Huey Lewis and The News were one of the most successful artists of the 1980s, on both the singles and albums charts as well as the concert circuit. Not to mention huge in popular culture as well. Although tagged as an overnight sensation by the casual observer, nothing could further from the truth. The band – made up of three members of Soundhole (drummer Bill Gibson, bassist Mario Cippolina and guitarist/saxophonist Johnny Colla), a local Marin County band, two members of Clover (keyboardist Sean Hopper and vocalist Huey), an outfit whose commercial failure was dwarfed only by their longevity along with a young, hotshot guitarist (Chris Hayes).
The members of the band had encounters, both live and on record with rock royalty (Thin Lizzy, Rockpile, Van Morrison and Elvis Costello, among others), but when the 1970s were fading fast, they formed a new group that would hopefully go places. A self-titled debut was released in mid-1980; it did little to spread the word. Early 1982’s Picture This and the singles “Do You Believe in Love?” And “Workin’ For a Living” got them noticed on the radio and MTV, and shortly after Sports was released in 1983, they were right up there with the big boys (and girls); Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Prince, Tina Turner, and the rest of the decade was theirs.
The original sextet released six studio albums and one album of covers between 1980 and 1994; here they are, ranked worst to first!
Four Chords & Several Years Ago
Highest Chart Peak: 55
When you’re a platinum-selling band, with hit singles and albums galore behind you, releasing a covers album is a cry for help; it’s telling the world that there is nowhere else to go. (See Guns n’ Roses – The Spaghetti Incident.) Truth of the matter is that by the time the Hard At Play tour concluded in 1992, it was all over. Musical tastes had changed, and the previous two albums had revealed that there was plenty of apathy among the fans, and the band, who were used to headlining arenas for years, suddenly found themselves booked in small to medium-sized theaters. So, at the time, maybe a covers album made sense.
But then again, no. The songs were not the standard “golden oldies” – but more obscure R&B material that the band liked. Probably not everybody’s cup of tea, but in their defense, all were competently performed. But it certainly wasn’t what the fans of Sports and “The Power of Love” wanted to hear. Oh, the times, they are a changin’!
What happened next: The band did a short tour for the album, and by 1995, bassist Cippolina either quit or was fired, depending on who you ask. A hits album was released in 1998, after which guitarist Chris Hayes bailed. The next album of original material, Plan B, was released seven years after Four Chords.
Highest Chart Peak: 11
Small World is the album that the band was so proud of. Unfortunately, not everybody held the same high standard to it. Like the critics for example. And the fans. And FM radio, where the singles were ignored while rockers like Tracy Chapman and Melissa Etheredge got plenty of airtime that summer and fall. Worst of all was Rolling Stone magazine, where Small World was named “Worst Album of The Year” in 1988, the year of The Escape Club’s Wild Wild West album. Ouch.
Although some of the tracks, particularly the lone top ten single “Perfect World,” retained the sound the sound that the fans wanted, the rest of the album was… kind of blah. Trying to shoehorn jazz sensibilities into the band might’ve pleased the musicians, but to the general public, not so much. It should be noted that this album followed closely on the heels of the string of hit sings from 1986’s Fore! (more on that in the Fore! section below), so there was the burn out and the oversaturation factor that might’ve contributed to the sales slump.
What happened next: The band wisely took a break (maybe a case of a day late and a dollar short) and actually jumped record labels. The result? See below.
Hard At Play
Highest Chart Peak: 27
A comeback, of sorts. At least sound wise. The band wisely waited three years after Small World to release of Hard At Play, giving the fans (and public) a break for the first time in a decade. Whether this helped things or if it was too late in the day to make a difference will never be known.
And while Play DID get things back on track (somewhat), the songs didn’t have the staying power of the previous hits. The lone hit single “Couple Days Off” was “Working For a Living’s” bastard cousin and the rest of the album made REO Speedwagon’s Good Trouble sound like an original work. But of course, look at the music scene from 1991, and you’ll quickly notice that Huey Lewis is a likable relic of a bygone era, and besides a record that made a little noise on the charts, they didn’t fit into the music world of the 1990s. A decent album, but pales to the band’s earlier work.
What happened next: Four Chords and there’s where the story ended.
Highest Chart Peak: 1
Similar to my ranking of Billy Squier’s Emotion in Motion (read all about it here), I’m sure fans will scoff at the relatively low ranking of this monster album. But trust me, there are good reasons!
For starters, it’s doubly hard for any artist to top (or even equal) an era-defining album. Hi Infidelity, Asia, Thriller, Beauty and the Beat, Metal Health, etc. all suffered from the “follow-up curse”, some more so than others. The biggest problem here – the hit singles dragged on far too long. Now, that sounds counterintuitive, but trust me, that’s a problem that many of Huey’s peers suffered from.
Look at it this way; take an artist who had a huge breakthrough album, and then the follow up is seemingly on steroids pumps out the hit singles. Bon Jovi – New Jersey. Phil Collins – …But Seriously. And now Huey Lewis and The News – Fore! Now think of those fourth or fifth singles; “Living in Sin,” “ I’ll Be There For You,” “Do You Remember?,” “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven”… None of those were the stuff that made these artists great. And actually, all pretty forgettable. “I Know What I Like” and “Doing It All For My Baby” fall into the same category. Not what the band’s legacy is based on. Songs like “I Want A New Drug” were far more edgy than, say, “Whole Lotta Lovin’.”
Now, let’s going into case of “what if”: If Fore! had hits only with its first three singles (“Stuck With You,” “Hip To Be Square” and “Jacob’s Ladder,”) and then things calmed down after that, it might’ve lessened album sales, but it also might’ve helped his career last longer. Trust me, nobody likes album cycles that drag on too long. Except for the suits at the label.
What happened next: After fans were worn down by the final two singles in the long, dull summer of 1987 (a time when Richard Marx and Whitney Houston were the only artists aired on MTV), the signs were there that it was time to take a break. But no, instead we got Small World, a mere year after the Fore! tour concluded.
Huey Lewis and the News
Highest Chart Peak: Did not chart
Yes, the “forgotten” album in Huey’s catalog deserves a lot more love than it’s gotten. Here were a bunch of guys that were footnotes in the late 1970s rock scene, trying to make it on their own. It’s the sound of a new band making music in a new decade. The songs aren’t all there yet and the band is still trying to find its sound, but there is a lack of pretention and a sense of fun that would be revealed in the next couple of albums.
Oddly enough, once the band hit the big time, there was never any “push” to go back or even to rerelease the debut. The band DID get some milage out of the live version of “Trouble In Paradise” from 1985’s USA For Africa’s We Are The World charity album, but otherwise than that, Huey Lewis and the News (the album, NOT the band!) has languished in obscurity since the day it was released in 1980.
What happened next: Nothing but good stuff for the next several years. Fasten your seatbelts, gang!
Highest Chart Peak: 1
Sorry Sports fans, but the band’s greatest commercial achievement isn’t its best album. This isn’t to diminish the attributes of it, only that there was a better one, which just happened to precede it. In the end, Sports spawned four top ten singles, one more top twenty, all with hit videos. And a rare non-single video (“Bad Is Bad”) got major airplay.
The power and the glory of Sports – and all the hit singles – has been documented ad nauseum here, there and everywhere. It was Huey’s time – heavy rotation videos on MTV, a cameo (and #1 theme song) in 1985’s Back To The Future, USA For Africa… A great time to be Huey Lewis and the News. All the pieces came together with Sports.
What happened next: More of the same, just not as memorable.
Highest Chart Peak: 13
Again, you may question why Picture This (and not Sports) holds the top position here. It’s really a matter of a bunch of factors: The jump in quality from the debut; the band’s decision to produce itself; and lastly, for the ability to come up with the goods in the ninth inning, two men out, two men on and down by a run.
The song quality – from start to finish – is perfect. But then again, so is Sports, but here, they didn’t have a cushion going in to record. This record is full of great music, every track has a personality all its own and it has the sound of a bunch of veteran rockers who finally found their groove.
What happened next: Sports and reaching the top of the mountain.
Bonus video! The Power Of Love” – not on any Huey Lewis and The News Album! (But found of international versions of Fore!)