Political Beats podcast

Episode 127: Eric Kohn / Huey Lewis & the News

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Introducing the Band:
Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) are joined by guest Eric Kohn. Eric is the Director of Marketing & Communications at the Acton Institute. Check him out on Twitter at @iEricKohn.

Eric’s Music Pick: Huey Lewis & the News
Do you believe in miracles? Yes! After years of lobbying, Jeff has proven that anyone will fold, given enough time and pressure. Here is the Huey Lewis & the News episode of Political Beats.

Those of you with us for a while will know that the band is a favorite of Scot's while Jeff previously has taken any opportunity to vow never to cover Huey and the boys on the show. Well, recently he had a change of heart (Track One, Picture This) and we wasted no time in finding a guest. Did we end up talking for three hours about Huey Lewis & the News? Of course we did. Did we change Jeff's mind? Listen and find out.

Scot’s love of the band started at a young age, and much of his knowledge of the early story of the band’s history comes from a mass-market paperback that he still has to this day. Huey Lewis & the News: A Biography is a 142-page chronicle of the rise of the band and its origins on the San Francisco music scene. It’s out of print, obviously, but check your local used bookstore for a copy.

Huey Lewis & the News essentially was the merger of two big local Bay area bands -- Clover and Soundhole. Huey and keyboardist Sean Hopper played in the former, while drummer Bill Gibson, saxophonist/guitarist Johnny Colla, and bassist Mario Cipollina in the latter. Clover (sans Huey) were perhaps best known for being Elvis Costello's back-up band on My Aim Is True. 

The band then picked up a 21-year-old kid in 1979, Chris Hayes, to play lead guitar and were off. The next year, 1980, brought the little-noticed self-titled debut. Here's the thing: It's quite good! This album, and the early sound of the band, is the commercial follow-through on the wonderful music made by the pub rock artists of the U.K. This record is heavier on Mario's bass than later entries, but those trademark backing vocals are there from the start. It didn't sell. At all. 

The next album would be make or break. Huey's face alone is on the cover. Harmonies are tighter. Little did they know they had an ace in the hole: a song written by Mutt Lange. "Do You Believe in Love" would explode to #7 on the charts. The band had a hit. A follow-up would be tougher. Three other singles from Picture This failed to break #36, though one, “Workin’ for a Livin’,” has endured as a blue-collar anthem.

The band went back to work with a taste of success and a thirst for more. The mission for the next album was simple: every song a hit. Easy, right? With Sports, they pretty much pulled it off. You know virtually every song on this album, including “I Want a New Drug,” “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” “If This Is It,” and more. There was no thematic goal other than producing hits. Synths, drum machines, massive hooks -- whatever it took. Outside writers? Sure! A strength of the band was taking other's material and making it sound like their own, as they did on “Heart and Soul” and “Walking On a Thin Line.”

Sports was a monster. Massive headlining tours followed. Two major projects before the next album would drop. First, Huey would take a lead vocal spot in "We Are the World,” filling in for Prince. Second, some work on a little film called Back to the Future and the band’s first #1 hit in “The Power of Love.”

Huey Lewis & the News is on top of the world. But 1986 is approaching and a new album is due soon. One problem: No one hears a single. One of the engineers calls up Chris Hayes at home and says, "Chris, we need a hit."

"Stuck With You" was what he came up with, and it was the lead single for Fore!, which would also hit #1 & sell 3 million+ copies. That said, Fore! is a bit of an odd duck. Fully half the songs were from outside writers, including the album's other #1 single, “Jacob’s Ladder” (written by the Hornsby brothers)

Next? Well, whatever the band wanted. And what they wanted was not necessarily commercial in nature. A socially conscious effort full of eclectic musical themes, Small World. As far as I've read, the band loves this album. They got to stretch their legs as musicians. They had earned the right to make a project of their choosing. The record-buying public was not impressed. Small World barely scraped 1 million units in sales.  The band did have one last bullet to fire at the charts. “Perfect World,” a song written by Alex Call, a former Clover bandmate of Huey and Sean, hit #3 and clearly sits aside their best.

Afterward, the band had some well-earned time off. In the time span, though, the rock world was changing quickly. Huey & company dropped the weirdness of the last album and returned to the blueprint -- rock, R&B, a love song, and a tune by Mutt Lange. All on Hard At Play. There would not be another album of new material for ten years. Four Chords and Several Years Ago, an album of 50s-era covers, came in 1994.

Plan B, an album of new material, arrived in 2001, followed by Soulsville, a Stax covers album, and finally 2020’s Weather. The last record was released following Huey’s diagnosis of Ménière's disease, an inner-ear disorder, which means he can no longer hear music frequencies or hold vocal pitches. The result is no touring and no more new music from the band. 

It's sometimes hard to hear Huey Lewis & the News on the radio. Living on that weird line between rock and pop in the 1980s means there's not a great format for those songs now. It's a catalog well worth further inspection, though. You won't regret spending three hours with us and the band.

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