When the Huey Lewis and the News album “Sports” was released three decades ago, MTV was in its infancy and actually playing music videos as radio playlists were becoming increasingly fragmented.
It wasn’t exactly the time or place for an anachronistic group featuring horns, doo-wop vocal harmonies and a harp-blowing frontman to expect any kind of chart success. But that’s exactly what Huey Lewis and the News did with its 1983 studio album.
The band’s third studio outing, it not only went seven times platinum, it topped “Billboard” magazine’s Top 200 charts in 1984, yielded five Top 20 hits (four of which broached the Top 10) and made the group fixtures on MTV and radio. And while it’s ballsy to say the outcome went according to plans, Huey Lewis says there was a clear strategy in place when it came time to hit the studio for the project.
“‘Sports’ was very much a record of its time and a collection of singles. It reminds me that it was a very radio-driven market. There was no jam band scene and no internet,” Lewis explained in a recent phone interview from his home in Montana. “So the only avenue to success was a hit record, and we produced it ourselves; we were an unknown band that wanted to do it on our own terms, which we did, but we unabashedly aimed five of those tracks at radio.
“We didn’t know we were going to have five hits and that’s what we had,” he said. “It holds together less as an album, unlike our subsequent records, which hold together as albums. But as a collection of singles, it did the trick.”
Those five hits were “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” “Heart and Soul,” “I Want a New Drug,” “If This Is It” (all top 10 hits) and “Walking on a Thin Line” (which peaked at 18 on “Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart.
One factor that hugely helped stoke this success for Lewis and his crew was the effective use of videos. Using the city of San Francisco for a set, Huey Lewis and the News became known for shooting humorous vignettes with a loose plot. Having made some videos way back in 1978 that attracted record label attention, the dissatisfaction with the video for “Do You Believe in Love” from its second album, “Picture This,” led to the News deciding to take conceptual control of the process.
The results were scenarios for the videos from “Sports” that took inspiration from everything from “A Hard Day’s Night”-era Beatles to vintage Hollywood movies.
“Our idea was to stay away from the song, goof around and act stupid like Hullabaloo-style on the site of San Francisco. Let the seagulls shoot the scenery and be the production,” Lewis recalled with a laugh.
“And avoid a literal translation of the song. If it’s kind of serious, be funny. I swiped the opening for ‘I Want a New Drug’ from Paul Newman and Harper when he wakes up and puts his face in the cold ice. We took the shot and then had me go out in a yellow Porsche, which was the same car.”
“Sports” paved the way for two popular follow-up albums, 1986’s “Fore!,” which went double platinum, and 1988’s “Small World,” which went platinum. After that, though, Huey Lewis and the News released only three more studio albums – 1991’s “Hard at Play,” 1994’s “Four Cords and Several Years Ago” and 2001’s “Plan B.”
Of course, by then Huey Lewis and the News had more than enough hits (19 top 10 singles in all) to be able to tour successfully, whether it ever makes another album again.
This year’s touring is getting a boost from a 30th anniversary edition of the “Sports” album, which was released in May 2013. It includes the original album plus a second disc with live versions of each of the nine songs from the record.
For all the planning that went into the making of the “Sports” album, Lewis noted that the project had its difficulties.
“We mixed it in New York five times and couldn’t get it to work,” Lewis said. “Then we sat on it and I listened to it. I knew it had to be cut with a machine so we went back and re-recorded “Heart of Rock and Roll,” “I Need a New Drug” and “Walking On a Thin Line,” he recalled.
“So we went back in, set the drum machine up, sequenced the bass and put it on 114 and it was unbelievable. It came to life,” Lewis said. “There’s a lesson out of this. Machines are exact and you just can’t fake it. Merging machines with humans, you have to be very, very [cautious] and you have to assemble it very carefully. And the ‘Sports’ record was assembled very, very carefully. Since that time, we’ve concentrated on playing better to where we can now capture the songs as just to recreating them. Our last record was cut pretty much live. It’s been an interesting journey.”