Monday, September 19, 2016

H Is For...

My challenge to myself: write about 26 different artists, A to Z, in 26 days. (Well, maybe not consecutive days...)

Hall & Oates / 
"I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)"

Of course it was always Hall for me, rather than Oates -- and I know I wasn't the only music fan who harbored a crush on Daryl, judging from how the camera dwelled on his tall rangy figure and blond shag in the 1980s videos that made these guys stars. But honestly, it was his voice that did it for me, not his good looks. Really, really, I swear.

I'd been a fan since the early 1970s -- and now I had to suck it up and watch Daryl and John hit the big time with a new sound that ran perilously close to disco. Yet those scatting, soulful vocals kept Hall & Oates from being dragged under by the layers of synths and glossy production values of the times.

Let me do you a favor and post something besides the original official video, just so you won't be distracted by all the backlighting and dry-ice mists and big-shouldered suits that stamp this 1981 hit as a sign of its times.

Given the soft-focus R&B sweetness of H&O's earlier stuff -- songs like "When the Morning Comes," "She's Gone," and "Sara Smile" -- the 80s stuff had a lot more edge. ("Maneater." anyone?) This song, too, is not all that flattering to women, with lines like "You've got the body / Now you want the soul." But now I'm thinking that this push-pull may have been what made it interesting.

The brooding intro runs for nearly a full minute, mostly pugnacious drums, overlaid with ripples of minor-key descending keyboard riffs. Anxious tension runs through the verses, with their jerky rhythm and tinny vocal reverb: "Easy, ready, willing, overtime / Where does it stop? / Where do you dare me / To draw the line?" This is clearly a man who's getting tired of making nice.

But then it blooms into lush soulfulness for the bridge -- "I, I-I, I'll do anything / That you want me to do, / Yeah I, I-I,  I'll do most anything ' That you want me to, ooh, yeah." Hall's supple vocals caress the long legato phrases, swooping around them, stroking the vowels. We're in happy major key territory, with the background singers chiming in, scattering rose petals in his path. He's in full-on Lover Boy mode.

And then he turns on a dime. "But I can't go for that, / Nooo, / No can do / I can't go for that, / Nooo, / No can do."  That refrain's staccato words are spit out with venom; the tempo is like a wagging finger. And of course, the mind boggles: What is it she wants him to do that's so beyond the pale?

It could be anything, of course.  Going to dinner's at her folks' house; taking her shopping; having a baby; signing a pre-nup.  Yet the song's slinky, sexy underpinnings trip me up, making me picture other kinds of requests indeed. Dirty deeds. Kinky things. It's completely against my nature, but there it is.

It's a cryptic song, after all, and unsettling.  It almost doesn't hang together, the melting "I'll do anythings" pitted against those scolding "No can do's.** But something about the jam just jells.

And then, of course, the musicians themselves puncture the balloon by telling interviewers that it's not about a couple at all, but about the music business -- how they're willing to cooperate with their label, touring, doing press (appearing in back-lit videos with dry-ice smoke) -- but only up to a point. No matter how hungry they are for stardom (and I'm betting these guys were hungry as hell for it), there were certain things they wouldn't do.

Well, that clears up that mystery.  But I think I liked the song better when I thought it was about a girl.

In fact, I loved the song when I thought it was about a girl -- so I'm just going to go on hearing it that way.

BONUS: Here's a link to an episode of Daryl's House, where Cee Lo Green joins the band for an extra funky version of this song. Love how Daryl and Cee Lo keep raising the bar for each other, verse after verse.

**This song alone thrust "no can do" -- originally an obscure (and racist) phrase of pidgin Chinese -- into common usage. Who knew?

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