The Metaphorical Meaning Behind “I Want a New Drug” by Huey Lewis and the News

Back in the mid-1980s, Huey Lewis and the News was one of the biggest pop and rock bands around. Released in September 1983, their third album Sports produced four Top 10 hits, and one of the most memorable tracks was “I Want a New Drug.” At a time when a lot of rock bands were coming under fire for being obscene or bad influences, the single’s lyrics offered a cheeky play on the idea of needing satisfaction from elicit substances. But it was really just an amorous metaphor.

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Spontaneous Invention

According to a Rolling Stone retrospective in 2013, Lewis and guitarist Chris Hayes came up with the song in five minutes. Kind of. The singer (hungover from the night before) was driving to see his publishing attorney when inspiration stuck. He wrote down most of the lyrics at the office. But it took awhile for the music to gel. Lewis and bassist Mario Cipollina wrote an early version that did not quite click, but one day Hayes showed up at Lewis’ house with the main lick and played it for him. They put the initial song idea down on tape in five minutes.

One thing that is impressive about “I Want a New Drug” is the amount of saxophone and guitar soloing it squeezes into a commercial, four-and-a-half-minute track. Even the three-and-a-half-minute single version has a minute’s worth of solos.

Love is the Drug

In a 1984 interview with Song Hits magazine, Lewis told reporter Steve Woshala that “I Want a New Drug” is a love song. “It’s not a pro-drug song; it’s not really even an anti-drug song,” he mused. “The word drug sort of gets your attention. But I think in love relationships there’s more than ‘I want you’ or ‘I need you’ kind of thing. I think real love contains humor and anger and confusion, all of those things.”

In an earlier interview with Rolling Stone, Lewis explained, “The whole meaning of ‘I Want a New Drug’ is that drugs aren’t a part of life. They’re just superficial. They’re nothing about life. Life is love. Love is the answer, man.”

I want a new drug
One that won’t spill
One that don’t cost too much
Or come in a pill
I want a new drug
One that won’t go away
One that won’t keep me up all night
One that won’t make me sleep all day

The video version with the single edit echoed these sentiments. It features the singer waking up from a hangover in the morning, dunking his head in a sink full of ice water, and then racing to get to a show before he is late. He goes by car, then ferry, then helicopter, and twice along the way spots a beautiful woman who ends up being in the front row of his concert. There is no rock ‘n’ roll debauchery to be seen anywhere. Lewis finds his bliss onstage, especially singing to the fan he crossed paths with earlier.

Ghost Writing

The song was so successful that it instigated a lawsuit in 1984. “I Want a New Drug” was released as a single in January 1984. Five months later, Ray Parker Jr. released the theme to the blockbuster Ghostbusters movie, and the song scared up big numbers, hitting No. 1 in August and selling 500,000 copies. But the main melodies to the songs were very similar, and Lewis sued Parker for copyright infringement. The two settled out of court. However, when Lewis revealed that the settlement including a payment from Parker, the latter sued for breach of their confidentiality agreement.

It’s always something in rock and roll, right?

Still An Addictive Hit

“I Want A New Drug” continues to be one of the most popular songs in the Huey Lewis catalog. It rose to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, went Top 10 in Canada and Zealand, went Top 30 in Australia and West Germany, and sold 500,000 copies in America. It has nearly 25 million Spotify plays and over 13 million YouTube views. The album Sports sold 7 million copies domestically, making it to No. 1 on the Top 200 albums chart for a week, and its follow-up Fore! sold 3 million units and also hit No. 1 for a week.

“I Want a New Drug” will be included in the forthcoming Huey Lewis and the News jukebox musical The Heart of Rock and Roll, which officially opens on Broadway on April 22.

That’s a great run for a song whose simple message comes down to the power of love.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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