Say No Go: The surprise rehabilitation of Daryl Hall & John Oates (No Can Do)

Lest we forget, there were several music megastars in the good old-bad old 1980s whose ubiquity and enormity was pretty much unparalleled since the days of The Beatles. But in the decade that epitomised the capitalist mantra “Bigger is Better” who, ultimately, was the top of the pops? 

Being a back-in-the-day chart spotter from the UK it doesn’t take Brain of Britain to work out who they might be.

Too easy, as the Aussies would say.

If you focus on the US singles charts as the measure – and why wouldn’t you? – and tot up how many weeks each song by each artist spent on the American Billboard Hot 100 between 1980 and 1989, the Top Five list, though unashamedly homegrown (no Duran Duran, U2 or George Michael. Not even a sniff of a Bucks Fizz), is a little less predictable than across the pond.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRKtSAwcGQ8

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin. 

5. Michael Jackson: eight No.1s, 20 hits and 326 weeks charted

4. Madonna: seven No.1s, 19 hits and 332 weeks charted

3. Billy Joel: three No.1s, 22 hits and 336 weeks charted

2. Daryl Hall & John Oates: five No.1s, 21 hits and 351 weeks charted

1. Prince: four No.1s, 26 hits and 378 weeks charted

A purple rein indeed then. 

I can safely say that the old piano man Billy Joel wouldn’t come anywhere near (uptown) top ranking in Blighty, and neither would the runners up, the only American duo of the period that did anything like decent business on home turf.

Hall and Oates — an abbreviated moniker that never appeared on any of the duo’s studio albums — snotched up an impressive 13 Top 10 singles in the US in the 1980s, but just two in Britain their entire career: the funky, bass-bolstered disco soul of I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) and Maneater, both, intriguingly, charting in Britain in 1982, when the charts were awash with skimp-on-the-bottom-end New Romantic synthpop.

The Pennsylvania two-piece liked to term their music “rock ‘n’ soul” — they even named their first greatest hits album just that. They had everything an act could want — except critical approval. The music press always bashed the duo for being too soft, too poppy and not serious enough to be considered contenders in the exclusive club of rock/pop gods.

Whatever the reason, critics gravitated toward R.E.M. and The Smiths, and treated Hall and Oates like the targets in a journalistic game of Whac-a-Mole.

Despite an endless string of hits with sincere lyrics, superior vocals and exquisite hooks that mined many of the same soul influences that would garner their Brit contemporaries David Bowie, Elton John and the aforementioned George Michael (plus, to a lesser extent the flash in the pop pans ABC and Spandau Ballet) respectful recognition, Hall and Oates didn’t get anything like the same kind of positive reception from the music press corps.

Then again, those wacky eager to please soft focus films hardly helped.

You’ve laughed at them. You’ve mocked them. You’ve scorned them. And, really, it’s been with good reason. Without much debate (hell, even the two men agree), Daryl Hall and John Oates were responsible for some of the cheesiest ‘80s music videos in the history of cheesy ‘80s music videos. Just watch them as they dress up in trench coats and clap-clap during Private Eyes. See little Oates stumble through an enormous drum during Out Of Touch. Need to observe a man two-stepping along a cloud? Hall does so—clumsily—in the silly Method Of Modern Love.

Citing their supposed lack of edge and irony, critic Rob Horning spoke for a legion of rock bores purists when he wrote on PopMatters.com that the duo “are tainted with too close an association with the decade’s zeitgeist, making it nearly impossible to hear anything but nostalgia or camp humour in them.”

While Rolling Stone admired some of the pair’s earlier more AOR works in the Seventies, their more groove-beat based sound, which kicked in at the turn of the decade, got them labeled pop-rock poseurs. Oh, the charlatans. A 1985 piece in the magazine was even jokingly titled Hall and Oates: The Self-Righteous Brothers. 

At least I think they were joking. Cue ‘zany’ vid.

But there was always more to this pop pairing than mullets and moustaches. Guys, it’s veneration time because Daryl Hall and John Oates are not some Yacht Rock relic, nor are they an Eighties moustache caricature.

Go listen to any of their many albums across four decades and you will hear rock experimentations; hip hop influences; folk and acoustic tinges; and soul, funk and disco flourishes in addition to their trademark rock ‘n’ soul pop sonics. Then, you hear their voices come together, with John’s lower folk register versus Daryl’s superman soul quality. It’s as though the two differences made the whole amalgamation greater than the individual parts, as great as those individuals are solo.

Hall & Oates, 1983 line-up stylee: G.E. Smith, Tom ‘T-Bone’ Wolk, Mickey Curry, Daryl Hall, John Oates, Charlie DeChant

They were not simply a slick studio concoction either, but the total live package. Their band was smoking’ hot, with über guitarist G.E. Smith, creative collaborator and bassist the late Tom “T-Bone” Wolk and future Bryan Adams drummer Mickey Curry and longtime multi-instrumentalist and saxophonist supreme Charlie “Mr. Casual” De Chant. These guys were the real deal, and I’ll be damned if I won’t spend the rest of my life giving them their due.

The screamingly successful Pennsylvanians had earned a certain retroactive disco cred thanks to Daryl’s work as a session musician with a string of bands, most notably the Delfonics and Stylistics via pioneering Philly Soul progenitors Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

Having said that, the early Hall & Oates albums were a country mile from anything that scanned as “dance music” — their early output shared sonic DNA with soulful soft-rockers like Carole King and the Doobie Brothers, while their late-‘70s run led them from billowy AOR to skinny-ties-and-muscle-tees rawk-and-rollers doing new-wave soul-infused disco.

Genre-hopping aside, it’s fair to say that Hall & Oates have an incredibly long list of American FM radio classics that includes 1976’s Rich Girl, the first of their sextet of US chart-toppers, but also (deep breath) She’s Gone, Sara Smile, Family Man, Adult Education, Say It Isn’t So, One On One and, watch out, because with its deliciously stealthy Motown groove here comes the all-consuming Maneater. Grrr.

“The maneater wasn’t just that woman. It was New York City” Quote from John Oates’ 2017 memoir Change Of Seasons

It seemed like the duo were energised by the dawn of a new decade. 1980’s Voices, their first self-produced album, had a slow rise to the top. But when the insanely catchy Kiss On My List exploded to pole position in the spring of 1981, followed by the pure pop pleasure of You Make My Dreams that summer, Hall & Oates were on the cusp of becoming one of the dominant forces of rock music. They had racked up a huge list of US hits in addition to the albums Private Eyes, H20, Rock ‘n’ Soul: Part 1 and Big Bam Boom. Few artists have experienced a run like these guys had from 1980 through 1985. This was, to coin a phrase now enshrined in music parlance, their imperial phase.

The original concept of the term imperial phase was coined by the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, one half of another marmite pop duo who experienced a run of considerable chart success which started almost the moment Hall & Oates went off the boil. In an early 2000s interview he said of the PSB’s own mid to late ’80s peak: “I felt at this time that we had the secret of contemporary pop music, that we knew what was required. We entered our imperial phase.”

The term was then amplified and established in music criticism in an essay for Pitchfork by Tom Ewing, who suggests there are three keys to an imperial phase, the last of these being self-definition: “The final thing about an imperial phase is that it defines an act, setting the tone for the rest of a career. An imperial phase sustains a career but also freezes it: Empires decline, and the memory of former glories dies hard.”

No pop act better exemplifies Ewing’s third rule of imperiality than Daryl Hall and John Oates. To be sure, they have had a long and varied career, but in the popular imagination they will always be frozen in time as their early-’80s, mulleted-and-moustachioed selves — pop gods from the dawn of MTV who defined new wave rock ‘n’ soul for an entire generation. As they said themselves, nothing else like it… anywhere.

In commercial terms, they ran out of steam with the ineffectual Method Of Modern Love (or to coin another Tennant phrase from his time at Smash Hits magazine, they went, unceremoniously “down the dumper”). But it was the shimmering gemlike quality of the inspired icy cool I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) that cemented their place in the minds of the British public and the emerging club culture.

One of the first American hits anchored prominently by a drum machine, thanks to that much-sampled springy synthetic programming, wonderfully spare guitar lick and glistening synth fills, it’s an undisputed minimalist masterpiece, and one of the most notable explores of that thing that call a ‘crossover record’. And if you took away the (admittedly great) vocals there’s a wonderfully timeless quality that has ensured the track’s ubiquity in so many subsequent records.

In a 2006 interview with Mix magazine, Daryl Hall (he’s the singer) said of the song’s genesis:

“Remember the old Roland CompuRhythm box? I turned to the Rock and Roll 1 preset, sat down at a Korg organ that happened to be lying there and started to play this bassline that was coming to me. It’s the old recording studio story: The engineer heard what I was doing and turned on the tape machine. Good thing, because I’m the kind of person who will come up with an idea and forget it. The chords came together in about ten minutes, and then I heard a guitar riff, which I asked John, who was sitting in the booth, to play. I basically wrote the song on the spot. It was being recorded as I was thinking of it.

“In the vocal booth, I sang some gibberish words and wrote some proper lyrics later. We added the alto sax later too. A few years after the song topped the US charts, we did We Are The World, the USA For Africa famine relief record, with a lot of other stars. Everybody was in the room without their minders – a really unusual situation. I got talking to Michael Jackson and he said: ‘I hope you don’t mind. I stole the groove from I Can’t Go For That for my song Billie Jean. I told him: ‘Oh Michael, what do I care? You did it very differently.’”

Mix’s Gary Eskow asked Oates (he’s the guitarist) if he considered doing any other guitar parts on the song: 

“No, never! When we play I Can’t Go For That in concert, I usually play some shimmery parts, but there was a leanness to the ’80s sound that we were into. The Cars and other groups had that straight, simple eighth-note feel, and it was an influence on us; it was one of the cool things about ’80s music. The ’70s were rococo, but punk and new wave flavored the ’80s, and we responded to those styles.”

So hypnotic was the track’s appeal that it even topped Billboard’s R&B charts, an uncommon circumstance for non-black artists at the time. Before the decade was out, I Can’t Go For That would become one of most sampled tracks this side of James Brown’s Funky Drummer. Most memorably, New York hip hop trio De La Soul would flip its propulsive backbeat and pointillist funk bass line into Say No Go, a cautionary anti-drug tale that also sampled a smattering of Hall’s vocals yet somehow became a much bigger hit in Britain than America.

A decade after De La Soul, the Kompakt-affiliated duo Broker/Dealer reimagined the song yet again as Haulin’ Oats, now a millennial underground classic for edit junkies everywhere.

Strictly speaking, after the menacing Maneater chomped its way to sixth place later that November of ’82, Hall & Oates did actually make their presence felt in UK Top Ten a further four times, and none of them under their own name.

Early 1985 saw the aforementioned USA For Africa charity ensemble followed almost immediately by Paul Young’s cover of Every Time You Go Away, a five year-old deep cut from Voices.

Cornish pasty-faced crooner Young did the unthinkable and took the yearning ballad to No.4 in Britain and all the way to the top in America as the duo’s own Method Of Modern Love struggled to replicate their previous commercial success.

At that summer’s Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, Hall & Oates were the de facto house band, not only playing their own set but also backing up Mick Jagger and Tina Turner.

And just like that, the Imperial Phase was over. After Live Aid, I can only imagine, they were probably just tired. A bit like how Mick Hucknall’s always looked.

Flash forward two decades, and in the midst of mash-up mania Simply Red used I Can’t Go For That’s infectious Korg rhythm for their single Sunrise, which, again, bested the original’s position, lighting up the charts at No.7 in 2003. The same year Billboard officially sanctioned Hall & Oates as the most successful duo of the rock era — surpassing the Everly Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel, et al. 

The following year, the endearingly earwormy Out Of Touch — its two choppy thick bass lines and energetic drum machine percussion making it a favourite of New York mixmeister DJs like Arthur Baker — was covered in budget priced Aldi-style by Uniting Nations, peaking at number seven on the UK chart, and with delicious irony, number one in Romania—where it was the highest-selling single of 2005. Inexplicably, the original from 1984 was a US chart-topper (the duo’s sixth and final No.1) but in the UK the Brits more than lived up to the song’s title, denying it a place in their hallowed Top 40.

Beware, this video contains an overdose of faux leopard skin that only Bet Lynch could be envious of.

Around the start of the new millennium, Daryl and John’s music began to be noticed again. Arcade Fire and The Killers proclaimed themselves fans of the stories duo, while Kanye West sampled Grounds For Separation.

In 2010, electro-pop duo The Bird and the Bee released Interpreting The Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates; in June, while self-proclaimed mega fans Koot Hoomi delivered an even more extreme makeover on The Dark Side of Hall and Oates. (Their version of Kiss On My List features helicopter sounds and a portentous guitar opening, both of which evoke The Doors’ music in Apocalypse Now.)

Suddenly, it’s cool to like Hall and Oates.

“I respond to this with joy and happiness and a sense of fulfilment,” Hall purred. “When I was a teenager, I revered people who were veterans, like B.B. King, James Brown — people who somehow stood out from their own generation. I always said I want to be someone who’s part of history, and have what I do be renewed through people’s slightly different generational perceptions.”

While they gig occasionally, their last album was 2006’s holiday special Home For Christmas. No matter, because I remain enraptured by most of the same stuff everyone else is I suspect, the endless melodic genius of the tunes and Hall’s ridiculous vocal prowess chief among them.

Daryl’s also a bit of a whizz kid property developer these days, and if he embraces his resurgent popularity with younger musicians and fans, he has also helped propagate it. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he’s savvy about using the Internet to connect with a new demographic. Since 2007, he’s been hosting Live From Daryl’s House, an online TV series in which he jams and chats with pals in his farmhouse studio on the Connecticut/New York border. It even won a Webby award for best variety show.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPHetGFUHqI

In a wide-ranging Pitchfork interview in 2007, the singer was quoted as saying, slightly ungraciously, that he and John were “not an equal duo and never have been. I’m 90% and he’s 10% and that’s the way it is. And he’d say the same thing. He is overshadowed by me because I’m such a strong vocal personality. I also always believed that you can only have one singer in a band. He’s the quiet one. It’s sort of like Jagger-Richards or something.”

Hall & Oates, now 73 and 72 respectively, met at Philadelphia’s Temple University in 1967 and started the band three years later. Oates says they’ve sustained a career over five decades thanks to a diverse audience which has pretty much always been there for them. “There were people in their early twenties, but also people in their forties and fifties,” he recalled of the first gig. “That is really still true today. We appeal to a wide variety of people. People come to our gigs now who are young enough to be our grandchildren.”

Nevertheless, their opinions differ slightly as to whether a 19th album is on the cards. Daryl claimed recently he’s been workshopping ideas with a handful of collaborators, while John says his plan is to “jump on board later” when the songs are a bit further along. Then again, “I think we’ve said everything we’ve wanted to say,” admits the guitarist, who shaved the ’tache off in 1990 to close the door on the “weird protracted adolescence” of his pop years. “Our passions lie in our individual projects now. We’ve accepted we should go out and represent this great body of work we’ve made already. We’re proud of what we’ve done, and our shows are ongoing. I think that’s OK.”

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: Hall, being the tall and slim blond pompadoured blue eyed soul singer, was a bit of a hit with the housewives back in the day, including my own mother who, at the time, thought Misters Hall and Oates were the bees knees in modern music. “I’m sure he’s Greek,” said mum about the short dark one with the Freddie Mercury style porno tache. She was close, he’s of Italian decent. Noting the interest, my father did the decent thing and bought a various artists combo, probably because it had I Can’t Go For That On it… and a whole lot of other stuff too.

Action Trax Volumes 1&2 were a double pack of albums released by K-Tel in the UK at the beginning of March 1982. Buy one, get the other free, see. The majority of its tracks span the late 1981 to early 1982 period. ABBA, Japan, Human League, Kim Wilde, Status Quo, Teardrop Explodes, OMD, XTC, the Eurocentric eclecticism was endless.

There was also an astonishingly eerie piece of sinister synth melancholia called Drowning In Berlin by one-hit wonders The Mobiles. They were kind of like a brunette Toyah if Toyah has been good. Long given over to obscurity, Drowning In Berlin now exists as memories first heard on Radio 1’s chart countdown and one or two Thursday night Top Of The Pops episodes, though it is, amazingly, available to stream, kidz.

BONUS BEATS 2: Daryl Hall’s chiseled Germanic good looks (he was born Daryl Hohl) wasn’t just an object of desire for housewives. In a follow-up feature I’ll focus on the time Hall & Oates were a mere support act for David Bowie, and my snatched conversation with Daryl about exactly that.

Displaying some much needed discretion, I never did tell him about the time I was off school in March 1984, sick in bed and with nothing to do, spied a bit of Hall’s hairy chest peeking out from the cover of my newly purchased Sounds music weekly and promptly discovered I could be “excited” by older blond men. Who knew?

This is the actual Sounds in question. Well, a stain-free edition anyway

John Oates? Nah, too short, too ‘tached, too curly haired.

In other words. No can do.

Liked it? Take a second to support Steve Pafford on Patreon!
Author avatar
Steve Pafford
We use cookies to give you the best experience.