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.

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.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Virtuosity Of Versatility

Around April or May of ‘87, I had occasion to attend my very first over age gig - which just happened to be in a dank, smoke filled warehouse. The venue was essentially a very large room, with makeshift stage, and bars serving alcoholic beverages on opposing walls. As with most experiences of my youth, my recollections of the occasion are hazy, the miasma of my memories made all the more murky by my moderately inebriated state at the time. With little conviction, I recall the name of the venue was The Wharf, and since it was located down near the (then largely undeveloped) foreshore area of the city, that sounds reasonably convincing to me. With more certainty, in fact with absolute conviction, I can state that the gig was a double bill, with Crowded House as the headline act.

It was the first occasion of several that I was fortunate enough to see Neil and the lads i
n action, and this particular show would have coincided with the tail end of action for Crowded House’s debut album. I do recollect that Eddie Rayner was playing keyboards with them at the time, and that Neil performed a bare bones version of ‘Better Be Home Soon’, which would become a major hit from their sophomore set the following year. It’s likely that my primary motivation for going to the show was to see Crowded House in action, but that’s not to dismiss in any way the class and appeal of the support act that night - Weddings, Parties, Anything - undoubtedly one of the most underrated acts on the Australian music scene during the 80s and early 90s.

I’ve written before on this blog about the thriving Australian pub-rock scene of the late 70s and early 80s, that spawned a plethora of outstanding music artists. The Melbourne based outfit Weddings, Parties, Anything were one such act to emerge on the scene during that period. The band had its roots in the Victorian city of Geelong, with founding member Michael (Mick) Thomas (vocals/guitar/bass) forming a key component of local act The Never Never Band during 1978. It was during this period that another Geelong based group emerged, in the guise of The Goanna Band (later to evolve into Goanna). Thomas was partnered in The Never Never Band by Joe Nadoh (guitar), Wendy Harrison (bass), and Archie Cuthbertson (drums), and after much toiling on stage, the quartet managed to release an independent single during February of 1981, ‘It Doesn’t Mean Anything’. But a career as a singer/songwriter definitely did mean something to Mick Thomas, and following the dissolution of The Never Never Band, he continued to develop his craft as a songwriter, hued with long standing love of traditional folk. Thomas built his songs around a base of folk narrative structures, dressed with a canvas of melodic folk-rock, and by late 1983 he was ready to form a new band - Weddings, Parties, Anything (WPA) - through which to channel his material. The band name was derived from a lyric at the end of The Clash’s ‘Revolution Rock’, but WPA would borrow more than just nomenclatural inspiration from the post-punk scene.

Thomas and his new outfit set about establishing themselves on the highly competitive Melbourne pub circuit, with Wendy Joseph (piano accordion/violin), Paul Clarke (guitar), and David Adams (drums), completing the line-up. The band were immediately a cut apart from most of the competition, not only due to their effective blending of traditional folk instrumentation with surging electric guitar licks, but also for Thomas’ very conscious decision to deliver his vocals in his natural Australian accent - something that was (and is) a bit out of the norm on the Australian music scene (though obvious exceptions come to mind in the form of Paul Kelly, Goanna - with Shane Howard, and Midnight Oil - with Peter Garrett). Stylistically, WPA were difficult to compartmentalise, though as Ian McFarlane states in ‘The Encyclopaedia of Australian Rock and Pop’, comparisons were drawn with Irish outfit The Pogues. Whatever the specific formula, the chemistry worked and WPA soon built up a strong following of fans.

By early ‘85, Mark ‘Squeezebox Wally’ Wallace had joined in place of Wendy Joseph, and his inclusion in the ranks would further define the WPA sound (bringing the accordion more to the forefront of the instrumental mix). December ‘85 saw the issuing of the band’s eponymous debut EP, released via the Suffering Tram label. Early live favourites such as ‘Summons In The Morning’ were committed to vinyl for the first time. Over the ensuing couple of years, WPA underwent a seismic shift in staff, with Thomas and Wallace remaining core components throughout. Janine Hall (bass, ex-Young Charlatans), and Marcus Schintler (drums) came on board, but it was the recruitment of guitarist/vocalist Dave Steel that proved a shot in the arm for the band’s fortunes. Steel was a veteran of the Melbourne pub circuit, having cut his teeth in outfits such as Relaxed Mechanics, and Fire Below, the latter being the most successful of these ventures. After Fire Below was extinguished in early ‘86, Steel took up the post with Weddings, Parties, Anything, with a cache of compositions to supplement Thomas’ songbook.

The now quintet set to work with producer Alan Thorne on recording their debut album, originally intended as an independent release. But the suits at the WEA label saw a greater potential in WPA’s material - perhaps it was the likeness of acronym that appealed - and as a result, the band’s debut set, ‘Scorn Of The Women’ (OZ#52), benefited from nationwide marketing and distribution muscle in April of ‘87. WPA’s unabashed blending of cutting edge post-punk style rock with folk/bush balladry (and all stops in between), immediately endeared them to both critics and fans alike. In Thomas and Steel, the band had two accomplished songsmiths to draw upon, and the album yielded three singles, the rock edged Celtic styling of ‘Away Away’ (OZ#92), ‘Shotgun Wedding’ (penned by Steel), and ‘Hungry Years’ during the course of ‘87. Relentless touring, and much deserved airplay, combined to garner Wedding, Parties, Anything the Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) award for ‘Best New Talent’ - strange how most of these ‘new talents’ have been toiling away for years. A support slot for Irish folk-rock heavyweights The Pogues led into the band entering the recording studio once more, with the focus on recording a follow up album that would surpass the quality of their first.

‘Roaring Days’ (OZ#46 - the title taken from a Henry Lawson poem), released in April of ‘88, further strengthened WPA’s burgeoning reputation on the Australian scene as a class act - and marked the debut project for new bassist Peter Lawler. The album boasted the single ‘Say The Word’, and once more astutely combined contemporary folk-rock (imbued with a timeless quality, and more than a subtle hint of traditional Celtic roots), with thought provoking, and overtly left wing lyrics (again not unlike contemporaries Goanna and Midnight Oil). It was an album that reinforced the band’s reputation as not only accomplished players, but fine story tellers, as illustrated in tracks like ‘Industrial Town’. But just weeks into a support tour, which included their first foray into U.S. territory, WPA were dealt a blow with the departure of Dave Steel, who had decided to shift his base of operations to Sydney, and embark on a tilt at a solo career. Other mitigating factors in Steel’s split have been cited as exhaustion, and a level of personal frustration at taking a backseat to Mick Thomas in terms of material used for album releases.

Late in ‘88, Dave Steel released his debut solo single, ‘The Hardest Part’, which I just happened to purchase at the time (though to that point I admit I hadn’t bought anything by WPA). ‘The Hardest Part’ was a gentle, wistful take on the notion of a Christmas Carol, though from a uniquely Australian stance. Lyrics like “It’s midnight, Christ it’s thirty degrees (Celsius) outside” spoke volumes to me, and it was as finely crafted a bush ballad as you could hope to hear. Sadly, it was apparent that few did hear ‘The Hardest Part’, though I played the vinyl 45 relentlessly over the summer of ‘88/’89. I had to make do with that old vinyl copy until I came across a digital version on the wonderful blog That Striped Sunlight Sound (see link). Steel worked with acclaimed producer Graham ‘Buzz’ Bidstrup (of Angels fame) on his debut album ‘Bitter Sweet’. Released in September of ‘89, the album further solidified Dave Steel’s standing as a singer/songwriter of some distinction, and drew favourable comparison to the likes of Paul Kelly. 1991 saw the release of Steel’s sophomore album, ‘Angels Never Cry’, again helmed by Bidstrup, but offering up a panoramic soundscape of Steel’s talents as a singer/songwriter - anything from horn-driver boogie to country rock was on the menu - delivered with an all-star support cast of players. The more stripped back ‘The Last Radio’ hit the airwaves in August of ‘92, but flew largely under the radar of a grunge obsessed public. For a time Dave Steel took up a post with pop-rock outfit The Madisons, before forming his own band in 1993 - The Roadside Prophets. Neither album, ‘Cross My Palm’, nor EP, ‘Broken English’, proved profitable for the Prophets, and by 1994, Steel had returned to solo work. A long time in the Steel works, the album ‘Old Salt Blues’ washed ashore in record stores in mid ‘96, and in between times Steel had continued to tour with The Deadly Band - the backing outfit for Archie Roach and Ruby Turner. Over the course of the subsequent decade, he has maintained a presence on the Australian folk-rock and blues scene.

Without the strength of Steel in their structure, some may have doubted the band’s ability to remain afloat, but in guitarist Richard Burgmann (ex-Sunnyboys, Saints) an able replacement was found for Steel’s musical presence, and chief songsmith Mick Thomas was still at the helm to continue WPA’s tradition of powerful story telling through song. The band had by this time established an overarching sense of identity bound within a defiant and proud sense of Australianness - not an over the top expression of patriotism, but an exploration of people, places, events, and history, laced with colloquialisms and Australian folklore. WPA kept up their incessant touring schedule throughout 1988 and 1989, and also managed to release the quirkily titled EP, ‘Goat Dancing On The Tables’, prior to the release of their third full length set, ‘The Big Don’t Argue’ (OZ#63 - the album’s title borrowing heavily from football parlance). Produced by Jim Dickinson, ‘The Big Don’t Argue’ hit stores in October of ‘89, backed by a WEA marketing campaign which promoted it as an album boasting “11 songs about love, loneliness, and cannibalism”. Thomas took centre stage and poured his artistic heart into the likes of the traditional Australian folksong ‘Streets Of Forbes’ (just up the road from the Parkes’ radio telescope), ‘The Ballad Of Peggy And Col’, and ‘The Wind And The Rain’. WPA gained a support slot with pop-rock giants U2, and scored their second ARIA award, this time through ‘The Big Don’t Argue’ taking out ‘Best Indigenous Record’.

A parting of the ways then took place between record label WEA, and band WPA, with the latter going on to record their next release as an independent concern. The 1990 EP, ‘The Weddings Play Sports (And Falcons)’ (OZ#95), delivered what the title promised, in so much as it consisted of five cover versions of tracks by the Sports (see previous posts), with a version of ‘So Young’ (by Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons -see previous post) tacked on. The tide of success seemed to ebb for WPA thereafter, and during 1991, Mick Thomas put the band on a brief hiatus, so as to concentrate his energies on penning material for a new album. Ex-Huxton Creepers guitarist Paul Thomas replaced Burgmann for the recording of the 1992 album release, ‘Difficult Loves’, a labour of love that must have indeed proved difficult, being almost two years in the making. WPA signed with indie label rooArt, and ‘Difficult Loves’ (OZ#26) proved worth the wait. The album followed on from the timely release of its lead out single, ‘Father’s Day’, which hit the Australian charts during May of ‘92 (OZ#35). ‘Father’s Day’ was a shining example of emotive, and evocative folk-rock, and doubtless resonated strongly for many who succumbed to its strongly bittersweet lyrical theme. Clouds’ songstress Trish Young joined Thomas on vocals for the follow up single, ‘Step In Step Out’ (OZ#60), and by late ‘92 ‘Difficult Loves’ had notched up near gold sales - a damn fine effort considering the musical climate of the time. Not surprisingly, ‘Father’s Day’ gained WPA their third ARIA award, for ‘Best Single’. The influence of Weddings, Parties, Anything could also be heard at the time in up and coming Australian bands such as Frente!, and Things Of Stone And Wood, both of whom ironically garnered stronger commercial returns.

Over the ensuing year, WPA’s line-up remained stable, and yielded the follow up set, ‘King Tide’ (OZ#20) in October of ‘93. Long time friend Billy Bragg made a guest appearance on the track, ‘Island Of Humour’, though that track proved to be somewhat of a humorous island in an otherwise thematically dark affair. The associated singles, ‘Monday’s Experts’, and ‘The Rain In My Heart’ clearly reflected a more commercially accessible sound for WPA, though in no way a compromise of the band’s core stylistic integrity. The cover art featured Mick Thomas sitting atop the roof of a house, overlooking a flooded landscape, and in most respects ‘King Tide’ really did represent the high watermark for Weddings, Parties, Anything. By early 95, WPA had undergone further changes to its personnel, and surprisingly found themselves without a label stable. To satisfy the demands of its fans for new material, WPA took the unusual step of releasing their sixth album, ‘Donkey Serenade’, via mail order (this was pre-universal internet days), the largely stop-gap set comprising a mix of Thomas originals with cover material. By this time, WPA’s line-up had evolved to feature Mick Thomas, Paul Thomas, Mark Wallace, Jen Anderson (mandolin/vocals), Stephen O’Prey (bass), and Michael Barclay (drums). Mushroom backed the release of 1996’s ‘Riveresque’ (released for a time with a bonus album, ‘Garage Sale’), and this time around WPA focussed on consolidating their resurgent following at home. The album boasted a vibrancy of sound astutely juxtaposed against fervently emotive lyrical fare, illustrated best in tracks like ‘Luckiest Man’, and ‘For A Short Time’.

Sadly, for a short time defined the resurgence of Weddings, Parties, Anything, and following a boisterous 1998 farewell tour (which yielded the double album ‘They Were Better Live’) the band were effectively placed on indefinite hiatus. Mick Thomas took the decision to concentrate his creative energies on several solo projects that had been bubbling away in the background, including a musical titled ‘Over In The West’. He went on to combine further work as a playwright, with a new band enterprise called The Sure Thing. Over the ensuing decade, Mick Thomas has further enhanced his reputation as a unique and uncompromising artistic presence, and a cornerstone of the Australian folk-rock music scene, having released several critically lauded albums, including ‘The Horse’s Prayer’ and 2009’s ‘Spin! Spin! Spin!’, via his own label Croxton Records, and regularly producing material for other artists (including The Gadflys and The Waifs). Thankfully, on a number of occasions over recent years, Thomas has revived Weddings, Parties, Anything for a number of short tours and special concert events (though there are no plans for an album of new material in the works), reminding audiences of the existence of an Australian cultural treasure.