Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hard At Play In A Perfect World

Riding on the wave of a multi-platinum album, and a string of top ten singles throughout ’83/’84, it was hard to envisage that Huey Lewis & the News could ascend to greater heights, but the ensuing two year period would prove to be the commercial zenith for the band (though critical praise for their work would be less forthcoming).

Bones Howe had already helmed production on three U.S. chart toppers during the late 60s, ‘Windy’ by the Association, and two #1s for the Fifth Dimension, ‘Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In’ and ‘Wedding Bell Blues’. By the mid 80s, Howe had turned his skills to motions pictures, though in a capacity as music supervisor and sound designer. He heard about a proposed film project for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment company, the basic plot of which involved a teenager travelling back in time to 1955 and meeting his own parents as teenagers in the process. The proposed film turned out to be ‘Back To The Future’, directed by Robert Zemeckis, and one of Howe’s directives as music supervisor was to come up with a selection of songs, some contemporary, and some circa 1955. When Howe came on board, the decision had already been made by the film’s creative team that Huey Lewis would be a good choice to provide a couple of songs for the film’s contemporary settings. Zemeckis and Spieberg both sat in with Lewis to view some of the film’s dailies, the rough cuts of the film shot to date, so as Lewis could get a feel for things. In a further ironic twist of the whole Ray Parker Jr. ‘Ghostbusters’ litigation, the producers were using ‘I Want A New Drug (Called Love)’ as an interim overlay to the rough cut sequences played back to Lewis. The song ‘In The Nick Of Time’ immediately sprang to Lewis’ mind as being perfect, but negotiations fell through on that one, and it ended up on being used on the soundtrack to the Richard Pryor comedy ‘Brewster’s Millions’ - so it was back to the future…err…drawing board.

Over the ensuing weeks, Lewis kept working on developing a song titled ‘Back In Time’ with several others from the News. Meanwhile, shooting continued on the film which brought further pressure to bear on Lewis to come up with something suitable. A scene had been written into the film where the character of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) auditions with his band in a Battle of the Bands style contest, with the winner to play the local high school dance. The inside joke was that his band would be playing a Huey Lewis song, and Huey himself was to play the part of a high school teacher who turns the band down. Lewis had only completed a basic melodic outline of the song (written with Johnny Colla and Chris Hayes), and so in the scene as shot, McFly and his band deliver a basic instrumental track only, with Lewis’ character cutting them off with the classic line, “Sorry guys, I’m afraid you’re just too darn loud”, just as McFly is about to sing. Lewis and Co. managed to deliver the finished version of ‘The Power Of Love’ in time for the film’s post production team, and Zemeckis decided to place it as musical accompaniment to Marty McFly’s frantic skateboard to school near the film’s opening. According to Bones Howe, some of the people involved in the creative process didn’t like ‘The Power Of Love’, and actually identified ‘Back In Time’ as the potential hit record. As it turned out, ‘Back In Time’, as fine a pop-rock song as it was, was relegated to the film’s closing credits, and it was ‘The Power Of Love’ that received star status on the film’s soundtrack.

How anyone could have doubted ‘The Power Of Love’ would be a hit I do not know, but shortly after its release, which was timed in with the premiere of ‘Back To The Future’, the song commenced its steady acceleration up the charts toward 88MPH, or #1, whichever came first. A promotional video was shot which featured Huey Lewis & the News performing the song, appropriately enough, at their favourite venue Uncle Charlies. Meanwhile, time travelling Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) pulls up outside in his DeLorean car, with optional temporal displacement extras. Huey Lewis & the News didn’t need money, nor fame, nor a credit card (a subtle reference to the band’s earlier name) to ride the train all the way to #1 with ‘The Power Of Love’. The song was fairly bursting at the seems with infectious hooks, and boasted a killer guitar solo from Chris Hayes that Marty McFly would have been proud of. By late August ‘85, ‘The Power Of Love’ sat atop the U.S. charts, supplanting ‘Shout’ by Tears For Fears, following suit in Australia a month later (UK#9), and shot Huey Lewis & the News to new and dizzying heights of commercial success (the song also garnered Academy Award and Grammy nominations).

It’s fair to say that expectations for the next Huey Lewis & The News album were high, but fans would have to wait nearly a year for its arrival (unless they could borrow Doc Brown’s DeLorean). In between writing and recording material for a new album, Huey Lewis found time to provide backing vocals on old mate Nick Lowe’s 1986 hit, ‘I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock & Roll). Though three years had elapsed between album releases, the exceptional mileage gained from the ‘Sports’ single releases, coupled with the interim global #1, ‘The Power Of Love’, gave the impression that Huey Lewis & the News hadn’t been out of the spotlight at all.

Huey Lewis & the News washed ashore again in August of ‘86, with the chart debut of their latest single, ‘Stuck With You’, the lead out single from their forthcoming album, ‘Fore!’. Rumour has it that the band had struggled to come up with material that they felt would satisfy expectations for their new album. Guitarist Chris Hayes told Rolling Stone magazine at the time, that he’d received a call one day from manager Bob Brown, with a request to come up with a hit tune to release as the first single. Hayes recounted that in between caring for his heavily pregnant wife, he popped into the studio for a few hours and came up with the music for ‘Stuck With You’, a bright and breezy slice of melodic pop-rock. The band’s most ardent credits judged the song as syrupy, populist tripe, but I’ve formed the impression over the years that some critics have a standing brief to deride an artists material, no matter the quality, if that artist experiences a prolonged run of success - in Australia it’s referred to as ‘the tall poppy syndrome’. ‘Stuck With You’ may have been radio friendly fodder, but it was a finely crafted song, delivered with exemplary production values - lifted from the same page of the Huey Lewis & the News songbook as ‘If This Is It’. The promo-clip followed the basic narrative of the lyrics, with Huey Lewis and presumably his wife, confronting the reality of their differences through a tragic event. That tragic event just happened to be the two of them being tossed overboard from their row boat, just about twenty metres off shore, and somehow being washed up as castaways on a desert island, supposedly hundreds of miles from civilisation. But suspension of disbelief aside, the saving grace is the band’s innate sense of humour throughout, from quite an amusing prologue, through to each of the News arriving on the island by some very unconventional modes of transport, and of course the song’s cheery, bouncy feel just wouldn’t sit right without a happy ending. Schmaltzy I know, but all good, clean fun. ‘Stuck With You’ eventually washed ashore at the prestigious #1 addreyess on the U.S. Hot 100 (OZ#2/UK#12).

The source album, ‘Fore!’, met with mixed reviews, some critics judging it as lacking some of the authentic ‘working band’ feel of its predecessor. That it may have been, but lacking in radio friendly hits it most certainly wasn’t. The follow up single, ‘Hip To Be Square’, was a high energy rocker with ambitions to be a working class anthem - of sorts. It’s entirely plausible that the song was a subtle thumbing of the nose by the band at critics, who all too readily were labelling them as staid, and middle of the road. I stand to be corrected, but I’d also venture to say that it’s the only U.S. top ten single (#3/OZ#17/UK#41) to feature backing vocals by an N.F.L. team. The San Francisco 49’ers were enlisted both in studio and to appear in the promotional video - which featured a macro-style filming technique that could have led to bouts of nausea for viewers.

Back in 1981, Huey Lewis’ publisher approached songwriter Bruce Hornsby with a view to Lewis & the News recording the Hornsby penned song ‘Let The Girls Rock’. Bruce Hornsby, and his brother John, turned the Lewis deal down, but Lewis and Bruce Hornsby struck up a friendship along the way. By 1986, Bruce Hornsby and his backing band, The Range, had hit the big time with their album ‘The Way It Is’ riding high on the U.S. charts, on the back of its US#1 title track. The Hornsby brothers, Bruce and John, had written more than enough material to fill their album, and one of the left over tracks was ‘Jacob’s Ladder’. The song essentially tells of one man’s shot at self redemption. With Huey Lewis & the News recording a slightly edgier version of the Hornsby original. ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ had just enough rungs to reach #1 on the U.S. charts during March of ‘87 (OZ#48), incidentally replacing Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ in the process, and became the band’s third American chart topper inside of eighteen months. With an almost constant presence on the airwaves, and a relentless touring schedule, it was a sure bet that the ‘Fore!’ album would reach #1 in the U.S. (OZ#3/UK#8), and it eventually went on to notch up triple platinum certification. The straight up guitar rock of ‘I Know What I Like’ (once more featuring backing vocals from the 49’ers) replaced ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ inside the U.S. top ten mid year (#9), but it was the fifth single release from ‘Fore!’ that rates as my personal pick of the pop-crop. ‘Doin’ It All For My Baby’ (US#6) was, lyrically, a lovey dovey serving of sentimentality, but it was packaged within an enchanting time capsule full of soulful 50s doo-wop charm. Adding to its appeal was a brilliant concept clip, that cast Huey and the lads as a bunch of Scooby Doo-esque characters who just happen to crash their van on a stormy night nearby a spooky old castle. Lewis has the misfortune of being crushed underneath the van whilst attempting a tire change, so the rest of the band decide to check out the mansion in the hope of getting a bite to eat, as you would under such traumatic circumstances. Lewis’ corpse is discovered by the local neighbourhood grave diggers (played by Colla and Hayes) who resolve to recover the body, no matter the means. Meanwhile, our intrepid rockers arrive at the castle and are greeted by a Lurch look-alike (Cipollina), but despite their shock, like all good Scooby Doo devotees, the lads overcome their sheer terror and go inside for a looksee. Lewis plays the role of the castle’s master, and resident Dr. Frankenstein (ably assisted by hunchback Hopper), who is earnestly trying to manufacture his very own bride. Early signs are promising for the good doctors latest escapade, whilst Lurch shows his own flare for the macabre by decapitating the News and placing their still living heads into jars. Test tube microphones and two headed guitarists abound in this high jinx comic caper, with the punch line being Huey Lewis’ corpse is revived as a virtual Frankenstein’s monster, the funny part being the bride’s repulsion when Lewis’ true form is revealed. Yes I know, your sides are splitting at the notion of such hilarity, but this was truly the golden age of music video, and whilst ‘Doin’ It All For My Baby’ may not have reached the heights of ‘Thriller’, it was an agreeable little jaunt. All up, the ‘Fore!’ album had yielded five U.S. top ten hits (six if you count ‘The Power Of Love’, which was included on some overseas pressings), and regardless of any critical derision, Huey Lewis & the News could rightly lay claim to being one of the most commercially popular acts on the planet.

In a perfect world their universal popularity would have continued, but 1988 spelled the beginning of the end for the band’s stellar run of commercial success. After another two year sojourn between album releases, Huey Lewis & the News resurfaced in July of ‘88 with the lead out single from their fifth album. ‘Perfect World’ (penned by ex-Clover member Alex Call) was another prime cut of classy pop-rock, that gave no indication that Huey Lewis & the News were going to stray from their winning formula. Replete with crisp, infectious guitar riffs, crystalline keyboard chords, and a ballsy brass backing (provided by regular News supplement, the Tower Of Power), ‘Perfect World’ marked a near perfect return to the charts (US#3/OZ#19/UK#48), and I recall the same day that I saw the promo video for the first time (which featured the band playing atop a huge mound of garbage), I was off to the record bar to purchase a limited edition yellow vinyl copy of the single no less. But what was this? Beneath the bouncy pop-rock façade, ‘Perfect World’ served up a bit of a sermon on social conscience that was to permeate throughout its source album, ‘Small World’. But where as ‘Perfect World’ had the pop sheen to get away with it, Huey Lewis & the News opted for a less travelled stylistic road to traverse the rest of the album’s journey. The change in direction included detours into jazz-rock and American roots music, but the band had pretty much painted themselves into a corner with their previous work, and their attempt to venture into new musical styles didn’t please everyone. The title track was released as the follow up single but smallish sales greeted ‘Small World’ (US#25) in late ‘88, and the slide continued with the third single, ‘Give Me The Keys (And I’ll Drive You Crazy)’ (US#47). For all the flak they copped from critics, the only thing I can hear that Huey Lewis & the News were guilty of with the ‘Small World’ album, was trying something a little bit different. As a stand alone work, ‘Small World’ has plenty to offer, from the zydeco zing of ‘Bobo Tempo’, to the reggae inflected ‘Better Be True’, but it wasn’t what the band’s adoring public had come to expect from them. Still, a high of #11 on the U.S. charts (UK#12/OZ#20) and platinum sales are nothing too be scoffed at.

As the 90s dawned, Huey Lewis & the News faced the same challenge as all of the 80s pop greats - could they adapt and survive in the ever evolving popular music environment. It took until April 1991 for that question to be answered in the form of the album ‘Hard At Play’. In the interim, the band had taken more than a couple days off from the road, and shifted label stables from Chrysalis to EMI. The lead out single, ‘Couple Days Off’, signalled a return to what Huey Lewis & the News, the ‘working band’, do best - good time, high energy rock and roll music. Bluesy guitar licks and a surging bass/drum line pushed ‘Couple Days Off’ to the door step of the U.S. top ten (#11/OZ#39). The resurgence in form continued with ‘It Hit Me Like A Hammer’ (US#21), which I purchased at the time on the short lived cassingle format. Co-written by Lewis and old Clover cohort Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, ‘It Hit Me Like A Hammer’ also showed the band hadn’t forgotten their roots in soul/R&B, and their harmonies sounded as pure as ever. ‘Hard At Play’ (US#27/UK#39/OZ#62) would doubtless have pleased long standing fans of Huey Lewis & the News, and had it been released several years earlier, it may well have spawned several top ten hits with songs like the beautifully crafted ‘We Should Be Making Love’, and the rollicking ‘Time Ain’t Money’. But as with most enduring artists, the sands of cultural evolution had finally overtaken Huey Lewis & the News, and the band were on the verge of being rendered an anachronism.

Well, if you’re gonna go out, why not go out in style - and on your own terms. In 1994, Huey Lewis took a leaf out of their own songbook, and went back in time to inspire their seventh album. ‘Four Chords & Several Years Ago’ (produced by Steward Levine and released on Elektra), was an unabashed homage to the music and artists that had inspired them as fledgling musicians twenty years previous. The lead out single, ‘(She’s) Some Kind Of Wonderful’ (US#44), was a polished take on the soul classic originally recorded in 1967 by Soul Brothers Six (and taken to US#3 by Grand Funk Railroad in 1975 - see future post). The second single, ‘But It’s Alright’, a cover of the 1966 US#22 hit for J.J. Jackson, marked the last foray to date by Huey Lewis & the News into U.S. Hot 100 territory (#54). The album ‘Four Chords & Several Years Ago’ (US#55) no doubt spoke volumes to regular listeners of the News, but by 1994 you would have been hard pressed to find a reference to Huey Lewis & the News in the classifieds of most music related publications.

Following the completion of a well received support tour for ‘Four Chords’, bassist Mario Cipollina parted ways with the group (replaced by John Pierce), their first change in personnel in fifteen years. The compilation ‘Time Flies’ was released in late ‘96, offering a ‘best of’ selection from the group’s Chrysalis years, along with four new tracks, including the single release ‘100 Years From Now’. The band kept an active, albeit low, profile during the late 90s, but resurfaced with an album of newly recorded material in 2001, titled ‘Plan B’ (US#165). The album was a selection of band favourites, both their own material, and covers, and it marked the final contribution from long time guitarist Chris Hayes. Though chart activity for the band was a thing of the past, Huey Lewis had experienced his own ‘Back To The Future’ moment in 2000 via his work on the Bruce Paltrow directed film ‘Duets’. Lewis played a lead role as the character Ricky Dean, a professional karaoke hustler, who reconnects with his estranged daughter, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Lewis and Paltrow performed ‘Cruisin’ (a 1979 US#4 hit for Smokey Robinson) as a duet, and the song returned Lewis to #1 on the Australian charts early in ‘01 (#1 U.S. Adult Contemporary chart).

Huey Lewis & the News have continued to play to sell out houses across the U.S. over the ensuing decade, and in December ‘04 released the live set, ‘Live At 25’. Lewis occasionally wanders into a recording studio, but by and large he and his band have returned to their bread and butter - as a ‘working band’ of some repute. Huey Lewis & the News may never have been the darlings of the music press, but their commercial returns (particularly during the 80s) were rivalled by few - the power of love is indeed a curious thing.

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