Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
When Daryl Hall and John Oates signed with RCA Records after the release of their third & final Atlantic Records album, War Babies, the change of scenery benefitted both record labels. Their first single for RCA, “Sara Smile,” reached the Top 5 on the US Pop chart in early 1976, followed shortly thereafter by Atlantic’s Top 10 re-release of “She’s Gone.” Hall & Oates were now bona fide hitmakers. For their first album with RCA, simply titled Daryl Hall & John Oates (aka The “Silver” Album) (1975), they did away with most of the folk-influenced sounds of the first two albums, focusing instead on a blend of soul, R&B, rock & pop that would eventually net them huge rewards. It’s a hit-and-miss affair with only one truly essential song, but it laid the groundwork for better things to come. It also marked the first recording collaboration with their touring guitarist, Christopher Bond, who produced the duo’s first three RCA albums.
No discussion of The “Silver” Album can take place without discussing that cover art. Eschewing the simple, stark images of their first two releases (and thankfully avoiding the cut-and-paste retro look of War Babies), the duo appear as androgynous models/cyborgs, with Hall looking especially effeminate. Had this album been their attempt at glam-rock the artwork might be understandable, but the contents don’t match the packaging, making this one of the most questionable (and possibly most awful) album covers ever released. For a related discussion on abominable album covers, please check out this carefully researched post at my friend Pete Braidis’ blog, where The “Silver” Album shows up at #6: http://chudbeagleblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/101-abominable-album-covers-by-artists-you-have-heard-of-mostly/
Then there’s the inner sleeve photo of the duo in some kind of futuristic room with Oates naked in the foreground, confirming that they could have used an “image advisor” at the time. Fortunately, I’ve been able to look past the visual aspects of this album so I could focus on the music.
♪ “Sara Smile” – I don’t know how I missed this brilliant slice of blue-eyed soul when it was first released, since I was a big fan of “She’s Gone,” but it wasn’t until 1983’s Rock ‘N Soul Part 1 compilation that I finally heard it and I’ve loved it ever since. This song has earned its “classic” status with that weeping guitar figure, the slow-burning groove and perfect vocals (especially Hall’s smooth-as-silk lead vocal performance). The arrangement couldn’t be better and those smooth harmonies are “like butter.”
Their second album for RCA, Bigger Than Both Of Us (1976), featured another huge hit and a strange yet endearing album cover of the duo collaborating in their futuristic living room inside some kind of spaceship made of recording equipment (like volume knobs, tape reels and VU meters). A pair of women’s feet sits atop a coffee table with wine & Ritz crackers, so there’s business AND pleasure taking place. Once again I got sidetracked by the visual elements, but maybe that’s because it’s so distinctive and the music doesn’t really match the packaging. And for the second time in a row they released an album that’s overpowered by a massive hit single. There are a handful of other very good songs but they were still struggling to put together a consistently solid record. Fortunately this was the ‘70s, when record labels would allow their artists to develop over many years, so we get some half-baked albums before they finally hit pay dirt.
♪ “Rich Girl” – Simply one of the great pop singles of the ‘70s; sparse, melodic & perfectly arranged. In many ways, this was the template for a number of their early-‘80s hits. It also helps that the song is less than 2-1/2 minutes long, so we get a short, sharp blast of melody & then it’s over.
Producer Christopher Bond, working on his final album with Hall & Oates, helped to deliver a tighter & more streamlined record than any of its predecessors with Beauty On A Back Street (1977). The sleek, serious cover image might be the best representation of the duo to date. It’s too bad that the record lacked that one big hit to draw in the fans. It may have achieved Gold status like The “Silver” Album and Bigger Than Both Of Us but it’s probably been overlooked by anyone who’s not a devoted Hall & Oates follower, and even the two of them have indicated that it’s among the least favorite of their albums. That’s a shame because it’s every bit as good as the previous two, proving that just one hit single can make all the difference in the public’s perception.
♪ “Winged Bull” – This one crept up on me after several listens and it’s become a new favorite. I love the slowly building, epic nature of the arrangement. From Hall’s echoed vocals with electronic percussion over a bed of synths during the intro, to a swirling Indian vibe with bells and a sitar(?), into a full-on rock ‘n’ roll rhythm and then back to the sparse feel of the intro, they showcase various sounds that many people wouldn’t associate with Hall & Oates. The instrumental section, starting at around 2:15, has a Middle Eastern motif that recalls Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”
Other Notable Tracks:
Their first live album, recorded during the Beauty On A Back Street tour with three former members of Elton John’s band, as well as future Hall & Oates mainstay Charlie DeChant on sax, was Livetime (1978). Featuring only 7 songs, they barely scratched the surface of what made them so good at the time, and the beefy arrangements replaced the subtlety of the studio versions with a more aggressive approach (but at least they proved how comfortable they were rocking out on stage). One of the things that made this a disappointment for me is the track selection, with 4 songs that didn’t do much for me on the original albums (i.e. “The Emptyness” and “Room To Breathe”) showing up in the set list. Two of their big hits make an appearance: “Rich Girl” is fuller than its studio counterpart but still very strong, and the 8-minute version of “Sara Smile” allows Hall to preach & plead like the great soul man he is, even leading a crowd sing-along. Those credentials make another notable appearance on “Do What You Want, Be What You Are,” where he sounds like a cross between The J. Geils Band’s Peter Wolf and Van Morrison, with hints of Al Green and Otis Redding. Livetime is far from a definitive live album, but it’s a pleasant snapshot of the group at a transitional time in their career.
Along The Red Ledge (1978) was Hall & Oates’ first album to be produced by David Foster, the talented multi-instrumentalist/composer who has also overseen albums by dozens of artists in a variety of genres. Most of his work is clean, professional & MOR (middle-of-the-road). He may not be a cutting edge producer but he usually delivers very commercial music and he was an excellent choice to work with Hall & Oates at this point in their career. Along The Red Ledge is also their most consistent (and consistently enjoyable) collection of songs since Abandoned Luncheonette and deserved a wider audience, but again they didn’t deliver that one killer single that would have helped raise its profile. With 7 out of 10 songs worth discussing in detail, it has the highest hit-to-miss ratio of all the albums covered in this post, and it’s the first of their ‘70s RCA records that I would recommend to anyone just discovering this era.
♪ “It’s A Laugh” – The verses are smooth with a steady midtempo beat, but it’s the power-pop “oooh”s in the chorus, along with the excellent climbing melody, that make this a standout track. The upbeat title is a misnomer for this post-breakup song: “It’s so stupid I gotta laugh, and the funny thing is that everyone thought we were so special.”
♪ “Have I Been Away Too Long” – A moody, intense & soulful ballad with a deliberate groove and stinging guitar stabs. Hall really shows off his range here, especially with his multiple approaches to the line, “Have I been away…,” often soaring impressively into his falsetto. He’s like a classic soul vocalist in their self-described “rock ‘n soul” environment.
♪ “August Day” – This album closer, written by Hall with his partner Sara Allen, is a gorgeous & peaceful way to wrap things up, sounding like a new dawn arriving. Hall’s reverbed vocals, all jazzy & full-voiced, along with the synth washes, generate an almost mantra-like aura. Putting things over the top, I believe that’s Stevie Wonder on harmonica at the end, although he’s not credited in the CD packaging. Hopefully one of my readers can confirm this suspicion.
Other Notable Tracks:
Hall & Oates may have had their first few smash hits during the era covered in this post, but album-for-album it’s been overlooked in favor of the consistent chart-topping success they would achieve a few years later. None of these records is a must-have, although Along The Red Ledge is close, but there are a number of wonderful songs to be found in this portion of their catalog. I’m pleased that I finally got reacquainted with these albums and will be sure to revisit them more frequently in the future. If you’re familiar with any/all of these records, please let me know how you feel about them. Now I will turn my attention to the batch of releases that made them superstars, and I’ll discuss those in my next post.