Something Else! Featured Artist: Hall and Oates

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by Something Else Reviews

Call them a guilty pleasure. (We have.) But the truth is, there’s more to Hall and Oates than the sum of their blow-dried caricature. So, we set about looking for tunes that made some points: That they brilliantly connected the dots between new wave and and rock music’s R&B ancestry. That they were more than just Daryl. That they had an untold complexity, leaving aside those awful videos.

In the end, “Kiss on My List” isn’t making our list. We’d like something a little more offbeat. So, we won’t go for No. 1 hits like “I Can’t Go For That,” either …

“LOOKING FOR A GOOD SIGN,” (PRIVATE EYES, 1981): After years of fiddling with everything from dewy-eyed singer-songwriter acoustics to glam-pop overkill, from dabbling in prog rock — more on that in a moment — to aping their childhood heroes, Hall and Oates finally found their sweet-spot synthesis with Private Eyes. To the point where even the throwaway songs on a career-defining record might have been smash-hit earworms for lesser acts.

“Looking for a Good Sign” is one of them, a lithe Motown-inspired piece dedicated to the original Temptations that was quickly overshadowed by a pair of No. 1 tunes in “Private Eyes” and “I Can’t Go For That,” not to mention charting songs “Did It In A Minute” and “Your Imagination.” For a time, this stuff was wallpapered across the radio, as Private Eyes became Hall and Oates’ first-ever Top 10 album. No surprise, I suppose, that “Looking for a Good Sign” is now largely forgotten.

Still, on their biggest and perhaps most artistically complete recording, it’s a track I come back to often. Whereas much of Private Eyes fulfills the promise of Hall and Oates’ still-emerging experimentation with modern popcraft, this one goes right to the heart of what made them special in the first place: Sidewalk soul set to unforgettable hooks.

They’d return to this template later, after a number of other big hits, with appearances alongside David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks at Live Aid, on their thoroughly enjoyable Apollo concert recording, and at the Temptations’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. “To us it was everything,” John Oates said, as the Temps were honored. “We tried our best, and we still haven’t even gotten close.”

I don’t know. For me, this tribute got there. — Nick DeRiso

[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.”]

“HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE BACK,” (VOICES, 1980): The first single from the H&O blockbuster Voices wasn’t “Kiss On My List” or even the credible cover of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” but instead a modest chart climber (No. 30 in fall of 1980) with the nearly forgotten John Oates providing the lead vocal.

“How Does It Feel To Be Back” wasn’t instantly recognizable as a Hall and Oates tune to me at the time, and not just because Daryl Hall wasn’t out front. It has a jangly, mildly new wave-ish disposition, a signal that the duo was bending their sound to the prevailing trends of the times. Bend, but not break.

Though everyone knows that Oates is not half the crooner his fair-haired partner is, he’s still an above-average singer and on “Back” what he might lack in range and control compared to Hall, he matches in soul and passion. This song is a toe-tapping mid-tempo rocker with harmonies that for once sound closer to Liverpool than Philly, but rock has always been part of the equation with this duo; they just play it with a little more soul.

“How Does It Feel To Be Back” may have been the least remembered of Voices’ four hits, but it got the ball rolling. Looking back from 30 years later, it was also a fine acquittal of the Mustached One as a frontman. S. Victor Aaron

“BABS AND BABS/URBAN LANDSCAPE,” (Daryl Hall, SACRED SONGS, 1977): Hall and Oates meets King Crimson? Well, yeah: Hall has said he and Robert Fripp were trying to “take two soulful sounds from two different cultures, and put them together, and form a third kind of music.” Really, Daryl’s initial solo release, Sacred Songs, works as a kind of bridge between the angular experiments from the previous decade by the likes of Greg Lake and the looming prog-rock commercialization associated with smooth operators like Asia’s John Wetton. Or, put another way, it’s the missing link between Rick Wakeman-era Yes and Trevor Horn-era Yes.

At the time, though, it seemed to many a confusing and fascinating mess — sometimes, as in this song, all at once. “Babs and Babs” starts innocuously enough, with a urbane groove (provided in overdubs by the H&O touring band) and a knowing, street-wise lyric that recalls any number of the group’s other hair-gelled R&B updates. But then producer/guitarist Fripp begins pasting on a series of wow-man elements never dreamt of on an H&O-related release — well, with the possible exception of the unjustly overlooked Todd Rundgren-produced 1974 glam-pop oddity War Babies. First, a jagged Fripp solo sparks this soaring, metronomic crescendo, which is then in turn subsumed by a turbulent ambience as keyboards come crashing over the song’s middle.

Hall returns with a more aggressive approach to the lyric, singing outside of his comfort zone, really letting himself go. At the dawn of a decade that will find him too often inhabiting a mannered, made-for-MTV machismo, Hall is pushed into a new, very real vulnerability. Meanwhile, his song, now in a gorgeous, unflinching freefall, is surrounded by this sizzling swirl of keyboards and reverb as “Babs and Babs” morphs into “Urban Landscape.”

The resulting extended instrumental passage, as beautiful as it is surprising, finds Fripp for the first time employing tape-loop technology that he dubbed Frippertronics. “Oh,” Fripp has said, “what a sweet tension that was, over a sixteen-bar drum break on ‘Babs And Babs,’ a song of schizophrenia.” Along the way, he shoots the album a couple of worlds away from contemporary H&O hits like “Rich Girl.”

Hall’s record company, of course, had no idea what to do with this — and sat on these recordings for three long years. Even by 1980, however, nobody had quite caught up to the inventive pastiche (prog rock-pop?) found on Sacred Songs. But they would. Ask Trevor Horn. Nick DeRiso

“ADULT EDUCATION” (ROCK ‘N’ SOUL, PART 1, 1983): For the longest time, Hall & Oates were on my double-dog dare, top-secret list of guilty pleasures. So despite how much I liked tunes like “Rich Girl” and “Sara Smile,” there’s pretty much no way I would have admitted it to anybody.

When the era of new wave rolled in, I had to re-think my position, because if songs like “Mexican Radio” and “Private Idaho” were welcome on my turntable, why not “Maneater” and “Private Eyes”?

Or “Adult Education.” Here is yet another example of Hall & Oates’ talent for combining multiple pop genres, in this case funk, new wave, and rock — and coming out with some killer hooks on the other side. Actually, several hooks: the insistent funk guitar riff, the vaguely Asian guitar figure, and that ear-worm “Oh Yeah…Oh Yeah!” vocal refrain.

On top of all of this are the near-metal power chords that blow out the back end of the chorus.

Now that I think about it a little more, I can pinpoint exactly when the guilty pleasure veil began to lift — when I heard “Adult Education” as part of a live King Biscuit radio broadcast. Guitarist G.E. Smith brought the noise as the song rumbled to its conclusion, and I realized that it was time to grow up.

Well, it was a start anyway. — Mark Saleski

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The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
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