When we imagine Hall & Oates, we can only see their idiotic polyester clothes, their mockable hair (facial and otherwise), their definitively ’80s instrumentation. They appear a parody of themselves in retrospect — a group so defined by their era that no one can separate the music from the cheese.
The whole 1980s seems to fall prey to this phenomenon. Certainly there are great 80s bands — The Cure, The Pixies, Sonic Youth — but the bulk of popular 80s bands have fallen into the nostalgia bin quite recklessly. Viewers of the film Adventureland became aware of this phenomenon when the music blaring on the amusement park speakers — Whitesnake, Air Supply and the like — contrasts with the music its downtrodden employees listen to in their free time. Unfortunately, in with the dregs of pop music, often brilliant work becomes obscured, as in the case of Hall & Oates.
Much of the problem comes from the instrumentation, which is a product of the precise time and place of the 1980s, thick with echo and synthesized sounds. The technology was simply not good enough to produce plausible facsimiles of instruments. Whereas today I can buy a reasonably priced electronic piano that sounds and feels like a real piano, the 1980s had the painful synth keyboards that appear in the above video. To boot, the 80s synthesized drum punch on 2 and 4 of the beat makes anything instantly disposable.
The key to Hall & Oates, however, is the songs. The songs are in the tradition of great pop songs, in which the harmonies match the song. When, in the above song “You Make My Dreams,” Daryl Hall keeps his voice in the same range, then rises up for “never beeeeee the same,” he’s fitting the song into the basic pop-writing traditions of Goffin/King and Lennon/McCartney. The ooh oohs borrowed from girl groups, which are ubiquitous in Hall & Oates’ body of work, fill out the the sound with the harmonic solidity that does not present itself in the grunge-indie-rock tradition that The Cure/Pixies/Sonic Youth generation brought forth.
Let’s inspect another great Hall & Oates song, “Rich Girl.”
Within the deliberate and regularly shifting chordal structure, which dabbles in minor more than your average pop tune, the acerbic and acidic lyric tears through the cynicism of its own self-aware instrumentation. The great not-quite-double-entendre line that leads into the chorus seems to sum up the group’s take on life: “Say money but it won’t get you too far, get you too far.” The “but it” comes off sounding like another “money” to produce “Say money money won’t get you too far, get you too far,” the repeated phrases seeming to highlight the excesses of the decade to come. What is “Rich Girl” but the retelling of the girl in “Like A Rolling Stone” told at her excessive peak rather than after her dismal plummet.
The key to the song lies in those backing vocals. As Brian Eno has suggested, backing vocals are the key to most great pop songs, and this is no exception. The repetition of “Rich Girl” goes along with the repetition of everything “money,” “get you too far,” even the duplicity of “rich girl/bitch girl.” Each harmonic reinforcement of that with the full chord underneath the melody line is as expected, but they fill out the song in a way that the synthesized instruments never can. Recently, as discussed by Sasha Frere-Jones, the harmonic accord has made its return to indie-rock, but even then, it has skipped over the 1980s entirely, hearkening back to the age of folk rather than the age of hair-rock.
Yet, that doesn’t mean that we should simply ignore Hall & Oates. If anything, I think it’s time for a Hall & Oates revival. One of the problems with their work is that the silliness of the trappings hid the work itself. One does not imagine Hall & Oates thinking “What great songwriters!” As a result, their works have found few cover versions, which I believe to be a key determinant of the longevity and perceived worth of songs. For instance, the Lennon/McCartney brand was only born after everyone and their mom started singing “Yesterday” and “In My Life.” Sadly, covers of a great song like “Rich Girl” are either tainted by the same amount of 80s schmaltz or done purely in jest.
Hall & Oates write great pop because they do not have the anxiety and mental anguish of the modern pop star. They view it as a job, but one that they genuinely enjoy and put their energy into. That doesn’t mean that the pop songs they write are deep reflections of their soul, only that they are self-aware artifacts of enjoyment and craftsmanship. And as with all great flaws, their greatest flaw comes from their greatest strength — they are too aware of their own cheesiness/disposability. Look at the mugging for the camera in their videos and listen to the flourishes of crowd-rousing wails and whoops. They do not bring with them some easily-discussed artistic mythology or pathology — no suicide, no explosive band breakup, no album-that-never-finished. They have no pretense to their own greatness, which greatness sadly requires.
The whole generation of white crooners who followed Daryl Hall owe him a debt of gratitude, from Justin Timberlake to Adam Levine to Elliot Yamin. Yet, the songs themselves will disappear down the memory hole if we do not resuscitate them.
Let’s celebrate these songs with a great cover from Losers’ Lounge in New York. And don’t let the John Oates mustache get in the way of a great song.