Daryl Hall & John Oates have been at it for four decades. In the 1970s, they wrote great soul tunes. In the '80s, they hemorrhaged pop tunes. This is the sum of their success: 34 hit tunes, seven platinum albums, six gold albums, and 60 million albums sold. After "Out of Touch" in 1984, things began to cool down. Yes, there might be universes with laws that permit a pop group to make hits forever, but we do not live in such a universe. Here, no matter how hot the artist gets, those hits eventually stop coming. Even the light of the brightest superstars imaginable—Madonna, George Michael, Michael Jackson, and Prince—eventually dimmed. One day, the brilliance of Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé will also fade. This is the way of all things: This, too, shall pass. But Hall & Oates's passing from hot to cold turned out to be not so bad at all. The two are on friendly terms, tour frequently, and still hold the position of being the most successful duo in the history of pop music.
That's the background. What I want to do for the rest of this preview is list the five things I like most about Hall & Oates's long career. Hopefully, this list will provide the reader (particularly the reader who is unfamiliar with their body of work—and such a person is probably young indeed) with an adequate idea of the duo's greatness.
The Appearance of Daryl Hall and John Oates
Hall does not look like Oates. Hall is Nordic, and he is even considered one of the greatest "blue-eyed soul singers" of all time. Oates, of course, cannot be considered a "blue-eyed" soul singer. His appearance is definitely Mediterranean—black curly hair, black mustache, swarthy skin, black eyes, thick red lips. Hall, on the other hand, has slim pink lips, blue eyes, blond hair, and very white skin. With Hall & Oates, we see the two poles of whiteness, from the north pole to the south pole, from Norway to Italy, from Viking to Roman.
The Cover of Hall & Oates's Daryl Hall & John Oates
As with many Hall & Oates album covers, Daryl Hall & John Oates features an image of Daryl Hall and John Oates. Indeed, one wishes all their album covers just had an image of Daryl Hall and John Oates—Hall being as Nordic as possible, Oates as Mediterranean as possible. But this is not the case. For example, their first album, Whole Oates (their folk record—who could escape the '60s?), has an image of an opened can, and H20, one of their two biggest albums, has the image of postcoital flesh. Daryl Hall & John Oates is the king of the duo's album covers because it has a Hall under the influence of David Bowie's glam-rock moment and an Oates under the influence of Giorgio Moroder's disco moment. Hall looks like a beautiful woman, and Oates looks like a beautiful man. The wind blows their hair back. Hall looks just like a man-eater.
The Video for "She's Gone"
This, I hold, is one of the greatest and strangest videos ever made. Go to YouTube and see it as soon as possible. If you've only got a smartphone, stop reading this article and watch it right now. There is nothing like it. The song itself is one of Hall & Oates's best soul tunes (it's on their album Abandoned Luncheonette), but the video is completely soulless. There's no smooth dancing (Oates has some moves), no feeling it. The two sit on chairs and look totally bored. A glammy Hall smokes and waits for the song to end so that he can be bored doing something else; a disco Oates (black elevator shoes) seems stoned and ready to leave reality and dream of a blank wall. It's as if they are bored with the feelings expressed in the song. Bored with their own song. Bored with the pop life. Bored with all of this falling in and out of love. The video ends with a devil chasing them around the chairs. This is as close as they get to being excited about anything in this video. Utterly wonderful.
"I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)"
The tune, which really inaugurates Hall & Oates's most brilliant (in terms of popularity) moment (early to mid '80s), is a masterpiece of American pop. The arrangement is simply perfect. The funky bass-and-drum opening, the 1-2-3-4 up and 1-2-3-4 down guitar hook, those wonderfully smooth and glittering bridges, the short sax solo near the end. And here Hall proves without a doubt that he is the king of "blue-eyed soul"—he swings so sweetly, so effortlessly with the beat and progression of the chords. This is indeed one of the few tunes by a white group to enter and climb to the very top of the R&B charts, which in those days were really the black American charts. If you were white, you had to sing some serious soul to get through that door. And which black person in the world could deny entry to "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)"? None of us had that kind of strength. The song had you on the floor before you could even dream of saying no. We all loved and felt that tune deeply. Indeed, seven years later, De La Soul cold sampled it on "Say No Go," and ever since, it has been part of hiphop's sample canon.
The Mind Over Matter Line in "Maneater"
The last verse of "Maneater," which is on H20 and is the duo's biggest hit (it spent an astounding four weeks on the top of the charts): "I wouldn't if I were you/I know what she can do/She's deadly, man, and she could really rip your world apart/Mind over matter/The beauty is there but a beast is in the heart." I have always loved the way Hall sings the words "mind over matter"—he fills them with a sense of real concern ("Get a hold of yourself, man!") for his friend, who is failing to control a dangerous desire. The body (its flesh, meat, bones) is leading his friend directly to the mouth, teeth, jaws of a love-hungry woman. If the mind fails to dominate the body, the body will destroy the mind and the body. And what is it that the mind sees? It sees what's inside this woman, what is in her cold heart: a beast.
As the great sensualist R. Kelly once showed us, a body can only call ("It's unbelievable how your body's calling for me"). A body can't think; a body can only be a thing. A mind without a body is free (Socrates). A body without a mind is blind. (A quick note: The local band Harvey Danger did an excellent cover of this tune on Dead Sea Scrolls.)
It's also worth recalling that "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)" is about the body and mind duality. In that tune, Hall offers his body but will give the woman none of his mind, which he calls the soul. (In philosophy, the mind and the soul are the same thing.) "I can go for being twice as nice/I can go for just repeating the same old lines/Use the body, now you want my soul/Ooh, forget about it/Now say, no go." No to my soul. No to my mind. With love, the body and the mind are never one. With Hall & Oates, there is always something more beneath the pure surface of the pop tune.