Remember when the 1980s used to suck?
It can be tough to recall, now that we live in a post-Wedding Singer world where pop culture seems fixated on recycling what James Murphy called “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s.” There was a time when invoking that decade meant drudging up the worst excesses of pop and rock music. It was the decade that rock history documentaries would pass by the way most people drive through bad neighborhoods: windows up, foot on the gas.
Of course, the bad reputation that decade got from snooty rock critics and bands threatened by keyboards and guyliner was vastly overstated. There was great music in the age of Ms. Pac-Man and Robert Smith hairdos — and not just from the underground. There were immortal pop singles, the kind of songs that can light up karaoke nights and make you twist up the volume knob when they come on the stereo.
And few groups brought the goods as consistently as Daryl Hall and John Oates.
Thanks to years of Yacht Rock jokes and nostalgia, Hall & Oates are once again getting their due as a group that was genuinely awesome. It was a long time coming.
Taking a look at the dynamic duo, it’s not hard to see why they used to be considered avatars of ’80s lameness: Oates with his perfect porn ’stache, Hall with his white coats that made him look like Don Johnson’s math teacher. While they achieved their greatest commercial success with their ’80s work (particularly records like Private Eyes and H2O), both Hall and Oates had been producing music since the ’70s. And in the youth-obsessed pop milieu, few things will get you stamped as uncool faster than being “old.”
The thing is, though, Hall & Oates were cool. And they were a much stranger group than most people gave them credit for.
Take a listen to Hall’s Sacred Songs solo LP sometime. Recorded toward the end of the ’70s, he collaborated with Robert Fripp to produce a great record. If the idea of Daryl Friggin’ Hall working with a guitar-warping weirdo like Fripp (who usually moonlights with David Bowie and Brian Eno) seems unreal enough, the fact that the record is full of songs talking about Aleister Crowley and Celtic druidism is downright crazy.
Those esoteric interests don’t bubble up to the surface on most of Hall’s work with John Oates, but the duo stood out because they could evolve. At first, the two songwriters carved a comfortable niche for themselves in the blue-eyed soul lane. They were so good at writing soul music that covers of their songs by actual soul and R&B musicians went over like gangbusters. (Both Lou Rawls and Taveres dropped chart-topping covers of H&O’s “She’s Gone.”)
Then, the duo embraced synths and electronic production with gusto. They merged ’70s soul and adult contemporary melodies with then-modern sonics and production techniques. Songs like “You Make My Dreams,” “Maneater,” “Private Eyes,” and “Your Kiss Is on My List” pull off a tricky balancing act. They sound dated and timeless. You can practically see the pastel shirts and rolled-up sleeves they were wearing while recording these songs, and yet they sound just as lively and perfect in 2017 as they did in 1982.
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The Hold Steady sang about how “at least in dying you don’t have to deal with New Wave for a second time.” But when New Wave soul produced songs as indelible as “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” relieving that time again and again doesn’t seem so bad.
And if you think about it, things could be so much worse. We could all live long enough to deal with the second coming of nu-metal.
Hall & Oates are performing with Tears for Fears on Monday, July 17, at Gila River Arena in Glendale. Tickets are $30 and up via ticketmaster.com.