The signature moment in the career of the '80s pop/rock group the Outfield was one which arrived quickly as they were working on songs for their eventual debut album. It served as an important catalyst for their career, which stretched across more than three decades. “Your Love” went Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 6 in May of 1986, and it was hard to miss on the radio and MTV. The members of the group were taken by surprise.
“We were on tour with Starship. We did two legs with them, and it was just getting bigger and bigger,” singer-bassist Tony Lewis recalls during a recent phone conversation.
"Your Love" was the second single from 1985's Play Deep
and helped the band find the success which had initially seemed elusive when “Say It Isn’t So,” the first single, was released the previous fall.
“We were getting more adds on the radio, and people were getting more familiar with the song," he says. "Before we knew it, everyone knew the song. It’s just amazing that 33 years later, people still love it. It’s played at football stadiums, baseball stadiums, and when you think about it, the song was basically written in 20 minutes. I remember [guitarist] John Spinks shouting down the corridor of his flat, ‘Josie’s on a vacation far away.’ I’ve still got the original lyrics sheet on lined paper. Twenty to 25 minutes, and it’s done. We thought it was a great little song then, but we didn’t know it would be so big.”
Spinks, the principal songwriter for the group, had a knack for writing songs with engaging riffs and powerful hooks which helped the band rack up a total of five Top 40 hits during its initial run in the '80s and the early part of the '90s. But that hardly tells the complete tale of the tape as the band's albums were loaded with plenty of additional tracks that could have also been successful singles. Their hooks ran deep into the track listing, and Spinks and Lewis were a dynamic duo when it came to crafting memorable music together.
Rest assured that “Your Love” will be a featured moment in Lewis’ set during his appearance at Retro Futura, the nostalgic '80s tour package which will also feature co-headlining performances from Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go’s and ABC, Modern English, Bow Wow Wow’s Annabella and Kajagoogoo vocalist Limahl. Lewis will fill out the rest of his set with several other songs we’re guessing you’ll probably recognize and a small taste of new material. The tour lands at Hard Rock Live on Friday, August 3.
Retro Futura finds Lewis returning to the concert stage for the first time in more than 13 years. He and Spinks worked steadily with the Outfield, releasing a total of eight studio albums over the years, including Replay
, their final record, which came out in 2011. Spinks had battled liver cancer for a number of years and sadly, passed away at the age of 60 in July of 2014. Lewis was devastated by the loss of his collaborative partner and realized that his chapter in the Outfield had come to a close.
“To be honest, John’s health was really suffering after Replay
was done," Lewis says. "We’d done some songs together [after the album was released] and kept recording and kept recording and in the end, you know, he found it hard even just to do chords. He would always send me demos of his falsetto voice, and his falsetto voice was my guide, and I would sing the melody of the song and then email it back to him. But he was struggling to do that. I just thought it was wrong to try and finish off something that for me, wasn’t 100 percent. He wanted to keep going and keep going. We’ve got some good stuff, but I sort of wanted to end that chapter there."
It was three years before Lewis was able to think about the idea of making music again, and when he began to consider it, he found himself taking a bit of a different approach.
“We’ve always been a very slick band, and we’re very conscious of our timing," he says. "I think working with the gear has made our timing really good. You know, the important thing that we’ve always tried to put on our records is the groove. Like, the AC/DC groove, the ZZ Top sort of tones, you know, it’s a load of influences that you can hear in our music. I wanted to get away from that. We used to zone in on the first lines of the songs and it used to drive me mad, because I’d sing it and John [Spinks] would be the first one to say, we got in arguments, [and I’d have to sing it] again and again and again. It had to be in tune and in time. I just wanted to get away from that and be a bit more free with this album. I didn’t want to worry about first lines of songs. Because I know the first lines have got to grab you, but I was just wanting it to be a bit more, not looser, but just a bit more free in the songs, with the melodies and how you attack the guitars and vocals and keyboards and drums. It was just so nice not having everyone looking over your shoulder all of the time, that freedom of just putting music together yourself.”
Lyrically, however, he got a big boost from his wife, Carol, who stepped in with the right words at a time when he didn’t have them for his new album, Out of the Darkness
“I started doing some backing tracks and some recordings. I got about half a dozen backing tracks together and they were sounding really good,” he recalls. “But I was just really struggling, lyrically. I was just writing songs about going out for a fight or stuff that people don’t really want to hear about. She said, I could give you a hand. I’ve got some words here, maybe you can have a go at this. And the lyrics seemed to sort of fit the backing tracks really well. The first three songs, I wanted to make sure it was like the spirit of the Outfield, a where [we] left off sort of thing. After the third track, you can hear that it’s got my own little spin on it.”
“Into the Light,” the album opener, is one of the new songs that longtime fans of the Outfield will find to be reminiscent of the trademark sound of the group. Drummer Tanner Hendon plays on several songs on the album, but the majority of the album features Lewis playing all of the instruments, a role he says he grew comfortable with in the later years of working on Outfield albums with Spinks.
“I always used to take a long, long time writing. John would just write a song falling out of the bakery. It was a natural process for him,” he says. “But we sort of shared the production role together. After we left MCA, and we did our own albums, I’d play guitar and John would play the bass. I learned to sequence the drums, keyboards and a lot of production techniques. So that’s why I was sort of able do this album on my own. Because I’d learned how to do the instruments myself and I’m very much into drums as well as guitars. So I think this album is basically to sort of prove to people that I’m not just the voice and the bass player from the Outfield, I’ve got a few more strings to my bow.”
And that’s something that fans of the British rock group may have already picked up on over the years. During a 2001 appearance at Blossom Music Center as part of the Totally '80s Live tour, the group had a heavier edge live than some might have expected, even tossing a Led Zeppelin cover into their set that night.
“I think it’s because we were a three-piece, and you work harder when you’re a three-piece because you’ve got a lot more sound to fill out in the structures of the songs,” he says now. “We were very much influenced by bands like the Who, the Beatles and the Kinks, and we [also] liked Cream and ZZ Top and Rush, three-piece bands like that. You know, they’re very exciting bands to watch because they work harder, and live we did work hard for those songs. We didn’t want it to sound like the studio versions.”
Retro Futura with ABC, Belinda Carlisle, Modern English, Tony Lewis from the Outfield, KajaGooGoo's LiMAHL and Bow Wow Wow's Annabella. 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd, Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $52.50-$89.50, hrrocksinonorthfieldpark.com