Friday, January 10, 2014

Three Singles From Sports, Illustrated

Despite Patrick Bateman's infamous claim that Huey Lewis and the News "didn't really come into their own, commercially or artistically, until their 1983 smash, Sports," given my feelings toward Picture This, I'm not so sure I'm about to go along with that. I'll also have to pick a bone with Stephen Thomas Erlewine, who writes in his AMG review, "Where their previous albums were cluttered with generic filler, nearly every song on Sports has a huge hook." Correction: nearly every single on Sports has a huge hook. Because let's face it, some of these album tracks are pretty crappy. "Bad Is Bad" is accurately titled, "Finally Found A Home" may have finally found a home in my desktop Recycling Bin, and "You Crack Me Up" is like a poor man's "You May Be Right" (which actually does a better job of cracking me up). And whereas "Buzz Buzz Buzz" closed Picture This on a zesty and surprising note, "Honky Tonk Blues" closes Sports with what might be the least authentic Hank Williams cover in the history of popular music. Hello, McFly!

Granted, there were more hit singles (five) on Sports than there were remaining album tracks (four), but I don't grade albums like a record executive does. Sports is Huey Lewis and the News' Thriller: sure, maybe it has a lot of great singles on it, but I don't know if it's necessarily a great album. To use a sports metaphor, Sports is like a baseball line-up with five all-star sluggers and four semi-injured, washed up bench players who just got called up from the minors. By contrast, Picture This may have had only one or two all-star hitters, but everybody in the line-up had a solid batting average and they could all do the little things right. Man, that team really gelled in the clubhouse. Anyway, here's my post where I round up the other three singles from Sports I didn't already tackle.

A lot of people probably have a soft spot in their hearts for "The Heart of Rock and Roll," but let's admit it: Huey's done better. Yeah, sure, I thought this song was awesome ... when I was five years old. As Jefferson Starship proved a couple of years later, there's nothing lamer than a band proclaiming the continued relevance of rock an roll over a slickly-produced, mid-tempo slice of bar boogie that wouldn't have even qualified as a ZZ Top b-side. How is this song lame? Let me count the ways:
  1. The heartbeat sound effect. You hear this on the radio and you're thinking, "All right! Dark Side of the Moon! Oh wait, this isn't "Speak To Me/Breathe"..." No, it's some lame fucking heartbeat sound effect.
  2. Huey's reluctance to say the word "ass." "Ass" isn't even a bad word! It certainly isn't one of the seven deadly words. Remember when Huey chickened out and decided not to say "shit" on his debut album? That's a word you don't want to say on the radio. But "ass"? Howard Stern probably says that every five seconds. Even Clark Gable wasn't afraid to say "damn" - and that was in 1939!
  3. The horrible little "The-The-The-The-They say the..." effect at the start of the last chorus. I can see them sitting in the studio now: "Check this out, guys! I can put this cheesy delay effect on the vocals, this is gonna be great!"

Then of course there's the requisite Vietnam song that almost every bar band/heartland rocker was contractually required to record in the '80s. Truth be told, I didn't even realize "Walking on a Thin" line was a Vietnam song until someone pointed it out to me on the internet. Does that mean that the songwriters (Andre Pessis and Kevin Wells) and the performers were brilliantly subtle, or ineffectively subtle?
Sometimes in my bed at night
I curse the dark and I pray for light
And sometimes, the light's no consolation
Blinded by a memory
Afraid of what it might do to me
And the tears and the sweat only mock my desperation

Don't you know me I'm the boy next door
The one you find so easy to ignore
Is that what I was fighting for?
Walking on a thin line
Straight off the front line
Labeled as freaks loose on the streets of the city
Walking on a thin line
Straight off the front line
Take a look at my face, see what it's doing to me

Taught me how to shoot to kill
A specialist with a deadly skill
A skill I needed to have to be a survivor
It's over now or so they say
Well, sometimes, it don't turn out that way
Cause your never the same when you've been under fire

Well if it was that bad, why did you even go to Vietnam in the first place? Geez buddy. Ah, but the true crowning achievement of Sports is the little doo-wop pastiche known to the world as "If This Is It."

Here, ladies and germs, is Huey at his most effortless and effervescent. No ill-advised anthemic statements on the state of rock and roll, no jaded political commentary arriving about ten years too late to have any legitimate impact ... just pure, refined, concentrated Huey. The video was apparently filmed at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and my guess is either in April or October, because otherwise it would have been foggier than a librarian's glasses in a hot tub. Signy Coleman was supposed to make a return appearance, but I guess there was a scheduling conflict and they ended up using her friend Janet (the naughty brunette) and another woman named Sandra (the mysterious blond) instead. Mostly, I'm just impressed they had enough room in the budget for a boa constrictor, an airplane flying a "Please Let Me Know" banner, and a shark that can swim through sand. Musically, the song's most transcendent moment would have to be the ascending, harmonizing guitar chords that climb and climb against the backing vocals at about the 3:37 mark. Oh yeah. That's the hard stuff, Huey.

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