What does 1980s pop star Huey Lewis have in common with Applebee’s? More than you might think.
In 1983 Huey Lewis and the News put out their third record, Sports. They were following up on the success of their breakthrough second album, 1982’s Picture This. Members of the group had paid their dues in a band called Clover, which backed up Elvis Costello on his 1977 debut. Then they were Huey Lewis and the American Express for a while before their label, fearing a lawsuit from that other American Express, demanded a name change. Sports cemented the band’s place at the top of the mid-1980s pop charts. Four singles from that LP reached the top ten. The band became a Reagan-era institution, with the driving beat of “The Power of Love” dominating the soundtrack of the 1985 blockbuster Back to the Future. Combining vintage blues-rock and nostalgic doo-wop vocals with guitar synths turned out to be a match made in Eighties musical heaven.
I’m not much of a Huey Lewis fan. I just own this one record. I think I picked up my dollar copy at a radio station benefit sale about a decade ago, mostly because of the catchy first track, “The Heart of Rock and Roll.” Echoing Bob Seger’s 1979 single “Old Time Rock and Roll” and Billy Joel’s 1980 hit “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” Huey Lewis (born Hugh Anthony Cregg III) proclaims that rock & roll is alive and well. Sure, the “old boy may be barely breathing,” but the back-beat still drives us wild. Rock hasn’t flatlined. To prove it, Mr. Lewis lists city after city where the genre has not succumbed to disco or an impersonal music industry: Boston and Baton Rouge; Tulsa, Austin, Oklahoma City, Seattle, San Francisco, too. Everywhere rock music is still kicking: In Cleveland. Detroit!
As I listen to my LPs in alphabetical order, this one comes at an odd place: immediately following Led Zeppelin’s entire 1969-1982 vinyl catalogue and right before a cache of folksy Gordon Lightfoot records. Nevertheless, I gave Huey and company a spin the other night. The album isn’t bad. The hits are infectious, the tracks punctuated by Huey’s lively harmonica wails. And the sound of early-1980s solid-state guitar amps, I have to admit, fills me with strange nostalgia.
On a whim, I posted the cover on Facebook, just to see how people would react. Most comments were positive, with several friends professing their love for the album. One even confessed to wearing out a copy as a child. But I learned something new. When “The Heart of Rock and Roll” was a #6 hit back in 1984, radio edits often concluded with the name of a city (or two) in the regional FM market. St. Louis stations, for example, played a version that name-checked that Midwestern city. Middle Tennesseans heard “Nashville, Knoxville, Tennessee!” Some listeners were disappointed when the single purchased at the music store did not include the local city heard on the radio.
Juxtaposed with the album cover, this fact was a revelation. The title of Sports is a double entendre: The members of the band are good “sports” who are hanging out at a place we might term a sports bar—a Cheers-like space with pool table, dart board, and TV tuned to football. Bric-a-brac covers the walls. It could be your local neighborhood bar, where everybody knows your name. In fact, it could be any local bar, where all the regulars know somebody’s name.
In 1980, about five months after Huey Lewis and the News put out their self-titled debut, a little nostalgia-themed joint called “T.J. Applebee’s Rx for Edibles and Elixirs” appeared in Decatur, Georgia, on a six-lane highway just outside Atlanta’s interstate perimeter. In 1983, the same year Sports came out, the Applebee’s concept was sold to a group of investors. Franchising ensued. By 1986, when Huey Lewis dominated American air waves, the restaurant chain changed its name to “Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar.” By the 1990s, Applebee’s was ubiquitous, dominating big-box strips throughout Middle America. But to cut down on the homogeneity, the walls featured local knickknacks and kitsch. Sure, it might be an impersonal national chain, but there was a local high school football jersey (right there!) to prove that it sort of wasn’t an impersonal national chain.
Applebee’s was your new local—if you were ok, that is, with your local being run out of a corporate office half a continent away in Atlanta or Kansas City or some other node of global capitalism.
Come to think of it, it was kind of like listening to Huey Lewis belting out the name of your hometown from a recording studio booth somewhere in northern California.
Today over 2,000 Applebee’s franchises populate the earth. Meanwhile, Sports has sold nearly 10 million copies. Both 1980s artifacts were at least partially premised on the idea that people will embrace national brands—whether a casual-dining restaurant or a rock band—if presented in a mode that appears to be local. The notion is thoroughly ultra-modern and vaguely anti-modern at the same time: Make as much money as possible by exploiting economies of scale, while simultaneously making your product appealing by embellishing it so that it appears not to be the product of modernity.
The 1980s were an interesting decade. Movies and politicians took us back to the future, while the culture industry exploited local desires to make big bucks. I bet Huey Lewis never meant to be the Applebee’s of pop music—but I won’t necessarily vouch for his record label’s intentions.
 Thanks to Ben Alpers, Ranjit Arab, Ed Burch, Brandon Burling, Kathleen McGuire, and Dave Womack—among others—for their comments.