Huey Lewis & The News’ Sports at 40: Timeless Pop Perfection

Music Features Huey Lewis & The News
Huey Lewis & The News’ Sports at 40: Timeless Pop Perfection

By the time Huey Lewis & the News released their third album Sports on September 15, 1983, the band had completed its transition into a well-oiled pop machine effortlessly churning-out radio hits. At least that’s the way it looked at the time, judging from the results. Sports, which departed from Lewis and company’s original hybrid of bar-band rock and roll, blue-eyed soul and new wave, was a runaway success out of the gate. When all was said and done, Sports reached #1 on the Billboard 200, generated four Top-10 hit singles and, by 1987, was certified a whopping seven times platinum in the United States, to say nothing of its international success.

Apparently, no one saw this coming. When asked by Pitchfork to reflect on the album in 2020, Lewis recalled that “It was a do-or-die record, and we had to have a hit single. We didn’t know we were going to have five of them.” Indeed, Sports did so well that it’s grown into one of those titles that’s practically synonymous with the time period it was made in. The album opens with a slightly synthetic-sounding swooosh that leads into the skeletal, proto-electropop groove of opening cut “The Heart of Rock and Roll.” And when a clanging echo effect accentuates drummer Bill Gibson’s paper-thin snare drum, there’s no question that you’ve arrived squarely in the 1980s.

In so many ways, Sports, which is receiving a new vinyl reissue from Capitol/UMe 40 years to the day after its original release, sits right up there in the pantheon of totemic ‘80s work by the likes of Billy Joel, Pat Benatar, Journey, Styx, The Cars, ZZ Top, the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, Loverboy, Survivor and—in the clean guitar intro to “Finally Found a Home”—even Bon Jovi. At many points, it’s impossible to resist comparing the reverb-soaked saxophone solos from sax player/rhythm guitarist Johnny Colla to Bruce Springsteen’s iconic sideman Clarence Clemons. The list of comparisons goes on and on. But what is perhaps most striking about Sports is that the production polish came courtesy of the band itself.

Echoing the spartan emptiness perfected by Devo on their classic pair of 1980-81 releases Freedom of Choice and New Traditionalists, the instruments on exist in an air-tight space, almost as if the band were playing inside a video game. (The throbbing synth that propels “You Crack Me Up,” in fact, might as well have been lifted right from the Freedom of Choice deep cut “It’s Not Right.”) In the intervening years, countless artists have borrowed from this production aesthetic. But the crucial element that Sports reminds us of, particularly in its newly restored vinyl form, is that this music was constructed to be heard out in the actual world. When you hear these songs over the radio—while driving, or at a bar, or anywhere that there’s actual air to fill them out—the music gives-off a most satisfying sense of presence.

It’s not like you had to be there to appreciate these songs, but you need to be there—i.e: in an actual physical setting—to engage this music where it was meant to live, which is in three dimensions. When streaming the album today, the ear reflexively strains to add the warm hue of vinyl that’s missing when you listen in a digital medium. So the vinyl reissue comes not a moment too soon. But even then, compare the difference between, say, hearing “If This Is It” come on over the speakers at the gym to listening in the static environment of your own home and the difference can be like night and day.

With all that said, however, there’s just no denying these songs, no matter where or how you hear them. While Lewis had struggled, at first, to establish a foothold on radio, scoring a hit off his previous, Mutt Lange-produced album Picture This with “Do You Believe in Love,” something obviously gelled when the band set out to make Sports, which practically crammed wall-to-wall with hooks. The way the vocal hook from “If This Is It” burrows into your consciousness and makes a permanent home in your memory is just one example of many to draw from. And it’s not just the sense of economy the band brings to the sound of the music, but to its construction as well.

In short, Lewis and company took an exponential leap when it came to tightening up their songwriting on their way to pop immortality. They had tons of outside help as well, but the band’s collective sense of giving the music only what it needs and nothing more permeates every molecule of this record. Lead guitarist Chris Hayes, who co-wrote “I Want A New Drug” and “Finally Found a Home,” provides a textbook example of how to say as much as possible in as few notes as possible on his solos, which manage to be as hummable and memorable as the chorus from any given tune.

It’s fitting that the video for “If This Is It” opens with a DJ introducing the song from a boombox on a beach. Sports is the epitome of populist art—the music demands absolutely nothing from the audience. Instead, it simply invites you to enjoy it. Lewis, meanwhile, remains about as un-imposing a pop superstar as we’ve ever encountered. Where other lead vocalists of the era might chew up the scenery, Lewis practically revels in being unremarkable—even though there’s no one else who sings like him. Lewis’ voice can be velvety, raspy, soulful and graceful all at the same time, but he seems to approach his instrument much like a drummer might be instructed to “just serve the song.”

Listening to Sports, it’s as if Lewis is winking at the audience the whole time, and his nod towards self-deprecation is part of what sells the music and makes it so relatable. When he sings “I finally found a home / here, in a song,” he could be speaking for the audience as much as he’s speaking for himself. Huey Lewis etched a permanent place in pop culture and effectively immortalized himself with the hits on this album. In a very real sense, though, listeners also “found a home” in these songs as well, which beckon to younger audiences to do the same. Because, for an album that so totally epitomizes its era, 40 years later Sports sounds more timeless than we ever could have imagined.

Sure, Huey Lewis & the News squeezed the rock element out of their sound in their bid for pop perfection. But Sports has aged into a much heartier—much more musically satisfying—listen than it may have seemed in its day. Remove the album from its context as 1980s wallpaper and the music reveals itself as the work of a masterful songwriting and production team firing on all cylinders. Looking back, there’s no wonder why Huey Lewis & the News hit a home run with Sports.

Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. You can find him on Twitter and Substack at feedbackdef.substack.

Share Tweet Submit Pin