by Gavin Heaney
Singer-songwriter duos are the most profound contributors to the canon of popular music.
This tag-team approach is a rock band’s most reduced distillation before it finally goes solo and falls prey to the limitations of one single mind. Duos are prolific songsters because they are fueled by the creativity within themselves and the friendly fire of competition with each other.
The greatest songwriting partners of rock music, such as Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, and Jagger and Richards, defined this archetype. But Hall & Oates are arguably one of the most successful at it, with a parade of six number one hits from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, modern classics like “Rich Girl,” “Kiss on My List,” “Private Eyes,” “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do), “Maneater” and “Out of Touch.” They also have recorded six multi-platinum albums and eight top ten singles.
By 1984, the Recording Industry Association of America recognized Hall & Oates as the number-one selling duo in music history, a record they still hold today. For over 52 years, Hall & Oates have woven their sound into American music history, earning entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
But even after all that success, their creative drive and a tough brotherly love still power the duo.
“The creative itch is one that I just can't scratch,” John Oates said. “I don't like to think of it as competitive, but we spurred each other on, we inspired each other. When you hear something that's inspiring, you just want to elevate your game to that place. I’ve always been in awe of Daryl’s amazing talent on every level, as a songwriter, vocalist, and consummate musician. I've learned a lot from him over the years, especially in the early days. And I think he learned from me as well.”
Daryl Hall has equally found inspiration from Oates.
“I admire the things about him that I'm lacking,” Hall told the UK’s Independent. “He's a dedicated person, and when he makes up his mind about something, he sticks to it. He's meticulous, and I'm not. I look at the whole picture, and I'm a little slack at the details. That's where the complementary thing happens. He has a very strong sense of loyalty and honor, all those things which are necessary. John had experience of folk music and bluegrass and blues, and I didn't know any of that stuff. He brought American folk, and that was his important contribution to the creation of the Hall & Oates sound.”
Oates says that their willingness to adapt to the dynamics of their roles is instrumental in their songwriting process.
“We’re both singers. We're both songwriters,” he said. “We're both instrumentalists, we're both producers and arrangers. So our roles would just seamlessly meld and change. Sometimes we'd act simply as a sounding board and an editor for one another, just making a suggestion that the other person might not have thought of. Other times, it was a full collaboration on every level. It changed on every song and every situation.”
I Want My MTV
The early 80s were steeped in the late 70s. Disco burnout gave birth to the age of super soft rock and the listening was easy.
This was the dawning of the age of the yuppies. The boomers became bosses and Hall & Oates – catchy, sleek, and shoulder-padded – spoke to their desire for success and power in a modern world with a cutting-edge appetite for commercial excess. The 80s were an inversion of the 60s, abandoning we for me. The flower children grew up, traded in the VW buses of their teenage wasteland and upgraded to the BMWs of their mid-life crisis.
Hall & Oates capitalized with their songwriting synthesis. They bottled lightning like Coca-Cola, and in true 1980s fashion, they mass distributed it through a brand new emerging medium: the music video.
“We were in New York at the time and knew the people who had basically came up with the idea for MTV. We were friends with them,” Oates said. “They came to us and said, ‘Hey, we're gonna start this new music video channel’ And we're like, ‘Okay. What's a music video?’
Unknowingly, they had already created one, and perhaps even set the music video templet for MTV with “She’s Gone.” In 1973 the duo avoided doing an old school live lip sync performance for a TV dance show and recorded an art school-style video for the song that enraged the producers, who refused to air it. The video went unseen for decades and is now gaining a following on YouTube.
“My feeling on MTV, especially in the early days, was that it was a great new avenue to promote our recorded music,” Oates said. “And then it took on a whole other level of cultural importance. We have some of the first videos ever shown on it.”
Each one of their hit songs was accompanied by a pioneering music video that would define the format. Hall & Oates videos always had the group squeezed into a tight performance space, nearly stepping over each other to the camera. Fun, kitschy and classic, they provided literal imagery to their songs. The video for “Maneater” with its dark smooth jazzy vibe and Charles DeChant’s delay-drenched saxophone encapsulated the essence of yuppie decadence like a crisp white wine. The greed, power, lust and lucre of 1980s Upper Manhattan and Wall Street are personified in the gold-digging material girl portrayed in the song. A woman who was “amazingly attractive, but also vulgar,” according to Oates.
“That song is really about New York City,” he said. “It was the go-go 80s when New York was all jacked up. We were staring out at the city skyline and both agreed, New York is the man eater. That's what's going to chew you up and spit you out. Anybody who's ever lived in New York knows that it's not an easy city.”
Hall & Oates lyrics are skillfully based on their personal experiences, then expanded to a message that everyone can relate to.
“We were always conscious of using real experiences and real emotions, but then crafting them in a way that they could have a broader universal appeal,” Oates said. “I think that was the secret of our success. We talk about some universal topics, but we catch them and hide them in something that sounds like a personal message. For instance, ‘I Can’t Go For That’ is actually about not wanting to be pushed around by the music business, by management, and by the suits….Not many people would know that.”
Peaks and Valleys
Yuppie Rock was the baby boomer’s legacy. It was the music they made at the height of their power. Like Rome, it had to fall eventually. The music was a party; it wasn’t life or death. It didn’t take itself so seriously, and was later chastised for this alleged lack. It’s always the next generation’s obligation to dismantle the pop music icons that came before it and replace them with their own. In the 90s, Hall & Oates were crudely dismantled like the Berlin Wall, the rubble to be rebuilt by Generation X.
Oates recalls the moment at the top of the roller coaster before the drop.
“We had number one record after number one record, multi-platinum, gold albums, toured the world multiple times, and had been on the road for twenty years,” he said. “We really thought, there is nowhere to go but down, and that's when we pulled back. Then the 90s hit and there was a whole new sensibility with grunge, a kind of anti-melodic movement. It was more about energy and angst, and the style of music that we made was not going to fit into that world. I'm very proud of the fact that we had the foresight to realize that it was time to step back. I think that was probably the most important thing that we ever did. Because it enabled us to continue on into the future.”
And the future is bright as ever for Hall & Oates as the cycle of cool and uncool revolves again in their favor. Their music, initially inspired by The Temptations and the Motown sound has found new life in modern day hip hop, sampled by De La Soul, Notorious B.I.G., The Wu-Tang Clan and Kanye West. When The Roots’ drummer Questlove inducted the two into the Rock & Roll “Hall and Oates” of Fame, he declared, “They crossed all the boundaries because that’s what great music does… Pop stars are something that streak across the sky. An artist, that’s the thing that stays there.”
The punkers and alt-rockers of Gen X have also come back around, softened into middle age and have grown nostalgic for the music of their childhood, like a prodigal son’s reunion with his parents. Hall and Oates have also found new relevance with a younger audience. The whimsical rebranding of Yuppie Rock to Yacht Rock has granted them godfather status to the millennials and even the next generation of screen-gazing Gen Z-ers who definitely can go for that.
Hall and Oates have jumped the shark and lived to tell about it. Their enduring popularity is a testament to their music. But honestly, it just feels good, it’s a good time.You don’t have to go digging for some moralistic reason. Hall & Oates celebrate that fun-loving spirit and naivety of our consumer culture. There’s nothing more Americana than that.
Hall & Oates play BeachLife Ranch September 16