When Sports was released three decades ago, MTV was in its infancy and actually playing music videos as radio playlists were becoming increasingly fragmented. It wasn’t exactly the time or place for an anachronistic group featuring horns, doo-wop harmonies and a harp blowing frontman to expect any kind of chart success. But that’s exactly what Huey Lewis and the News did with its 1983 studio album. The band’s third studio outing not only went septuple platinum, but it topped the Billboard Top 200 charts in 1984, yielded five Top 20 hits (four of which broached the Top 10) and made them fixtures on MTV and the radio. And while it’s ballsy to say the outcome went according to plans, Huey Lewis is clear that there was a clear strategy in place when it came time to hit the studio.
“Sports was very much a record of its time and a collection of singles. It reminds me that it was a very radio-driven market. There was no jamband scene and no Internet,” Lewis explained from his home in Montana. “So the only avenue to success was a hit record and we produced it ourselves; we were an unknown band that wanted to do it on our own terms, which we did, but we unabashedly aimed five of those tracks at radio. We didn’t know we were going to have five hits and that’s what we had. It holds together less as an album unlike our subsequent records, which hold together as albums. But as a collection of singles, it did the trick. Now you know why we called it Sports, because it had a lot of hits.”
Nowadays, Lewis and the eight-man strong outfit that makes up the News are happy to criss-cross the country and play set-lists that lean heavily on those aforementioned hits. Fans can expect boatloads of earworms including “If This Is It,” “The Power of Love,” “The Heart of Rock & Roll” and “I Want a New Drug.” Also included are a number of covers ranging from the Bruce Hornsby-penned “Jacob’s Ladder” to the odd R&B covers of J.J. Jackson (“But It’s Alright”) and Major Lance (“Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um”). As for new material, Lewis admitted in a Billboard interview, “The public isn’t clamoring for new Huey Lewis and the News material. We have written a few things, but you want it to be meaningful, so it becomes increasingly harder.”
Lewis’ point becomes that more salient when you realize the last album of new material released by the News was 2001’s Plan B. The only other recording since then was the all-covers Stax/Volt tribute album Soulsville in 2010. For Lewis, technology has helped turn the pop music paradigm on its head.
“In terms of the songwriting, it’s interesting to note that we come from an anachronistic era of music but the songs fit the top musical formula. It’s written in bars of four with intros and follows that verse-chorus, verse-chorus, bridge and then verse-chorus out. And that’s an American popular music formula and structure since time began,” he explained. “Almost after that, it was abandoned in the ’90s. There were certainly no bridges and pretty soon they were more like song pastiches or a song collage. There’s no formula to it anymore, and that’s what’s interesting about [modern-day pop music]. My kid pointed that out to me. He’s a little bit of a musicologist. The ’80s in general, that was it. And our stuff was anachronistic then if you think about it. Every song had a bridge and they gave up bridges a long time ago.”
While admittedly not one to look backwards, the native New Yorker admits that Sports not only broke his group through to a higher stratum of success, but forced his band to up its game in the studio while setting the bar higher for his group as a whole.
“My concept for the Sports record was again, trying to aim for Top 40 radio. We mixed it in New York five times and couldn’t get it to work. Then we sat on it and I listened to it. I knew it had to be cut with a machine so we went back and re-recorded ‘Heart of Rock and Roll,’ ‘I Want a New Drug’ and ‘Walking On a Thin Line,’ he recalled “So we went back in, set the drum machine up, sequenced the bass and put it on 114 and it was unbelievable. It came to life. There’s a lesson out of this. Machines are exact and you just can’t fake it. Merging machines with humans, you have to be very, very [cautious] and you have to assemble it very carefully. And the Sports record was assembled very, very carefully. Since that time, we’ve concentrated on playing better to where we can now capture the songs as just to recreating them. It’s been an interesting journey.”