Every time a set like the new 30th anniversary deluxe edition of Huey Lewis & The News’ Sports comes out, there’s always someone muttering incredulously how it doesn’t feel like it’s been x-amount-of-years since a hit album was released. Weirdly, this feels particularly accurate for Sports, an album that at once seems very much of its time and yet also far removed from the period it was released.
Really, there could never be another Sports. Prior to the album’s release, Huey Lewis & The News were a durable bar-band-made-good from San Francisco, combining earnest blue-eyed soul with vague New Wave trappings. The distinctively-voiced Lewis and his crew weren’t young, hip figures, and their songs – often written with outside help (their first big hit, “Do You Believe in Love,” was penned by AC/DC and Def Leppard producer “Mutt” Lange) – were catchy if not particularly appealing to the world at large. Sports changed all that: less an album than a collection of singles (nearly all of which sported catchy-if-silly videos on the burgeoning MTV), the News enjoyed four Top 10 hits from the album over a two-year period. (Factoring in the group’s chart-topping “The Power of Love” from the soundtrack to Back to the Future in 1985 and the five Top 10 singles off 1986’s follow-up Fore!, it’s a pretty monstrous run for a group of guys that look like a slightly hipper version of your dad.)
The hits on Sports – “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” “I Want a New Drug,” “Heart and Soul” and “If This is It” – aren’t terribly removed from the classic rock/’80s block radio scene, so they haven’t aged quite like their fellow MTV hits. It is kind of arresting to hear these tunes in their sometimes-longer album versions; guitarist Chris Hayes busts out two monstrous solos on “New Drug,” including one that quotes “Purple Haze.” The four other songs on the album are also intriguing, as they’re simultaneously some of the band’s best and most dated works. “Walking on a Thin Line,” the album’s hidden gem (and a much lesser-lauded Top 20 hit), is a powerful rocker about Vietnam vets struggling to find their place in society, while the drum machine-soaked “Bad is Bad” and noxiously-upbeat “You Crack Me Up” are textbook album filler.
In talking about Sports for its anniversary, Lewis has refreshingly pulled no punches, eschewing big ideas about artistic credibility and instead openly admitting that the album was a baldfaced attempt to chase the mainstream. That it feels so free of this kind of labor is what makes Sports so listenable, even to this day.
Sadly, this deluxe edition (the second reissue of the album, following a 1999 single-disc remaster with alternate takes and live cuts appended to the program) glosses over a lot of what really made the album one to remember for the ’80s. None of the few Sports-era dance mixes of these singles appear on the set’s bonus disc, instead opting for live cuts of every track on the album. Most bizarre about these selections is the near lack of material from the actual Sports era, with most tracks recorded between 1986 and 1988. (Two new live versions of the album’s final songs, “You Crack Me Up” and “Honky Tonk Blues,” won’t do anything to make you like the originals any more.) A more complete portrait of the band in concert circa Sports would have been infinitely more preferable (a 1985 concert at San Francisco’s Kabuki Theater, released on videocassette at the time, seemed a more obvious choice.)
Bonus bummers aside, it’s been a lot of fun revisiting Sports for its 30th anniversary. They don’t quite make pop/rock albums like this anymore (perhaps they never did), and there’s nothing wrong with an album so comfortable with its dual status.
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