I was writing the other week about how jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd had essentially tried to trim his sails in favour of the prevailing stylistic winds at various stages of his career and I guess this is a characteristic of all except the outright ‘trendsetters’ in any field of music, who tend to blaze their own trail for others to follow – Dylan, Ellington, Ornette, Hendrix, Brian Eno, Bill Evans…..nominate your own additions to that list.
Now I’m discovering a similar pattern as I work my way through some of Darryl Hall & John Oates’ back catalogue. H&O are folks with whom I have had the most nodding of acquaintances over the years. Back in the day, I think I briefly owned a copy of their ‘Abandoned Luncheonette’ album from 1973, but other than that, it’s been the odd single here and there – including the marvellous ‘I Can’t Go for That’ (No can do)’ from about 1981, which is in many ways one of the perfect pop singles of all time.
Darryl Hall & John Oates are essentially two white boy soul fans from Philadelphia who, early on, discovered a flair for knocking out well-crafted pop songs. They have had a thirty-year career (now pretty much on hold) that saw them initially promoted alongside the likes of Jackson Browne as part of the singer-songwriter movement of the early 70’s, then as edgy new wave fellow travellers in the early 80’s and electronic balladeers in the mid to late ’80’s. It’s quite an education to listen to the different ways they have been produced and see the different images they have chosen to project over the years; wholesome boys in the mid-70’s, a haircut and a bit of eyeliner in the early 80’s ….nothing too risky but just a nod in the direction of the ‘mode du jour’. Like Donald Byrd, they are chameleonesque survivors whose career has always been rooted in the songs they have written and whose songs have always been rooted in the soul music they obviously love.
Another constant is Hall’s voice – always expressive and with a slight yearning quality – and the highly proficient vocal harmonies both H&O have delivered throughout their career. The vagaries of fashion have tended to dictate how much or how little of John Oates’ guitar we have heard over the years, but the duo have always been quick to avail themselves of whatever help the latest studio technology could afford them – I’m currently playing 1984’s ‘Big Bam Boom’ album, which utilises much of the technology you might expect to hear on – for example – a Pet Shop Boys album from the same era.
This evolution from rootsy acoustic troubadours in the mid-70’s to technologically adept studio gurus by the mid-80’s has meant that Hall & Oates have perhaps never really been part of any particular genre but are true pop artists, moving with the prevailing trends, something that some of their heroes at Motown would understand only too well. I think the true test of a Hall & Oates song is whether or not, were you to strip out all the synths and production gadgetry, you could close your eyes and envisage The Temptations or David Porter or Marvin Gaye performing the same song with one of those classic Stax or Motown arrangements. I’m sure that’s what Hall & Oates did every time they sat down to write – not bad, as sources of inspiration go…….