A lot of people today consider Huey Lewis and the News to be as dated as “baby on board” signs, leg warmers, and other cultural leftovers from the 1980s. I am not sure exactly when the band’s name became shorthand for lame ‘80s rock; maybe it was three years ago this month, when VH1 and Blender magazine named “The Heart of Rock and Roll” as one of the “most awesomely bad songs ever.” Or maybe it was earlier, when people realized that some of the videos the band made, including “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” look kind of silly now, albeit no sillier than the general run of videos in the mid 80s. Or maybe it’s the hard truth that some of their hits have lost their charm due to overexposure. If I never heard “If This Is It” or “I Want a New Drug” ever again, I think I’d be OK with it. Or maybe it’s just the natural passage of time. Not everything endures, and so it goes.
The arc of the band’s career spans the ’80s almost exactly. Their debut album came in 1980; their breakthrough album and first major hit single, “Do You Believe in Love?”, arrived in 1982. The 1983 album Sports produced hit singles for something like a year-and-a-half. The non-album single “The Power of Love” became the band’s first Number One hit in 1985. Fore!, in 1986, contained two more Number One singles, “Stuck With You” and “Jacob’s Ladder.” But Huey Lewis and the News reached the backside of the arc with Small World in 1988; despite being their fourth straight platinum album (fifth if you count the Back to the Future soundtrack, to which they contributed two songs), it reached only Number 11 on the album chart after its two predecessors had been Number One. Hard at Play was a modest hit in 1991 (Number 27), but their ride at the top was over nevertheless. It’s not that Small World and Hard at Play weren’t decent. I actually like Small World a lot, primarily for its departures from the Sports/Fore! template, although the lead single, “Perfect World,” would have sounded just fine on either of those monster hit albums. Ditto “It Hit Me Like a Hammer” and “Couple Days Off” from Hard at Play. But like Gary Wright in 1977, Huey Lewis saw his moment pass in 1988, less than a year after he’d been ruling the radio.
So 1994’s Four Chords and Several Years Ago, an album of R&B covers, felt like a give-up move, but it was smarter than anybody realized at the time. Recording songs that are by definition timeless resulted in an album that’s still a terrific listen 13 years later. Its best-known tracks are “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “But It’s Alright,” both hit singles on adult contemporary radio that missed the Top 40, but they don’t represent the best of this album. That would be the opener, “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” which out-clatters Bill Haley’s original by a mile, “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” “She Shot a Hole in My Soul,””Function at the Junction,” and “Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash,” which makes Steve Miller’s more famous version sound like amateur night. A Rolling Stone review of the album at the time criticized the band for missing the emotional nuances of the songs, but when you consider that Huey Lewis and the News was essentially a bar band that made good, you’ll have to forgive them for that. There’s a party going on, and job one is to rock the house. Somebody else can do nuance some other time.
Later in 1994, the band taped a concert at which they played most of the songs on the Four Chords album. It ran on TV during a PBS pledge drive in 1995 or 1996—and it was one of the most ecstatic concert videos I’ve ever seen. The band was having a ball, the audience in the theater was in heaven, and so was I, watching on TV. As near as I can tell, a DVD of the show has been available in the UK, but there’s been only a VHS release in the States. No matter what the format, it’s worth finding.
The CD is out of print too, but there are many used copies around to be found, and cheap. You’ll rarely get more pleasure from less money.