In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Back To The Future is not a movie about the power of love. If anything, it’s a movie about the fragility of love. Love, the movie tells us, is a circumstantial thing, based on tiny little historical accidents that can’t easily be replicated. If one little thing changes — if, say, a horny creep falls out of a tree and doesn’t get hit by a car — then love might not happen at all. Instead, we might wind up with a situation where a lady wants to fuck her time-traveling son.
But if Back To The Future isn’t about the power of love, then parts of the movie might be about the power of “The Power Of Love.” Back To The Future, the biggest hit at the 1985 box office, is a beautifully assembled Swiss watch of a movie, a perfect little machine full of subliminal clues that pay off much later. Director Rob Zemeckis and his co-writer, producer Bob Gale, find small and clever little ways to convey information, and we get a lot of those in the film’s first few minutes. We also get the big, pumping jam that would become the first #1 hit for Huey Lewis And The News, a band that was already on fire.
Very early in Back To The Future, we see tiny and squeaky and enormously charismatic Michael J. Fox in a desperate rush to get to school on time. Fox’s Marty McFly uses his skateboard to grab rides from passing cars, a hugely dangerous stunt that immediately made him the coolest guy in the world to millions of the kids who saw the movie. The second that McFly begins his dash out the door of his friend Doc Brown’s house, the song kicks in: A big keyboard stab, a revved-up guitar riff, a pulsing beat, a guy saying “aaaahhh” like he’s just had an enormously satisfying sip of lemonade. Over the next two minutes, we see the whizzing-by geography of the fictional suburban town of Hill Valley, and we identify McFly as a scrappy kid who can’t keep his shit together but who is also cooler than anyone we’ve ever met. And we get “The Power Of Love.”
A few minutes later, we get “The Power Of Love” again. Marty and his band the Pinheads want to play the school dance, so they audition for a spot. They launch into a crude, fuzzy version of “The Power Of Love,” with Marty attempting to shred overtop. A few seconds in, one of the stony-faced judges cuts them off, looking aggrieved and exasperated. Through his megaphone, that judge tells the Pinheads, “I’m afraid you’re just too darn loud.”
That judge is, of course, Huey Lewis himself. The man who sang “The Power Of Love” can’t bear to watch this band play anything more than the song’s intro. It’s a clever little meta moment — an inside joke that just about every teenager who saw Back To The Future would’ve immediately understood. By the summer of 1985, Huey Lewis was one of the biggest stars in rock ‘n’ roll. But he was also a straight-laced goof with none of the mystique that so many of his contemporaries effortlessly radiated. “Hip To Be Square” wouldn’t come out for another year, but Lewis absolutely seemed like the kind of guy who would’ve thought that the Pinheads were too darn loud.
Of course, Huey Lewis was not that guy. By the time he finally scored his first #1 hit, Lewis was 35 years old, and he’d been kicking around the music business for more than a decade. Before he’d found stardom, Lewis had lived an appealingly loopy life, coming into contact with a bunch of towering figures before finally becoming one himself.
Hugh Anthony Cregg III was born in New York, but he grew up in Marin County, California, in the Bay Area. As a kid, Cregg was a bit of an overachiever, a high-school baseball star who went to engineering school at Cornell for a few years before dropping out. Cregg’s father spent time as a district attorney in Massachusetts, but his mother was a free spirit who hung out with the Grateful Dead and who eventually fell in love with the Beat poet Lew Welch. While in college, Cregg hitchhiked across the US and, after stowing away in an intercontinental flight, Europe. He later said that he taught himself to play harmonica while waiting for cars to stop and pick him up.
After dropping out of Cornell in the early ’70s, Cregg returned to the Bay Area and joined a local rock band called Clover. In Clover, Cregg sang on a few songs but mostly played harmonica. Sometime in the mid-’70s, Nick Lowe saw Clover play a Los Angeles club and convinced them to come to England, where back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll was having a moment. (Nick Lowe’s highest-charting US single, 1979’s “Cruel To Be Kind,” peaked at #12.)
In the UK, Clover recorded a couple of albums with Mutt Lange, a producer whose work will eventually appear in this column, but the band didn’t have any success. Cregg started calling himself Huey Lewis, though the name went through a bunch of different spellings. Most of the members of Clover backed up Nick Lowe’s buddy Elvis Costello on his debut album, 1977’s My Aim Is True. (Elvis Costello’s highest-charting US single, 1989’s “Veronica,” peaked at #19.) Huey Lewis didn’t play on My Aim Is True, but he did play harmonica on a song from Thin Lizzy’s 1978 in-concert album Live And Dangerous. He was credited under the extremely funny name “Bluesy Huey Lewis.” (Thin Lizzy’s highest-charting single, 1976’s “The Boys Are Back In Town,” peaked at #12.)
Clover broke up in 1978, and a few of the different members of the band went on to success with different groups. Jeff Porcaro has been in this column as a member of Toto. Guitarist John McFee joined the Doobie Brothers in 1979. Frontman Alex Call co-wrote Tommy Tutone’s 1981 single “867-5309/Jenny,” which peaked at #4. (It’s an 8.) Huey Lewis and keyboardist Sean Hopper came back to San Francisco and formed a new band. At first they called themselves the American Express, but their manager told them that they could get a cease-and-desist for that name. So they changed it to Huey Lewis And The News.
Other members of the News had come from Sound Hole, a Bay Area band who had served as one of Van Morrison’s backing bands in the ’70s. (Van Morrison’s highest-charting US single, 1970’s “Domino,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.) Saxophonist and guitarist Johnny Colla, who later co-wrote “The Power Of Love,” had even had a cup of coffee in Sly And The Family Stone. So these guys were all veteran journeymen before Huey Lewis And The News formed in 1978. The new band released a self-titled debut album in 1980, and it was roundly ignored. But their second album, 1982’s Picture This, gave them their first hit. Clover’s old collaborator Mutt Lange wrote “Do You Believe In Love” for the band, and that single peaked at #7. (It’s a 5.)
Huey Lewis’ rise was perfectly timed to the beginning of MTV, a place where he carved out a persona as a handsome, self-effacing goofball everyman. That whole schtick, combined with the band’s gleaming and synthesized take on classic American soul-infused bar-rock, made for a winning formula. The band’s third album, 1983’s Sports, was a legit blockbuster, selling seven million copies in the US and launching four singles into the top 10. Billboard named Sports the #2 album of 1984, behind only Thriller.
Hollywood loved Huey Lewis And The News, and it especially loved “I Want A New Drug,” the Sports single that peaked at #6. (It’s a 7.) Making Ghostbusters, the #2 movie at the 1984 box office, Ivan Reitman used “I Want A New Drug” as a temp track. Reitman wanted Huey Lewis to do the movie’s theme song, but Lewis passed on the offer. Instead, Ray Parker, Jr. hit #1 with “Ghostbusters,” a song that sounded enough like “I Want A New Drug” that Lewis and Parker got into a legal battle over it. Robert Zemeckis also used “I Want A New Drug” as a temp track when he was making Back To The Future, and he also tried to get Lewis to write a song for the movie. Zemeckis was more successful.
Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and executive producer Steven Spielberg called Lewis in for a meeting to ask for a new song. They told him that Huey Lewis And The News would be Marty McFly’s favorite band. Lewis didn’t like the idea of writing a song called “Back To The Future,” so Zemeckis told him that he could write any song, and they’d use it. Lewis and Ry Cooder came up with a song called “In The Nick Of Time,” but financial negotiations took too long, so it didn’t end up in Back To The Future. Instead, Patti LaBelle sang “In The Nick Of Time” on the soundtrack of another summer-1985 movie, Walter Hill’s Brewster’s Millions. (Patti LaBelle has already been in this column as a member of Labelle, and she’ll be here again soon as a solo artist.)
Lewis and Zemeckis eventually figured things out, and Lewis actually wrote two songs for Back To The Future. One of them, “Back In Time,” was actually about the plot of the movie. The other one, “The Power Of Love,” had basically nothing to do with the film. News guitarist Chris Hayes (not the MSNBC guy) wrote most of the instrumental track, and Lewis came up with the lyrics while listening to the demo on his Walkman while jogging. Lewis finished up the song while Back To The Future was in post-production, and he only barely made the deadline.
The first demo that Lewis sent Zemeckis is what we hear when the Pinheads are auditioning. Soundtrack coordinator Bones Howe, who’d previously produced #1 singles for the Association and the Fifth Dimension, dirtied the demo up so that it sounded more like high-school kids playing. That demo didn’t have vocals yet. In the movie, Huey Lewis cuts Marty McFly off before he can start singing; that’s because the song wasn’t finished.
Back To The Future was, of course, a phenomenally popular movie, one that far exceeded studio expectations. It came out at the beginning of July and immediately vaulted to the top of the box office. Other than one week where National European’s European Vacation took over the top spot, Back To The Future was the #1 movie in American until late September. A new single from Huey Lewis And The News probably would’ve been a big deal even without Back To The Future; they were coming off of Sports and Lewis’ appearance on “We Are The World.” But with the Back To The Future association, “The Power Of Love” was an unstoppable smash.
Bones Howe is the one who made the call that “The Power Of Love” should be the single instead of “Back In Time,” and he was exactly right. Whether intentionally or not, “The Power Of Love” is perfect for Back To The Future. It’s got the sleek pulse of mid-’80s pop, but it’s also the kind of silliness that wouldn’t put off the older moviegoers who would’ve gone to see Back To The Future for nostalgic-humor reasons. It’s also got a great big bouncy energy, a kind of optimistic silliness that sets just the right tone for everything that follows.
“The Power Of Love” is a goofy song, but it’s a catchy one. Lewis mugs hard all through it, and he wails out nonsensical cocaine-logic philosophical nuggets about how love is tougher than diamonds, rich like cream, and stronger and harder than a bad girl’s dream. When you’re making good bubblegum, you can get away with refusing to make sense, and “The Power Of Love” is good bubblegum. The track has hooks on hooks on hooks, with all the keyboard stabs and shiny-bluesy riffs in the exact right places. Lewis sings in the white-blues honk that Bruce Willis thinks he has, and the rest of the band gets in some nice Billy Joel-style fake doo-wop harmonies on the bridge.
“The Power Of Love” is pure ’80s-blockbuster music, and that’s generally a pretty shallow subgenre of pop music. But the song is bright and engaging enough to be good ’80s-blockbuster music. In all honesty, the fact that the song is attached to a truly great movie probably makes me like it more than I otherwise would. But that’s pop music for you. Context is everything.
Huey Lewis filmed the video for “The Power Of Love” at Uncle Charlie’s, a Marin County club where they’d played in their early days. Christopher Lloyd is in the video as Doc Brown, and there’s a not-fully-fleshed-out story about people stealing the DeLorean time machine, which might foreshadow the plot of 1989’s Back To The Future Part II. The song was nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars that year, and it lost to a track that’ll soon appear in this column. I can’t imagine that bothered Huey Lewis or the News too much. They’ll be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s New Found Glory’s video for their 2019 pop-punk cover of “The Power Of Love”:
(New Found Glory’s highest-charting single, 2002’s “My Friends Over You,” peaked at #85.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kelly Clarkson covering “The Power Of Love” on her talk show this past March:
(Kelly Clarkson will eventually appear in this column.)