This imminently listenable brand of no-frills rock might have sold in any decade. But only in the 1980s, a period marked by a steep swing rightward after the polyester era’s excesses, could Huey Lewis and the News have been such big stars.
Their sound, a combination of early rock (up to and including the prominent use of a sax), doo wop and slickster R&B, was redolent of another time — without being actually from another time. They even dressed like a band that had stepped out of a nuclear-powered DeLorean, long before striking it rich with a No. 1 single from the “Back to the Future” soundtrack.
Arriving as Sports did, in an uncertain age, it was surrounded by an instant nostalgia for a time that never was — back when girls were girls, men were men, the old LaSalle ran great, etc., etc. More than half of the album spun off into huge hit singles on the American charts. Somehow none ever went to No. 1, but a trio of songs (“I Want a New Drug,” “The Heart of Rock and Roll” and “If This Is It”) would finish at No. 6, so Sports just kept going and going and going — eventually turning platinum seven times on the way to finishing second in sales only to Michael Jackson’s Thriller for all of 1984.
That was then, though, right? Wrong. If you’re like me, you might’ve come into this sparkling new anniversary edition, due on May 14 from Capitol/UMe, thinking all of that seems like a long time ago, that Huey Lewis’ brand of hooky approachability was a fad from a different age. But, I’ll be damned if the News don’t end up winning me over again.
The roots of their sound, see, are bonafide: Lewis’s old band Clover had backed up Elvis Costello on My Aim is True, and done key sessions work with Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe. (The band eventually broke up when John McFee left to become a Doobie brother.) Other members of the News had been part of Van Morrison’s band. So their songs had — have — a note-perfect, air-tight sound because, despite their hip-to-be-square image, these guys can really play.
There’s just enough gravel in Lewis’ voice, and just enough bar-band grit in their songs, to keep Sports from ever devolving into over-polished pop. Of course, it never quite edges off into something dangerous enough to be offensive, either — and that might be why the News have slipped into country-fair obscurity. But, where ever they are tonight, everybody in that audience — maybe because they knew they would, maybe in spite of themselves — is almost certainly having a ball. I know I did.
Huey Lewis personally oversaw the luxe expanded reissue, which includes the digitally remastered original album, a booklet with photos and band memorabilia along with new liner notes from Gary Graff, and another disc of live versions of all nine songs. Many of these concert recordings, curated by longtime member Johnny Colla, have never before been released. They date from the mid-1980s through to more recent renditions of “You Crack Me Up.”