How Huey Lewis Overcame Commercial ‘Pressure’ for Massive ‘Fore!’
As Huey Lewis and the News approached their fourth album, they were teed up for more success — or a shank into the woods.
Fore!, released in the summer of 1986, changed the rules for Lewis and his seven-year-old Bay Area band. “We had never released a record to any expectations before,” he said at the time. “There was a certain amount of pressure that was new to us.”
Those expectations came from 1983’s Sports, a seven-times platinum, Grammy-nominated release that spawned four Top 10 singles: “Heart and Soul,” “I Want a New Drug,” “The Heart of Rock & Roll” and “If This Is It.” The album also established the sextet as one of MTV’s darlings with good-humored videos, while Lewis earned a level of celebrity warranting a future GQ cover model. And a subsequent single “The Power of Love” from the Back to the Future soundtrack, gave the band its first No. 1 hit.
So a lot was at stake for Fore!, which rose to the occasion with triple-platinum sales, two more chart-toppers (“Stuck With You” and the Bruce Hornsby cowrite “Jacob’s Ladder”) plus three additional Top 10 hits (“Hip to Be Square,” “Doing It All for My Baby,” “I Know What I Like”). But it did not come easy.
“We were just grooving so hard through Sports,” Lewis recalled. “We were like, ‘Yeah, we’ll write 10 songs, no problem.’ Suddenly it becomes, ‘Yep, time to make a record,’ and we had come off the road and all had families we wanted to be with. So we got together, and in three weeks we ground out six tunes. They were terrible. We didn’t use one of them in the end.
“That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, man, we’re in trouble.’ I called Bob [Brown, the group’s manager] and said, ‘This record may be a while.'”
There was, in fact, some thought in the News camp about stepping out stylistically on the new album — basically taking the path they eventually took on 1988’s Small World, incorporating different flavors and influences. That notion was quickly scuttled, however. “We had to prove that Sports wasn’t a fluke,” Lewis said. “Plus, we had just released ‘The Power of Love,’ which was our biggest record and broke us internationally, so it was important to come back with a strong hit record.”
The band found the way forward by embracing its situation in Sports‘ wake. “I was seriously happy to be stuck with my wife, and I wanted to do it all for my baby,” he said, referencing the inspiration for two Fore! hits. “We were all in that kind of vibe. So a big change wasn’t in us. It wasn’t the time.” Guitarist and saxophonist Johnny Colla said there was instant reaction to some of the tracks.
“We’re a band by committee, [and] some of us have bigger mouths than others,” he noted. “Huey brought in ‘Jacob’s Ladder,’ and that was a shoe in. I said, ‘That’s fantastic. That’s right up your alley, vocally.’ And the second I heard Chris Hayes’ demo of ‘Stuck With You,’ I said, ‘Man, that’s a fantastic tune. We’ve got to take that one all the way.’”
“Naturally,” cowritten by Lewis and Colla, was the last arrival, coming while the group was mixing Fore! at New York’s Record Plant, where Cyndi Lauper and Marvin Hamlisch were recording at the same time. “Somebody put that seed of another song in our heads, and Huey said, ‘Why don’t we try to cut ‘Naturally’ and make it up-tempo somehow?'” said Colla, who recorded a version closer to the slower original on his first solo album, 2002’s Lucky Devil. “So we started working on it right there. We were mixing in one room and we set up in another room, got a click track and an engineer and we cut ‘Naturally’ as you know it today. That kind of just squeezed on there.”
The News did expand their sound a bit on the 10 band-produced tracks. They used the Tower of Power horn section, which had started touring with the News, on two songs. They also recruited San Francisco 49ers football stars Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Dwight Clark and Riki Ellison for the gang vocals on “I Know What I Like” and the tongue-in-cheek “Hip to Be Square,” which has become a cultural totem thanks to the American Psycho film and a Sesame Street parody.
“Of course it’s not hip to be square,” Lewis said after the song reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Nobody got the joke. I shouldn’t be surprised, I guess; tons of people have been misunderstood. Look at ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ Look at [Sports‘] ‘I Want a New Drug,’ for that matter. But it’s okay. I love ambiguity in songs like that.”
Watch Huey Lewis and the News’ ‘Hip to Be Square’ Video
Colla, who was musical director on the two 49ers-backed tracks, recalled that the Super Bowl champion players took a bit of coaching to get their parts right. “I told them, ‘Just scream it out – let it go, man, like you’re breaking a huddle,'” Colla said. “Then [their part] comes around, and it’s like six high-school kids in there. They’re scared to death. Ronnie Lott, who’s a cat on the Serengeti on the field and here he’s got this little shy look on his face and he just can’t get it out. I think at some point we sent out for beer, ’cause they were just too tense. They were pumping the stuff as fast as they could to get that vibe going.”
Lewis and the News are now on hold, due to Lewis’ battle with Meniere’s disease, which has rendered him unable to perform. But Fore!, along with Sports, ranks as a high point in a career with no shortage of them. For the leader, those were more happy accidents than intended results.
“I never did things for the money or the fame,” he said. “I just wanted to be the best harmonica player I could be. Honest. To be in a good band, get in the pocket up there, that’s all you really, really want to do – the reason you did it in the first place.”
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