In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Huey Lewis And The News’ Sports, which went to No. 1 on June 30, 1984, where it stayed for one week.
Years before it came to pass, 1984 loomed ominously on the horizon like a black funnel cloud, and musical warnings sounded early and often to head for cover as it approached with creeping inevitability. For David Bowie, 1984 was the year when an all-powerful “they” would “split your pretty cranium, and fill it full of air.” The Dead Kennedys were more specific, prophesying in “California Uber Alles” that “the suede-denim secret police” would “come for your uncool niece.” Then there was The Clash’s “1977,” which ended with the abruptness of a gun blast to the temple at the mere mention of ’84.
As it turned out, 1984 didn’t resemble Nineteen Eighty-Four in a literal sense, though plenty of chin-stroking amateur philosophers would likely hasten to make comparisons between the totalitarianism that reigned in Orwell’s Oceania with the more subtle forms of groupthink that fortified Ronald Reagan’s America. Just listen to the radio, man! Only five albums topped the Billboard charts in ’84, beginning with the top-selling record of the previous year, Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In ’83, Thriller spent 22 weeks at No. 1; in ’84, it returned for another 15, picking up from the holiday season late the previous year and continuing through April. Then it was time for the Footloose soundtrack to cut in for 10 weeks at the top, spawning two No. 1 singles (Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” and Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For The Boy”) in the process.
By mid-summer, Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. ruled the roost, no doubt pushed up the chart by the new video on MTV for “Dancing In The Dark,” where The Boss danced like Molly Ringwald with a boyish Courtney Cox. Finally, Prince’s Purple Rain climbed out of a steamy bathtub and into America’s heart in August, staying at No. 1 for a staggering 24 weeks, until the middle of January 1985. (When it was replaced by Born In The U.S.A.)
Amid so much domination by all-consuming, superhuman pop-star deities, there was one week in ’84 that belonged to an act so perfectly ordinary and unmistakably mortal, its story of triumph could only be described as quintessentially American. And quintessentially American stories of triumph were big in ’84, a year when our nation embraced Ralph Macchio defeating the fascistic Cobra Kai in The Karate Kid, Emmanuel Lewis boldly countering the tyranny of tall people in Webster, and Huey Lewis And The News conquering the charts with Sports, which ranked behind only Thriller on the list of the year’s top sellers.
In the years since ’84, the world has returned to its regular axis; while Prince and Bruce Springsteen can still be seen in their natural habitat, performing for tens of thousands of people in arenas, Huey Lewis and his band of News are fixtures of the casino and county-fair circuit. Setting aside their somewhat dated production, Purple Rain and Born In The U.S.A. still sound like highly commercial blockbusters that would have attracted big audiences no matter when they were released. But an album like Sports selling 7 million copies and spinning off four Top 10 singles (and another Top 20 single) is a phenomenon that seems unique to the mid-’80s; for this brief period of time, Lewis’ critically derided “yuppie rock” connected with the public’s idea of what pop escapism should be. For more than a decade before that, Huey Lewis toiled in obscurity as a journeyman, and by the end of the ’80s, he’d be well on his way to returning to that status. But in the space between, a beer-drinking, football-watching, 33-year-old everyman with an unironic love for doo-wop, saxophone solos, and brightly colored suit coats was elevated to the heights of pop culture.
Three years ago I posited a theory that’s almost certainly bullshit (but still interesting enough to re-consider) about how director Robert Zemeckis used Lewis’ “The Power Of Love” in the biggest box-office grosser of 1985, Back To The Future. Conceding that I was likely giving Zemeckis and his co-screenwriter Bob Gale too much credit, I argued that “all the timely accoutrements signifying ‘the present’ in Back To The Future”—including denim jackets, Calvin Klein underwear, Tab soda, and Eddie Van Halen references, as well as “The Power Of Love”—“would inevitably look like 1985 within just a couple of years; in fact, they were banking on it. Zemeckis and Gale were trying to create an archetypical representation of 1985 just like they did for 1955, with its soda fountains, social repression, and subjugated black people.”
In essence, I was asserting that Back To The Future was “a period piece made in 1985 that depicts 1985 as an era as distant-seeming as its version of 1955.” Music is one of the easiest ways to cinematically evoke an era, and just as Zemeckis signified 1955 by prominently featuring mainstays of the period like “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes and “Earth Angel” by The Penguins, he used “The Power Of Love” to give Back To The Future an extra dose of mid-’80s specificity. If Back To The Future took place during any other year, a teenager listening to Huey Lewis on headphones while sneakily hitching a ride on the back of a pickup truck with his skateboard would have been utterly ridiculous. Granted, it’s sort of ridiculous in Back To The Future—a California skater like Marty McFly probably would’ve jammed on some Minutemen or Black Flag—but it wasn’t entirely implausible. Huey Lewis really was a genuine pop star, and many viewers of Back To The Future in ’85 would’ve accepted him as a signifier of contemporary coolness without question. (Which makes “The Power Of Love” a perfect choice to musically represent the otherness of ’85 in retrospect, if that indeed was on Zemeckis’ mind.)
As a young music fan at the time, I truly and madly loved Huey Lewis. Sports was one of the first tapes I ever owned, and for a while the only tape I owned. When I was seven, Sports was basically synonymous with “rock music” as far as I was concerned, and I remained devoted to it for years afterward. I even stuck with Huey longer than most people. As late as 1991, I got excited about seeing Huey Lewis And The News in concert when the band came to Milwaukee on its Hard At Play tour. I didn’t buy the Hard At Play album (nor did I pick up 1988’s jazzy, surprisingly anti-commercial Small World), but I was pumped about hearing my favorite songs from Sports and its multi-platinum follow-up, 1986’s Fore! Looking back, I don’t remember much about the show other than the guy sitting in front of us, who played some of the most furious air guitar I’d ever seen, before or since, which is weird considering the general lack of guitar solos in Huey Lewis songs. (Air sax would’ve been more apt.) But I’m pretty sure I enjoyed the show, even though I never would’ve admitted it just a few months later, when I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time and instantly became an alternative rock snob.
In order to appreciate Sports, you have to be able to misplace your snob instincts for 40 or so minutes. Otherwise, like Blender magazine in 2004, you might conclude that the record’s opening track, “The Heart Of Rock & Roll,” is among the worst songs ever written. There’s no denying that “The Heart Of Rock & Roll” is plenty trite, or that it sounds like an EPCOT version of rock music—all squawking harmonicas, Blues Brothers-style vocals, and more of that goddamn sax. But it doesn’t have a malicious bone in its body; “The Heart Of Rock & Roll” seeks to bring us all together, even you hip kids living in big cities on the coasts who think you’re too cool for Huey’s outré, old-fashioned corniness.
Unlike Bob Seger in “Old Time Rock And Roll”—a much better candidate for the worst songs of all-time list—Huey Lewis isn’t here to bury modern music in “The Heart Of Rock & Roll,” but to praise it, or at least to place it in the greater continuum of rock. Huey dutifully visits New York City and Los Angeles and has plenty of nice things to say about what he encounters in each city; he likes the “style” of New York punk and new-wave bands, and the “flash” of Sunset Strip glam metal groups. Ultimately, Huey concludes that rock ’n’ roll lives on because of these bands. Compared with Seger, Lewis is a progressive forward-thinker.
Otherwise, “The Heart Of Rock & Roll” is obviously, proudly traditionalist, shouting out to a number of cities in a style that calls back to Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and lots of songs before that. As Charlie Gillett writes in his essential 1971 rock-history tome The Sound Of The City: The Rise Of Rock And Roll, listing the names of numerous places that listeners might identify with is a “traditional technique of popular song” and not a bad way to get people to like you, whether you reside in D.C., San Antone, the Liberty Town, or anywhere else where “The Heart Of Rock & Roll” is still beatin.’
To get at the heart of how and why Sports became one of the most popular albums of its time, it’s worth considering for a moment the story of Hal Riney. A famed ad man who made his name in Lewis’ home base of San Francisco, Riney was celebrated for the campaigns he created for products like Saturn cars and Gallo’s brand of wine coolers, Bartles & Jaymes. If you grew up in the ’80s, you might remember those iconic, comfortably old-timey Bartles & Jaymes TV commercials, conceived by Riney, where two codgers in overalls sit on a porch and drawl on about their zesty but light alcoholic beverages. The most memorable part came at the end of every ad, when the pair made sure to “thank you for your support.”
Advertising Age, which put Riney at No. 30 on its list of the top 100 advertising people of the 20th century, said that Riney’s “unique body of work celebrates, implicitly if not flat-out, the American spirit and voice—often his own, deep honey-coated voice-over.” That voice was featured most prominently in a series of commercials for Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984. Riney came up with the overall theme—“Prouder, Stronger, Better”—and read his own copy extolling the many gains America had made under Reagan’s leadership in ads that directly appealed to the public’s desire to be reassured about the security of their country, their familial bonds, their very way of life. “It’s morning again in America,” Riney said in the most famous ad, “and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”'
The “Prouder, Stronger, Better” campaign is remembered for its unbridled enthusiasm for the present and inspiring hope for the future, which stands apart from the usual mud-slinging and borderline slander of most political advertising. Riney’s ads were also venerated for being effective to an unprecedented degree; that fall, Reagan gave Democratic challenger Walter Mondale a historic throttling in the general election, winning every electoral vote save 13, which Mondale snatched hungrily from his home state of Minnesota. (Though Reagan nearly won that state, too.) Reagan’s 525 electoral votes is the most by any presidential winner in American history; even a fixed election would have been made to look closer, just for the sake of credibility.
Riney wrote the copy for the Reagan campaign in the summer of ’84 over a long lunch at the San Francisco restaurant Reno Barsocchini’s, right around the time that Huey Lewis elbowed his way into the rarefied ranks of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Prince at the summit of pop stardom in June. Incredibly, a key component of the political campaign that afforded the conservative hero of the last 30 years the most decisive victory of his political life was cooked up in a city known as the capital of the liberal counter-culture. But the vision of America in Riney’s ads wasn’t all that different from what fellow San Franciscan Lewis offered up on Sports. This was an album that reminded Americans of its musical heritage in a familiar, non-threatening way, and suggested that the future didn’t have to be a scary, unknowable entity, so long as Huey Lewis And The News made it look like a slickly repackaged version of the past.
Lewis’ path to Sports mirrored the experiences of many people of his generation. When Rolling Stone grudgingly put Lewis on its cover in ’84, looking to exploit Lewis’ popularity as writer Christopher Connelly softly skewered him in his profile, it called “his progression from achiever to wipeout, from earnest failure to canny success … a conflation of every plot line in The Big Chill.” Born Hugh Anthony Cregg III in New York in 1950, Huey Lewis was raised by bohemian parents: His dad was a jazz drummer, his mother an artist who hung out with Allen Ginsberg after the Creggs moved to the San Francisco suburbs when baby Huey was 2. At 12, his parents divorced, and Lewis was shipped to prep school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, where he would hop trains to Philadelphia to see blues greats like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He was also an early adopter of the Summer Of Love bands from his hometown, later bragging to Rolling Stone that “he was “probably the first guy to smoke pot in Lawrenceville.”
Reflecting on the ’60s, Lewis remarked that “they weren’t about drugs; they were about rampant intellectualism.” The biggest song from Sports, “I Want A New Drug,” wasn’t really about drugs, either; as Lewis sings in the chorus, he’s just looking for something that gives him a feeling as incredible as being with—make that being alone with—his special lady friend. When “I Want A New Drug” was all over radio in ’84 (the single eventually went gold), some concerned culture-watchers might have blanched at the title, but Lewis clearly wasn’t as edgy as Prince (whose scandalous “Darling Nikki” off of Purple Rain pushed Tipper Gore to launch the Parents Music Research Center) or even Springsteen, who chafed when Reagan tried to co-opt the protest song “Born In The U.S.A.” as a patriotic anthem. (Like “Born In The U.S.A.” Lewis’ “Walking On A Thin Line” addressed the plight of Vietnam veterans, though Lewis’ song didn’t cause the same stir when it went to No. 18 on the singles chart.)
“I Want A New Drug” was just an infectious ditty with vague New Wave overtones and a surprisingly danceable rhythm, which was elaborated on a special club mix that shot the song to the top of the dance charts. That’s right, Huey Lewis songs even got the clubs banging hard in ’84.
“Though Lewis doesn’t have Bruce Springsteen’s philosophic depth or John Cougar Mellencamp’s bad-boy edge, his albums are outselling those artists’ latest offerings,” Connelly wrote in Rolling Stone, assessing an appeal he couldn’t quite grasp. “His T-shirt-and-jacket look is sexy, not seedy; he earns trust as well as lust from female fans, while men view him as just one of the guys, a Miller Time companion.” Lewis’ regular-guy image might’ve resonated with the millions of pop fans who inherently related to average, “normal” folk, whether it was in entertainment or politics, but Sports became emblematic of a kind of counterfeit authenticity that Reagan’s detractors believed disguised deeper, more nefarious intentions with feel-good, beer-commercial subterfuge.
Bret Easton Ellis forwarded this view most vividly in his infamous 1991 novel American Psycho, making enjoyment of Lewis’ inoffensive music (as well as that of fellow mid-’80s superstars Phil Collins and Whitney Houston) part of a persona of faceless conformity and vacant superficiality adopted by sociopathic New York investment banker Patrick Bateman to shield the reality of his horrific, unquenchable bloodlust for murder and cruelty. Part of the joke of American Psycho is that all of the “sane” Manhattanites in Bateman’s world reside so far up their own asses that even when Bateman’s façade of normalcy slips, they scarcely notice. Nevertheless, Bateman works hard to assimilate with the herd when it comes to pop culture.
Showing an impressive aptitude for ironic rock-writing, Ellis wrote trenchant analyses in Bateman’s voice of the careers of massive ’80s radio stars amid increasingly lurid (and gruesomely detailed) descriptions of Bateman’s butchery. For Bateman, Sports was when Huey Lewis And The News “really came into their own, commercially and artistically.” He praised the album’s “clear, crisp sound,” and how the “new sheen of consummate professionalism … really gives the songs a big boost.” But he reserved his most fervent hosannas for “Hip To Be Square,” from the Sports sequel Fore!; “Hip To Square” is “their undisputed masterpiece,” a song “not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it’s also a personal statement about the band itself.” In the movie version, this observation was followed by Christian Bale slamming an ax into Jared Leto’s head.
According to Ellis, only people alienated from genuine human experience—like, say, the Reagan voters who mistook those greeting-card images narrated by Hal Riney’s fatherly baritone for the country being ravaged by trickle-down economics—could relate to an album like Sports, which seemed like an extraterrestrial’s (or a maniac’s) idea of what so-called “regular people” were supposed to be like.
So, am I wrong to take Bateman’s words at face value? Huey Lewis And The News really did come into their own, commercially and artistically, with Sports. Coming off the band’s undistinguished early records, the new sheen of consummate professionalism on Sports actually does give the songs (which, for all their cheesiness, are still pretty irrepressible) a big boost. And, yeah, “Hip To Be Square” can be read as a personal statement for Huey Lewis, and the culture that made him, for a short time, a pop star. In 1984, uncool was cool, yuppies were the new hippies, and two plus two equaled five.
Coming up: Michael Jackson's Bad