Huey Lewis on 30 Years of 'Sports': 'Our 15 Minutes Were a Real 15 Minutes'

'It's cooler to have a Huey Lewis and the News T-shirt now than any other time since 1989,' he says

Huey Lewis
David Russell/Disney-ABC via Getty Images
Huey Lewis performs in New York City.
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Huey Lewis was so famous in the mid-Eighties that when Pepsi signed Michael Jackson, Coke felt they had little choice but to reach out to Huey. "They had to play catch-up," says Lewis between bites from a club sandwich at Rolling Stone headquarters. "They told me I had the largest Q score of anybody in America. I didn't know what that meant, but they told me it was based on likability, recognizability, credibility and all that crap. They actually said to me, 'We think you have what we call 'Cokeness.'"

Coke offered him millions of dollars, but he turned them down. "In retrospect, it was probably a mistake," he says. "It could have been good for the career – forget the money." At the time, Lewis didn't seen to need much more attention. His 1983 LP, Sports, spawned five massive hit singles, and in 1985 he appeared in Back to the Future and released the huge hit "The Power of Love" on the soundtrack.

Things cooled down after that, but he still had enough hits to play to big audiences for decades to come. A deluxe edition of Sports hit shelves this month, and we spoke with Lewis about the landmark album, as well as American Psycho, Back to the Future, "We Are the World" and many other things.  

Let's start with Sports. What did you hope to accomplish with that album when you started it?
Well, our first album didn't do anything. We produced the second album ourselves and kind of broke even. The third single from that was "Working for a Living." That was a hit, but our future was anything but secure. This was the third album on our contract, and we knew we had to have a hit. 

From the Archives: Huey Lewis: Playing to Win

There was no Internet. There was no jam-band scene. FM radio was very programmed. There was only one avenue to success, and that was to have a hit record. We produced it ourselves and wanted to make sure we did it on our terms. Our style was to take something old and make it modern. Around 1980 we heard Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen," which was cut with the LinnDrum. Our idea was to take the modern technologies of the day as kind of the cake, if you will, and then have the icing be saxophones and voices and old-school stuff. It was the old and the new at once. 

Tell me about writing "The Heart of Rock & Roll." I'm a native Clevelander, so I've always loved that song.

We're from San Francisco, and we think it's the greatest place in the world. We had heard that Cleveland was this great rock & roll town. I thought, "Cleveland? How can Cleveland be anything? What can they have in Cleveland that we don't have in San Francisco?" Then we played a gig in Cleveland, I think at the Agora, around 1980. It was a great gig, and the crowd was amazing. We're driving the next day, and I'm looking at the gray skyline. I sort of absent-mindedly say, "You know guys, the heart of rock & roll really is in Cleveland." Then I went, "Oh my gosh, that's a great idea for a song."

The other guys said, "The heart of rock & roll is in Cleveland?" So then I rewrote it as "The heart of rock & roll is still beating." But that was the original idea. 

I've heard the story about you guys playing with Elvis Costello on My Aim Is True so many different ways. Can you just clear it up for the record?
I was in a vintage pub rock band called Clover in the 1970s. A plan was hatched for us to go to England and take the country by storm. Literally, the day we landed, Johnny Rotten spit in the face of an NME reporter, and the game was on. It was the wrong place at the wrong time. These people we had worked with started Stiff Records, and Elvis Costello was their first hire. They needed a band for Elvis, so they stuck him with us.

I remember the first rehearsal the guys had with Clover. The guys said to me, "The lyrics are incredible. I'm telling you, the guy is great." 

But you don't play on the album, right?
I don't. First of all, there isn't any harmonica. I tell people, "All the harmonica that isn't on the Elvis Costello record was played by me." 

Tell me the story behind "I Want a New Drug."

I was driving to my lawyer's office when the idea came to me. I busted in his door and said, "Bob, give me a pen and paper!" I then literally wrote down almost all the lyrics. When we tried to write music to it, we kept missing it. We had a version of it that [bassist] Mario [Cipollina] and I wrote together, but it just wasn't good enough. One day [guitarist] Chris [Hayes] called me and said, "I got it!" He came to my house and played the lick, and I sang my little lyric and we put it on tape. It was five minutes. 

The mainstream critics were pretty tough on you. Did that piss you off?
Yeah, I'm a little bothered by it. Do I worry about it night and day? No. But does it rankle me a little bit? Yes, it does. We sold 10 million records and we were on that box all the time. I'd be sick of seeing us, too, after a certain point. 

How were you first approached about Back to the Future?
Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg and Bob Gale, who produced, directed and wrote the film respectively, asked for a meeting. We went to Amblin Entertainment in Los Angeles. They said, "Look, we've written this film, and the lead character is this teenager, Marty McFly. His favorite band would be Huey Lewis and the News. Would you like to write a song?" I said, "I'm flattered, but I've never written for a film. We'll send you the next thing we write." That was "Power of Love." I didn't think it would work since there was no love interest in the film, but clearly they used it pretty well.

Then they showed us the film and told us they wanted something for the credits. That's when [keyboardist] Sean [Hopper] and I wrote "Back in Time."

We had that 30-year celebration of the movie not long ago. They reconvened Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen, Zemeckis and myself. We had dinner before we did this little junket. Zemeckis stood up and said, "This is the crowning achievement of my career. No matter what happens from here on, this is the biggest thing I've ever done, and I'll always be known for this." He went on to say, "It's funny, because people always tell me it must have been so much fun. But it was actually an absolute nightmare." They had to recast the lead, and they shot at night because Michael J. Fox was shooting Family Ties.  

I can't count the number of times I've seen the movie. Why do you think it's had such an enduring afterlife?
Well, it's a great idea. What's interesting is that a lot of things they they predicted have come true. They were prophetic. 

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I've always heard that you weren't happy with American Psycho at first. Is that true?

No, no, no, no. Thanks for asking that. I'm so glad to correct that. I read the book and it had three pages on Huey Lewis and the News. It was spot-on. The guy [Bret Easton Ellis] was clearly a fan. He knew what he was talking about. I said, "Wow, that's uncanny." It was like the best review ever. The guy really knew his stuff. He also wrote a great piece on Phil Collins and Whitney Houston.

When the movie came around they wanted to use "Hip to Be Square." Willie Dafoe was in the big picture, and I'm a huge fan of his. I said, "Sure, go." We knew it was violent and all that, but who cares? It's art. We're artists. No problem. They paid us for the song, and boom. Now a week before the movie premieres my manager calls me and says, "They want to do a soundtrack album." I said, "Really? What would that look like?" He goes, "'Hip to Be Square,' a Phil Collins tune and a bunch of source music." I said, "Well, that's not right, is it? Our fans have to buy this record for one song? Can we politely decline?"

We politely declined, and they generated a press release the day before the movie came out and sent it everywhere. It was in the USA Today and everywhere else. It said, "Huey Lewis saw the movie and it was so violent that he pulled his tune from the soundtrack." It was completely made up. So I boycotted the movie from there on. I refused to watch it. That's it. I didn't poo-poo it or anything. But when we did the Funny or Die video I saw the scene. I thought it was great. 

You still haven't seen the movie?
Nope. But I will, one day. 

It's funny, because when you say your name, many people immediately think of that movie.
I'm fine with that, and I have no problem with the movie.

When Funny or Die called you about reshooting that scene with Weird Al, you were totally down for it?

Yeah. I said, "It's gotta be bloodier, though. I need more blood." I wanted to use, like, a Gatorade bucket of blood. I wanted it completely over the top. It was a very funny thing shooting with those guys. There were probably 15 people there, all of them in their twenties. It wasn't funny at all. It was serious. I was like, "Jesus, I'm trying to crack a joke here, guys." They were like, "Uh, Huey, can you . . . " I was like, "All right, all right." But they were great, and it was a great experience. 

This term "yuppie rock" has been applied to you over the years. How do you feel about that?
"Hip to Be Square" was a joke that not everybody got. People thought it was an anthem for square people. That hurt us a bit. If I have any regrets, it's not writing that song in the third person. That's how I originally had it. But whatever . . . I'm mindful that I'm a very lucky guy. We're a lucky band. We play music for a living. We play music for a living! How good is that? I'm serious. We've done very well. My little band, we're pals. We come from Marin County. We made our own records and we have a career. We play and people show up. What's wrong with that?

I mean, our 15 minutes of fame were a real 15 minutes. Now you don't get 15 minutes. You get three and a half, or whatever.  

Tell me your favorite memory from recording "We Are the World."

Wow. There's so many. So many. Five of my best memories are from there. I remember at one point I was talking about golf with Willie Nelson during a break. Bob Dylan came over and says, "You guys are talking about golf? You play golf? That's outrageous." I go, "No, Bob. Nashville Skyline was outrageous. This is golf."

Was that the first time you met Dylan?
Yeah. And there's another regret I have. He sent me a tune of his and I didn't record it. Huey, when Bob Dylan sends you a song, record it! Period, OK? 

What song was that? Do you remember the title or anything?
Kind of. It was kind of an A-B. It was pretty good! He also sent me a Junior Parker song with the sweetest little note about how much he loved Sports and "I know your next one will be good too" and blah blah blah. He's just wonderful. With Bob Dylan, I just tremble. And I didn't record his song.  

Have you seen him since?
No. Ray Benson [from Asleep At the Wheel] is a buddy of mine from way back in the Clover days. In 2000, he calls me and says. "We're playing Missoula, Montana on March 22nd and we're opening for Bob Dylan." I said, "Bob Dylan's playing Missoula on March 22nd? It's, like, eight degrees out." Also, the best hotel in Missoula is, like, the Red Lion. Seriously. So he says, "Come to the show." I said, "Sure."

I show up, and I even play a song with Ray. Then I watch Bob. He gets onstage and he loves it. He's not mailing it in. Also, the Bob Dylan band is one of the best-wardrobed bands in the world. Seriously. They are tweaked, man . . . and Bob, tweaked, with the piping and stuff.

The show only holds about 5,000 people and the tickets are about $20. It's a $100,000 gross, not a lot of money. And he's got a crack band he's paying. It's an excellent band, so it's not about the money for him. He's having a ball. It's the most fun thing in the world to do. That's why Bob is doing it. And what does he do after the show? He gets on the bus and blasts out of town. They go to Billings, where they pull in at four a.m. at the Best Western. He sets up in his room and watches videos, MTV and stuff.  

He started that tour in 1988, and it's still going.
Exactly! It's a sanctuary, that bus. You don't have to deal with the real world. Somebody does your laundry. There's food everywhere. It's a lovely little sanctuary. You get to live like a 16-year-old kid.

Rock stars always say their drug problems start when the tour ends. They don't know what to do with themselves.
"Where did the circus go? What happened? Where did everybody go?" I know. That's why my advice to people is always, "Go ahead and get a life. A life might be important when the career doesn't go so well." 

Do you think the culture has shifted a bit where you are sort of cool in a way you weren't for a long time?
I think that's definitely true. I think it's cooler to have a Huey Lewis and the News T-shirt now than any other time since 1989. I can show you that with our merchandising. It was almost at zero per head for a while. We're playing smaller venues now, but they're charging more money and we're still doing good business. And our merchandise is better than it's ever been. I'm not pretending that we're giving Bruno Mars competition any time soon, but I do think we're a little cooler. 

Are you still legally prohibited from talking about the "Ghostbusters" situation regarding Ray Parker Jr. and "I Want a New Drug?"
Nope. They'll sue me again. I talked about it in Behind The Music and it was 15 years after the fact and they sued us.

[Note: Lewis sued Ray Parker Jr. for plagiarizing"I Want a New Drug" on his song "Ghostbusters." They settled out of court, and as part of the agreement, Lewis cannot comment.]