Huey Lewis on music in the 70s, 80s and writing hits

Back in the days of neon and fat laces, a cassette of the hit album "Sports" by Huey Lewis and The News could be found in my boombox at any given moment. "Sports" was one of two albums by the band to reach number one on the Billboard charts. (“Fore!” was the other.) During its reign the band also racked up six number one singles and a bunch of top 10 hits to its credit.

The band's 80s high-water mark has afforded it longevity no matter which way the tides of pop have flowed since. That's fine with Huey. He's had his fill of the music industry's fickleness; he just wants to play good music. I got the sense from our conversation that as long as there's breath in him he'll be blowing his blues harp and singing doo-wop with The News. Huey and the boys come to BergenPAC on March 19.

Gene: It goes without saying that you’ve had a lot of hits…

Huey: [Interrupts, teasing.] It goes without saying, but Gene, you can say it anyway…

Gene: Even though your 2001 album, “Plan B,” didn’t burn up the charts, critics said that was some of your best material and every bit as catchy as your hits…

Huey: I think so too!

Gene: That says to me that you guys still have it, and that leads to my question, when a band has “it,” what do they have?

Huey: That is interesting… “Plan B” was written for the band. By that I mean, in the 80s, clearly when you wrote a song, you knew it was going to get some airplay…In those days, we made those records in the studio knowing full well that they were going to get lots of play on the radio. By the time “Plan B” came along, that was not the case. Radio had been segregated for a few years…There really wasn’t a station that was going to play our music. So they weren’t written or recorded for radio play. We were able to live with flaws a little more…let the songs breathe and allow ambiance to occur … or leave a little mistake here and there that you never would if you thought that the radio was going to play it 2,000 times a day. It was liberating in that way, and that is why the “Plan B” stuff sounds different. The fact that it wasn’t a hit is understandable. It was never aimed at the radio.

Gene: When you wrote “I Want a New Drug,” did you know that it would be a hit?

Huey: No, but I knew that we had a couple on there [the 1983 album, “Sports.”] I knew “Heart and Soul” was going to be a hit. In the old days, when you made an album, you needed a couple of songs that radio could play. There was no question about it. If you didn’t do that, you were fooling yourself. If you were producing a record in the mid 80s, you needed to have a hit. Everything was formatted. You needed to get into that playlist somehow and that took some consideration. We produced our records ourselves, so I am ashamed to tell you that we considered that. In those days, you’d have a couple of things that radio could play –singles as it were—and then you’d stretch out and do other stuff on side two. That is one of the problems with downloading one tune at a time. The nice thing about an album is as long as you have three or four things that radio could play, you could really stretch out with the rest of the stuff.

Gene: With some artists, like Peter Gabriel, it’s obvious which songs are for the radio and which ones are not. But for you guys, that’s not coming to mind as easily. You guys have a bar band doo-wop sound and it seems consistent across the albums.

Huey: On that album, “Heart and Soul” is a single obviously. “If This is It” was a song for radio to play. Now, “Heart of Rock and Roll” was not meant to be a single. It was an honest statement, lyrically. Musically, it was a groove thing where we were trying to get [the sound of] the old [music] and the new at once. Although “Sports” sounds like bar band stuff, it was actually carefully assembled. In fact, we used drum machines on a couple of the songs and synced up bass on one and created those things piece by piece. We wanted them to sound rootsy and bar bandish, if you will. But the truth is, they weren’t cut like a bar band at all. But “Plan B” was. “Plan B” was a live performance by five of us and we overdubbed the horns and the vocals. That was it. But on the “Sports” album, those tunes were constructed.

Gene: What’s your opinion of iTunes?

Huey: The trouble with iTunes is no one is going to download that other song. They are just going to download the one they want. It’s gotten to be a singles market again, which is kind of a shame. And then there are financial concerns. You don’t make a lot of money off of iTunes. You make a lot less money than if you actually sold an album.

Gene: Of course MTV, had a large role in your success in the 80s. What did MTV feel like back then?

Huey: When you toured the country, you could really feel the MTV markets because they knew the songs so much better. What MTV amounted to in those days was an amazing marketing tool. In fact, when we first made videos, they weren’t called videos. They were called clips or promos. That’s really what they were. There’s no quicker way to break a band than to show them on television nationally. The downside to that is, if you think of iconic groups from the 70s, Led Zeppelin for example, their first album, we lived with that album. There were no pictures of the band, or maybe there was one picture of [Robert] Plant. So, that was all you had for a year or so, until they came to your town. Then you go to see them live, and there is one more image you have…Now, you’d have to live with that for a year or so. So it literally took you years to find out as much about the band as it did on MTV in two weeks. The advantage to all of that was while you were finding out about the band over those years, their music was the soundtrack to your life. It occupied two years of your life. Nowadays, a band can come from out of nowhere and within two weeks, you know everything about them. It’s Andy Warhol’s prophecy, “In the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes.”

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