More News With Huey Lewis
Before he hits the stage at the Midland Theatre June 20, Huey Lewis regaled 435 with stories about producing the music videos and songs that made Huey Lewis and the News one of the most successful rock bands to emerge in the 1980s. In this web exclusive, Lewis recounts what he thinks is the best music they recorded, but first, he explains the band's objectives for the "Sports" album, which is in its 30th year of rocking.
Huey Lewis: When you go back and you look at the "Sports" record, what "Sports" is, is a collection of singles. If you weren't Bruce Springsteen, there was only one avenue to success in those days. And that was radio. That was how you did it. Unless you had Jon Landau [Springsteen's manager and producer] or unless you're on the cover of Time Magazine somehow, which most people weren't, the avenue to success was radio. So you better have a hit song on your album, or they weren't going to send you out. It was all about records.
We're producing our own record on our third record, and we're aiming everything at radio. Absolutely. If you think about it, even FM radio was programmed in those days: CHR. FM radio was started as underground radio. By then, it was all CHR-programmed. That was our job, was to try to produce a hit single. Our other albums fit together much better as albums, but in those days, we needed a hit single or we weren't going to exist. And that sort of explains the eccentric nature of the album. We didn't want to repeat ourselves, but here's a rocker that's kind of a hit, and here's a pop song that's kind of a hit, that kind of thing.
435: The popularity of the "Sports" album and the zenith of MTV's popularity really converged into some classic videos. How important were those videos for the band and what did you enjoy about making them?
HL: The music videos were important in just pure record sales. I'd like to think our record would've been successful audially. Because if you remember, it was a radio-driven atmosphere for the first few years, and MTV played videos of the hits, regardless of whether the video was any good or not.
To illustrate that fact, I remember when we had our first single, which was "Do You Believe in Love," we had done a couple videos on our own before we got signed for our first record to kind of sell ourselves. We'd done them very cheaply, by our friend who had a camera, up in Mount Tamalpais and goofing around in Ocean Beach and this kind of thing. But now the record label decided that we were going to get a real professional. So they hired this guy who was an ad guy, for the most part, and he designed the set with all these pastel colors and we were in not matching but complimenting outfits and stuff. And we had heavy make-up and rouge on our cheeks. This is the video where we're all in bed singing to the girl. We made this video all day long with this guy, and it's an expensive video.
Two weeks go by and then we all go back to the record label to view the rough cut of the brand new video. I'll never forget it. There must have been 30 people in the room or something. They shut the lights off, and they play the video, and I think it's horrible. It's cringe-worthy. I just didn't get it at all, it made no sense, and I'm dying as I'm watching this. And when it ends, everybody stands up and applauds! I thought to myself, clearly anybody can do this. There is no right or wrong.
And so I said from now on, "Why don't we do these things ourselves?" So that's what we did. And the idea was to just have fun, shoot them in San Francisco outdoors, let the seagulls chew the scenery, let them identify that it's a San Francisco band. And then avoid the literal translation of the song. If the song is zigging, zag. Do whatever, just do something crazy.
435: Yeah, what those videos showed was that you're okay with not taking yourselves too seriously.
HL: We take the song seriously. It's kind of a shame to have to retell this story [through a video]. It was a new facet of being a pop singer and a pop writer, was that you had to first of all, write the song, and capture the audio, and then you had to make this video on it all of a sudden, which was really kind of a tough duty. It was liberating to avoid the song, pretty much.
435: And I think humor is an endearing aspect of your lyrics. You listen to something like "Bad is Bad" and you say, "That's funny stuff."
HL: Right. And I've always said, real things are funny too, even love. Even love and heartbreak and all of that is funny at times. The thing I like is that it doesn't have to be about earth-shaking things. But it has to be true. When the guy says, "I'm going to Kansas City, they've got some crazy little women, and I'm gonna get me one," we believe he's going to Kansas City, he knows about the crazy little women, and he wants to get him one. Then it works, you know?
435: Which was bigger for the band, "Sports" or "Back to the Future"? Or are they mutually exclusive?
HL: "Power of Love" was our biggest song, because it went global. It enabled us to go to Europe and tour Japan and Asia. Sports was a big record in America, and in Europe, it was known as a big record in America so they had heard of it, but "Power of Love" was on our album "Fore!" over there. It was three-times platinum in England, and our album "Fore!" is a much bigger album than "Sports," more than in America.
435: This is also the 25th anniversary of "Small World," which I have to say is my favorite album you recorded.
HL: Good for you, good for you.
435: What did you like most about that album?
HL: Stan Getz's solo. That whole story of the session is unbelievable. It was an amazing experience for us all, and musically as well. To watch him play that stuff and the musical choices he made … when I first gave him the tape of the song, it didn't have any horns on it. And I just say the lyric; I kind of talked it. I wanted to talk it on the record, and in fact I probably should have. A year later he told me, "You know, you should've just left your speaking voice on there." And I said, "I know, I know."
But Getz was unbelievable. He came up to play on it, and by now we put the Tower of Power Horns on it with all these tough little pops on "Small World." As he played, he heard them for the first time. When something happened in the music in the backing that was busy, he'd go the other way, man, and play long notes. Just watching him respond to this music and play to it was absolutely riveting, man. Riveting. It's actually two solos cut in half. I took the first half of one and the second half of another, and I said, "Would you mind?" And he loved that. It may have been the first time he ever sort of edited his solo. I mean, nobody ever did that in jazz. You just play the solo. He played so good on that, man.
435: How did you two meet in the first place?
HL: Well, my dad was a jazzer and Zoot Sims died. And when Zoot Sims died, they had a benefit in San Francisco at Kimball's or somewhere. And I got tickets for my dad — "All these cats are coming, oh man, it'll be a great night" — so secretly I got tickets. I was now a big deal in San Francisco, but you wouldn't know it from my old man!
So I take him and sit down, and we get there early and we go into Kimball's and they show us to our seats, and it's a funny little place. Right in the front, on the aisle, three rows back. Sitting there is Phil Elwood, the jazz critic from San Francisco, who my dad had read for years. And they start talking and Phil Elwood goes, "Oh my gosh, Huey Lewis, I'm a big fan! Congratulations on all your success!" And my old man said, "What? Phil Elwood's talking to my kid! It's unbelievable!" So we're sitting down next to Phil Elwood, and he's talking to Phil about Jimmie Lunceford and Chick Webb and all the old jazz guys, and then I get a tap on my shoulder. I turn around, and it's Getz. It's really amazing. We're sitting in our chairs and there's hardly anybody in that room yet. So it's Getz and he's wearing his horn and taps me on the shoulder, and my dad turns around and Phil Elwood turns around. And my old man goes, "Holy shit!"
Getz says, "Why don't you let me play on some of your shit? I can play that shit too." And I said, "Oh, why, yes sir, I'm sure you can." And then he took a card and he wrote on it: "Stan Getz. Have sax, will travel."
He played beautifully, and on the way home, my old man says, "If you don't take him up on that offer, I will never, ever forgive you!" My old man's a radiologist and he says, "He has cancer. He thinks he's fine, but he's not. And I'm telling you, if you don't do that, I'll never, ever forgive you."
So it took us six months to find the right song. We had to have something he could play over. And then Chris [Hayes, the News' lead guitarist] wrote the music for "Small World." The edited version of "Small World" they put together for a single, and I edited it down a little bit. I edited like a five-minute version, because I think altogether it's eight minutes or something. Then they were going to make a single. Our first single was "Perfect World," a No. 1 record, and the second single was "Small World." And I said, "Let's go with it." So we edited down this five-minute version, and I got it down to like four minutes and 48 seconds, right? Which is both of them put together, but his solo is edited a little bit and the ride-outs are edited. And when I finished with that, I said, "This is the best thing we've ever done."
And it was the first single in like a string of 15 to not go Top 10. It didn't go Top 20. It was our worst-performing single ever. But actually, I love the edited version. I think it's gorgeous.
To see the original interview with Huey that appears in the June 2013 issue of 435 magazine, click here: