In the 1980s, the era of Pac Man, hair bands and Flashdance, seemingly anything synthetic and hyper-stylized ruled pop culture. If you were around then, you couldn't escape the sounds of Hall & Oates, the superduo of blond, clean-shaven Daryl Hall and raven-haired, mustached John Oates.
The hits abounded: "Maneater," "Kiss on My List," "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)," "Private Eyes," "Out of Touch," "Method of Modern Love." Up and down the radio dial, black and mainstream stations spun their records regularly. This new thing called MTV played Hall & Oates videos, in all their hopelessly cheesy glory, almost nonstop. By the end of the decade, the two friends from Philadelphia had racked up six No. 1 hits and sold 80 million albums worldwide.
But Hall & Oates never garnered critical respect. In their 35 years of recording, the two have never taken home a Grammy. Yet their influence - the strong R&B inflections in unabashedly slick pop arrangements - can be heard in the platinum music of such contemporary acts as Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake and Gym Class Heroes. Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and Brandon Flowers of the Killers have name-checked Hall & Oates in interviews. Hip-hop stars such as Kanye West and Wyclef Jean have sampled their grooves and lyrics.
The two recently appeared on The Daily Show, hamming it up with Jon Stewart.
It seems Hall & Oates may be receiving some long-overdue props.
"It's a vindication," says Hall, who headlines Rams Head Live tomorrow night with Oates. "The people writing about bands at that time were opposed to what we were doing. Right now, people seem to relate to what we did in a modern way."
The duo is on the road promoting its latest album, Live at the Troubadour, a two-CD/DVD set recorded at the famed Los Angeles venue in May.
"We're doing a real intimate show and breaking the songs down and making them raw," says Hall, 62. "We did the Troubadour album and figured we'd take that feeling around the country. I like playing the songs that way. It takes 'em out of time."
Stripped of the dated synthesizers and drum machines, the '80s hits hold up well in sensitive, acoustic arrangements. It's a testament to the strength of the songs, which have fluid melodies and easy choruses that burrow immediately: "Private eyes/They're watching you/They see your ev'ry move."
"Sometimes superstardom becomes a critical curse," says Bruce Warren, senior producer of World Cafe, the popular nationally syndicated radio program, which features a wide spectrum of burgeoning and established artists. "It is ironic that while their songs reflected the musical sensibility of the cheesy '80s, they became their most focused as a band and songwriters during this time. ... While production techniques often mar great songs, a great song is a great song. And therein lies the lasting appeal of [Hall & Oates]."
Many new fans are discovering the duo's classics in cyberspace via Hall's popular monthly Web show, Live From Daryl's House. The site, which streamed its 16th episode last month, features crisply shot performances in Hall's large, rustic home in upstate New York. An array of younger artists - Travis McCoy from Gym Class Heroes, Finger Eleven, Eric Hutchinson, KT Tunstall and others - have jammed with Hall and a full band. The episodes feature reimagined takes of Hall & Oates classics and other songs.
"I've been traveling on the road for years and thought about turning it upside down and bringing the road to me," says Hall, calling last week from his New York home. "This concept allows me to work with younger artists, do an intergenerational thing. The young artists are looking at the music differently. They hear something that I don't hear. So, creatively, it keeps me on my toes, and I love that."
McCoy, the lead rapper and focal point of Gym Class Heroes, performed with Hall on one of the site's early episodes.
"Daryl Hall is my hero, hands down," he says. "That was one of the happiest moments in my life. There were tingle bunnies up and down my back, if that makes sense. I've never met a more genuine artist. We still keep in touch."
The Web show was a progressive way to reach old and new fans, especially given the state of the spiraling music industry.
"When the music business fell apart, it made me happy," Hall says. "I did well commercially for a certain period, but the music business was always a hindrance to the creative side. This allows me to be much more flexible. I don't have to deal with the gatekeepers - the [artists and repertoire] people and record execs who think they know what's best for the music but too many times don't know."
Hall & Oates' last smash, "Everything Your Heart Desires," sailed into the Top 10 20 years ago. Since then, the two have toured occasionally and quietly released albums together and as solo acts. In 2003, Hall & Oates were voted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, one of few high regards their work has received over the years.
"We actually started in the '70s but were popular in the '80s, and so much of that era gets dismissed," Hall says. "But we were never part of that scene. You can't put us in a time so easily."
Well, not the songs. But the production values of Hall & Oates' big '80s hits were definitely of the era - glossy, synthesized arrangements that streamlined elements of Motown, new wave and Philly soul. The mid-'70s hits that predated their commercial peak ("She's Gone," "Sara Smile" and "Rich Girl") carried more of a classic R&B feel. Soul acts such as Tavares and Lou Rawls scored hit versions of "She's Gone" before Hall & Oates did. Later, Nina Simone covered "Rich Girl."
Hall says he still finds great ideas in the old songs.
"Sometimes it takes a while for people to appreciate what has been done before," he says. "The songs have stood the test of time and they're out of time. Maybe they were ahead of their time."
if you go Hall & Oates perform at 8 p.m. tomorrow at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place. Tickets are $55. Go to ramsheadlive.com or call 410-244-1131.
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