Back in 1988, Daryl Hall was shooting a video with his longtime collaborator John Oates. He was standing near the old World’s Fair site in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, pausing for a break in filming, when he was visited by the ghost of pop to come—disguised as a group of teenagers carrying a boom box.
“They were just kids from the neighborhood,” Hall says. “Around 15 years old. And one goes, ‘You wanna hear a song our friends did?’ ” Hall said sure, the kid pushed PLAY, and some eerily familiar music rang out. The song, “Say No Go,” would be released a year later on De La Soul’s revolutionary debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, heralding a new musical era of liberal, maximalist sampling. But it didn’t sound that new to Hall—one of the samples was from Hall & Oates’s No. 1 hit from seven years earlier, “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).”
“I’m hearing the song, I’m recognizing the music, and I’m thinking, Wha—?” says Hall, who had his last top-ten hit that same year. “And they’re like, ‘Our friends did this! You like this, man?’ ”
At the time, no one who cared much about the cutting edge cared about Daryl Hall. He was about to join mousse and Spandex as shorthand for eighties-lame. For nearly a decade, his windblown blond pompadour had presided over mainstream music, as a series of MTV videos cast him as a sylphlike anima to the darkly mustachioed animus of John Oates. While this image made them widely reviled over intervening decades, their music remained secretly influential, and lately has been recognized as a key DNA strand in the post-rock, post-soul, post-rap body of modern pop music itself.
At 64, Hall has spanned so many eras, releasing songs that were so consistently popular, he can now play entire sets filled with top-ten hits and yet go unrecognized by name. “When people say, ‘Who are Hall & Oates?’ I say, ‘If I play you their music, you’ll know, like, 90 percent of the records,’ ” says Gym Class Heroes rapper Travis McCoy, whose Hall & Oates mash-ups represent a tiny fraction of H&O-sampling tracks by everyone from Young Jeezy to Lil Wayne to Wu-Tang Clan to Mobb Deep. The half-black, 29-year-old McCoy credits Hall with that notional and problematic attribute, the “ghetto pass.” “Dude, they played the fuckin’ Apollo with the Temptations,” says McCoy. “Lauryn Hill got booed there, and Hall & Oates got a standing ovation.”
Such endorsements—along with the countless samples, and a more proactive approach to getting their songs on TV and film—have recently amounted to a stealth-marketing campaign for Daryl Hall. “Right now, I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my life,” he says, stepping between open guitar cases and strewn power cords in his longtime recording studio—a century-old farmhouse in woodsy Pawling, New York. Hall has been squeezing in sessions here for an upcoming solo album on Verve in between arranging Hall & Oates’s Japanese tour; prepping for slots like last summer’s Bonnaroo, where he shared a bill with Phoenix, Flaming Lips, LCD Soundsystem, and Kings of Leon; and booking guests for his critically acclaimed webcast “Live From Daryl’s House.” On New Year’s Eve, WGN is broadcasting a show featuring highlights from the series’ 36 episodes, which included performances by greats like Smokey Robinson and Nick Lowe and younger artists like Neon Trees, Kevin Rudolf, and Diane Birch—all jamming with Hall and friends at two conjoined Colonial houses upstate. Next fall, the show will be nationally syndicated. “They just bring in their guitars and set up,” says Hall, who calls his show a rougher analogue to Elvis Costello’s TV music series Spectacle. “I love Elvis, but his show is more like Inside the Actors Studio. My show is the exact opposite of that. There’s no audience, and it’s balls-to-the-wall craziness and chaos.”
“Craziness” and “chaos” aren’t the first words that spring to many minds at the mention of the phrase “Hall & Oates.” In fact, the duo has recently become a cultural Rorschach test. In the last five years, new media and morphing demographics have changed the longtime perception of Hall & Oates as a symbol of slick, overproduced eighties pop to, variously, great American songsmiths on a par with Lerner and Loewe, master studio craftsmen who wrought our very sonic firmament, and—to a broad and fervid demographic—the epitome of True Pop Values.
The cult ranges from TV cook Rachael Ray (who campaigned for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) to art-song duo the Bird and the Bee (who recorded an album of their songs for Blue Note) to Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (who wrote a paean on Pitchfork) to Killers singer Brandon Flowers (“Everything you need to know about writing a hit song, it’s in ‘Rich Girl,’ ” he said) to Gym Class Heroes’ McCoy (who has Hall’s face tattooed on one hand and Oates’s on the other). To such people, the current Hall & Oates moment is, quite literally, a renaissance. “Renaissance artists considered themselves midgets on the shoulders of giants,” says David Macklovitch, singer-guitarist for electro-funk duo Chromeo and Columbia grad student—a band he considers “an Erasmus or Petrarch to [Hall & Oates’s] Homer or Plato.”