Featured: Top of Home Page

Hall & Oates, Abandoned Luncheonette (1973)

Before their string of ubiquitous 1980s hits, this songwriting duo wrote surprisingly strange and pleasantly unpretentious soft rock.

Hall & Oates

Abandoned Luncheonette

Label: Atlantic
First date: 1973
US Release Date: 1973

Daryl Hall and John Oates will be forever associated with the 1980s, when they were a ubiquitous presence on top 40 radio with a string of peppy, edgeless, and almost inexplicably catchy hits: "Kiss on My List", "Private Eyes", "Maneater", "Out of Touch", these were as familiar as the taste of toothpaste and about as exciting. Much like kindred spirits Huey Lewis and the News, Hall and Oates blended bland, earnest white-soul crooning with some of the trappings of new-wave production (drum machines, synthetic horn arrangements, etc.) to produce songs that were as unobjectionable as they were unexceptional, and they haven't aged especially well. They are tainted with too close an association with the decade's zeitgeist, making it nearly impossible to hear anything but nostalgia or camp humor in them. Also, the duo's dreadful live album recorded at the Apollo with former members of the Temptations seems one of the era's most hubristic embarrassments.

But before they become quintessential '80s hitmakers, Hall & Oates had a pretty extensive career in the 1970s as singer-songwriters in the Bread mold -- not penicillin but sensitive, introspective soft rock aimed squarely at couples confronting midlife crisis. Many acts tried to cash in on the lucrative market opened by James Taylor and his ilk, and Hall & Oates's innovation, as natives of the Philadelphia area, was to blend acoustic pop balladry with elements of Philly soul; Hall had in fact started his professional career working with Gamble and Huff, the architects of the genre. The most effective expression of this synthesis comes on Hall & Oates's second album, Abandoned Luncheonette.

If you know Hall & Oates only by their hits, the first surprise that comes from listening to any of their albums is the sound of Oates's voice. In the 1980s, Oates -- the curly-haired, mustachioed one -- tended to seem like a useless appendage, an Andrew Ridgely type whose function in the group was difficult to discern. He certainly didn't seem to deserve co-leader status with Hall; Hall sings lead on almost all of duo's recognizable hits. And in their videos, while Hall was accorded full superstar treatment, Oates was typically shown doing nothing other than dancing around foolishly and adding his voice to the chorus of backup singers. Sometimes he wouldn't even have the fig-leaf dignity of having a guitar strapped to him.

But in reality, Oates suffered from the same fate as James Griffin, David Gates's partner in Bread. Gates wrote all the band's hits -- "Make It With You", "Baby I'm-a Want You", "If" -- and thus came to dominate the band, while Griffin's equally worthy if not superior material was subordinated. Abandoned Luncheonette, however, comes early enough in the Hall & Oates saga for Oates to have a prominent role (though chances are he was never the foul-mouthed ass-kicking leader of the group, as depicted in the brilliant Yacht Rock). He contributes three of the album's better songs: "Had I Known You Better Then" is a mellow acoustic track with elaborate harmonies. "I'm Just a Kid (Don't Make Me Feel Like a Man)", a deceptively complex song about a sex-hungry pickup artist, has a hooky bridge that foreshadowed the duo's later hit "Rich Girl". The breezy "Las Vegas Turnaround (The Stewardess Song)", a character study of sorts about a woman named Sara (perhaps the Sara of another subsequent hit, "Sara Smile"), casually exploits what must have been the inherent fascination at the time with the displaced people who made a living in commercial aviation. That they can pass off this gimmicky concept off-handedly, with little trace of desperation, is characteristic of much of the duo's material and is suggestive of what would ultimately make them so successful; audiences are perhaps primed to forgive them their transparent attempts to be hip because they simultaneously come across as implausible, likable underdogs who can't be held to a higher standard.

Daryl Hall and John Oates, 2002

The lowered expectations they evoke allows them to continually surprise, especially on their hits. Oates and Hall collaborated on Abandoned Luncheonette's most famous track and the pair's first hit, "She's Gone". On this slick soul pastiche, one can clearly hear the influence of the Righteous Brothers (Hall and Oates would later serve up a rote cover of "You Lost That Lovin' Feeling," before Top Gun overexposed the original) as well as the strength of their singing -- it builds effectively to a climax that hinges on Hall's ability to belt out the chorus with that precise control over his voice that paradoxically conveys unrestrained emotion.

Hall's writing contributions are far more eclectic than Oates's, with less consistent results. The album's opener, "When the Morning Comes" is a strummy folk pop augmented with a warbling synthesizer part and Hall's occasional excursions into the falsetto range. "Laughing Boy" is a maudlin ballad, heavy on emoting and dreadfully short of melody. The title track is a more ambitious composition, a Billy Joel-esque storytelling song that attempts a cinematic sweep across several different tempos and genres, including cabaret, big band and nourish incidental music. The lyrics aren't strong or coherent enough to unify the disparate musical elements, and it fails to rise above the level of corny curiosity. The album closer, the seven-minute-plus epic "Everytime I Look at You," is far more successful a piece of pastiche. It starts off approximating, improbably enough, hard funk, and then passes through a proglike instrumental break en route to finishing with a country hoedown, of all things. Miraculously, this all holds together without becoming pretentious or seeming overly pleased with its experimentalism. And this spirit is probably what allowed Hall & Oates persevere and thrive through so many changes in style and so many false starts down blind alleys on their way to superstardom.





Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.


The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.


Siren Songs' Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.


Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.


Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.


Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.


Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.


Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.


The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.