to death, all while “Hip to be Square” plays in the background.
In the Funny or Die parody, Lewis does a role reversal, playing Bateman and inserting the American Psycho movie into his DVD player before hacking an unsuspecting Weird Al Yankovic, who parodied “I Want a New Drug” years ago.
The idea for the skit came from the folks at Funny or Die.
“They wanted to do something. So we had a conference call and they had five different ideas, and I chose that one because I thought it was hilarious,” Lewis said.
Following the massive success of Sports, Huey Lewis and The News kept the hit machine rolling and scored one of their biggest hits with “The Power of Love” from the Back to the Future soundtrack in 1985. The band rounded out the ’80s with the albums Fore! and Small World.
Over the past three decades, HLN has experimented with several musical styles. Having the luxury of being artistically creative was something that Sports afforded the band, Lewis said.
“To my ears, we’ve grown all the time. We’ve changed. Interestingly, Sports was actually assembled very carefully, piece by piece. We used some drum machines, synthesizers, sometimes the bass was sequenced, everything was overdubbed and it’s a very carefully put together record, even though it looks like a bar band record from the cover. It’s actually very carefully assembled. To have that success from that record, we zigged when everything else was zagging. And now we just play live as a band. Our last record, Soulsville, was played live in the studio and captured, but with a full horns section.”
Capturing those performances in the studio as opposed to creating them is something Lewis very much favors over the way the band made records 30 years ago.
“To my ears, we’ve gotten better as a band, there’s no question about that. And our records have improved. I like the captured sound. It’s easier to capture a performance and release it as a record when you know there’s no top 40. In other words, you’re not making a record to be played every hour. If you’re making a record to be played every hour on AM radio, you better get it pretty perfect because it’s going to be played over and over and over again. But if you don’t have that market, and there’s a little flaw in it, you can embrace that flaw, that little mistake. It’s a fun thing.”
Huey Lewis and The News have released only two studio albums since 1994. But they may soon be adding another.
On their current tour, the band is playing not only Sports and a handful of greatest hits, but a brand new song as well.
“We have at least one new song we’re playing live right now, which you’re going to hear. And we’re mad for it. I think it’s really good.”
After the Sports 30th Anniversary Tour, Lewis said the band would begin work in earnest over the winter on new music, which could lead to a new album or EP.
And if the right role presents itself and if he has the time, Lewis said he would love to do more acting. He had a role in Robert Altman’s 1993 movie Short Cuts, and has appeared on several TV sit-coms over the years including Hot in Cleveland, One Tree Hill and The King of Queens.
“I love it. I really enjoy it when it’s substantive. I try to make the challenges creative. All my decisions now are creative ones. I made that deal to myself. That’s what Sports gave us. Sports gave us the ability to pay the bills and to suddenly realize the challenges were really creative. I feel like we’re cheatin’ the muse if we don’t. We don’t do things for money anymore, we do things to be creative.”
Other Huey Lewis tidbits:
*Lewis – an avid fisherman – took the traditional path (not) to rock stardom by skipping a grade, scoring a perfect 800 in Math on his SAT’s and being accepted to the Cornell University School of Engineering. But it was his father who encouraged him to take a year off before going to college. So Huey packed his harmonica and headed overseas.
“Pretty much made my way through Europe and North Africa with a harmonica. And kind of a little light went off. ‘Hey, this is kind of fun. Maybe I’ll try this for a living.’”
*One of concerts that stands out in Lewis’ mind in Utah over the past 30 years was playing outdoors during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
“It was freezing. We played a show, and I think it was 20 degrees and we played outside. That one sticks in my mind. It’s a good thing I didn’t stick my tongue out, it would have stuck to the microphone.”