How Hall & Oates Overcame The Smouldering Aftermath Of Disco

Hall & Oates at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction.

I’m thrilled Daryl Hall and John Oates are finally 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, why simplicity is sometimes best but so often not, and the coupling of words to music. And while some pop 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 the present day, 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:

“It was like we were in some Gothic tale of elves, dragons, warriors and monarchs. One group would continue to befoul the throne under the dark rule of disco (the music of blacks, gays, women and Latinos), and the other would try and return it to its rightful rulers (the white guys).”*

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 could well have been refused airplay in 1980’s 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:

The fact that Daryl Hall has one of the greatest voices around, that he’s one of the smoothest, most technically perfect singers ever, is glossed over by the fact that he’s also a mainstream pop star. “It’s weird,” Hall says, without a trace of irony. 

“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.

“I think we’re the Eighties Beatles,” Hall continues. “If we had been born twenty years earlier, maybe the world would have seen that. There’s something about our personalities that is very Lennon-and-McCartneyesque. And there is something about the body of work that we both have that’s similar.” Hall pauses again. “I know people will have trouble accepting that,” he says finally. “But I don’t have any trouble accepting it.”

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.

And of John Oates? He may’ve been egregiously viewed by some as an overpaid backing singer during the duo’s most visible years, but my take is that every great Hall needs an Oates in order to be truly great. Here was a singer-songwriter of high capabilities who was unafraid to let his colleague – Daryl Hall – take the spotlight. More than that, Oates overall contributions only served to enhance his partner’s artistry.

This can be found in the expert backing and sometime lead vocals of Oates, but especially so in the genesis of some of their signature hits, namely She’s Gone, Maneater and Out Of Touch. All three had their origins on the John Oates’ guitar, reportedly in an acoustic / reggae vein for the first two and in a nod to the Stylistics on the latter. Had there been no Hall, they would’ve made perfectly nice if probably unheard of songs, but thankfully for all concerned Hall knew how to take them in a more pop, R&B direction. Subsequently, they created works of simultaneous commercial and artistic success.

Hall may’ve been a more remarkable vocalist and a more prolific songwriter than his brother-in-arms, but like many partnerships (including fellow 2014 Hall Of Fame inductees the E Street Band), the story they could tell together was more compelling than had they been alone. That said, while Hall & Oates continue to attract thousands to their live concerts, it is apart from Hall where Oates has recently entered a distinct purple patch of creativity. Click here to read about his new 15 track, 3 EP collection entitled Good Road To Follow where Oates collaborates with everyone from Vince Gill to Ryan Tedder.

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.

“Everything you need to know about writing a hit song, it’s in Rich Girl.” – Brandon Flowers.

*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.

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