Robert Draper – “Clover: A Western Tragicomedy” (1986)

January 3, 2009 at 2:53 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This is Chapter 3 of the book Huey Lewis and the News: A Biography (1986). Clover was his original band, which actually started a number of years before Hugh Cregg (the future Mr. Lewis) joined the band. They later played on Elvis Costello’s debut album My Aim Is True (1977), but Huey passed up the chance. That was the closest that Clover ever came to the “big time”…

So there was Hugh Cregg, languishing in the Bay Area, living with “the one friend I had left through all this time, “floundering through a host of short-lived odd jobs and looking for a band. When the call came, he went for it. The band was Clover, a Marin Country band that had already recorded two albums for Bay Area-based Fantasy Records. Huey knew three members of the band – they’d gone to junior high school with him. One of these was Alex Call, vocalist-guitarist of extraordinary talent. Call’s soothing tenor – at times reminiscent of Jackson Brown, Billy Joel, and lots of other soothing tenors – was the cornerstone of Clover, cheerful but passionate. After Clover had bitten the dust, Call would pen the Tommy Tutone hit “867-5309/Jenny” and would also write “Little Too Late” for Pat Benatar. His debut solo LP would feature, among other excellent songs the popular MTV video, “Just Another Saturday Night.” Another of Huey’s old chums in Clover was guitar demon John McFee. One of the last masters of guitar harmonics before power chords and roadrunner guitar solos took over the contemporary rock scene, McFee’s judicious sensibilities would earn him a great deal of session work down the road, including work with Elvis Costello. He would also replace the near-legendary Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (the first Steely Dan guitarist) when the latter left the Doobie Brothers. The third familiar face in Clover was a gaunt, dark haired fellow who played a mean organ and could tickle all reserve out of the piano ivories. His name was Sean Hopper.
Clover was a San Francisco band. There isn’t a discernible “San Francisco sound,” at least not since the seventies began. But when you listen to Clover, you hear the sound of freedom, of a band not shackled by L.A. or New York or London trends, of a band eager to be influenced by everyone and everything and then put it all together in a way that hadn’t quite been done before. These were guys who grew up on San Francisco radio in the sixties when you could hear Otis Redding, the Kings, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Quicksilver Messenger Service all on one station. From that you could build “the San Francisco sound,” meaning an eclectic, original one.
One critic wrote of the latter-day Huey, “Lewis and his band appeal to those of us born before 1969 – there is a grittiness, an austere energy that appeals to us who were weaned on sixties rock.” The critic was talking about the News, but he could just as well have been talking about Clover – assuming, of course, that he had ever heard Clover.
“One of the things that distinguished Clover from other groups is the sort of adventuresome nature of their style,” Huey would say later. He was right, and he would probably agree that had Clover been little less adventuresome, it might’ve been a little more successful.
But what was Clover music, anyway? In America, no one could ever quite figure that one out. In England, they called it “pub rock,” which might give you an idea of where a band like Clover might be apt to play, but not what. “I think the definition of pub rock,” said Huey, “is anything and everything and preferably a little drunk – which is exactly what Clover was. We could never describe the music. Everyone would say, ‘How would you describe yourselves?’ and we tried everything from rock’n’roll to a kind of synthesis of country, rock, soul, funk. …So ‘pub rock’ was as good a handle as anything.” But he was always quick to add, “And I hate all those labels because I think there’s just two kinds of music – good and bad.”
And Clover? “Clover,” he said, “was good.”
In its own way, it was influential. “Clover and Commander Cody were the inspiration for Brinsley Schwarz, the Chilly Willies, the Ducks Deluxe – all those bands were playin’ pub rock, which is essentially like country, blues, everything all put into one sort of … part of James Brown, with fiddles in it, and all kinds of stuff,” he told one interviewer.
In its own way, it was innovative. Clover was by no means a C & W act, but Huey was partly correct when he said, “We played country music before longhairs played country.”
Later, as a Newsman, he would say, “Country is absolutely a long-standing interest of mine.” Clearly, that began with Clover.
Clover was a perfect opportunity for Hugh Cregg: it was a popular local outfit, with two albums already under its belt, and it was anxious to go places. Huey knew the guys. What could go wrong?
For a time, the problem wasn’t that Clover went wrong – it just went around and around, accomplishing very little. Speaking of that 1972-1975 period, Alex Call remembered, “They were really lean times. We just kept playing the circuit for years and years.”
In a way, San Francisco’s support of live music was a blessing and a curse. Because of its tolerance for various music froms and its multitude of live-music venues, bands like Clover could play in a number of places to warm receptions. Unfortunately, the illusion would be created that your band was getting popular, was going places – when in truth you couldn’t get past that deadening local circuit.
And so it was that Clover found itself playing two to three sets per night at Bay Area clubs like Uncle Charlie’s, Uncle Sam’s, the Long Branch, Wolfgang’s, the Wooden Nickel, Generosity …. Not exactly the Fillmore or Shea Stadium.
Of course, Clover wasn’t the only band subjected to the circuit grind. Frequently, while traveling from one spot to the next, Huey’s new band ran into another ubiquitous San Francisco product, one with the unfortunate name of Soundhole. The band boasted two of the city’s hottest talents, sax-guitarist Johnny Colla and bassist Mario Cipollina.
“Clover,” said Huey, “spent a long time trying to come up with a hit so a record company would notice us.” But that was a problem for Clover, whose enjoyment of the Bay Area’s musical eclecticism had transformed it into a band that hit-makers couldn’t comprehend. FM radio was just beginning to understand how to exploit rock’n’roll – there were formulas and marketing strategies, and a band that combined country with jazz with soul with rock’n’roll wasn’t going to find itself in heavy rotation anytime soon. The problem of definition would nag Clover for years and eventually destroy it.
In an effort to attach a recognizable image to Clover, Huey suggested that the band members wear goatees and berets – an old beatnik notion. It was a classic example of a band trying too hard and, in so doing, further confusing the issue.
“We were our own worst enemies in a way,” Huey would later acknowledge. “We had lot of talent, but we kept trying to sound like a big-time rock band.”
In 1976, a CBS Records convention was held in San Francisco, bringing the industry’s hotshots from all parts of the world. One of the bands playing for the convention was a British outfit named Dr. Feelgood. Its manager, a volatile fellow named Jake Riviera, had accompanied the band. So had the band’s guitar roadie, a lanky music fiend named Nick Lowe.
“It turns out that these guys were fans of Clover,” John McFee would recount later. “Nick was in a band, Brinsley Schwarz, that was like a Clover copy band. One of their songs had a lyric that went, ‘Gonna saddle up and ride away, back to the hills where Clover plays.'”
It also turned out that Jake Riviera, along with his partner Dave Robinson, had taken the first critical steps toward completely bowling the music industry over. Through Stiff Records, their rambunctious independent record label, Riviera and Robinson had created a network four young, offbeat, adventurous talent. They would soon be credited for discovering Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds’s band Rockpile, Elvis Costello, Lene Lovich, Graham Parker, Rachel Sweet, and just about everybody else that constituted the second British invasion. And Riviera and Robinson, like Lowe, had heard the two Fantasy Records releases of Clover and were blown away by this unusual band.
As luck would have it, Clover was playing the night of the convention at the Palomino Club — an ordinary gig for the same old audience. But tonight there were two new faces in the crowd: Lowe and Riviera.
After the gig, the two approached Clover’s band members. “We were amazed that anyone with an English accent had even heard of us,” Huey later said.
Riviera came straight to the point. Clover was wasting its time in this circuit rut. But “pub rock” was big in England – thanks, in its own insidious way, to the influence Clover had unwittingly played on Brinsley Schwarz.
“If you guys came to England,” said Riviera to the band, “you’d kill ’em.”
Here was the plan: Riviera, who at the time worked for Phonogram Records, would convince the company to reel Clover in, set the band up with a few plum performing dates, and then cut some vinyl and watch it sell like crazy.
The boys in the band weighed the options, considered what they were leaving behind, and then gave their answer. Recalled Huey: “We said yeah. Took us three seconds to figure that out.”
It didn’t seem that implausible. Jake Riviera was a powerful man – he knew which strings to tug and what clubs to bypass. In the coming years, controversy would surround Riviera as some of Stiff’s finest artists would experience trouble with the label, but his importance in laying the turf could never be denied.
“As for Jake, I have nothing but nice things to say about him, believe it or not, “Huey would tell a reporter later. “If you’re a musician, he’s a pussycat, very generous and giving. That’s why Rockpile broke up. Jake wanted to give away more. Other members of the band wanted to be more autocratic.
“He can be pretty tough, though. I’ve seen him tear people up, and I don’t necessarily agree with his style.”
Even after Clover had experienced its demise, however, Huey’s friendship with Jake Riviera would pay off. In fact, the News may never have been born at all had it not been for the good graces of Riviera and Lowe.
Riviera knew what buttons to push, and, given England’s small size, it took a few. It’s generally understood that you can conquer the United Kingdom’s music scene simply by means of a few well-placed, well-advertised gigs.
That’s because, as Huey told it, the British music infrastructure is extremely well developed. “In America you have lots of players and no coaches,” he explained. “In England, there are tons of coaches. I mean, the scene is alive with managers, promoters, photographers, and all that sort of stuff. England is 11% of the world’s record market, yet way over 50% of the major superstars are English, because they’re weaned on that stuff, the music scene is their Hollywood, they’re taught how to be stars.”
Riviera would take Clover to the pubs, where they would be embraced like adopted sons. The teeming pub scene – centered around London’s Hope and Anchor (known by Huey and the boys as the “Hopeless Wanker”) — would be theirs for the taking.
But a funny thing happened to Clover on the way to its first gig. Huey put it very succinctly: “The day Clover landed in England, the Sex Pistols played their first gig and it was all over. Punk swept.”
Punk swept, and then some. Punk grabbed the shag carpet on which smug, self important, self-conscious rock stars of the seventies had stood and yanked it away. Led by fashion mogul Malcolm McLaren, who gave Johnny Rotten and the rest of the Sex Pistols their self-mutilated, I’ll-see-you-in-hell look, this thrashing, foaming, spitting, screaming negation of what rock music had become was as powerful a statement as the music world had ever received. It said, “You may not like the way we look, or how we act, or how we say what we say, and you may not like our music … but we’ve got your attention, and we’ll get more before we’re through with you.”
Punk got more than anyone thought it would. It turned the industry, fittingly, on its ear. Suddenly people were paying attention to new independent labels like Stiff. People were beginning to disdain the narcissism of long-haired, macho guitarists with their infinitely boring whee-look-at-me solos. People were beginning to laugh at pseudo-classical bands like Genesis, Yes, and Emerson Lake & Palmer. Talent began to be measured by things other than how many synthesizers or Marshall amplifiers a band had.
Punk ultimately spawned New Wave, which snaked its way into the hearts of the mainstream as punk never could have. Bands like the Sex Pistols — even melodic, avantgarde British popsters like Wire and Magazine — could only provide shock value, shake the tree, clear a path. Then in marched edgy, quirky but somehow very likeable musicians like Elvis Costello, Rockpile, XTC, the Buzzcocks, and Lene Lovich.
At about the same time, American bands responded to the movement. (Actually, the birth of punk can really be traced to New York in the mid-seventies with the Ramones, and, before that, the New York Dolls and Velvet Underground.) Bands like Devo, Talking Heads, and Television suddenly found room in a marketplace that had seemed impenetrable. Every knot had been loosened, it seemed. Every rule, it seemed, was off.
It seems that as long as there’s music, there’s fashion, and thus rules of sorts. Undeniably that was the case with punk rock. The punks had short, malevolent haircuts. They scowled and wore black leather, or T-shirts that looked if they had been fed to Dobermans, or attire so bizarre that it dared you to look away.
Then there was Clover, a long-haired, friendly faced band from California that played happy music to happy people in bars. Oops.
“So there we were,” said Huey, who could laugh about it years later, “a pub rock band, smack in the middle of the punk movement. We were entirely too friendly for the audiences. In fact, that’s how we learned to move on-stage – avoiding the debris that was thrown at us.”
Some of the pub-rock stars survived and, indeed thrived among the pub-rockers. But they were quirkier than Clover. Lowe, for example, could subvert his saucy popper-than-thou voice with a song about Marie Provost, an aging starlet who was eaten alive by her pet dogs. Graham Parker could retain his image as a solo singer-songwriter, or get away with a brass outfit like his backup band, the Rumour, because Parker sang bitter, teeth gnashing pop tunes about romances born to die. Elvis Costello, a former computer programmer who sat outside of the CBS Records office with his guitar and crooned away until the company let him in to hear his demo tapes, could simply do no wrong among the young and adventurous.
“We mad $90 a week,” recalled Huey. “$150 a week was our top. But everybody has a story like that. We were lucky to be out there. It was marvelous! We played Paris supporting Graham Parker.”
Hugh Cregg was learning things from this new clan of brash songwriters. In the seventies he found other lyricists who didn’t view love in the usual vanilla context. For once he was hearing people sing about love the way he had always viewed it. “Love is funny, love is angry, love is confusing,” he would later say in the eighties.
And something else impressed Hugh Cregg about these singers. They were what radio programmers traditionally viewed as “amateurish” – they didn’t have perfect radio tenors, they missed a few notes, they growled and sometimes they just spoke their lyrics. Like Dylan before them, they weren’t choirboys, but, boy were they expressive! Never before had Huey seriously considered singing, but suddenly the prospects seemed more legitimate. “Hey, I can do that!” he recalled thinking back then. Years later he’d say: “It was people like Graham Parker and Elvis Costello who cleared the way in America for us singers with rough, frog-throated voices.” These would include John Cougar Mellencamp, David Byrne of Talking Heads, Michael Stipe of Athens, Georgia’s REM – and of course Marin County’s Hugh Anthony Cregg III.
Clover released two albums in 1977 — both of them in England on Mercury Records, whose parent company is Phonogram. Both were produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, a South African producer whose work with rock stars usually meant instant platinum. One day Lange would again work with Huey Lewis, selling to the News’s vocalist a song he had written entitled “Do You Believe in Love?” Like almost everything else Lange had touched before or since, the song rang like cash registers.
The operative phrase of the above statement is, of course, “almost everything else.” That’s because the two Clover albums, Love on the Wire and Unavailable, were as Huey described them, “admirable stiffs.” As in handsome corpses. As in records that couldn’t be given away.
To call the Clover records victims of bad timing would be calling World War II a mud-wrestling match. Carving out a market in America had been difficult enough. Now, in England, with the streets flooded with wild-eyed, green-haired kids chanting “Anarchy in the UK!,” Clover seemed more out of touch than ever.
Which, in retrospect, is a real shame, since Love on the Wire and Unavailable (both of which are available, if you look in the right places) are wonderful albums in their own right. Taken as precursors to the News music, they’re only a little bit revealing. But taken simply as timeless, groundless music, the albums are a trip.
Clover sounded like what the News and other groups — notably Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes or, more recently, L.A.’s Los Lobos and Austin’s Fabulous Thunderbirds and LeRoi Brothers – were described as: “bar bands.” Clover sounded like a band in a bar because Clover always sounded like it was having a great time with the music. It was a musician’s band, with a multitude of guitar, keyboard, and harmonica solos, plus tricky rhythms and stunning harmonies. Its melodic-rhythmic ensemble approach to music sounds more like Little Feat than a traditional let’s-get sloppy outfit.
Clover was also a band of music fans. They weren’t playing all this jazz, country, soul, roots rock, and blues because they were determined to come up with the definitive fusion — they were playing the stuff because they loved it. Even in the studio — an experience Huey has continually described as being inherently dissimilar to the live experience — you can hear Clover taking this stuff to town and having a gas of a time doing it.
Particularly in this spirit is Love on the Wire, a bouncy, breezy album. All it takes is one listen to the record to understand why Lowe and his Brinsley Schwarz mates were so enamored of this unclassifiable California band. One of the album’s songs, “Still Alive,” sounds like almost every hit song Lowe released on his Pure Pop for Now People and Labour of Lust records (both released after Love on the Wire).
Except in exuberance, it’s nothing like anything Huey Lewis later did with the News. Love on the Wire flutters with McFee’s and Call’s double-leads, Sean Hopper’s Hammond-sounding organ, and Call’s uplifting vocals.
Hugh Cregg, as you might have guessed, was not the star of Clover. He helped with songwriting, sang a little, and puffed on his harmonica. In Love on the Wire, his moments are relatively fleeting but amusing and sometimes amazing. In “Oh Senorita,” a gorgeous love ballad, the harp player cuts through the lilting harmonies and double-lead guitars with a rabid solo that lends a startlingly furious edge to the song. His harmonica solo on “California Kid” somehow exceeds the previous one – Call announces “Huey!” and the man just takes off. On “Easy Love,” he and future teammate Hopper trade solos as effortlessly as two infielders playing catch.
Other songs on the record, placed in the context of how we now think of Huey Lewis, have fascinating moments. One is “Southern Belles,” a rousing ode to high-waisted darlings that ends with a city call-to-arms that is strikingly similar to Sports‘s “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” except that these are strictly Southern cities. (“Miami! Nashville! Savannah!”)
Then there’s “Keep On Rolling,” an instantly likable doowop song that, like a couple of Huey’s live songs today, is performed without instruments, a cappella. Yet “Keep on Rolling” succeeds in the studio because the Clover boys are hamming it up: The song begins with them laughing, teasing each other, shouting obscenities, and messing up the first two takes of the song. In the eighties you can’t listen to the song without wishing you were there, without wishing that these guys were still around.
Huey, for the record, sang one song on Love on the Wire. The song is “Ain’t Nobody,” and the voice needs no introduction … but you can also hear his tentativeness, the unwillingness to belt out the lyrics, to soar for the high notes. He used to say that in those days he always took his harmonica with him, and you can almost hear him hiding behind it. Huey Lewis the vocalist had not yet arrived.
By the second album, Unavailable, Hugh Cregg had become Huey Lewis. Noting the weird names floating around the British punk circuit, he later said, “Everybody was like Rat Scabies [and] I just thought, ‘Huey Lewis, what the hell!'”
But on the back cover of Unavailable his name is spelled “Huey Louis.” In recollecting the shattered expectations of Clover, Huey could think of that misspelling and say, “That sort of sums up the whole trip, doesn’t it?”
The sound of Unavailable seemed bright and chirpy like the Clover of old, but in truth it was the sound of despair. In some ways it’s more ambitious than Love on the Wire – more pedal steel guitar can be heard, along with strings and overall presentation that reminds one of Steely Dan’s classic jazz-mentholated album Aja, though nowhere nearly as smart a production.
Love on the Wire had been lush and lyrical and yet ultimately just a whole lot of fun – the kind of stuff main-stream music fans love. But they had no way of knowing about Clover, since the promotional middleman – radio and print media – didn’t know how to cubbyhole Clover and so said nothing about them.
Unavailable thus sounds like a band that has given up. It’s a lonely album, replete with ballads about breakup and estrangement. Some of the songs’ messages are shrouded – “Santa Fe” is about an old man who wants to return home, and “Fairweather Fan” discusses a person’s loyalty to good times and not his abandonment during the hard times – and a desolate tone prevails. In another song, the rhythm is jaunty but the key is minor and the solos have the texture of evening; the title is simply “The Storm.” Clover is explicit in “Streets of London,” a rueful tale of loneliness in a foreign land; the lyrics speculate about whether or not it’s sunny in California.
For Huey, Unavailable afforded new vocal opportunities. He shared lead singing assignments with Call on about half of the songs, though he continued to sound more like a black stylist and less like the unapologetically growling Huey Lewis of today. And his harmonica solo on “Fairweather Fan” is among the record’s brightest moments: It comes on with the piercing intensity of a saxophone but winds along with the grace and fluidity one associates with a guitar. It’s only rock’n’roll, and it’s only a harmonica, but it’s great work.
And almost no one noticed. “I think our success was limited to a few good reviews,” Huey said. “It was a low-budget thing. In fact, we were signed on kind of a punk rock budget. The whole thing with Jake and Dave was they were going to record companies saying, ‘We can make a record for 10,000 pounds. We don’t need 100,000.’ But many of Clover’s songs were complicated and, in retrospect, we probably could have used more money and spent more time.”
Huey, at least, was making most of it. He had seen other untrained vocalists grab the microphone with authority; thus his self-confidence grew. He was rubbing elbows with cutting-edge musicians like Elvis Costello. (“He’s a great guy,” Huey said, “I think he’s one of the best singer-songwriters of the decade, probably the best since Dylan.”) And he had given himself a new name, too.
Huey also had developed a greater understanding of what was wrong with the American music industry by noticing how England nurtured its own. The experience would stay with him and later he would say: “The situation in the two countries is completely different. In the UK they don’t have big stereos and 400 radio stations. Every town has two stations and 400 fanzines, so the emphasis is on the words and pictures rather than the sound itself. “I admire that stance to a degree and think the British journalist do a great job of promoting their own. The writing is usually historically based: a guy will go out, see a band and review them in terms of, say, Eddie Cochran or Gene Vincent. Now the guys in the band may not know who these people are, but chances are they’ll sniff around and find out. This gives them a sense of self, of their place in the lexicon of rock’n’roll. This attention to the documentation of rock keeps it alive as a valid form with its own traditions and history. It counters that element of lumps all of rock into the basket of disposable pop.
“You don’t have that in the US because radio doesn’t care about tradition. They’re on the side of the disposables. Maybe only Rolling Stone cares so you have the opposite situation with 400 radio stations and two music papers. I prefer doing print interviews for just that reason: you have time to state your case intelligently whereas with radio, time’s limited so they’re just out for hot quotes without regard for the background from which the validity of those quotes come.”
Down plunged Clover, stung by neglect. “Poor Clover spent five years trying to get signed,” Huey recalled, “and went through that whole routine of ‘Show us a hit.’ We showed them more. ‘We want a single.’ We showed them a single … I just said, to hell with that.”
The end came with the announcement by John McFee that he was quitting to join what would be the last version of the Doobie Brothers. McFee was simply tired of being broke and going nowhere.
Despite the failure of Clover, McFee’s departure left Huey in panic. “That was the toughest part,” he said of his stay in England. “Because I thought, here I am a harmonica player and what are the odds of me getting a gig as a harmonica player?”
In some ways it could’ve been worse. After all, as Huey observed, “There’s not a lot of harp players in England.” Unfortunately, there wasn’t much demand, eiter. Huey blew his stick on “Born Fighter” for Lowe’s Labour of Lust album; he also wrote a song, gave it to Dave Edmunds for the latter’s Repeat When Necessary album and played harp on it. The song would later be rehashed by Huey on the Sports album; its title was “Bad Is Bad.”
After those opportunities, however, the gigs were few. Phil Lynott, Thin Lizzy’s charismatic vocalist-bassist, gave Huey a spot on his solo LP as well as in his group’s studio efforts. But the situation didn’t amount to financial stability. Said Huey, “I was a 28-year old harmonica player trying to live of a couple of Thin lizzy sessions a year.”
To rub salt in the wound, Huey declined an opportunity to participate with the rest of Clover on Elvis Costello’s debut, My Aim Is True. At the time, the decision didn’t feel all that weighty. “They said, ‘You could either back up Elvis Costello or you could go and take a two-week vacation,'” Huey recalled. “There would only be about two or three songs that needed harp on them anyway, so I said fuck it and went to Amsterdam.”
To this day, some people only remember Clover as the band that backed up Elvis on My Aim Is True before the Attractions won the permanent spot. Even that sliver of notoriety eluded Huey.
One by one they departed from the U.K. returning in 1979 to San Francisco, Huey would later say, “with our proverbial tail between our legs.” It was hard to say what could be done next. They had taken their big shot and it had been a dud.
Huey opened a health-food store, Natural Foods Express, and contemplated the future. What does a twenty-eight-year-old poor boy with a harmonica and no band do?
But after five years of dues paying, everything was about to fall into place. Good News was imminent.

Robert Draper

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