Gimme Five: Hall and Oates

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by Nick Deriso

Hall and Oates are, of course, the poster boys for what happens when hair gel meets R&B.

Funny thing is, they were originally anything but polished. Hall had reportedly been in an early Philly band with Thom Bell, later a central figure in that city’s R&B legacy.

Along the way, H&O tried out an acoustic bent on 1972’s “Whole Oats,” art rock on 1974’s Todd Rundgren-produced “War Babies” and on a series of Hall’s solo releases, guitar-oriented sounds on 1978’s “Along The Red Ledge,” then new wave, mainstream pop, retro-Motown, keyboard-dominated dance music and moldy oldies.

Of course, nobody bought any of it until those last few permutations, most presented through the gauzy sheen of MTV. H&O, even now, are best known for affixing synthesizers to an already established blue-eyed soul sound.

That means I have to hate them? OK, I tried. (“One on One,” a tepid basketball metaphor taken to teeth-splintering extremes, certainly tried the patience.) But, in the end, well, no can do.

Here are five lasting favorites from a signature guilty pleasure, Hall and Oates …

1. “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” (‘Private Eyes, 1981): Smart, and perhaps always a touch too self-aware, Hall found his most honest, though admittedly sinister, groove on this tune — and was rewarded with a remarkable run to the top of the pop, R&B and dance club charts. It may have even been the inspiration for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” (Hall thinks so, anyway.)

This smooth and shiny vehicle became a staple for hip-hop sampling, too, appearing on De La Soul’s “Say No Go” in 1989, V.S.O.P.’s “Above the Law” in 1993, Heavy D’s “I’ll Do Anything” in 1997, Simply Red’s “Sunrise” in 2003, the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Happy People Remix” in 2004 — and, of course, as part of the thoroughly unimaginative 2 Live Crew’s “I Can’t Go For That,” also from ’97.

Despite all of that, I still go for it.

[ONE TRACK MIND: John Oates talks about signature tracks from Hall and Oates and his solo career, including “She’s Gone,” “How Does It Feel To Be Back,” and a new take on “You Make My Dreams.”]

2. “She’s Gone,” (‘Abandoned Luncheonette,’ 1973): A largely forgotten little gem from an even more widely ignored album, this track had to be covered by Lou Rawls and Tavares (who made it a R&B chart topper in 1974) before it was re-released and hit for H&O in 1976.

Hall once called this lithe heartbreaker the best song H&O ever wrote, and he might just be right. As far as I can tell, however, it’s not the basis for any Michael Jackson song, though.

3. “Apollo Medley” (‘Live at the Apollo,’ 1985): An energetic retelling of the Temptations’ 1960s hits “Get Ready,” “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “The Way You Do The Things You Do” and and “My Girl,” featuring original lead singers David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick.

H&O were clearly energized by the event, singing with open-hearted abandon on tunes that shaped their career. The former Temps’ appearances with H&O, both here and at Live Aid, sparked renewed interest that led to a record deal, and the underrated “Ruffin & Kendricks” recording from 1988.

4. “Your Imagination” (‘Private Eyes,’ 1981): A canny integration of H&O’s core vibe with the nihilistic verve of new wave — credit a coiled guitar/synthesizer signature — this Top 40 hit about romantic paranoia belies the often-true assumption that H&O were too cool, too cute or too coiffed for their own good.

OK. I’ll concede, again, the hair thing.

Nowhere does Hall’s intriguing ability toward the sensuous, in the style of all the great R&B crooners, combine so perfectly with 1980s-era detachment. That sound was their own.

5. “I’ll Be Around,” (‘Our Kind of Soul,’ 2004): A welcome, if perhaps expected, return to the band’s roots, this album featuring a selection of well-known soul tunes including this old Spinners favorite. Thankfully, H&O don’t fall into the trap of becoming too reverent, something that sunk Michael McDonald’s dull Motown tribute from the same period.

“I’ll Be Around” is presented as a sensitive take, a long-lost emotion to build upon, rather than simply as a vehicle for another bland imitation. As such, it wasn’t so much capitulation as it was coming full circle.

Spoiler alert: I say full circle, but not quite. Imagine my surprise to find that Oates has shaved his ‘stache.

The ’80s end not with a bang, but with a razor.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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