The Guide subjects here fall into roughly three camps, I think: Artists who I periodically enjoy and think are interesting; artists who I think are important in some way; and artists whose music I genuinely love. Today’s beneficiaries fit squarely into the third area. I’m not going to try and pretend, or convince you, that Daryl Hall & John Oates deserve a place alongside rock royalty, and I’m not going to gloss over their missteps and less-than-worthy moments. But what I hope I will do is make a case for them being more than just the two vaguely gay-looking dorks in videos like “Maneater” and “Out of Touch,” and build a convincing argument that — despite all their gloss and dated production — their greatest songs were built on a solid foundation of impeccable songwriting and a deep understanding of multiple genres, particularly pop and soul.

They’re remembered today for doing basically one thing, and that’s unleashing a slew of corny ’80s hits upon an unsuspecting public. But what a lot of people don’t realize is how skillfully Hall & Oates fused soul with pop — the sound they helped pioneer has become such a fixture on the musical landscape that it’s easy to assume it’s always been there.


Whole Oats (1972)
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Whole Oats

It’s the rare debut album that offers a true glimpse at what the artist will be capable of ten years down the road, and Whole Oats is no exception. Both Hall and Oates had made their bones as soul musicians by this point — Hall, in particular, had performed on a number of Gamble & Huff recordings — but listening to their first album, you’d never guess it. This gets to the heart of Hall & Oates’ main problem, actually: As songwriters and performers, they were capable of doing any number of things. And early on, they seemed not to know which of those things they really wanted to do, so, more often than not, they just mimicked whatever sound happened to be popular at the time.

So, with Whole Oats, the listener gets the same gauzy folk-pop sound that Hall explored with his previous band, Gulliver. It’s exceedingly pleasant and mostly insubstantial, though there are a couple of bright spots in the sunnily morose “I’m Sorry” (download) and “Fall in Philadelphia” (download), which sounds like an outtake from Honky Château (but in a good way).


Abandoned Luncheonette (1973)
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Abandoned Luncheonette

The lazy way to describe this album is “Whole Oats, only better,” and though I guess that would be accurate enough, I think Abandoned Luncheonette deserves a little more attention. The big (albeit heavily delayed) hit from the album is, of course, “She’s Gone,” and I certainly believe that song to be a modern classic, but my favorite track is probably the opener, “When the Morning Comes” (download). It’s missing the melodrama of “She’s Gone,” and any of its emotional weight, but it’s also a pretty brilliantly constructed pastiche of everything that was going on in popular music in 1973. You’ve got Eaglesesque lyrics about streetcorners and love gone wrong; you’ve got a Moog; you’ve got country-rock flavoring. Plus, it’s catchy as hell. This wasn’t their ultimate direction, but Luncheonette makes you believe it could have been — though gentle ballads like “Had I Known You Better Then” may not have made them the giant piles of money they earned with stuff like “Kiss On My List,” perhaps critical respect might have been a little easier to come by.

They even get a little adventurous on Side Two; between the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink storytelling of the title track (download) and the seven-minute wah-wah workout that is album closer “Everytime I Look At You,” the duo was flexing its creative muscles with more confidence, if not clear direction.


War Babies (1974)
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After two albums, a #60 pop hit, and miniscule sales, Hall & Oates decided a change was in order. To that end, they hired Todd Rundgren to produce their third release, War Babies, and underwent a fairly thorough change in direction. This is often described as their “prog” period, which isn’t totally off the mark — War Babies is nominally a concept album — but don’t go into this expecting to hear echoes of Yes. It’s definitely more rock-based than anything they’d done to that point, and far less overtly commercial than anything they’d ever do again, but mostly, it’s just a dense, fairly unrewarding listen.

War Babies definitely has its fans, and there are even people who believe it contains Rundgren’s best production work. I’m not one of them. Listen to “Is It A Star?” (download) and “Screaming Through December” (download) and see which side of the fence you’re on.


Daryl Hall & John Oates (1975)
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Daryl Hall & John Oates

War Babies fell with an even more resounding thud than Whole Oats or Abandoned Luncheonette, so for their next effort, Hall & Oates went back to the drawing board. 1975’s Daryl Hall & John Oates is known for two things: The androgynous photo on the cover, and “Sara Smile.”

It’s difficult to know what to say about the album cover, except to note that it marks possibly the first time (and far from the last) that Hall & Oates made a spectacularly foolish decision with regards to their image. They’ve described themselves as looking like their girlfriends in this photo, which raises frightening questions about Oates’ taste in women; more than anything, though, it’s a quaint artifact from 1975. Guys who look and/or sound like chicks have always been a part of rock & roll, and maybe never more so than in the mid-’70s (see: Bowie, David).

Now on to “Sara Smile” (download). Yes, it’s one of the most colossally overplayed songs in FM history, and yes, if you’re like me, you can’t hear it anymore without thinking of the parody recorded by The Evolution Control Committee (download). But on its own merits, it’s a classic, classic love song. The Philly soul sound that the duo loved so much was reaching commercial critical mass at this point, so it made sense for Hall & Oates to finally put together an album that relied on it more or less wholeheartedly. They still couldn’t resist tinkering with the formula, like on the arty, angular “Grounds for Separation” or the goofy reggae number, “Soldering” (download), but Daryl Hall & John Oates marks the spot where Hall & Oates started mapping out their true musical direction.


Bigger Than Both of Us (1976)
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As quickly as they found their audience with “Sara Smile,” Hall & Oates discovered how difficult it can be to hang onto success.

“Rich Girl” notwithstanding, Bigger Than Both of Us is sort of a forgotten entry in the Hall & Oates catalog, and that isn’t entirely undeserved. Though songs like “Back Together Again” (download) replicated the Philly sound flawlessly, “Room to Breathe” (download) proved they could handle rock bombast with aplomb, and the album earned them their second consecutive gold certification, it wasn’t the world-beating follow-up that they needed to advance their career.


Beauty on a Back Street (1977)
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Beauty on a Back Street marks the beginning of a difficult three-year fallow period in which Hall & Oates couldn’t notch another big hit no matter how hard they tried. It’s fairly ironic, because though these albums were flops, they clearly point the way toward the massive success that was just around the corner. Listen to “Why Do Lovers Break Each Others’ Hearts?” (download) and “You Must Be Good for Something” (download) and it’s obvious they were starting to figure out the possibilities in fusing soul with other stuff — pop, new wave, rock, you name it.

They were still working out the kinks, certainly; large portions of Back Street, as well as the albums that immediately followed it, sound like awkward imitation rather than genuine synthesis. But when they hit on all cylinders, the results were often outstanding.


Along the Red Ledge (1978)
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Along the Red Ledge

The 1970s left the world with some pretty puzzling artifacts — Pet Rocks, mood rings, roller disco — and yet, for music nerds anyway, Along the Red Ledge might trump them all. Daryl Hall had struck up a friendship with art-rock legend Robert Fripp, who produced Hall’s long-unreleased solo debut, Sacred Songs, in 1977; their relationship — as well as Hall’s desire to prove himself as something more than a writer of disposable pop — heavily colored Hall’s output at the time. Fripp played guitar on Ledge, but he didn’t produce it; those duties went to David Foster, who had been involved with the duo as far back as Abandoned Luncheonette.

David Foster producing Robert Fripp. Sounds amazing in the worst way, doesn’t it?

Thankfully, Ledge just sounds pretty much like Hall & Oates with a few hot-shit guitar solos sprinkled in. “It’s A Laugh” (download) is killer, hermetically sealed pop, and should’ve been a hit; the rest of the record is so-so. “Melody For a Memory” (download) is a good example of the C-level material that makes up most of the album. Given that they had released an album a year for seven years, it’s almost amazing they had any songs left, let alone any as good as “Laugh.”


X-Static (1979)
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To most fans, this is just the one that came before Voices; it’s been out of print, more often than not, throughout the CD era. And it’s easy to see why people feel that way — it’s another David Foster production, only this one sounds like Foster produced it, and some of the songs are downright goofy (”Bebop/Drop,” “Intravino”). But it also contains two of Hall & Oates’ most perfect songs, “Wait For Me” (download) and “The Woman Comes and Goes” (download). Back Street and Red Ledge hinted at what they’d do in the ’80s, but X-Static is just a stone’s throw from what they’d achieve just a year later. It’s an uneven album, sure, and Foster’s production doesn’t do the material many favors, but they were getting awfully close.


Voices (1980)
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Voices

So here’s the template, if you’re still too wedded to horrific memories of Hall & Oates’ overplayed heyday to be able to dissect the music on your own: Take a big bowl of blue-eyed soul and pour it in a blender; add a cup of crunchy new wave guitars; add another cup of shiny synths; press “puree”; pour over a pan of smooth rock/R&B drums and bass; cook to perfection.

You’re thinking of “Maneater” and shaking your head. I’m a loon. I have no ears. But dammit, all of the above is true. Try listening to “How Does It Feel To Be Back” (download) and “Kiss on My List” (download) with fresh ears, if you can, and you’ll discover how — aside from being perfect for the moment (and Top 40 radio) — they’re just supremely well-written songs. “List,” in particular, highlights Hall’s peculiar gift for writing the anti-love love song; it’s an early example of what would become his signature type of song, as well as an eloquent distaste for consumer culture and the trappings of modern love.

Am I putting too much stock in a three-minute pop song? Possibly. But even without any of that subtext, Voices is still rife with wonderfully written songs — and it’s probably the weakest link in a chain of platinum records that ran straight on through to the middle of the decade. We’ll get there in our next installment.

About the Author

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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