Ode to Huey Lewis and the News

I was recently presented with a copy of The Best of Huey Lewis and the News. Before I go any further, I should say that my earliest musical influence, before I ever became a musician, was this group. I had all their tapes, and from about 5th to 8th grade they were a constant presence in my Walkman – as I walked home up Nicholson Avenue from Central Elementary, as I rode my bike or walked to the Quail Tree swimming pool, or just hanging out in my room at home. As I began playing guitar and buying CDs, though, I largely left them behind. My focus shifted to guitar wizardry and heavy rock. I never went back and bought their albums on CD, with the exception of 1991’s Hard at Play. I did write Huey Lewis a letter once, and he sent me an autographed picture.

Now I have the hits on CD, and a DVD of their best videos comes with the disc as well. Suddenly I am reminded how much their tunes are encoded in my musical DNA. They are the sound of summer for me. They were there at the swimming pool, on the TV in the snack bar, on the radio at the river, everywhere. Only now, as I’ve grown to become a musician who appreciates pure pop music composed with melodic elegance and recorded with a colorful balance of tones, do I realize that they were so much more than the 80’s cheese that so many people assumed them to be. Granted I may be painting with a rosy nostalgic brush here, but I really think this is a group whose music still stands the test of time. Here I am, 15 years later, listening to their tunes and marveling at the economy of language in the lyrics, the balance between jazzy tonalities in the sax lines and the post-punk guitar energy, and the not-too-glossy sparkle of the recordings. There are a lot of big acts from the 80’s whose songs I am no longer impressed with, who made crud that I feel like I could somewhat approximate on my own. By contrast, I find myself listening to the News and thinking, “how did they do that? I could never do that.” [1]

Their music is simple but not simplistic. Like another huge 80’s act from the Bay Area, Journey, the roots of the News lie in various jazz and funk bands. Critics love to dismiss jazzers who condescend to writing pop tunes[2], but there is an art to writing a succinct, economical pop tune. It comes naturally to some folks, as simple people can often write great simple songs, but I’m always more impressed by the artists who have everything at their disposal (canvas, palette, technique), and can still deliver something elegant and concise[3]. I just realized that this is particularly the case with yet another Bay Area band, a band who has gone on to become probably my favorite group of all time: Jellyfish.

It would seem I’ve come full circle, then, from one group who wrote sunny pop confections to another. Maybe I should move to the Bay Area….

1.) Other acts I’ve only recently come to appreciate in the same fashion: Tears for Fears, Hall and Oates and INXS.
2.) In fact, rock critics like to dismiss anyone who is musically smarter than they are, because the general profile of a rock writer is someone who couldn’t even succeed at making rock music, let alone jazz.
3.) As well as something grandiose and ambitious (Yes, Queen, Dream Theater).

One thought on “Ode to Huey Lewis and the News”

  1. “It would seem I’ve come full circle, then, from one group who wrote sunny pop confections to another. Maybe I should move to the Bay Area….”

    See also, Steely Dan — who wrote scathing lyrics about the NY area, which was their home base, then headed west to LA’s session scene … only to start writing about how much they missed NY. (I cite ‘Bad Sneakers’ here)

    ok, ok, the parallel is thin. But it made me hum the song, dammit, so I had to share!

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