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Thomas Inskeep

Thomas Inskeep is a pop-chart obsessive and critic who writes daily for The Singles Jukebox. His reviews have been published in Seattle Weekly, Allmusic, SPIN, and Stylus Magazine, and he has also appeared in The Village Voice and Nashville Weekly. Hall & Oates’ “Out of Touch” topped the Billboard Hot 100 the week of his 14th birthday.

“What Does an Imperial Phase Sound Like? The Voice of Hall & Oates at their ’80s Peak”
While Daryl Hall & John Oates remain the most successful duo of the Rock Era in chart terms, their success was premised on their ability to look forward, not back. Once they stopped looking ahead, they got lapped by the field.

Hall & Oates’ breakthrough as a chart act began promisingly, with three Top 10 singles across 1976–77, culminating in the No. 1 “Rich Girl.” But it was seemingly over as soon as it began—they didn’t see the inside of the Top 10 for the rest of the ‘70s. They didn’t even come close until a 1980 Righteous Brothers cover became a sizeable hit (No. 12), and with a hit that very obviously looked backward—a cover representing what people imagined Hall & Oates to be in 1980.

From that point on, however, Hall & Oates were forward-thinkers, and it led to the biggest phase of their career. From the gold “Kiss on My List” (No. 1) and “You Make My Dreams” (No. 5) through their definitive Private Eyes album in late 1981, they became unstoppable. The latter album’s campaign opened with back-to-back No. 1s in “Private Eyes” and “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” singles that sounded of the moment and synthetic in the best sense. And then the dam broke: Eyes began a run of four top 10 albums, including 1982 followup H2O, the late-‘83 hits compilation Rock ’n Soul Part 1, and 1984’s Big Bam Boom. Singles and videos from these albums were in constant rotation on MTV and the radio airwaves. At the height of Daryl and John’s Imperial Phase, they were essentially the house band for the Philadelphia portion of 1985’s Live Aid, even backing up Mick Jagger.

That Live Aid appearance was both the peak and the end of their Imperial Phase, however—once again, Hall & Oates chose to look back. After 17 consecutive Top 40 singles from 1980–85, their Temptations-laden Live at the Apollo EP was a relative dud, leading to a few years’ silence (Hall cut a solo album in the interim). By the time they returned to the pop landscape in 1988, with one final Top 10 single, the voice of pop had changed and with it their commercial fortunes, as high-gloss pop-soul was no longer the style of the day. Never cool with most critics, Hall & Oates were hottest with the public when their voice was that of the now, not the past, and sadly, they couldn’t adjust as the ‘80s were coming to a close. But at their peak, their sound was that of the proverbial engine firing on all cylinders.

“Hall & Oates Find Their Voices”
In 2014, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson took to the podium to induct Daryl Hall and John Oates, saying, “They combined rock, and folk, and soul, and pop into something that was new, because it had many smart pieces of what was old.” Indeed, Hall and Oates—the most successful duo of the Rock Era—were by their very nature synthesizers, even code-shifters, who deliberately and sometimes unwittingly found a new polyglot voice in pop. Building on their background in the Philadelphia music scene and Daryl Hall’s powerful, genre-flexible voice (Robert Fripp called Hall the best all-around singer he’d ever met), Hall and Oates both shaped and were shaped by their time in the ’70s and ’80s—they effectively bridged the rock and soul of the former decade and the pop and (eventually) hip-hop of the latter. This three-paper EMP panel considers Hall and Oates’s career across all its phases, not just their well-known’80s Imperial phase but also the odd early and late byways of their career. All of these periods elucidate how the duo found their place in a pop landscape that was at times inhospitable to, and other times utterly defined by them.

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