30 Years Ago-Huey and ‘Sports’
In the summer of 1983, Huey Lewis and the News were just another mildly successful rock band with a couple of mid-sized hits to their name. One year later, they were on top of the album charts, all over Top 40 radio, and in heavy rotation on MTV.
The catalyst for this massive surge in popularity? ‘Sports.’ Released on Sept. 15, 1983, the band’s third LP was one of the biggest records of 1984 — in fact, it would have been the year’s overall best seller if not for a little thing called Michael Jackson‘s ‘Thriller.’ On the way to racking up an impressive seven million in sales, the album spun off no fewer than five Top 40 singles, starting with ‘Heart and Soul’ and ‘I Want a New Drug’ and continuing through ‘The Heart of Rock & Roll,’ ‘If This Is It,’ and ‘Walking on a Thin Line.’
As it turns out, the album’s radio-ready sound was very much a deliberate decision on the part of the band. “It was really a record for its time,” Lewis later recalled in an interview with Billboard. “In the ’80s, the way radio was programmed, if you didn’t have a hit record you weren’t going to be able to make any more records. That was it, period. So our priority was to come up with hit singles. Every tune we aimed for radio, ’cause we didn’t know which one was going to be a hit. We just knew we needed a frickin’ hit, period. And fortunately we got ‘em.”
Telling Rolling Stone that their first album “didn’t do anything” and ‘Picture This’ brought them their first hit (‘Do You Believe in Love’), he admitted, “Our future was anything but secure. This was the third album on our contract, and we knew we had to have a hit.”
The ‘Sports’ aesthetic was as brilliant as it was simple. As Lewis put it in the same Rolling Stone interview, “Our style was to take something old and make it modern. Around 1980 we heard Steely Dan‘s ‘Hey Nineteen,’ which was cut with the [electronic] Linn Drum. Our idea was to take the modern technologies of the day as kind of the cake, if you will, and then have the icing be saxophones and voices and old-school stuff. It was the old and the new at once.”
“The old and the new at once” pretty much sums up ‘Sports’ in a nutshell — although the band’s sound was still unmistakeably rooted in the pub rock style that had attracted Lewis early attention from the likes of Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, the record’s production was tricked out with just enough of a slick ’80s sheen that the singles fit comfortably alongside the synth-powered hits of the day. Although the added ear candy wasn’t always in tune with the tenor of the songs — the sharply written Vietnam vet’s lament ‘Walking on a Thin Line’ ended up sounding like just any other midtempo Top 40 hit from the era — it was absolutely the right sound for the era.
But even with that ’80s production hanging over the record, ‘Sports’ still holds up surprisingly well three decades later; unlike subsequent hit records like ‘Fore!’ and ‘Small World,’ which catered more heavily to radio at the expense of the group’s bar band roots, ‘Sports’ is a weirder and edgier album than it’s often remembered as, folding an eclectic variety of styles into a track listing that left room for darker stuff like ‘Thin Line’ and the sneering ‘You Crack Me Up’ while still serving up broad-based hits like ‘If This Is It.’ If anything, the formula was a little too successful — by the end of the decade, radio programmers (and more than a few listeners) were suffering from News burnout, and the band seemed trapped in the sound that had once been such a tremendous asset.
Still, all’s well that ends well, and even if Lewis and the News have only entered the studio sporadically over the last 20 years or so, they’ve remained a popular draw on the road — which is where they celebrated the 30th anniversary of ‘Sports’ all summer with a retrospective tour featuring complete performances of the album. According to Lewis, there’s even some new music on the way. “I think we’re going to try,” he told Billboard last year. “The band is playing really great now, so I think it’s a good time to get something going.”