The Number Ones

March 14, 1987

The Number Ones: Huey Lewis And The News’ “Jacob’s Ladder”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

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1983’s Sports is the Huey Lewis And The News album. It’s the canonical work. That album’s popularity remains a staggering thing — seven million copies sold in the US alone, enough to briefly threaten the chart supremacy of Thriller. If you close your eyes and think of Huey Lewis, the Sports cover — the smirk, the loosened tie, the jacket over the shoulder, the pool table in the background — is inevitably what swims into your brain.

Fore!, Lewis and his band’s long-awaited 1986 follow-up, is not Sports. Fore! sold three million copies — a huge number, but less than half of what Sports had done. From a pure pop-chart perspective, though, Fore! is the big one. With Fore!, Lewis capitalized on all the goodwill that Sports and “The Power Of Love” had bought him. Radio stations were probably a lot quicker to throw his singles into heavy rotation. Sports had no #1 singles. Fore! had two.

Neither of those #1 singles from Fore! is “Hip To Be Square,” the ironic/not-ironic conformist anthem that helped to shape the image of Huey Lewis in the popular imagination. (“Hip To Be Square” peaked at #3. It’s a 5.) Instead, Lewis made it to the summit of the Hot 100 with two singles that were immediately memory-holed, that have left virtually no impact on popular culture. That happens sometimes. It’s weird.

After releasing “Stuck With You” and “Hip To Be Square” as singles, Huey Lewis And The News made it to #1 for the third and final time with a song about human struggles and the capitalist version of spirituality. “Jacob’s Ladder” is an uncommonly sincere song, and maybe that’s why nobody remembers it. Nobody thinks of Huey Lewis as being the slightest bit sincere. Instead, he lives on, fairly or not, as an avatar of Reagan-era yuppie smugness. “Jacob’s Ladder” doesn’t fit that narrative. Instead, “Jacob’s Ladder” is what happens when Huey Lewis sings a social-issues song.

Huey Lewis and his band had nothing to do with writing “Jacob’s Ladder.” Instead, the song came from two friends of Lewis, one of whom had become a star on his own by the time “Jacob’s Ladder” hit. Lewis met Bruce Hornsby and his brother John in 1981, when they were a team of struggling songwriters who were new to Los Angeles. They’d written a smirky, satirical song called “Let The Girls Rock,” and Lewis wanted to record it. The two Hornsby brothers could’ve had a song on Sports, but they actually turned Lewis down. This was a mistake that they didn’t want to make again.

Three years later, Bruce Hornsby the Range were working on their debut album The Way It Is. Bruce and John were still songwriting partners, and John co-wrote most of the songs on the album, though John had no hand in “The Way It Is,” the song that would become the album’s big hit. Huey Lewis had stayed tight with the Hornsby brothers even after they’d turned down his offer for “Let The Girls Rock.” Lewis co-produced a few songs from Bruce’s album, and he played harmonica on one of them. The Hornsby brothers had written one more song that hadn’t made it onto The Way It Is; they were holding onto it for the next LP. Lewis heard their demo and asked if he could record the track. This time, the Hornsbys were cool with it. Bruce Hornsby still saved the song for his next album; he and the Range included a version of “Jacob’s Ladder” on 1988’s Scenes From The Southside.

Like “The Way It Is,” “Jacob’s Ladder” unfolds as a series of vignettes. On the song’s first verse, the narrator sings about a burlesque girl in Birmingham, Alabama — “just another fallen angel trying to make it through the night” — and about the “fat man selling salvation in his hand” who’s trying to make a Christian out of her. Later on, that same narrator hears an evangelist begging for money on the radio, and he thinks about the same thing. People, including that narrator, are just trying to make their way in the world. The people who try to monetize their longings, the song implies, are parasites. The narrator doesn’t want to be saved.

The role of spirituality in ’80s America doesn’t really seem like the kind of thing that would be a grave concern to Huey Lewis. Lewis doesn’t really adjust his whole hey-let’s-party delivery on “Jacob’s Ladder,” and the song almost clashes with itself. Lewis sounds like he’d rather be hollering pickup lines at the girl from the first verse. There’s not a whole lot of bite to the Hornsbys’ lyrics in the first place, and when Lewis can’t get the smarm out of his voice, the song struggles to make any kind of point.

As an example of mid-’80s studio craft, though, “Jacob’s Ladder” isn’t bad. The song plods, and the band’s attempts at bluesy noodling mostly fall flat. But I like the big drum sound, the crashing guitar chords, and the way the harmonies land on the chorus. There are moments on “Jacob’s Ladder” where Lewis and his band sound like they’re striving for the sound of Born In The USA-era Springsteen. They don’t get there, but points for trying. Still, Huey Lewis isn’t the guy you want out front of your fake E Street Band.

By every account I’ve ever seen, Huey Lewis — the actual person, not the MTV-era persona — is a lovely human being, a guy who never really developed an ego commensurate with his insane levels of success. Years ago, I read an article about how warmly and gently Lewis treats his disabled fans, and it made me really like the guy. That version of Lewis is the guy who should be singing on “Jacob’s Ladder,” but I don’t hear him. I just hear the smirk.

Unlike “Stuck With You,” “Jacob’s Ladder” definitely did not owe its success to a fun music video. Instead, the band did the thing that bands do when they get deep into their album cycles: They made a video that’s made up entirely of live-performance footage. (They shot the “Jacob’s Ladder” video in an Oakland arena.) The video doesn’t even make a case for Huey Lewis as an electric live performer. He just looks like some guy up there. There’s no flash to it. I guess people really just liked “Jacob’s Ladder” — or they liked it enough, anyway, to push it to #1 for a single week.

“Jacob’s Ladder” was not the end of the story for Fore! Two more of the album’s singles made the top 10. (“I Know What I Like” peaked at #9. It’s a 6. “Doing It All For My Baby” made it to #6. It’s a 3. Fun video, though.) But once that album cycle finally ended, Huey Lewis and his band only made the top 10 once more. (“Perfect World,” the lead single from 1988’s Small World, peaked at #3. It’s another 3.) After that, the once-dominant Huey Lewis And The News faded from popularity pretty quickly. By the mid-’90s, they were gone from the Hot 100 for good.

Huey Lewis never seemed bitter about losing his popularity. Lewis found life after pop stardom. He acted in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and played Gwyneth Paltrow’s father in the 2000 karaoke movie Duets. Lewis and the News changed lineups and switched labels a few times, but they kept touring and recording. At Seth Rogen’s request, they also made an end-credits theme song for the 2008 movie Pineapple Express.

Finally, in 2018, Lewis suffered from near-complete hearing loss because of Ménière’s disease. He couldn’t hear well enough to sing anymore, so he went into forced retirement. That has to be a special kind of hell for a musician, but Lewis has handled even that with commendable grace. Good for him. A lot of his music is still pretty bad, though.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: “Jacob’s Ladder” doesn’t actually show up on the soundtrack — it doesn’t show up on any soundtracks, as far as I can tell — but there’s a famous bit from American Psycho where Christian Bale axe-murders Jared Leto while enthusing about Fore! The album came out in 1986, not 1987, but I can’t see anything wrong with anything else that Bale says or does during that scene. Here it is:

And here’s the 2013 Funny Or Die video where Huey Lewis and “Weird Al” Yankovic parody that American Psycho scene:

(As a member of Thirty Seconds To Mars, Jared Leto’s highest-charting single is 2006’s “The Kill,” which peaked at #65. “Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram’s twinkly, longing An American Tail ballad “Somewhere Out There” peaked at #2 behind “Jacob’s Ladder.” It’s an 8.

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