Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Picture The News

This last New Years Eve, one of the network channels broadcast ‘Back To The Future’, and of course when I came across its opening moments whilst channel surfing, I was stuck fast (uh, yes I was at home watching television). I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen each of the titles in Robert Zemeckis’ timeless trilogy, but it’s probably only second in total to the original trilogy of ‘Star Wars’ films - which probably aligns me pretty closely to the ‘Family Guy’ staff writers, and geekdom in general. But what ‘Back To The Future’ offered over and above any of the ‘Star Wars’ films, was a kick-ass pop-rock song during its opening (and closing) credits. Whilst chatting with Doc Brown over the phone, Marty McFly is sent into a panic with the realisation that he’s late for school - again. Cue the tailgating skateboard sequence in time to ‘The Power Of Love’ by Huey Lewis & the News. The first moment I heard that surging keyboard riff way back in 1985 I was hooked, and it confirmed to me what I’d already suspected for several years - that Huey Lewis & the News were worthy front page material.

Though Huey Lewis & the News would reach the peak of their pop-rock powers during the 80s, the roots of the band lay way back in time, and the myriad of stylistic influences accrued along their long, arduous road to the top would help inform, even define their winning pop formula. Huey Lewis was in point of fact born Hugh Cregg III, in New York City in 1950, and with a name like that may well have been consigned to a career in merchant banking, had he not been drawn to playing music for a living. In actuality, Huey Lewis majored in engineering at Cornell University, and it was during his freshman year that he followed his father’s advice, and undertook a years sabbatical to clear his head. Lewis’ sabbatical took the form of a hitchhiking tour of Europe, during which time he taught himself to play the harmonica (whilst waiting for rides). Upon his return to the States, Lewis was committed to pursuing music as a career, but for the time being had to make a living firstly as the manager of a landscaping business, and secondly a yoghurt distribution company (that’s non-fat!).

By 1972, Lewis had found his feet musically, and landed on, or in, a country-rock outfit called Clover. The band had already been in existence five years prior to Lewis joining their ranks, and had recorded two low key albums for Fantasy Records as the quartet of John McFee (vocals/guitar), Alex Call (guitar/vocals), Johnny Ciambotti (bass), and Mitch Howie (drums). Howie was replaced by Mickey Shine, and the group opted to expand to a sextet with the addition of Lewis (harmonica/vocals), and a young keyboardist by the name of Sean Hopper. Over the next few years Clover established themselves as a popular act on the Californian club scene, but it was a gig at the Palomino in North Hollywood during 1976 that would change the band’s direction - radically. British pub-rock sensations Dr. Feelgood were in town for a label convention, along with Stiff Records co-founder (and manager) Jake Riviera, and singer/producer Nick Lowe (see previous posts). Both Riviera and Lowe heard a certain chemistry in Clover that they felt could be translated to the thriving pub rock scene in England.

Clover now set about establishing roots of their own on the London scene, and within a year had released their first new single (produced by Lowe), titled ‘Chicken Funk’. But though the band’s authentic, down home sound rang true to aficionados of the London roots-rock movement, the entire British music scene was undergoing a massive shift with the explosion of punk, and subsequent aftershocks of post-punk. Clover, or at least their keyboardist Sean Hopper, then worked as backup on Elvis Costello’s 1977 debut album, ‘My Aim Is True’ (also produced by the ubiquitous Nick Lowe). The band had also released two albums of new material that same year, ‘Love On The Wire’ (engineered by Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange) and ‘Unavailable’, though neither was available for chart success, and toured in support of Thin Lizzy and Graham Parker. Soon after, vocalist/guitarist John McFee took up a post with the Doobie Brothers (in place of Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter), spelling the end of Clover. Though major success had eluded them, news of Clover’s exploits had filtered back to the local Californian music scene, and it imbued Huey Lewis with a degree of pop-prestige upon his return. He began fronting a loosely affiliated group of musicians in regular Monday night jam sessions at Uncle Charlie’s in Corte Madera, California. Sean Hopper (keyboards) was a regular, as were friends Mario Cipollina (bass - and brother of Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina), Johnny Colla (guitar/sax), and Bill Gibson (drums). Colla, Cipollina, and Gibson had all played together in an outfit called Soundhole, who had at one time functioned as Van Morrison’s backing band Stateside.

On the side, Lewis accepted an offer of some free studio time, from Patty Gleason of the Different Fur studio. It was 1979, and the disco train was not only officially of runaway train status, but arguably off the rails as well. Lewis decided to take a punt and record a dance version of the theme from ‘Exodus’, dubbed tongue-in-cheek style, ‘Exo-Disco’. Shortly after, Lewis received a call from Nick Lowe to return to England and play harmonica on Lowe’s album ‘Labour Of Lust’ (Lewis also played on fellow roots rocker Dave Edmunds’ set, ‘Repeat When Necessary, during the same visit - that album featured the Huey Lewis penned song ‘Bad Is Bad’). Lewis thought Stiff Records label guru Jake Riviera might get a kick out of hearing his spoof disco-style recording of the ‘Exodus’ theme. Riviera thought it was just appalling enough to be a hit (and judging by some of the other disco-style material on offer who could argue), and duly negotiated a $6000 distribution deal with Phonogram Records to release the track, credited to American Express (of the non-credit corporation variety). Whilst ‘Exo-Disco’ sunk without a trace in the murky waters of Lake Tragic Disco, the money from the distribution deal allowed Lewis to record a serious three track demo tape upon his return to California. Producer Patty Gleason passed the tape on to Bob Brown, then manager of Pablo Cruise (see previous post). The label on the tape credited the music to Huey Lewis & American Express, Lewis having used the services of his regular cohorts at Uncle Charlies. Brown dismissed a cover of The Supremes’ ‘Stop! In The Name Of Love’, but heard potential in the other two original songs. He duly signed Huey Lewis & American Express to a management contract, without at the time being aware that American Express (the backing band) didn’t officially exist at the time - he wasn’t the first manager or record label to do that.

Lewis doubtless had little difficulty in convincing his ‘jamming’ buddies from Uncle Charlies to form an official band with him. Thus, Sean Hopper, Mario Cipollina, Johnny Colla, and Bill Gibson became for a very short time, American Express. With Colla balancing guitar and sax duties, it was decided to add a fulltime lead guitarist to the mix - enter 22 year old Chris Hayes. Lewis and his now official backing band were signed to a worldwide deal by Chrysalis Records who, not surprisingly, requested an alteration of their moniker (to avoid litigation). And so it was in early 1980 that Huey Lewis & the News came into print. Lewis and co. had already racked up a decade’s worth of gigging and recording experience, and found no trouble in translating their hard-driving rock chemistry to the recording studio for their eponymous debut album. Produced by Bill Schnee, and released in June of 1980, ‘Huey Lewis & the News’ boasted ten tracks in all, mostly originals. The album’s sound was largely infused with a good-time, straight up pop/rock sound, that no doubt drew inspiration in part from the British pub-rock scene, but also from the explosive power-pop scene of the time. Driving rock and roll numbers like ‘Some Of My Lies Are True (Sooner Or Later)’, and ‘Don’t Ever Tell Me That You Love Me’, had no pretence beyond their foot tapping impetus, and pristine vocal harmonies (an effective counterpoint to Lewis’ raspy lead vocals). Balance was achieved through more mellow R&B and even doo-wop channels, echoed in ‘Trouble In Paradise’ and ‘Now Here’s You’. There was nothing outstanding about the album, but it was a promising effort, and that promise was soon to be delivered.

News does indeed travel fast, and consequently Huey Lewis and his News quickly established themselves as one of the premier live acts on the U.S. West Coast, delivering high energy shows with the flavour of fun ever present (it would soon become clear this was a band that took their music seriously, but not themselves). By late ‘81, work had been completed on their self-produced sophomore album, ‘Picture This’, and the lead-out single ‘Do You Believe In Love’ hit the stores, and airwaves in early ‘82. The track had been penned by one time Clover engineer, turned über producer and songwriter Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange (AC/DC, Def Leppard, Foreigner et al). ‘Do You Believe In Love’ featured just the kind of anthemic hooks and polished vocal harmonies to achieve mass radio appeal - it would have sat well in the Hall & Oates songbook. By February ‘82, ‘Do You Believe In Love’ had made inroads into the U.S. Hot 100, eventually topping out at #7 (OZ#18). I recall listening to the song over and over as part of its inclusion on the Australian release various artists compilation, ‘1982 Out Of The Blue’. The promo-video was a standard performance based affair (with overtones of nocturnal voyeurism) but became a favourite on the flourishing MTV network, and gave a strong hint as to the tongue-in-cheek flavour that would be a feature of the band’s future videos. Backed by a nationwide tour of the U.S., the success of ‘Do You Believe In Love’ helped propel the ‘Picture This’ album to a high of #13 on the U.S. album charts (OZ#75) by mid year. The album reflected a more cohesive and confident group of musicians, and offered up a smoother blend of straight up rock and roll, with more liberal portions of soul/R&B and doo-wop mixed in - the kind of record that no doubt was played from start to finish at many a party. The follow up singles, the R&B tinged ‘Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do’ (US#36), and the live concert favourite ‘Workin’ For A Livin’ (US#41), continued the steady rise of Huey Lewis & the News into the hearts and minds of middle America, but their next album would elevate them to the pop stratosphere.

Record label and production issues held up work on the band’s third album, and by the time of its September ‘83 release, Huey Lewis & the News had been relegated to the back pages of the U.S. music scene. It would take an album of considerable quality for them to hit the headlines again - fortunately ‘Sports’ proved to be just that. The core of the ‘Sports’ album’s spirit was also its heart and soul, literally. The lead out single, ‘Heart And Soul’, was released in late August, and within a few weeks was rocketing up the U.S. Hot 100 chart. What I loved most about the song at the time (and to this day) was the crunching guitar riff delivered by Chris Hayes. I played my vinyl copy of the track incessantly on my first stereo system, the speakers of which were so tinny sounding that above a certain volume that crunching guitar took on an appealingly distorted quality - which somehow has never sounded as good on subsequent high-end sound systems I’ve owned. ‘Heart And Soul’ had been penned by that prolific song writing partnership of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, and was first recorded by Exile (see previous post) in 1981 (US#102). Huey Lewis & the News injected a good deal more grunt into their version, and the potent guitar driven rock delivered good news to the band’s door, when it peaked at #8 on the U.S. charts late in ‘83 (OZ#25 - the track eventually achieved a place on the U.K. charts, #61, in late ‘85 as the lead track of an EP released on the back of the hit ‘The Power Of Love’). ‘Heart And Soul’ was also backed by another clever promo-video, this time featuring Huey Lewis as ‘Mr. 9 To 5’ looking for love after hours. The video once more played on Lewis’ ruggedly cinematic good looks, and the News’ penchant for indulging their quirky side. Huey Lewis & the News quickly positioned themselves among the first artists to fully embrace the marketing muscle of the music video medium, but with a distinctly creative and innovative flare to the fore of their efforts.

One of the defining features of the ‘Sports’ album was its wall to wall quality of material, with a clear absence of any ‘fillers’ in the track listing. The follow up single, ‘I Want A New Drug (Called Love)’ (penned by Hayes and Lewis), further served to fuel the public’s addiction to Huey Lewis & the News in early ‘84, and quickly surged to #6 on the U.S. Hot 100 (OZ#27). The song was good old fashioned, hook laden rock and roll delivered with precision craftsmanship, and further boosted the band’s profile Stateside. The promo-video stuck to a winning formula of combining footage of the band doing what they do best on stage, and a lyric based narrative - when I saw this video at the time of its release, I recall thinking that Huey Lewis wasn’t exactly a young man (though in fairness, being 34 at the time didn’t exactly make him an old man either). ‘The Heart Of Rock & Roll’ (written by Colla and Lewis) was next cab off the single release rank, and followed the path of its predecessor to a high of #6 in the U.S. (OZ#58, #49 in the U.K. on later release in ‘86). The song was a lyrical and stylistic ode to what Huey Lewis & the News loved best, good old fashioned rock and roll, and a tip of the hat to its enduring place in American popular culture. Though the song further proved that the heart of rock and roll was indeed still beating, it provided fodder to some critics who were beginning to level charges of stagnant stylistic predictability against Huey Lewis & the News.

If there were a mould of stylistic predictability, it was somewhat broken by the next single release, the doo-wop inspired ‘If This Is It’, released in the U.S. mid ‘84. I’ll declare my lack of impartiality at this point by saying ‘If This Is It’ is my favourite Huey Lewis & the News song, and ranks high on my list of all time 80s classics. In spite of its lyrical theme of ‘boy laments over losing girl’, the song has an insatiable feel good quality to it. The band drank liberally from doo-wop heritage to serve up a faultless portion of pristine pop music, and ‘If This Is It’ soon registered as Huey Lewis & the News’ third consecutive U.S.#6. It also marked their first foray inside the British charts (#39), and peaked at #20 in Australia. The accompanying promo clip was filmed at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and featured the band in typically jaunty character. I still get a laugh out of the ‘Jaws’ tribute at the end - and it wouldn’t be long before Huey Lewis & the News would have a more direct affiliation with Steven Spielberg.

Four consecutive U.S. top tens proved enough to drive the ‘Sports’ album to top spot on the American album charts (OZ#22/UK#23), with a total of over 100 weeks racked up inside the top 100, achieving multiple platinum status in the process, and finishing 1984 as the second biggest selling album in the U.S., next to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. The fifth and final single lifted was the straight up pop-rock number, ‘Walking On The Thin Line’ (US#18/OZ#70). As the dust was settling over the commercial commotion that was ‘Sports’, Huey Lewis was invited to contribute vocals on U.S.A. For Africa’s ‘We Are The World’ in early ‘85, a clear indication of his stratospheric profile at the time.

It’s worth noting that in August ‘84, Huey Lewis filed legal action against Ray Parker Jr. over alleged plagiarism of the hit ‘I Want A New Drug (Called Love)’ committed via Ray Parker Jr’s global #1 ‘Ghostbusters’ (see previous post). Although I can hear echoes of the same melody in ‘Ghostbusters’, in all honesty I don’t think the songs are that similar, but I’m no musicologist. Others must have thought differently though, as the case was settled out of court in favour of Lewis, with an undisclosed sum being awarded. Given the recent commercial success for his band, its doubtful that Lewis’ back balance needed much of a boost at the time, and there was a certain irony in the movie theme song ‘Ghostbusters’ being at the heart of proceedings, as Huey Lewis & the News would themselves soon have a movie theme sitting atop world charts.

Note from the Management: Apologies for the lack of original promo videos, but the availability of You Tube videos for embedding is becoming ever more problematic.


Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas said...

As popular as Back To The Future was, it seems to rarely pop up on my cable offerings. Too bad.

As for Huey, a playlist of their highpoints is something that I might need to make. They might not have re-invented fire, but they knew a hook and a well-played pop song.

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

I'm not sure what the reason is for its recent resurgence on programming schedules here, but Australia's Sci-Fi channel is also playing the trilogy this month. Hmmmm, 25 years since the first film - me thinks a DVD/Blu-ray anniversary edition is a strong possibility, nay certainty.

Couldn't agree more with your assessment of Huey - always appreciate your comments.