Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
When Daryl Hall & John Oates were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2014, I felt a small measure of vindication after championing them for so many years. Even though I have many issues with the Hall Of Fame and their nebulous rules for nominating & inducting artists, I still get some satisfaction from seeing my favorite performers get that kind of recognition. I didn’t always feel so strongly about Hall & Oates, though, and when I was in my early teens I never imagined I would enjoy their music as much as I do now. I first became aware of them with their second Top 10 song, “She’s Gone,” in 1976 (when I was 10 years old), but the song that made a bigger impact came the following year. “Rich Girl,” their first #1 hit, was super catchy, didn’t sound like anything else on the radio at the time and included the word “bitch” in the lyrics. How could I not love it? I never bought either single or any of their albums, so in my pre-teens those two songs were the extent of my knowledge about Hall & Oates. Although they continued releasing albums and singles throughout the rest of the decade, none had much impact on the charts so I forgot about them.
By the beginning of ‘80s I was into hard rock and new wave, so when Hall & Oates began their chart dominance of the early-‘80s (starting with their 1981 #1 smash, “Kiss On My List”), their streamlined melodic pop was the exact opposite of the music I loved. For the next couple of years, as they amassed another six Top 10 hits (including three more #1’s), I dismissed them as inconsequential fluff. Then came another Top 10 single, 1983’s “Family Man” (a cover version of the Mike Oldfield song), with its monster groove, echoed vocals & killer guitar work from future Saturday Night Live musical director G.E. Smith, and I couldn’t resist its charms. Later that year, RCA Records released the 11-track compilation Rock ‘N Soul Part 1, and all of a sudden I understood the appeal of songs like “Private Eyes,” “Maneater” and “You Make My Dreams.” From that point forward I was a Hall & Oates fan, often to the bemusement of my hard rock-loving friends. I quickly dove deeper into their discography and, even though I don’t think there’s one must-have classic studio album, their records are much more than a few hits singles and a lot of filler. There are also plenty of musical surprises in their catalog, especially during the first decade of their recording career, making them more than just practitioners of blue-eyed Philly Soul. Although they prefer to be called Daryl Hall & John Oates, which is how they’re credited on their album covers (sometimes without the ampersand), for the purposes of brevity I will refer to them as “Hall & Oates” throughout this series. I hope Mr. Hall & Mr. Oates will forgive me.
Their recording career got off to a somewhat inauspicious start with Whole Oats (1972), its folky, introspective singer-songwriter vibe miles away from the soul, R&B and pop they would become known for. With production & string arrangements handled by Arif Mardin, who oversaw dozens of classic Atlantic Records recordings by The Rascals, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Bee Gees and a number of the label’s jazz artists, Whole Oats sounds great and has a dramatic punch that might have been lacking in another producer’s hands. Unfortunately, the songwriting is inconsistent, with only a handful of the album’s 11 songs holding up to repeated listening, although as you’ll see below, the good ones are excellent. Considering that both of them were still in their early- to mid-20s, it’s understandable that they were still finding their way as songwriters & performers. At times I heard elements of a young Joni Mitchell, or even Dan Fogelberg, in Hall’s vocal performances, and the studio musicians turn in some impressive instrumental work, so even the weakest songs have noteworthy moments. It may not offer what most fans have come to expect from Hall & Oates, and it’s far from a “lost classic,” but after multiple listens this past week I came to love several of these songs.
♪ “Fall In Philadelphia” – A groovy, smooth & silky folk/R&B song with Hall capturing a Todd Rundgren vibe on vocals. It really hits its stride in the chorus, where we hear great harmonies on top of syncopated drums & plunking piano. It has hints of early Steely Dan.
♪ “Goodnight And Goodmorning” – A catchy midtempo folk/pop song with nice harmonies & lovely mandolin, and a perfect example of “soft rock.”
♪ “Lilly (Are You Happy)” – A great song that must have been one of the showstoppers of their live performances, with its dramatic arrangement, sweeping strings, upbeat groove and great vocal interplay. Oates begins the song with, “Lilly, laughing lady, does your smile disguise the tears inside?” but Hall’s magnificent falsetto at “Are you really happyyyy?” is what puts it over the top. I like the fade-out followed by a reprise with stinging/melodic lead guitar through the outro.
Other Notable Track:
Things improved greatly on their sophomore album, Abandoned Luncheonette (1973). Once again produced & arranged by Arif Mardin, this time they brought in some top-notch studio musicians like guitarist Hugh McCracken, drummer Bernard Purdie and percussionist Ralph MacDonald, and there’s a sparkle throughout this album that was missing from its predecessor. The most important factor, though, is the consistently strong (and stylistically diverse) songwriting, with 7 of its 9 songs worth discussing in some detail. There are fewer songs co-written by the duo this time (only 2, versus 4 on Whole Oats) but the individually written songs are divided up more evenly (4 for Hall and 3 for Oates). In the future, Hall would consistently surpass Oates in the songwriting department, but at this early point in their career they were on nearly equal footing.
♪ “When The Morning Comes” – A simple, catchy, tightly arranged song featuring acoustic guitar with a midtempo syncopated groove and squiggly synthesizer. Hall’s voice moves effortlessly from full to falsetto, especially at “Just in passing, I’m not asking that you can be anyone but you.”
♪ “Las Vegas Turnaround (The Stewardess Song)” – The first appearance of “Sara” in a Hall & Oates song, later to be immortalized in “Sara Smile” but actually a real person (Sara Allen) who had a long-term relationship with Hall, even co-writing a number of their hits. At the time she had just started dating Hall, and Oates wrote this smooth & silky “yacht rock” song about her. Features tight harmonies with Hall in the foreground (“Sara’s off on a turnaround”) and Oates singing most of the bridge while they alternate certain lines. Jazz great Joe Farrell blasts out a brief but fantastic sax solo.
♪ “She’s Gone” – The album version of their first single, which was a flop upon initial release but would give them their second Top 10 hit after the success of “Sara Smile” three years later on another label (RCA). I’ve always preferred the single version, which is nearly two minutes shorter and all the better for it, although the album version is still an amazing song. It just loses some of its immediacy over the longer running time. Normally I would cringe at a line like, “Let the carbon and monoxide choke my thoughts away,” but in a song this good I can overlook it, and after 40+ years it’s become part of the song’s charm.
♪ “Lady Rain” – Co-written by both of them, featuring a driving midtempo rhythm, a cool groove & tight harmonies (with both sharing lead vocal duties). I love the chorus (“Oh leady raaiiiin…is it I’ll be going down in pain?”), as well as the faster hi-hat work & insistent groove during the instrumental section. John Blair’s fiery electric violin solo is another highlight of this excellent song.
Other Notable Tracks:
Their third album, War Babies (1974), might be the most interesting release in their discography (although I won’t be able to confirm that until I wrap up this series next month). This time Todd Rundgren was in the producer’s chair. He brought along a couple of cohorts from his new band Utopia (bassist John Siegler & drummer John “Willie” Wilcox) and played lead guitar on most tracks. Like most Rundgren productions (including albums by Badfinger, Grand Funk Railroad, Meat Loaf, Cheap Trick, The Tubes and XTC), his distinct style was all over this record. Many artists complain that their sound is taken over by this taskmaster producer (Hall & Oates included) but there’s no doubt that he gets results and, as a fan of his solo recordings & his work with Utopia, I enjoy when artists I like add some Rundgren DNA to their music. To the best of my knowledge, War Babies has never been released on CD in the US, but I was lucky to find an affordable Japanese import copy more than 20 years ago. I’ve always liked this album a lot but didn’t fully appreciate how good it is (especially the original Side A) until listening to it numerous times this past week. It’s a “rock” album that was miles away from either of their previous albums, and I can just imagine how their growing fan base felt about it when it was released. In addition to screaming guitar solos and then-cutting-age synths, the songs (7 by Hall, 1 by Oates and 2 co-writes) are interesting and often adventurous. Even the lesser songs have a lot to recommend them, with “Screaming Through December” worth a brief mention for its obvious Bruce Springsteen influence (only 2 years, and 2 albums, into his recording career). War Babies is the Hall & Oates album that would most surprise casual fans & detractors alike, and I urge any skeptics (and Rundgren fans) to give it a shot.
♪ “Is It A Star” – The incredible propulsive groove immediately caught my ear, along with the stinging guitar and synth washes. I love the hushed harmonies in the verses and great vocal interplay in the choruses (“Can’t you see it’s me, all broken down inside?”).
♪ “Beanie G. And The Rose Tattoo” – For many years this has been the most memorable song from this album for me, and one of my favorites in their catalog; an overlooked classic. It’s a mix of smooth soul, funk and rock, featuring swirling synths, a syncopated groove and clavinet (the latter two revealing a Stevie Wonder/Isley Brothers influence), and I love those smooth backing vocals. I could easily imagine Michael McDonald joining in.
♪ “70s Scenario” – Sparse & dramatic through the intro and first verse & chorus (just piano, bass, light synth & echo-y vocals), with great singing from Hall, especially when he wails “70s scenarioooo.” There’s a killer instrumental section with angular guitar, syncopated drums and squiggly synths. This had to be a highlight of their concerts (with a cutting edge light show adding to the impact?).
Other Notable Tracks:
Their tenure at Atlantic Records was short-lived and didn’t include any hit singles or albums during their time with the label (as I mentioned earlier, the re-released “She’s Gone” took advantage of their success at RCA in 1976), but there are two noteworthy compilations of Hall & Oates’ recordings for their first label, No Goodbyes (1977) and The Atlantic Collection (1996). The former is a 10-track LP with 1 song from Whole Oats, 3 each from Abandoned Luncheonette and War Babies, and 3 previously unreleased songs. The latter includes 2 of those 3 rarities plus one outtake from the Whole Oats sessions. I own both of these collections and the songs on each are very well-chosen. Of the 7 album tracks on No Goodbyes, 6 were on my list of “Essential Tracks” and 1 was “Notable,” while 15 of The Atlantic Collection’s 18 album tracks appeared on those lists. Needless to say, they’re both excellent introductions to the duo’s Atlantic years, with The Atlantic Collection being the one I would most highly recommend to anyone who’s curious about this era but doesn’t want to buy all three albums. The rarities are a nice treat for fans like me, and two of them deserve special mention.
I had an absolute blast spending a good portion of the last 7 or 8 days revisiting these three albums and two compilations. Although I’ve been a Hall & Oates fan for many years now and probably own more of their records than anyone other than their truly devoted followers, I’m far from an expert on their discography and I expect to learn a lot as I get reacquainted with their albums over the next month. I look forward to hearing from other H&O fans, and I’m just as eager to find out if any of my rock & roll readers who continue to dismiss them can be convinced that “the most successful recording duo of the rock era” (according to Billboard magazine) is much better than they think. This will be a fun series for me, and I hope it’s enjoyable for you as well.