Huey Lewis and the News Drops The Ball in Brooklyn
FULL EXTENDED INTERVIEW
Huey Lewis and the News were arguably the most popular American band of the mid-80s, with their own blues-rock sound that was welcomed by the masses. Hall & Oates dominated the beginning of the decade, and Bon Jovi came a bit later, but the heart of the decade belonged to this San Francisco nine-piece Huey Lewis and the News. Formed from two competing Bay Area bands that previously backed Elvis Costello and Van Morrison, their success came from dynamic lead singer and harmonica player Huey Lewis, slick instrumentation from top-notch musicians including a host of horns and a particular movie franchise that catapulted their fame to superstardom. That film of course is Back To The Future, the highest-grossing film of 1985, which featured the band’s first Billboard Hot 100 #1 “The Power of Love,” also garnering a Grammy nomination Record of the Year (they won for Best Music Video for “The Heart of Rock & Roll”) and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. To put this #1 Hot 100 song into perspective, it was same year Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” hit #1, as well as Tear For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me.” Huey Lewis and the News’ string of hits also included “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” “If This Is It,” “Stuck With You,” “Workin’ For A Living,” “Hip To Be Square,” “Doing It All For My Baby,” “Jacob’s Ladder” and more. The band’s pop culture references are endless, but one of the most memorable was in American Psycho in which Christian Bale’s obsessive character plays “Hip To Be Square” during a gruesome, satirical scene. Huey Lewis & The News’ music is really all about love and celebration of life and they will appear as the special guest supporting Jimmy Buffett and The Coral Reefer Band on New Year’s Eve at Barclays Center. Both acts are sure to lift spirits as their feel-good tunes ring in 2016. Huey Lewis took some time to speak with New York City Monthly about the big show and some recent happenings…
New York City Monthly: Way back on October 21, 2015 Jimmy Kimmel’s “Back To Brooklyn” week-long stunt included Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd and that iconic DeLorean time machine from Back To The Future, all celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the film and the now-famous date. Was it a fun moment for Huey Lewis and the News to be included during this segment?
Huey Lewis: He’s a friend, you know, Jimmy. He’s a really good guy. I’m willing to make a fool of myself for him any time. The bit was fairly well-written and they were great. That’s really his thing – he loves that movie and it’s a big part of his life. After the show, he was very emotional and said it may have been the best show they ever did. He really had fun. It’s interesting that the film has gotten this big – we were in town anyway ’cause there was a red carpet event the night before. In Back To The Future II the DeLorean was set for October 21, 2015. Weirdly, it’s still growing. We did a 25 Year [Anniversary], and we did the Today show and Zemeckis was there. By far this [30th] is a bigger deal.
NYCM: Huey Lewis & The News and Jimmy Buffett (and The Coral Reefer Band) in Brooklyn at Barclays Center is for sure to be one of the top musical events in town in December – and it’s on the year’s biggest party night – New Year’s Eve. Folks will be in New York coming to your show from all over the world. What do you think this night will be like for you and the band?
HL: Speaking of good guys – Jimmy Buffett is one of them. And he’s got – as you know – a really loyal following, and so when you open for someone like that it can go either way. It can not be so much fun sometimes. Opening for The Grateful Dead for example is notoriously difficult. We didn’t know what to expect and we did five shows already this year and it’s a great match-up. We have similar harmonies – the interesting part is back in the 80s when we had a lot of hit stuff on the radio and MTV, Buffett was the alternative to that. Buffett fans were not Huey Lewis and the News fans, and now some thirty-odd years later these people come to the show and we’re on the bill and they’ve never seen us perform but they know all the moments and it’s really cool and there’s no stigma about being a pop act anymore. The last show he invited me to play on a tune of his.
NYCM: How did the pairing come about to play with Jimmy Buffett, are you longtime friends?
HL: Their agent asked. We’ve both been in the business about forty-something years, I’ve been in the business for 37. We know mutual people. I first met him in the 70s when I was in a band called The Clovers. His first solo tour, he came with his guitar and a rent-a-car. I hung out at the club in San Francisco (The Lion’s Share) and he blew my mind. I knew the club well and after the show, went backstage. He’s got his rent-a-car and he’s got a flat tire. I changed his flat tire for him. He remembers that and he tells the story. The longer we go on, the longer the business changes, and the more we are alike in a way. Intro – verse – chorus – verse – chorus – bridge – verse – chorus. That’s kind of the American song haiku. It’s been followed since American popular music was invented. Interestingly, it’s somewhat been abandoned in modern times. Technology has made the beat so fascinating, so compelling, perfectly tuned. It’s like animation is to Taxi Driver. They’re just two different types of food: one’s a burger, ones foie gras. Many many of your large bands are playing with samples going on, partial karaoke, where they’re singing along but people are singing in some cases who aren’t even there. Human beings who aren’t even there. You’d think the Musicians’ Union would be upset about that.
NYCM: Have you played Madison Square Garden in the past?
HL: We played Madison Square Garden back in the day at least three times. When you’ve done as many gigs as I have, the enjoyment for us is in the sound. When it sounds great to you it’s more fun. The sound is a function of many things, one of which is the room itself. Yes, small rooms tend to sound better than larger rooms. The sheds (wooden venues) are old school, the new ones are made with concrete. You’re really a big speaker cabinet at the sheds.
NYCM: Is there anything special that you can reveal about the New Year’s Eve show, will you possibly collaborate with Jimmy Buffett?
HL: I don’t know anything about that. I would not be surprised to expect anything from this crowd. The thing about Jimmy is he’s a creative guy. He never says why, he says why not? And he’s surrounded by all these people who are very creative and love to do crazy stuff. It’s really a cool deal. I have no idea, it’s his show and I would not be surprised if there were some sort of New Year’s shenanigans.
NYCM: Just over a month ago, the world celebrated “Back to the Future Day,” the 30th Anniversary of the futuristic date in the DeLorean time machine (in the second film). Of course your memorable song “The Power of Love” comes from the original film in the trilogy (as does “Back In Time.”) It was your band’s first #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. I read that you almost passed on the opportunity – did you think when you wrote the song for the film that it would have such a timeless appeal?
HL: Exactly what happened is Bob Zemeckis and Stephen Spielberg and Neil Canton and Bob Gale – they took a meeting with me and they said this kid Marty McFly’s favorite band would be Huey Lewis & The News – I said “wow, I’m flattered,” – but I didn’t know how to write for film, I didn’t fancy writing a song called “Back To The Future.” They just wanted a love song. You know, that’s what we were aiming for with all of our songs. The fact is, the movie propelled us to international status. Before that we had a bunch of hits in the States. This was released weeks before the movie. It was going to be a hit anyway, but of this proportion? The movie propelled that. Having said that, when we were recording it, we write and produce 90% of our stuff. We were in the nuts and bolts of it all – we got into the control room and i’m just listening to the vocal mix to see if I need to fix anything. [Sean] Hopper, my keyboard player says we’re done and said that’s the best thing we’ve ever done. You don’t think like that. If you’re making music or even a film, it’s a creative endeavor, you just make it as good as you can and follow your heart. Some of your best work does it and some does not resonate.
NYCM: Of all your big hits do you think you will have a favorite to play at this show or can you envision a major moment on New Year’s? You have a lot of up-tempo songs with saxophone, organs and synthesizers that really get a crowd going.
HL: One thing is, both Jimmy’s music and our music is up, if you will. It’s not dark. It’s – my stuff is R&B-oriented, which is interesting, my stuff has blues influence, I’m a blues harmonica player. It occurs to me that the music I like, the rhythm and blues music, celebrates in the face of adversity – happy music. That makes for a better New Year’s Eve than most.
NYCM: Huey Lewis & The News has sold more than 30 million records and has been together for 36 years. You were born here and you’ve clearly come through New York many times. The opening verse of “The Heart of Rock & Roll” is a nod to NYC starting off with the lyric: “New York, New York…is it everything they say? There’s no place I’d rather be. Where else can you do a half a million things at a quarter to three?” So how have you seen New York change over the years and what do you enjoy about it when you visit?
HL: First of all I love New York. The best thing about NY is the people, the energy. People are up in New York. You can go places where the weather is better but they arguably have a larger piece of the pie but they’re miserable. I’ve been coming to New York since 1962. You go to a deli, get a hot dog on the street or just walk around town, it’s like no other city in the world. It’s the best city in the world.