Huey Lewis and the News Celebrate 40 Years of 'Sports' with Vinyl Reissue
Nostalgia for “Sports,” Huey Lewis and the News’s definitive album, which was released 40 years ago today and has been reissued on vinyl for the occasion, was inevitable – the album, which has gone seven-times platinum, produced four top-10 singles plus an additional top-20 hit. But the album itself is, probably unintentionally, a subversion of the idea of nostalgia itself.
Particularly in the synth-drenched era in which “Sports” was released, the album felt deeply traditional – it wasn’t as aggressive in its homages to the past as contemporaries such as Stray Cats, but Huey Lewis and the News were a band clearly reverent for the traditions of the rock and roll of the decades prior. It wasn’t a coincidence that Lewis was commissioned to write the theme song for “Back to the Future” two years after “Sports,” given his ability to write music that would simultaneously sound fresh and relevant in both 1985 and the film’s primary 1955 setting.
Although “new wave,” particularly in the subsequent generations, has generally been applied to a specific sound, largely confined to the early-1980s style of rock music, the term initially referred simply to a new generation of rock artists, one which appealed to younger baby boomers and older Gen Xers. Under that original definition, Huey Lewis and the News fit perfectly.
The opening track of “Sports,” “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” qualifies as a mission statement for the record: Lewis name-drops a long string of local rock and roll scenes (and created an easy way to pander to local live audiences for the rest of his career), including his own hometown of San Francisco, complete with saxophone and harmonica solos and guitar riffs that speak to the diverse sonic palette of the genre and of the band.
The second track, lead single “Heart and Soul” – a cover not of the jazz staple but of a two-year-old Exile song that came and went without much cultural impact – is a straightforward riff-rocker that served as the album’s lone rock-chart-topper, carried in large part by lead guitarist Chris Hayes. And although the album’s third track, “Bad Is Bad,” was not released as a single, it was included in future best-of compilations and was a personal favorite of Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott. The track’s bluesy guitar, harmonica wailing and impeccable backing vocals made the song an inevitable favorite among the News’s classically-oriented fan base.
But the best song on “Sports,” and arguably the best song in the Huey Lewis and the News discography, is the side one closer, “I Want a New Drug.” In 4:46, the song checks every box that defines the band’s best songs: catchy keyboards and saxophone equally at peace with the sounds of Live Aid and Stax Records, wailing guitars, brilliant vocal harmonies, which precisely complement Huey’s weathered howl, and a song that ostensibly has a chorus but which sounds like it is permanently in the hook section of the song. Much has been examined about “I Want a New Drug,” from the controversy stemming from Ray Parker Jr.’s subsequent similar-sounding hit “Ghostbusters” to Huey’s brilliant self-referential "American Psycho" Funny Or Die parody video alongside “Weird” Al Yankovic, who parodied the song as “I Want a New Duck" in 1985. But despite its ubiquity, the song itself remains a joy – the track is unquestionably dated, but in a way which is not stale but rather a way which highlights what made the band fun.
If the second side of “Sports” does not maintain the torrid pace of the first, that is more of a compliment to the latter than a condemnation of the former. “Walking on a Thin Line,” one of the band’s more serious songs, is an anthemic tale of a disillusioned, ignored (presumably Vietnam) veteran that was a hit upon its release, but was arguably somewhat replaced in the public consciousness nine months later with the release of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” While the Springsteen song is more effective, its existence should not diminish “Walking on a Thin Line,” just as the release of “Apocalypse Now” the year after “The Deer Hunter” doesn’t nullify the quality of the elder film.
Next up on the album comes “Finally Found a Home,” a pleasant pop-rocker, which leads into the second side’s finest cut, “If This Is It,” a doo-wop-inspired number with a chorus straight from the playbook of '50s and '60s R&B singer Frankie Lymon.
“Sports,” for all of the strengths of its first seven tracks, does end with a minor thud – neither the mid-tempo pop-rocker “You Crack Me Up” nor the Hank Williams cover “Honky Tonk Blues” are terrible, but neither is especially memorable. One could make a stronger case for the inclusion of the latter, an homage to classic rock and roll, as an appropriate bookend with “The Heart of Rock & Roll” as embodying the band’s ethos, while “You Crack Me Up” has the lighthearted corniness that was hardly atypical of Huey Lewis and the News but without the hooks or energy that made their formula so frequently work.
Ultimately though, the unexceptional final two tracks hardly ruin the album – they merely keep it from the highest reaches of the greatest pop albums of the 1980s. “Sports” doesn’t have the genre-bending flourishes or jaw-dropping consistency of Prince’s “Purple Rain” or Talking Heads’s “Remain in Light,” nor was it a harbinger of things to come like R.E.M.’s “Murmur” or Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” But Huey and Co. never left the impression that these were their ambitions – they wanted to make fun, utterly listenable rock and roll music, and “Sports” is one of the glowing examples of its era. Huey Lewis and the News were, at their core, a singles band rather than an album band, and “Sports” succeeds as an album, because the strength of its songs in the singles context is just so overpowering. No explanation or context could possibly be needed for “Sports” – it is a legendary album in its own right.