This album puzzles me. As a Gen X'er, “Hall and Oates” was safe, but UnHip. Yeah, Daryl Hall had a voice, and a very good one: but his artistry as a singer always seemed to be upstaged by the sheer slickness of the package. His image was similarly dismissible: loose, button-down shirts, a fluffy spun-sugar mullet, an androgynous pretty-boy face seemingly devoid of pores, much less masculine hair follicles, and a strangely intent gimlet stare, all of which (except the stare) was parodied by David Bowie on the cover of “Young Americans”. Other than story behind his first hit (written for real-life girlfriend), his off-stage life seemed nondescript — he didn’t seem to be a party person, he didn’t date anyone famous, take drugs (he cited being never quite well), or even have quotable quotes, as one slick hit followed another, destined to become MUZAK.
There was one exception: “North Star” on Exposure by Robert Fripp. Even now, knowing how the trick was done, I can only gasp in sheer wonder at what might be the sexiest song ever committed to vinyl. No, really. This is literally — fucking — in a way I’ve never heard before or since (when he sings the best line -- “now time, now time” — it becomes achingly apparent what’s happening — or what he’s trying not to have happen. Just yet.). That, and a little of a live show I’d heard, made me say to myself “He’d be amazing, if he wasn’t dicking around.”
Well, this is Daryl Hall. Not. Dicking. Around.
And it is amazing.
We’ll start with the album cover and the name. It’s approximately (more on that later) 1977, and he’s giving a blessing? Peace sign? Illuminati salute? with long musician’s fingers, and an expression that toes the fine line between snarky and serious. The photo has been posed and treated to suggest a painting, with darkened irises. You might think that this is an attempt at a gospel album.
Well, it isn’t. He begins with a saucy little number about the problems of being a writer of love songs who has, himself, a relationship. No, he says, he can’t write her name into a song, he can’t just “stick you in”. “They’re all sacred songs, they’re not easily won.” He says, and owns that they may come out profane, but they’re one and the same. Also, he relates, he's not into sex tonight, though he might be writing songs of longing and grief. The song is bouncy, pop-flavored, but strangely self-referential: he’s writing about balancing his relationship with his profession, which is writing and performing songs about relationships.
From there, he moves into a song that could have come from a fellow Philadelphian, Todd Rundgren: in 4/4 Time, another self-referential number where he sings infectious, bouncy pop music about being forced into writing and performing — infectious, bouncy pop music.
Now you hear a strange edge moving in, which becomes more pervasive in the next track, Babs & Babs, a dialogue between a man and a woman? Lesbians? Two sides of one personality? (I keep thinking about Hassun and Shide.) After the lyrics, there’s an extended instrumental, representing the nonverbal partner.
And an instrumental piece.
And a wrenchingly harsh song about New York City that could only have been influenced by Max’s Kansas City, and CBGB's. I love to hear his voice play hide and seek.
The next two songs flow, in an effortless sweetness undercut by the lyrics, which describe his problematic real life love life.He's known women, he's known men, how he's had to pay for a one-night-stand going really, really wrong. All of those, that whom he loved, not wisely, but too well. You might consider them anti-romantic songs.
I leave the last track by itself. You hear electronics in the background, no analogue. You get to hear Daryl pull out all the stops, singing, and you can hear that he's having the time of his life. And you hear the Canterbury/Thelemic influence in the lyrics: Ley lines. Energy. And confronting your past, without tears. Like magick, without tears.
His point is made: nothing here is trivia.This is what happens behind the curtain: What songs I sing don’t always reflect my love life, because life is not always pretty. It took a lot of practice to be so spontaneous. Sometimes, it’s just a technical process, and I do sometimes just mail it in. I know a lot more music than I let on, I’m not just a guy who listened to a lot of soul and make trivial music for people who want a soundtrack to their lives. I also read, and have some opinions you might not agree with. But all these songs are the product of my hard work.
Sounds about right, in a decade when a good deal of rock was about…being a rock star. It should have been a modest hit.
The story behind this album and its near-obscurity is tied up with Robert Fripp, Peter Gabriel, and RCA.
In 1974, Hall was having a minor meltdown. He’d gotten informally adopted by the local Jewish community, and converted to Judaism in the process. He'd married a nice Jewish girl, but they divorced two years later. Philosophically, he’d moved beyond his Methodist roots (imagine him in your choir) and was still self-identifying as a Jew, but was uncertain as to his spirituality, which led him into some strange pathways indeed: he read Jungian psychology, and dabbled in Thelema, picking up a great deal of British folklore in the process. This got him acquainted with the Canterbury school of prog-rock, specifically, Robert Fripp of King Crimson, and Peter Gabriel of Genesis. At the same time, he was beginning to make his mark in soft rock. After a few hits with Oates, he began to want to try his hand in more serious music, and with Fripp and Gabriel, planned a trilogy, where all three would work on solo albums together, more than a collaboration but less than a supergroup, with the theme of what it's like to be a pop star.
RCA, for their part, was far more interested in Daryl as one half of a brand, and refused to release the album, claiming that it had no hit single, and would never sell. What they really meant was that they didn’t want to show that their clean-cut boy, who stayed out of the tabloids, was anything other than a skinny white guy who nonetheless, could throw back his head and sing like a gospel angel. Snarky lyrics? Jungian psychology? Experimental electronics? Aleister Crowley?? They already had one Bowie and a total non-player, Lou Reed, and they were a handful enough, and financial stress from a major failed project had sent shockwaves throughout the company. Fearing sharing their revenue with another label, they refused to let him sing anything more than one song on “Exposure”, although Daryl had already recorded the vocal track for the whole album. His work with Peter Gabriel was simply swept under the rug. So it languished, for three long and eventful years, during which Fripp became increasingly impatient to the point of complaining in interviews, effectively ending their musical relationship.
For Hall, the message was clear. Don’t step over the line, ever again. Keep to the image of professionalism, and don’t ever let anyone see behind the mask. And it got them platinum albums, but everybody who knew said he'd sold his soul.
Well, he wears cowboy shirts now. And he’s grown a beard over the freckled skin he used to plaster over with pancake makeup, and wears tinted glasses over the age-diminished stare, and his hair is lower maintenance. When people mention Thelema, he says he”retained some and discarded what didn’t work”, but kept his Thelema tattoo. (Fair enough.) He’s got a fabulous smile, which he shows often, though he’s still rather unwell (Lyme disease). His hobbies are restoring old houses, and cooking with friends. He sings what he pleases with whomever he wants on his webcasts and his night club hasn’t been doing badly either. And everyone says he’s Hip. At least, I do.