Chas de Whalley encounters his old pal Huey Lewis to discuss the merits of self-production
Huey Lewis is of that rare breed: an American with a sense of humour. He's also one of the world's leading exponents of that much-ignored instrument: the blues harmonica. Somewhere in there is a joke about gob irony, but I'll leave it for Mr Deevoy to sort out since I still have to explain why such a laughing Californian is the star of this month's 'Producers' column.
He is not, after all, a producer in the accepted sense of the word. No Trevor Horn, Martin Rushent or Steve Lillywhite he. In fact Huey Lewis is an artist first and foremost. A Rock singer who, with his band The News, has punctured the US Top 10 six times in the last couple of years and sold as many copies of albums like Picture This and Sports in the process.
So what's he doing here? Producing his own records, that's what. Doing what many groups dream of but which few record companies dare allow. And proving remarkably successful at it. In most places, if not in Britain, where US smashes like I Want A New Drug and Heart And Soul have refused stoically to jump out of the Paul Gambaccini Show and into the BBC Top 40. When I met Huey and The News' keyboardsman Sean Hopper in a swish London restaurant courtesy of Chrysalis Records they were waiting on whether their latest UK release If This Is It would fare any better. Huey, for one, found the situation more than faintly amusing.
"It's weird man," he said, cracking a smile as wide as the San Andreas fault will be the day it plunges his native 'Frisco into the Pacific, "But here we are seven years on, with all those records sold and I'm still sitting in London talking to you and praying for Top Of The Pops!"
Time warp time. The three of us last met some time in '77 when both Lewis and Hopper were members of Clover, the legendary San Fransiscan Country Rock outfit who were signed by Phonogram and imported to London by Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson as stablemates for Graham Parker, Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. In fact, as well as recording two albums of their own. Clover were in the thick of it at Stiff records. They backed Costello on his debut album My Aim Is True, and wrote songs for Dave Edmunds and Rockpile while Huey himself, years ahead of his time, would extol the virtues of superfunk outfits like Brass Construction, Parliament and Funkadelic to any who cared to listen - one of them was Ian Dury, who put the new beat to good use with Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and Reasons To Be Cheerful. And live Clover were a revelation with Huey Lewis's honeyburn of a voice and wailing harp injecting iron into their Country Soul. Nevertheless, despite being in the right place at the right time and commanding the respect and the friendship of all the right people, Clover never quite made it. What, I wondered, did the pair think they were doing right now they were wrong about before?
"Quite simply, we've learned how to make records better. We're not so much a band of old pros as a bunch of friends in what you Europeans would probably see as the San Fransiscan tradition, and because we wanted to capture that on record we tried to produce ourselves. Only we didn't get it right at first. We've always been a good live band but playing on stage and making records are two completely different things. Especially nowadays with all the technology available in the studio. Playing live is about spontaneity and passion while recording calls for patience and perfection."
Only a couple of nights previously I'd witnessed Huey and the News climax their European tour at the Dominion theatre with over 90 minutes of two-fisted full-tilt boogie. The equal measures of smooth blue-eyed Soul and sweating, swaggering stadium AOR which is The News' hallmark on vinyl was offered up live with the kind of sheer professionalism and outright skill rarely exhibited by British bands. Tight wasn't the word for it, even with the legendary Tower Of Power horn section guesting on head arrangements for a good third of the set. But at times, as Huey and twin guitarists Chris Hayes and Johnny Colla executed the kind of choreographed routines you might expect of an American Football team on a touchdown play, it all looked (and sounded) just a trifle contrived. AOR by numbers, every change and every guitar solo predictably yet reassuringly just where you'd expect it to be. US audiences may find that sort of thing exhilarating, even wildly exciting but, check the indifferent press given the News by your Sounds and NMEs, we British aren't so easily seduced. Huey Lewis expected the criticism and fielded it with a grin.
"You know the tightest show I ever saw? James Brown. That was full of spontaneity and passion but it was airtight, man. The trouble with British audiences is that they often confuse amateurism for emotion. Just because you're professional and tight together doesn't mean you don't mean it!"
Strangely and somewhat schizophrenically though, when Huey Lewis pulled out his Marine Band harmonica and led off one of the band's frequent excursions into old-time R 'n' B swing, The News were suddenly out there in a class of their own. Making Ry Cooder sweat for his crown as they reworked and re-evaluated traditions handed down to them from the Forties to the present day by such as Louis Jordan, Johnny Otis, Ike Turner and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. As a band who keep history alive Huey Lewis and the News pissed all over the outfit which regularly graces the US Top Ten. And both Huey and Sean took it as a compliment that I should think so. Then again, they like to regard themselves as, in some measure, the guardians of an American musical heritage which they can see in danger of extinction. So how come they don't reflect it more on record? A couple of tracks per album is all very well. But why not a single in that style?
Because, said Huey, it doesn't sell records. Simple as that. It could do so, he believed (and the recent success of Robert Plant's Honeydrippers project Stateside only reinforces the point) if the record companies chose to market and aim for the older, more discerning and less fashion-conscious end of Rock's public. Which they don't any more in the US than they do here. And then he leant back in his chair to give me an unexpectedly perceptive overview of the American record industry. And how it is possible to play it at its own game and win.
"The music box in the States is a bit of a monster so you have to make a compromise with it. At least in the beginning. The American public have too many distractions, you see. It's not like living in Birmingham where there's nothing but football and Rock 'n' Roll. Americans have the sun, and sailing and surfing and 28 TV channels 24 hours a day, plenty of money and all kinds of leisure activities. So you really have to capture their attention and make records which they simply can't ignore. You have to assault their senses because they're not that hungry for entertainment. I don't want to bite the hand which feeds but most US record companies work ass backwards these days. The majority of A&R men don't venture into the heartlands. They sit in New York or LA and either spend all their budgets licensing and promoting whatever is Number One in the UK or else they wait for the new American bands to market themselves. Which is sad because it encourages those bands to try to sound like whoever else has the hits at any particular moment. If more bands like REM, The Gun Club or the Blasters realised how it really works and tempered their sound just a little to make the initial concession to the industry - which they need to do to get the promotion budgets - then they'd find the industry working for them rather than against them."
Some might say this is a disturbingly pragmatic perspective to take on what should bean artistic business. And in an ideal worked Huey and Sean would doubtless agree. But in this one records have to be sold in a diminishing market place. So the pair take their down-to-earth realism right down onto the studio floor.
"Look, I had this rap with Stevie Ray Vaughan who did 27 dates with us on the last tour. Now he's a Blues purist, man, and he refused to use a drum machine. But he overdubs!!? So what's the big difference? My point was that there is absolutely nothing wrong with making a great record. But making records isn't Rock 'n' Roll. But it's a necessary evil. So you can't just jump into a studio and wail, however good a band you are, because it won't make it on radio and so you won't get the audience you need. So what you have to do is use all the technology and the machinery necessary to make that record so that you can get the size of audience which will allow you to throw the machines in the garbage can and really do it the way you want. We use everything that's going when we record. But we try to ensure that we use the technology as a tool and in sparing amounts so that we play the machines and the machines don't play us. By all means use a drum machine - but turn it off occasionally and put in a live fill! We try to make it sound as live as possible even though, in reality, it isn't."
So who holds the reins and calls the shots when the News record? The credits read Huey Lewis and The News. Is Huey actually the main man?
"No way. We all do a bit. As a band we're pretty close to a democracy. I'm the leader only in so far as my name is on the front so maybe I get rather more credit than I deserve - and perhaps more of the blame too! But we switch hats a lot when we're recording. We'll all agree on the backing track and then maybe I'll produce Johnny's parts and he'll produce Sean's and so on.
"We also find that producing ourselves we know the best what we can get out of every individual in the band," chipped in Sean Hopper, emptying his mouth of free-range chicken and saute potatoes. "But when it comes to mixing, that's the one time not to go for committee art. It simply doesn't work. You end up with like a blur. The lowest common denominator of the band's abilities."
Which is why a careful perusal of the sleeves of both Picture This and Sports will reveal the name of Bob Clearmountain. Roped in on the strength of services rendered to such as the Stones, Hall and Oates, Bryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen, Clearmountain, by all accounts, breathes brilliance into The News' barroom beat. In the privacy of New York's top grade Power Station studio complex, with only Huey and maybe one other member of the band at his elbow, to help him through the minefield on the multi-track, Clearmountain brings a fresh, cooler, East Coast perspective to warm West Coast rhythms. And those hit singles like Do You Believe In Love, Heart And Soul, I Want A New Drug and If This Is It just seem to keep on coming.
"It was a fight to get to produce ourselves", remembers Huey. "But Chrysalis have always proved very flexible for us. Initially they agreed to let us do a couple of tracks to see how we'd get on. We went into Fantasy Studios in Berkeley with Jim Gaines engineering who is something of a legend in the Bay Area. He's been around for years and has been behind a bunch of big records in his time. I don't know how much the record company trusted us musically but with Jim there at least they knew the sounds on tape would be fine.
Anyway, that worked out so well they let us do a couple more tracks and then it was suggested we get somebody to mix a few singles. As a band we've always pledged to keep out of Los Angeles in every possible respect. So we went for Bob in New York instead. And as an outsider he really picks up on parts which maybe we didn't think were all that important when we cut them but which his expertise on the board make happen in a way we'd never envisaged. He brings such a wonderful objectivity."
Feature by Chas de Whalley
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