Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Huey Lewis on Back To The Future, “We Are The World,” and more

Illustration for article titled Huey Lewis on Back To The Future, “We Are The World,” and more

In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.


The artist: As the namesake and frontman of Huey Lewis And The News, Huey Lewis provided the soundtrack for a decade. In the ’80s and early ’90s, The News was one of the most successful bands around, scoring 19 Top 10 Billboard singles, an Academy Award nomination, and a record, Sports, that sold more than 7 million copies. Lewis was also the star of a stream of enormously entertaining music videos and, later in his career, a guest star in movies (Duets, Short Cuts) and on TV shows (The King Of Queens, One Tree Hill). This summer, Huey Lewis And The News are touring with another legendarily gravel-voiced singer, Joe Cocker.

“Do You Believe In Love” (from 1982’s Picture This)
Huey Lewis: When we first formed the band, there was an outfit in San Francisco called Videowest that came to me and said, “Look, we’ll make a video of your band”—videotape had just been invented—“We’ll make a video with a big VCR thing of your band if you’ll let us show it on Videowest at 1 o’clock in the morning, twice, then we’ll give it to you.” I said, “Great.” So initially we did a video of someone out at Ocean Beach, kind of like Hullabaloo, but even sillier, like with James Brown set up by the swimming pool. That was my idea, just to juxtapose music in a place where it would never be.

We did these two little videos, and bam, the record label loved it. So we got signed, basically, from these two little stupid videos, and then they said, “Okay, for the first single”—which was “Do You Believe In Love”—“we’re going to spend a lot of money on the video. We’re going to have a real video. We’re going to get a real video director to come in.” Which they did. He was kind of an ad guy, and he was a glamour guy, and they did this video with all these pastel walls he set up. Spent a lot of time. Makeup. We had rouge on our cheeks. And that’s the video where we’re all in bed singing to the girl and all this crap.

So anyway, we spent two days shooting this thing. Then the guy goes away and edits it for a while. It was very expensive, a big deal. Now we go have the playback at the record label, and everybody’s there from the record label and the management. There’s 20 people there, and they screen the new video, “Do You Believe In Love.” It’s cringe-worthy. It’s so embarrassing. When it’s over, everybody applauds. They love it. [Laughs.] I thought to myself, “You know what, anybody can do this. It doesn’t matter as long as you get on the screen.” If we’re producing the records ourselves, why aren’t we doing this? Then I said, “Okay, that’s what we’re going to do.” The idea was always to zig when the song zags, and mainly to tell it in San Francisco and let the seagulls cue the scenery. Let them be the production.

“Stuck With You” (from 1986’s Fore!)
HL: “Stuck With You” was our biggest video. The prelude to “Stuck With You” is pretty good. We had fun with that. But of course we only showed it twice, then they cut [it] off and just played the song.

“Cruisin’” (from the 2000 film Duets)
HL: First of all, Gwyneth [Paltrow] has skills, so acting with her was really fun. A different song was written in the script. When I read for the part, they said, “Gwyneth will be choosing the song.” I said, “Of course. Whatever.” They called me and said, “Gwyneth wants to do Smokey Robinson.” I said, “Great, which one?” They said, “Crusin’.” Wow. I didn’t immediately know it because it’s an ’80s one. I thought it was a Miracles tune or something, but no. When I heard it, I realized it was kind of “’80s.” It was clearly her keying off that. I called them back and said, “Great. We’ll do that. We’ve got to find a piano to key it.” “Oh no, we’ve already got it. We want you to come down Thursday and sing it.”

So I worked out a little arrangement for it, and we nailed it in the studio the very first time with 28 other people and cameras and everything, and Larry Klein, the producer, did a great job on it. It was cool. It was like Beauty And The Beast. You never know if you have a blend or not, but it was a very cool blend. She’s a great singer, and it worked great. The arrangement worked. We changed a couple things, but basically it just went down like butter. We sang it four or five times, and Larry Klein pieced it all together, and it was done.

The Power Of Love” and “Back In Time” (from 1985’s Back To The Future: Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack)
The A.V. Club: You were involved in films in other ways. You were nominated for an Oscar for “The Power Of Love” from Back To The Future.


HL: Right. Should have won. [Laughs.] I’m still angry about that.

AVC: What was working on Back To The Future like?

HL: [Steven] Spielberg, [Robert] Zemeckis, and Bob Gale, who produced, directed, and wrote Back To The Future, respectively, asked for a meeting. We had a meeting with them down there in L.A., and they said, “We just wrote this film. Marty McFly is the lead character. His favorite band would be Huey Lewis And The News. How’d you like to write a song for the film?” I said, “Sounds great, but I don’t know how to write for film. We write these songs together. We just kind of write them.” They say, “Well, give a try.”


My recollection is the next thing we wrote is “Power Of Love,” but [Zemeckis’] recollection is we sent him one song that he didn’t think was fabulous, and he explained something to me. Then I went, “Oh,” and came back with “Power Of Love.” But I don’t even remember that. [Laughs.]

The reason I know that is we had our 30-year DVD reunion in New York, and we did a bunch of shows and spent two days together. It was Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, and Zemeckis had everybody for dinner. It was really neat. It was a miserable process, making that film, for him in a way, because they cast [Eric] Stoltz, then they got rid of him and put in Michael J. Fox. They had to film at night because Michael J. Fox was doing Family Ties in the daytime.


Anyway, once we’d given them “Power Of Love,” he said, “We need one more tune.” And now that the film had been shot, I looked at the film and thought, “Okay, I’ve got ‘Back In Time.’”

“I Want A New Drug” (from 1983’s Sports)
HL: The song was just written on the way to my publisher’s house. I had this great idea for this lyric, and I just wrote the lyric down from beginning to end. Then we began the process of finding the right music for it, and we actually wrote it with [bassist] Mario [Cipollina] at some point, but it just wasn’t very good. I remember [guitarist] Chris [Hayes] kept pushing all the boys. “I need a riff here, man, I need a riff.” Chris called me and said, “Huey? I got it. I’ll be right over.” He came over and in my living room he played the little bum-ba-ba-ba-da-bum. “That’s it. We’re there.”


AVC: Do you write spontaneously or is it a process?

HL: The most important thing—because this is pop music, right? This isn’t John Coltrane here. This is pop music—The most important thing is, what is the song about? What does that feel like? You’ve got to match the two things. It’s often better to start either with a lyric or with a feel, and then move inward, and then go to the other side and close in on a song from both ends. If you just write all the music first, you’re locked into these melodies and tunes that you have to crowbar the words into. If you write just the words [as] a poem, then you have words that don’t sing great. You really have to move in from the edges a little bit.

“We Are The World,” (from 1985’s We Are The World)
AVC: What do you remember about recording “We Are The World”?


HL: What do I remember about recording “We Are The World”? Every. Single. Thing.

AVC: You remember Cyndi Lauper being next to you at the mic?

HL: I could talk to you for six hours. It was an amazing night. Imagine meeting all those people. Most people don’t meet those people in their career. Just to all be there in the same room, it was fantastic. I got to hang out with Springsteen a little bit. I haven’t seen Bruce Springsteen in, shit, 10 years probably. But I know that we’re pals, in a way, because of that. We shared that experience together.