|Hall & Oates at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction.|
I’m thrilled Daryl Hall and John Oates are now in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. This article is about why this record-breaking duo had to fight long and hard for their credibility, a fight they have ultimately won in spectacular style.
The pop song really is a magic thing: the mystery of why certain melodies are more appealing than others. While some songwriters may sustain a career off the back of just a couple of strong melodies, Daryl Hall and John Oates created dozens over the course of more than 40 years.
For Hall & Oates, their ability to tap into this melodic magic so frequently – 29 US top 40 hits, seven US #1 hits as songwriters, six as performers – tricked many into thinking what they were doing was easy and therefore less artistically viable. A nonsense of course, otherwise we’d all be writing songs as perfect as Rich Girl. Many pretended to resist the urge.
Perhaps it was also the cheese of the accompanying Hall & Oates videos spinning on a such a high rotate in the early days of MTV. Did this disable the tragically hip’s appreciation of their song-craft, attention to detail and vocal chops? Ironically in 2014, the tragically-hip are very happy with Hall & Oates, but this wasn’t always the case when the duo were at their pop-culture pinnacle (1980-85). Those years – in the aftermath of the 1979 “disco sucks” movement – bring forth another theory as to why Hall & Oates weren’t critical darlings in the 80s.
As Chic’s Nile Rodgers points out in his must-read memoir Le Freak, the backlash against disco saw the absurdity of (normally) young white males claiming basic three chord rock as being artistically superior to complex, time-signature-changing, jazz, funk, soul or gospel-inflected black music:
The 80s were a new decade with evolving musical trends, but an attitude pervaded particularly in middle-America that somehow white rock was more credible than any other genre. This didn’t stop Nile Rodgers from producing mega-hits for countless other artists, including a remixed Adult Education for Hall & Oates, but as a band Chic’s glory days were through. Likewise, had commercially-oriented black music disciples like Hall & Oates been associated with disco in the 70s they would’ve been refused airplay in 1980s America – as such they were only refused fair critical appraisal.
With this in mind, have a read of this compelling (and excellent) Rolling Stone magazine feature on Hall & Oates from their commercial peak in early 1985. Writer Lynn Hirschberg finds the 35 year old Daryl Hall in a series of sardonic, almost disconcertingly arrogant moods.
Without context of the times and without knowledge that almost 30 years later Hall & Oates would be getting their overdue dues at the Hall Of Fame, you could be forgiven for not warming to the dominant half of popular music’s most statistically successful duo. But context is vital.
Here are three paragraphs plus a link to the full Rolling Stone article written by Lynn Hirschberg in January 1985:
“I’m just about the best singer I know, and it’s time for everybody to say that. I have total facility with my voice. And for some weird reason, critics don’t talk about it. Americans think that if you’re popular there must be something wrong with you. To me, the best music now is music that everyone’s listening to. Obscurity is just obscurity. There’s no romance in obscurity.” Hall pauses to spear some more pasta. This subject clearly frustrates him; Oates shrugs it off.
When you’re as good as Hall & Oates were and indeed are, it would be hard to not be a little defensive. That said, time has clearly softened Daryl Hall. The version fans see on his top-rated, highly acclaimed monthly jam-session-cum-food-show Live From Daryl’s House is of a relaxed, gregarious music legend comfortable with himself and his standing in the industry. He still has one of the greatest voices around.
Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction or not, for at least a dozen years now Hall & Oates’ popularity and positive critical appraisal has been on the upswing. To reference George Michael, people are listening without prejudice, something that would always have happened sooner or later with a catalogue as important and diverse as theirs’. Like Questlove said in his induction speech for Hall & Oates last week, I’m now hanging out for Rock ‘n’ Soul Part 2.
*In reference to the absurdity of the media-created rivalry between the “disco guys” Chic with Good Times and the “saviours of rock & roll” The Knack with My Sharona. This is not to be mistaken for saying Hall & Oates were a disco act. To me disco was more of an era (1975-79) than a genre because much of what got called disco was just late 70s danceable R&B. The Bee Gees incredibly detailed Spirits Having Flown LP and title-track is a perfect case in point. The issue of the critical dismissal of highly-commercial, black-inspired music is valid whether reassessing 70s or 80s music.