Oct. 22 2014 12:01 PM

There’s no shame in this duo’s game

Daryl Hall (left) and John Oates achieved pop-music perfection in 1981.

When it comes to pop culture, I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. It’s always seemed silly to me—or worse, elitist—to suggest that anyone should feel guilty about something that gives them pleasure or joy. The term, particularly as it pertains to music, is loaded with snobby implications. It suggests that there’s objectively “good” and “bad” music, and that if you happen to enjoy something a bit less highbrow than OK Computer, you should acknowledge its inferiority, and feel sorta bad about it. That’s utter nonsense.

Daryl Hall’s got my back on this one. Hall—half of the famed Philadelphia pop duo Hall and Oates—doesn’t care much for the idea of guilty pleasures, either. “That’s a horrible expression,” he said in a 2010 Chicago Tribune story. “You should never feel guilty for your pleasure.”

He’s right, you know, as long as we’re not talking about genuine depravity.

It’s likely a lot more personal for Hall than it is for me, because for as long as anyone can remember, Hall and Oates have been synonymous with guilty pleasure. Admittedly, it’s understandable how that got to be the case. In the ’70s and ’80s, the duo flooded the airwaves and eventually MTV with camp value— glossy production, cheeseball saxophone, melodies that are Ken-doll smooth. And as catchy as a song like “She’s Gone” or “Sara Smile” might be, I’ll be the first to admit that there’s little edge or boundary-pushing going on in these ubiquitous hits.

Daryl Hall & John Oates play Oct. 25 at Open Air Theatre at SDSU

Change the focus to the very literal image they’ve put forth since the early ’70s and the camp meter rises even further. The cover of their 1975 album Daryl Hall and John Oates borders on self-parody, the duo’s smoldering mugs slathered in so much makeup, they practically went kabuki. And their videos—especially “Private Eyes” (clap, clap)—were often unbelievably silly, which can be attributed partially to everything in the ’80s being unbelievably silly. Then again, outside of Magnum P.I., John Oates’ mustache has no competition.

Pick and choose certain moments from throughout Hall and Oates’ career, and you’ll come away with a pretty ridiculous picture. But whether you choose to ignore this or embrace it, it doesn’t overcome one important fact: As songwriters, Hall and Oates have a résumé that’s hard to argue with.

More specifically, Hall and Oates’ nineyear run from 1973 to 1981 is particularly strong, beginning with Abandoned Luncheonette, often regarded as the duo’s best. It’s undoubtedly a product of the 1970s, its silky melodies built around breezy acoustic guitars and the warm caress of Rhodes piano. As pop records go, Abandoned Luncheonette is easy like Sunday morning, but it’s also a marvel of sumptuous sound; soak in the shimmering keyboards on “She’s Gone” and you might find yourself on a bearskin rug with a snifter of brandy, asking, “How did I get here?” But when you make it the porno-funk wah wah of “Everytime I Look at You,” you likely won’t want to leave that cozy spot.

As Hall and Oates entered the ’80s, they adapted admirably to the times, starting with Voices—an album that’s arguably even better than Abandoned Luncheonette. Yet the smoothness here has been partially phased out in favor of a more jangly, streamlined new-wave sound. And do they ever nail it; the opening trio of “How Does it Feel to Be Back,” “Big Kids” and “United State” is a series of punchy, high-energy tracks that share more in common with The Police or Joe Jackson than Bread. Not that their ability to spin keyboard licks into pop gold was dulled in any way by the sharper sound of guitars; “Kiss On My List” is the runaway standout of its singles (though “You Make My Dreams” is arguably catchier), and though Paul Young turned “Everytime You Go Away” into an even bigger hit a few years later, H&O’s version is the richer and more soulful of the two.

And then there’s “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).” A return to the ultra-smooth style that Hall and Oates built up in the ’70s, with a contemporary R&B twist, the song finds the duo going all-in on their campiest qualities and ending up with their strongest hand. Calling it their best song might be too strong a statement, but I’ve gone this far, so why back down now? Alright, then: It’s their best song. The twinkling keyboards, the drum-machine patter, the head-nodding bass groove—which inspired “Billie Jean,” no less—it all adds up to pop perfection.

Now, not everything that Hall and Oates have done is amazing. The ’90s didn’t treat them all that well, for starters, and “Maneater,” even if tame by today’s standards, is a wee bit sexist. But everyone is allowed some missteps here and there, and prevalence of “guilty pleasure” status aside, history’s been pretty kind to Hall and Oates. They’re the most commercially successful duo of all time and last year were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And if Joseph Gordon Levitt’s dance routine to “You Make My Dreams” in (500) Days of Summer is any indication, they won back some elusive hipster cred in the process.

Not that sales figures, awards or Hollywood should necessarily have that much influence on how you hear the band. Just get comfortable, put on your headphones, turn up “I Can’t Go For That” and enjoy. But don’t you dare feel guilty about it. 

Write to jefft@sdcitybeat.com or editor@sdcitybeat.com.