Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Huey Lewis And The News: The Humble Origins Of Yuppie Rock

Until about 1991, I used to tell people that my favorite group was Huey Lewis and the News. Which is funny, considering that I never actually owned a Huey Lewis and the News album - not even on cassette. Maybe I figured, "What rock band could possibly be an improvement over Huey Lewis and the News"? They had everything. They were funny. They were catchy. They were zippy. They didn't make mushy ballads, and they didn't make preachy message songs. But around April 1991, I discovered oldies and decided that my favorite band was now going to be the Beatles. Playing the game of "favorite band" has been pretty dull ever since.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine nicely sums up the band's appeal (or lack thereof) in the intro to his AMG biography:
Huey Lewis and the News were a bar band that made good. With their simple, straightforward rock & roll, the San Francisco-based group became one of America's most popular pop/rock bands of the mid-'80s. Inspired equally by British pub rock and '60s R&B and rock & roll, the News had a driving, party-hearty spirit that made songs like "Workin' for a Livin'," "I Want a New Drug," "The Heart of Rock & Roll," "Hip to Be Square," and "The Power of Love" yuppie anthems. At its core, the group was a working band, and the bandmembers knew how to target their audience, writing odes to nine-to-five jobs and sports.
In retrospect, Huey Lewis and the News were the epitome of "inoffensive." They were so inoffensive that many people find them offensive. After all this time, I'm still not sure if there's a critical consensus on the artistic merits of the band. Witness this sampling of comments from an article the AV Club wrote on Sports a couple of years ago:
Huey Lewis and the News...
... were /are a more than competent pop band. They're fun and never claim to be anything but. I shall not disparage them.

I've always thought that anyone who hates Huey Lewis & The News were raving douchebags. You don't have to LIKE it, so much, there's plenty not to like. But Huey and the gang are so much fun, so inoffensive, that to actively hate them is akin to hating fun. At the absolute worst, they're a harmless distraction. At best, they're a really fun band who were among the best at pure, awesome, entertainment in the 80's that didn't involve a grotesque amount of hair spray.

I think there is something to the notion that he's a "dork" with no pretensions about him, and whatever others might have thought of him, or of music at the time, it just seemed like he had the attitude of, "I don't know why I'm popular now, and I don't know what that says about music now, but I'm just glad to be here." That and the undeniably catchy music is why I think he's still listenable these days, or at least hard to actually hate.

For the record: I kinda like a few Huey Lewis songs. He's a fun, silly but catchy pop singer. If anything he's mediocre... not horrible. I never really understood the animosity that he inspired in people and I thought that it was strange that Ellis choose him to symbolize the worst of the worst of eighties yuppiness.

I hated Huey Lewis, but it just might be because I hate saxophone. Mind you, hating the sax in the 80's was like hating synth or hair spray - it made you unable to turn on a radio or television.

I didn't like Lewis at the time, but it wasn't as much the music as his 49ers fandom. Man, I fucking hated the 49ers.

Huey Lewis was just kind of... there. On the radio. Like white noise or that bland wallpaper found in doctor's offices. I have no positive or negative anecdotes regarding Huey Lewis, or his band or his music.
So there you have it. In fact, Huey Lewis and the News ended up becoming so inoffensive that you have to wonder what kind of band they'd originally been trying to be in the first place.

It turns out that a band like Huey Lewis and the News, in the 1980 musical landscape, was not a particularly uncommon kind of band at all. They were basically one of several New Wave/power pop/pub rock groups in the mode of the Knack, the Plimsouls, The Romantics, etc. etc. These groups were a dime a dozen; they all ended up on those Rhino D.I.Y. power pop compilations. I think the theory was that, by 1980, since rock 'n' roll had become so convoluted, it was now actually a clever twist to be blatantly straightforward. It was, if you will, "hip to be square."

Hell, just look at the band's name. It's almost deliberately generic and WASPy. When Morrissey and Johnny Marr named their band the Smiths, they were trying to be ironic. Huey Lewis was probably just trying to get a record contract. Well it worked, although their debut album, the imaginatively-titled Huey Lewis and the News, didn't exactly set the world on fire. Erlewine writes:
On their eponymous debut, Huey Lewis and the News essentially act as a pub rock band, turning out hard-driving covers and originals in a workmanlike fashion. While that usually makes for great club gigs, it only occasionally makes for great records, and the debut suffers from an uneven selection of material and a somewhat stiff production, mainly because the group can't quite reproduce its sound in the studio. Even with such flaws, the album shows signs of promise, particularly in the charging "Some of My Lies Are True (Sooner or Later)."

Fair enough. For a slightly different take on the material, let's hear from Bret Easton Ellis - ahem - "Patrick Bateman":
Though the boys hail from San Francisco and they share some similarities with their Southern California counterparts, the Beach Boys (gorgeous harmonies, sophisticated vocalizing, beautiful melodies - they even posed with a surfboard on the cover of the debut album), they also carried with them some of the bleakness and nihilism of the (thankfully now forgotten) "punk rock" scene of Los Angeles at the time. Talk about your Angry Young Man! - listen to Huey on "Who Cares," "Stop Trying," "Don't Even Tell Me That You Love Me," "Trouble In Paradise" (the titles say it all). Huey hits his notes like an embittered survivor and the band often sounds as angry as performers like the Clash or Billy Joel or Blondie.

Um ... "Patrick" (if that is your real name) ... you sound like you may have read bits and pieces of rock journalism here and there, but I'm not really sure you ... know what you're talking about. That's OK, Huey will probably take all the fans he can get, even if they're well-groomed Wall Street psychopaths. Punk rock has not exactly been "forgotten," and I'm not sure anyone would classify Blondie as "angry," but your writing shows some promise and you should keep working on it.

So, my take? Well, even early on, it seems like Huey was terrified of displaying any sort of edge whatsoever; on "Who Cares," he sings, "Change the channel, standard shift/Does anybody give a sh-." No, I did not block out the word "shit." He actually says "sh-" with the dash in there. Oh my God. He almost said "shit." Almost! Yeah, I'll tell you who cares, all right: Huey Lewis cares, about saying profanity on his rock and roll album. Look, Huey, no one was going to buy the damn thing anyway!

Overall, the disc is pretty hit-or-miss, although it definitely picks up steam at the end, with the aforementioned "Who Cares" and "Trouble In Paradise," (best YouTube comment: "There's never been a sit-com called Trouble in Paradise, but if there ever is, this song would make my top 5 as potential intros"), and the frenetic closer "If You Really Love Me You'll Let Me," which is the last time anyone could have plausibly compared this band to XTC. But don't you worry, Patrick Bateman: Huey Lewis will never sound this "punk" again.


Anonymous said...

I realize this post is a few years old. It's important to note that Huey Lewis himself was far different from the Yuppy crowd who wound up being his core fan base. Huey and his band had diverse backgrounds that revealed more Hippy and Beat influences than the clean cut, frat-boy-in-a-band image customarily imputed to them. HL had musical chops and was a one time running mate of Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy fame even making contributions on record. That Huey narrowed his scope towards the creation of pop tunes designed to appeal to the masses was simply a conscious decision. The band was quite versatile and could play most any style authentically though chose to stay in the pocket and play the tunes in a straight-forward no frills fashion. And unlike many of their contemporaries they could in fact sing the harmonies and play the songs live without the aid and assistance of loops or samplers. (The same could not be said of other bands at that time). In the end it's not a major issue and I willingly concede that the music of HL isn't really my cup of tea but I understand the motivations behind it. That their biggest cheerleaders were the pop-collared, Izod crowd doesn't mean they were. Lot's of bands wind up with fans they'd rather not associate or be identified with but if the money is rolling in big time then most bands will at least appear to be cool with it. I think critics need to separate the evaluation of a given band from the associated evaluation of the band's audience. Put another way - I like some country music but I don't much care for the crowd that shows up at an average country music concert. I can separate the two. Many cannot.

Little Earl said...

Patrick Bateman, is that you?? It's ... it's an honor sir. I don't care HOW many years have passed since my blog post, you're welcome to comment any time you like.

I have a not-so-secret passion for (pre-1980's) country music myself, but probably wouldn't have come near that music's target audience with a ten-foot pole - either that or they wouldn't have come near me.

Anonymous said...

Well I'm not Patrick Bateman but I believe in taking care of myself, and a balanced diet and a rigorous exercise routine. In the morning, if my face is a little puffy, I'll put on an ice pack while doing my stomach crunches. I can do a thousand now.....

Yes Sir. I believe the works of Huey Lewis require greater consideration than is commonly exhibited by the casual listener. The nuances of, for example, "Workin for a Livin'" are so powerfully subtle that most people miss it which is a shame since the song is clearly about the perpetual underclass struggle that will inevitably take place within elitist, capitalist societies. But thank you for your acknowledgement and I recognize you not as an equal but as someone with whom I would gladly consume fruit skewers and kale sorbet at Dorsia - assuming I can get a reservation. In the meantime please accept my card with raised lettering over a personal Esceher-esque watermark all framed in a flush pale nimbus coloring.