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