There are no such mistakes made on the band's third album and flawless masterpiece, Sports (Chrysalis). Every song has the potential to be a huge hit and most of them were. It made the band rock 'n' roll icons. Gone totally is the bad-boy image, and a new frat-guy sweetness takes over (they even have the chance to say "ass" in one song and choose to bleep it instead). The whole album has a clear, crisp sound and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that gives the songs on the album a big boost. And the wacky, original videos made to sell the record ("Heart and Soul," "The Heart of Rock 'n' Roll," "If This Is It," "Bad Is Bad," "I Want a New Drug") made them superstars on MTV.
Produced by the band, Sports opens with what will probably become their signature song, "The Heart of Rock 'n Roll," a loving ode to rock 'n' roll all over the United States. It's followed by "Heart and Soul," their first big single, which is a trademark Lewis song (though it's written by outsiders Michael Chapman and Nicky Chinn) and the tune that firmly and forever established them as the premier rock band in the country for the 1980s. If the lyrics aren't quite up to par with other songs, most of them are more than serviceable and the whole thing is a jaunty enterprise about what a mistake one-night stands are (a message the earlier, rowdier Huey would never have made). "Bad Is Bad," written solely by Lewis, is the bluesiest song the band had recorded up to this point and Mario Cipollina's bass playing gets to shine on it, but it's really Huey's harmonica solos that give it an edge. "I Want a New Drug," with its killer guitar riff (courtesy of Chris Hayes), is the album's centerpiece - not only is it the greatest antidrug song ever written, it's also a personal statement about how the band has grown up, shucked off their bad-boy image and learned to become more adult. Hayes' solo on it is incredible and the drum machine used, but not credited, gives not only "I Want a New Drug" but most of the album a more consistent backbeat than any of the previous albums - even though Bill Gibson is still a welcome presence.
The rest of the album whizzes by flawlessly - side two opens with their most searing statement yet: "Walking on a Thin Line," and no one, not even Bruce Springsteen, has written as devastatingly about the plight of the Vietnam vet in modern society. This song, though written by outsiders, shows a social awareness that was new to the band and proved to anyone who ever doubted it that the band, apart from its blues background, had a heart. And again in "Finally Found a Home" the band proclaims its newfound sophistication with this paean to growing up. And though at the same time it's about shedding their rebel image, it's also about how they "found themselves" in the passion and energy of rock 'n' roll. In fact the song works on so many levels it's almost too complex for the album to carry, though it never loses its beat and it still has Sean Hopper's ringing keyboards, which make it danceable. "If This Is It" is the album's one ballad, but it's not downbeat. It's a plea for a lover to tell another lover if they want to carry on with the relationship, and the way Huey sings it (arguably the most superb vocal on the album), it becomes instilled with hope. Again, this song - as with the rest of the album - isn't about chasing or longing after girls, it's about dealing with relationships. "Crack Me Up" is the album's only hint at a throwback to the band's New Wave days and it's minor but amusing, though its antidrinking, antidrug, pro-growing-up statement isn't.
And as a lovely ending to an altogether remarkable album, the band does a version of "Honky Tonk Blues" (another song written by someone not in the band, named Hank Williams), and even though it's a very different type of song, you can feel its presence throughout the rest of the album. For all its professional sheen, the album has the integrity of honky-tonk blues. (Aside: During this period Huey also recorded two songs for the movie Back to the Future, which both went Number One, "The Power of Love" and "Back in Time," delightful extras, not footnotes, in what has been shaping up into a legendary career.) What to say to Sports dissenters in the long run? Nine million people can't be wrong.
Fore! (Chrysalis; 1986) is essentially a continuation of the Sports album but with an even more professional sheen. This is the record where the guys don't need to prove they've grown up and that they've accepted rock 'n' roll, because in the three year transition between Sports and Fore! they already had. (In fact three of them are wearing suits on the cover of the record.) It opens with a blaze of fire, "Jacob's Ladder," which is essentially a song about struggle and overcoming compromise, a fitting reminder of what Huey and the News represents, and with the exception of "Hip to Be Square" it's the best song on the album (though it wasn't written by anyone in the band). This is followed by the sweetly good-matured "Stuck with You," a lightweight paean to relationships and marriage. In fact most of the love songs on the album are about sustained relationships, unlike the early albums, where the concerns were about either lusting after girls and not getting them or getting burned in the process. On Fore! the songs are about guys who are in control (who have the girls) and now have to deal with them. This new dimension in the News gives the record an added oomph and they seem more content and satisfied, less urgent, and this makes for their most pleasingly crafted record to date. But also for every "Doing It All for My Baby" (a delightful ode about monogamy and satisfaction) there's a barn-banning blues scorcher number like "Whole Lotta Lovin'," and side one (or, on the CD, song number five) ends with the masterpiece "Hip to Be Square" (which, ironically, is accompanied by the band's only bad video), the key song on Fore!; which is a rollicking ode to conformity that's so catchy most people probably don't even listen to the lines, but with Chris Hayes blasting guitar and the terrific keyboard playing who cares? And it's not just about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends - it's also a personal statement about the band itself, though of what I'm not quite sure.