30 years ago, Hall & Oates released their final album of the ‘80s
Once upon a time, for the first half of the 1980s, Daryl Hall and John Oates were pretty indisputably the biggest band in America, in the midst of their Imperial Phase. And then they took a break.
When they returned to active duty as a duo, the pop landscape had changed. A lot. And they chose to self-produce (along with their trusted sideman, the late Tom “T-Bone” Wolk) their first studio album in four years, Ooh Yeah!, at the very least a questionable decision. The album was also their label debut for Clive Davis’s Arista Records, so suffice it to say, a lot was riding on its success. Said success, however, didn’t transpire: The album peaked at #24 in the U.S., their lowest-charting since 1979’s X-Static, and only the first single, the modestly buoyant “Everything Your Heart Desires,” made Billboard’s top 10, peaking at #3. Subsequent singles “Missed Opportunity” and “Downtown Life” would peak at #29 and #31, respectively; the album’s fourth, “Talking All Night,” failed to chart entirely, the first time that had happened to the dynamic duo since 1980.
What happened? Well, for one, Daryl and John likely would have benefited from an outside producer to help guide their hands; the overall finished sound of Ooh Yeah! makes it seem as if they learned nothing from the producers they worked with during their commercial breakthrough and subsequent glory years. Neil Kernon brought them into not just the present but the future, really, with the trio of Voices, Private Eyes (which Allmusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine, referring specifically to Kernon’s production, calls “state of the art for 1981”), and H2O; master mixer Bob Clearmountain helmed their work in 1983-84; and sonic genius Arthur Baker had a hand in ‘84’s forward-looking Big Bam Boom, as well. But Ooh Yeah! frankly sounds kinda limp, especially when heard against the sound of some of 1988’s biggest hits, from George Michael’s taut “Monkey” to the slinky singles from INXS’s Kick, the ebullient bubble gum of Debbie Gibson, the dirty Sunset Strip metal of Guns ‘N Roses, and, of course, New Jack Swing, which in many ways was the sound of ‘88.
Ooh Yeah!, meanwhile, sounds like, well, Adult Contemporary radio of the era. In their Imperial Phase, Hall and Oates were ahead of trends, helping craft the sound of top 40 radio; now they sounded as if they were playing catch-up. That’s not to say that the album’s without its pleasures, though. Lead single “Everything Your Heart Desires” chugs along amiably, while album opener “Downtown Life” comes the closest to harkening back to their old sound — it’s got some much-needed tempo (and a hilarious line about Lou Reed). “I’m in Pieces” has a pleasantly retro feel, almost-but-not-quite sounding a little doo-woppy, and features a strong vocal from Hall. But why the synth bass when a real one would’ve sounded so much better (and cleaner)?
The album’s back half is where things really fall apart. “Rocket to God” is so slight as to almost not be there — but unfortunately, this “Lite FM” reject is. (Also, that title!) It’s followed by “Soul Love,” which is the epitome of the sound of white men in the 1980s attempting reggae. Which never, ever ends well. Additionally, “Soul Love” has this chorus centered around the line “Gimme that, gimme that nasty touch,” which just makes me feel dirty. Daryl, what are you singing?! Closer “Keep on Pushin’ Love” sounds like an inspirational Roxette ballad, and that’s no compliment.
Of current note is the fact that Sony has just made available on streaming services, for the first time, a trio of remix EPs for singles from Ooh Yeah! — and they’re all worth some of your time. “Everything” gets a pair of interesting long mixes (the “54th St. Extended Mix” and the “If You Want the World Mix”), along with a tighter edit by Shep Pettibone (“7th Avenue Remix”) that sounds like the best elements of the other two combined and shortened. “Downtown Life,” always my favorite track from the album, received five new versions from John Luongo, most notably the 7:28 “Downtown Remix” and the not-quite-acapella “Baccapella” which, unsurprisingly, spotlights Hall’s vocal. And then there’s the “Talking All Night” EP, featuring five rather radical re-works from no less a remixing eminence than John “Jellybean” Benitez. Your enjoyment of these will depend directly on how much you like the sound of ‘80s dance mixes.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Ooh Yeah! didn’t really work, and why it caused Hall and Oates to run to the arms of Jon Bon Jovi for 1990’s “So Close,” their final top 40 hit (#11). It feels like it could’ve been avoided, however. Maybe. Or maybe time had just passed by too quickly for Daryl and John, leaving them with, as the album’s second single may have foretold, a “Missed Opportunity”?