“One On One” /
Daryl Hall & John Oates
I hadn’t thought about Hall & Oates for years. Then someone sent me a link to Daryl Hall’s webcast “Live From Daryl’s House” -- basically an at-home jam session with whatever guest star he’s invited over. The session I saw was with Nick Lowe (well, why else would someone send me a link?), and it was dynamite -- and not just because I love Nick. The harmonies Daryl laid onto Nick’s songs were simply divine. Daryl went way beyond what Nick’s bandmates sang on “Cruel to Be Kind” – he added syncopations and modalities no one had ever dreamed of before, a complete revelation. His voice is still angelically pure, and soulful as hell.
I found myself flashing back to 1972, when I first heard Hall & Oates’ debut album, Whole Oats, a beautiful hybrid of folk and Philly soul. When they hit their commercial groove in the late 70s I felt letdown, though like everyone else I was eventually seduced by their catchy pop hooks and videogenic shag haircuts. I even interviewed them in the early 80s, when I was a green young journalist, and they were perfectly pleasant, just a pair of decent working musicians milking the money cow until she ran dry. They had timing and luck on their side, but they also had the talent to keep cranking out hits. Their big singles -- “She’s Gone,” “Rich Girl,” “Kiss On My List,” “You Make My Dreams,” and “Maneater” – are still fine pop confections.
Of all those radio hits, the one I keep coming back to is “One on One,” from 1982’s H2O album. With true professional songcraft, John Oates (generally the songwriter) sets up his main metaphor, one-on-one basketball being a stand-in for sex. “I'm tired of playing on the team / It seems I don't get time out anymore / What a change if we set the pace face to face / No one even trying to score.” Think back to the fevered pre-AIDS singles scene of the eighties and this is even more apt. Laid against Barry-White-ish percussion and vibrating stabs of keyboard chords, it’s perfect lounge lizard music.
As usual with Hall & Oates, though, the chorus is the money shot, and this is a positively creamy one. Daryl’s choirboy countertenor insists, pleads, demands, “One on one, I wanna play that game tonight.” The melody ping-pongs between two notes, tightening the sexual tension, until it ripples downward, thrillingly, on “tonight.” Not only is that a great hook, it’s a hook that very few singers but Daryl Hall could pull off. (Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie, maybe Marvin Gaye -- that’s pretty impressive company.)
Daryl scats around at the end of the chorus, till it dissolves into a sax solo. The ending is a hypnotic mélange of the stabbing chords, Daryl’s scatting, John’s back-up echoes, swirls of synthesizer – pure cheese, of course, but damn sexy.
In the 80s I never got beyond H&O’s MTV hits, because I resented them abandoning their early sound. Now I’m scrolling through those 80s albums and hearing lots to like in their back tracks. Their “comeback” albums in the early 2000s? More to like there. And I’m hankering after digital versions of all that 1970s stuff that never topped the charts. Jeez, this could get expensive. I should send Nick Lowe the bill – after all, it’s all his fault.