The hits are on his lips
The crosswinds of pop culture are curious and fickle, and right now they are giving Hall & Oates, of all people, a rare cool breeze at their backs.
The venerable blue-eyed soul duo begins a two-night stand at the Hollywood Bowl tonight with the Spinners, kindred spirits from the era of Philadelphia sidewalk harmonies. More than that, of-the-moment acts such as Death Cab for Cutie and the Killers have paid public tribute to the duo as an influence, and Gym Class Heroes have an album of Hall & Oates mash-ups on the way.
Daryl Hall also recently popped up in a cameo role on HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords,” following up his and John Oates’ appearance last year on “Will & Grace.” Kanye West, Tony Yayo and Wu-Tang Clan, meanwhile, are just some of hip-hop stars who have sampled Hall & Oates.
Clearly, the group that gave the world the infectious early-'80s hits “Kiss on My List,” “Maneater” and “Private Eyes” has managed to earn a measure of coolness that eluded it originally. Pitchfork.com last month declared: “Believe it or not, Daryl Hall is an indie rocker.”
“Well, we always knew we were cool, but, yeah, to critics -- the people that wrote about music instead of making it -- we weren’t really part of what was cool,” Hall said Wednesday. “We were always respected -- and more than respected -- by peers and people whose music we cared about. Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, James Brown, Al Green -- these are the people who told us they loved our music going back to the 1970s.”
Hall believes that the resurgence of soul music in today’s music scene has made it easier for a new generation of fans and critics to connect the dots back to Hall & Oates’ songbook, which included six No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100.
The pair have been friends since childhood. They met in Philadelphia and, as teens, were immersed in the soul scene there, and Hall found himself, literally, singing on street corners with members of the Delfonics and the Stylistics. That became a lasting compass point in their music, but when they later mixed it with a pop-rock sensibility it didn’t appeal to the sensibilities of the music press.
“When we came up, if you were coming from influences in country music, folk or the blues, somehow that was automatically cool,” the 60-year-old singer said. “But if you came from soul, well, there was something freaky about that. There were misunderstandings or a lack of understanding about what we were and what we were doing.”
That may be the case, but it wasn’t just the music that put off haughty purists -- it was also all those videos. Hall & Oates surged to the top of the music scene in the early 1980s along with MTV, and the group’s videos and mainstream sound made it a staple act for the upstart channel.
The videos helped sell albums, but the sight of the lanky, blond Hall and the compact and taciturn Oates singing “Private Eyes” in their trench coats sure didn’t win over critics or rock fans. Hall also had to deal with the long shadow of, well, his hair.
“I was going for height, that’s for sure,” Hall said of his shellacked platinum rooster-comb. “The 1980s were a scary time for fashion. We had high hair. The problem with being famous is when you make bad fashion choices they just don’t go away. . . . I can’t watch those videos anymore.”
In fact, despite their MTV success, Hall has grown hostile toward the influence of music videos on music, especially live performances. “When you have a competition between the ear and the eye, the eye always wins. I’m an ear guy, I’m a radio guy, I’m a purist. . . . I hate what the videos have done; I think it’s the worst thing to happen to music in recent decades. I was watching Justin Timberlake on HBO and it was like a music video come to life. I couldn’t take it. Just stand there and sing! It was too Vegas for me.”
It may sound odd for Hall to criticize Timberlake -- the young singer seems to be carrying a torch that Hall & Oates once hoisted -- but Hall is known for speaking his mind, and the fellow who once had hair like a rooster remains cocky. Asked, for instance, if he has played the Hollywood Bowl before -- a career booking for many artists -- he said: “If I have, it was a long time ago and I don’t remember.”
The feisty side of Hall helped with his career push to reshape Hall & Oates in the mid-1990s as an indie act as well as with his campaign to spread awareness about Lyme disease.
He has used his fame to bring attention to the disease, and he chided President Bush for keeping his own contraction of Lyme disease out of the public eye for many months. Hall calls the bug-borne illness a dangerously ignored public-health crisis and feels lucky he is past the worst with his battle with the disease.
He may bring up the topic tonight at the Hollywood Bowl, but a Hall & Oates show is first and foremost about pleasing fans who know every lyric.
For Hall, whether he is deemed cool or not, there’s one unchanging challenge. “I hope I remember all the words too.”
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Hall & Oates
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood
When: 8:30 p.m. today and Saturday
Price: $7 to $147
Contact: (323) 850-2000