Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
By the time they released X-Static (1979), Daryl Hall & John Oates were two years removed from the mega success of their #1 single, “Rich Girl,” and with two subsequent commercially disappointing albums under their belt, they had to be wondering if their hit-making days were behind them. Like the previous album’s “It’s A Laugh,” X-Static included one Top 20 single (“Wait For Me”) that was quickly forgotten until an outstanding live version was included on a best-of compilation a few years later. For this album, the duo teamed up once again with producer David Foster, who did an excellent job on its under-appreciated predecessor, Along The Red Ledge (which I discussed in my previous post).
X-Static is also notable for the initial appearance of several musicians who would play a huge part in their early-‘80s success: guitarist G.E. Smith (who later gained notoriety as the bandleader for Saturday Night Live), drummer Jerry Marotta (best known for his work on Peter Gabriel’s early solo albums), saxophonist Charlie DeChant (who continues to deliver memorable sax melodies for the duo all these years later) and bassist John Siegler. These gentlemen would form the core of the Hall & Oates band for the next several years, with a few later lineup changes that I will mention below. Their first recorded collaboration features one minor classic, some very good songs and a number of generic tracks which indicated that they didn’t have the consistently strong songwriting that was just around the corner. Much of the album focuses on dance rhythms and new wave textures, an approach they would hone to perfection on the next record.
♪ “Wait For Me” – An incredible ballad by Hall which cracked the Top 20. I love the soaring melodic guitar work by G.E. Smith. The instrumentation isn’t as organic as it would be on the live version that appeared on their Rock ‘N Soul Part 1 compilation, but even in this slightly synthetic setting it’s still a gorgeous song.
Other Notable Tracks:
With three relatively unsuccessful albums in a row, I can’t imagine many people were predicting the massive success that was to follow. Beginning with Voices (1980), Hall & Oates pretty much took over the airwaves for much of that decade, and it was the album that solidified their position as great songwriters & performers, and not just those two guys who had a few hits in the ‘70s. Because they were so prolific for the next few years, many people believe that Voices is the album that contained all their big hits of that era. The fact is that the three albums that followed sold more copies & charted higher, and two of those three contained more Top 10 hits than Voices. In my opinion, though, it features the strongest batch of songs, with 8 of its 11 tracks deserving special mention. None of the albums that followed were as consistent from start-to-finish. It’s worth noting that this is their first self-produced effort, and its success must have been a huge validation for them as singers, songwriters, bandleaders & producers. Anyone who is dismissive of Hall & Oates, especially their ‘80s output, should really give this musically diverse album a listen with an open mind. It’s really that good.
♪ “United State” – The title is a clever play on words that refers to a relationship, set to a peppy rocker that would have been perfect for radio in 1980. I’m not sure why no one at the record company thought to release it as a single. The melody at “When the light is gone from your eyes, and re-entry may be denied, do I want to expatriate or…live in the united state” is especially strong.
♪ “Kiss On My List” – Love it or hate it, this is a classic example of ‘80s pop perfection. I was 14 when this song was all over radio and I hated it, especially the too-cute-for-its-own-good title, but within a few years my opinion completely changed and I’ve loved it ever since. It’s sparsely produced, expertly sung, perfectly arranged and features another great melodic solo from G.E. Smith. There are so many reasons this was the first of five #1 hits they would score in that decade.
♪ “You Make My Dreams” – I love that off-kilter keyboard pattern in the intro, and the rest of the song is another example of pop excellence. The lead & backing vocals are incredible, and the bridge makes it even stronger: “Listen to this…I’m down on my daydreams…”
♪ “Everytime You Go Away” – This may be best known via the #1 hit version by British singer Paul Young in 1985, and even though the original isn’t quite as radio-friendly, it’s yet another brilliant Daryl Hall ballad. I love the soulful Stax-esque organ during the intro, giving it an immediate soulful-yet-sacred vibe.
♪ “Diddy Doo Wop (I Hear The Voices)” – Of all the memorable melodies throughout the Hall & Oates albums I’ve revisited this past week, no song worked its way into my brain quite like this one. The verses feature a pulsing bass groove, stabbing guitar (influenced by The Police’s Andy Summers, perhaps) and a winning vocal from Hall (“Oh I hear the voices deep inside”), while the choruses shift to a classic doo-wop rhythm with wonderful group voices, pointing the way to Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man a few years later. This is an interesting blend of genres and an inspired choice to close out the album.
Other Notable Tracks:
Voices had a slow ascent up the charts throughout the second half of 1980, and by the time “Kiss On My List” topped the singles chart in early ’81, Hall & Oates were already in the studio recording its follow-up. Private Eyes (1981) doesn’t stray far from the template established by its predecessor, with only a few production flourishes added to their mix of rock, pop, soul & new wave. Once again they produced themselves, with the assistance of mixing engineer Neil Kernon, and the only notable lineup change was Mickey Curry (also known for his work with Bryan Adams) taking over on drums. Private Eyes is best known for three huge singles, including two #1’s and one Top 10, and those are the strongest songs on the album. Of the remaining eight tracks, only two show off their usual knack for memorable melodies and interesting arrangements, while the others are easily forgotten even after several listens. It’s hard to complain, though, when the good songs are this great, so Private Eyes is a qualified success.
♪ “Private Eyes” – Yet another example of perfect ‘80s pop music; a stomping blast of radio-friendly awesomeness. Features a super catchy melody with hand claps & synth hits, great vocals and clever lyrics about relationship trouble. It’s no surprise that this was another #1 smash, their second chart topper of 1981.
♪ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” – Perfect soulful pop, a la the Michael McDonald era of The Doobie Brothers, and a rare example of a song that reached #1 on the Pop, R&B and Dance charts. I love that proto-“Billie Jean” bass line, slick arrangement and the blend of synthetic sounds with organic instrumentation (especially Charlie DeChant’s classic sax solo). Simply gorgeous.
♪ “Did It In A Minute” – Too-clever-for-its-own-good title aside, this is an excellent pop song with typical ‘80s touches like the keyboard & drum sounds and the driving beat. I really like the pre-chorus (“Some things stay the same and some are due for change”) and the chorus itself is instantly memorable.
Other Notable Tracks:
Two years of non-stop hits led to their highest charting album, H2O (1982), which continued their chart dominance with three more Top 10 singles (including another #1). The distinctive-looking (and immensely talented) Tom “T-Bone” Wolk took over bass duties, a position he held until his death in 2010, while almost everyone else from the previous album (including co-producer Neil Kernon) returned. The hit-to-miss ratio is a little more successful here than it was on Private Eyes, and even though it’s not quite as consistent as Voices their winning streak continued with those three deserving hit singles and another three excellent album tracks. There are two versions of the album cover for H2O; the one with their sweaty profiles facing each other is a return to the questionable designs of some of their ‘70s albums, while the other one (with a close-up of sweat on skin, I believe) is a little more striking. I thought they had done a great job with the designs for Voices and Private Eyes, which are among their best album covers, so I suppose two out of three ain’t bad.
♪ “Maneater” – Carried along by one of their trademark funky grooves, this #1 single is packed with a number of hooks, great imagery & a unique atmosphere. Wolk really delivers on bass, and DeChant’s sax is on fire. This is supremely ‘80s, in a good way.
♪ “One On One” – One of their most soulful songs with Hall delivering what may be his greatest vocal performance, effortlessly soaring in & out of falsetto. It reached the Top 10 on the Pop and R&B charts, and I’m surprised it didn’t go higher than that. An excellent example of minimal instrumentation with maximum effect.
♪ “Family Man” – Other than a couple of their ‘70s AM radio hits, I had little to no interest in Hall & Oates until I heard this song, another Top 10 hit. The heavy rhythm (nice work, Mickey Curry) and G.E. Smith’s cutting guitar sound immediately drew me in, and my entire perception of the group changed. Hall really inhabits the character of a devoted husband on the brink (“If you push me too far I just might”). It wasn’t until a few years later that I learned this was a cover of a Mike Oldfield song.
It’s hard to imagine many compilations more effective at showcasing the truly best songs by a particular artist than Rock ‘N Soul Part 1 aka Greatest Hits (1983). Of the 12 songs included here, 9 were Top 10 hits (including 5 #1’s), while two of the previously unreleased tracks were new songs that became hits in their own right (both Top 10). Rarely do these add-on tracks become as popular as the hits they’re complementing, but when you’re a group at the peak of its powers like Hall & Oates in the ‘80s, nearly everything you touch turns to gold (or platinum). The collection is weighted more heavily toward their ‘80s albums, but they wisely chose the three biggest hits from the ‘70s (“Sara Smile,” “She’s Gone” and “Rich Girl”) to give a broader view of their recording history. As I mentioned in the second post of my Gateway Compilations series, I’m not sure I would be the Hall & Oates fan I am today without Rock ‘N Soul Part 1.
♪ “Say It Isn’t So” – Embracing the big ‘80s productions that were just becoming the industry standard, this song is slick, modern & huge-sounding with phenomenal vocals & tons of hooks. In spite of the synths, drum programming & various percussion sound effects, it somehow manages to sound soulful & natural. Even those “say it” backing vocals are nice touch.
♪ “Adult Education” – Features a funky groove with a slick ‘80s sonic sheen. From the killer rhythm track to the subject matter that struck a chord with me as a high school student at the time (“Believe it or not there’s life after high school”), everything about this song is a blast…even those of-their-time “oh yeah, oh yeah” female vocal chants. Mickey Curry’s huge drum sound is another selling point for me.
Other Notable Track:
I want to give special attention to their contribution to my yearly holiday music listening with their faithful rendition of Bobby Helms’ 1950s standard, “Jingle Bell Rock.” The single has Hall handling lead vocals on one side and Oates on the other side, with the same musical accompaniment, and the promotional music video is silly, campy fun (although I don’t know if I’ll ever get the image of G.E. Smith as the guitar-playing granny out of my head). For your listening & viewing pleasure, I present that video here:
There’s something inspiring about hearing an artist in their absolute prime, as both Daryl Hall & John Oates were writing, performing & singing as well as they ever would during this period. I was a thick-headed teenager when they re-emerged as hit-makers in the early-‘80s but I’m glad I opened my eyes & ears soon enough to appreciate them in their heyday. I’m sure there are still people, mostly die-hard rock & roll fans, who dismiss their music as fluffy pop, but they offer so much more than that…during the period covered in this post and throughout their recording career. Please let me know how you feel about their early-‘80s commercial peak. Thank you.