Firing On All Cylinders: Hall & Oates’ H2O at 40

The album the acclaimed duo released at the zenith of their Imperial Phase is their artistic peak, too

Daryl Hall & John Oates H2O, RCA Records 1982

Daryl Hall and John Oates have had, together, a long and varied career, but in the popular imagination they are frozen in time as their early-’80s, mulleted-and-mustachioed selves, pop gods from the dawn of MTV who defined New Wave “Rock N’ Soul” for an entire generation.

No album of theirs better exemplifies this than their 1982 opus H2O. Not only is it their highest-charting album (it spent a ridiculous 15 weeks at #3 on the Billboard album chart, most of those stuck behind the 1-2 punch of Men at Work’s Business As Usual and the Stray Cats’ Built for Speed – and 68 weeks on the chart in total), but it includes their biggest-ever single, and was their second consecutive album to reel off a trio of top 10 singles. It’s also one of their two double-platinum studio albums. More than that, though, it feels the most, well, Hall-and-Oates-y of anything in their catalog. 1982-into-’83 was their absolute apex, and H2O sounds like it.

No matter who you are, no matter what your musical inclinations, I feel fairly certain that you know the album’s biggest hit, a 4-week Hot 100 #1: “Maneater.” Based around a bassline almost cribbed from the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” (a cover of which, by Phil Collins, charted simultaneously with “Maneater” – you can’t make this stuff up!) and featuring a slinky sax line from Charlie DeChant along with some icy-cool vocals from Hall, “Maneater” is one of those singles that immediately evokes a certain time. Its synthetic textures are so 1982. It’s virtually bloodless; there’s a groove here, but no soul. (And this couldn’t get past #78 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart, either.)

 

VIDEO: Daryl Hall & John Oates “Maneater”

The same can’t be said for the single’s follow-up, the #7 pop/#8 R&B hit “One on One.” A gorgeous synth-led midtempo number – you may call it a ballad, and I’ll say that YMMV – this is Hall and Oates at their soulful finest. They went in a different direction for H2O’s third single, a cover of Mike Oldfield’s sinister “Family Man,” all spiky where “One on One” is smooth, featuring guitar jabs and a great, crackling solo from future SNL bandleader G.E. Smith (then a member of their band), and Hall nearly yelping on the chorus. The song’s video unfortunately attempts to defang its acidic lyrics about a man considering infidelity, with silly visuals involving the H&O band interacting with young children in a retro-designed house. 

The singles released from H2O were a great exemplification of their approach to “Rock N Soul,” as they’d name their subsequent album, the greatest hits comp Rock N Soul Part 1. Daryl and John could glide with the utmost ease from one to the other, and in the early ‘80s, they owned that lane, making it the essence of pure pop – as evidenced by the fact that they owned the charts during that time. Talk about an Imperial Phase: from 1981’s “Kiss on My List” (from 1980’s Voices) through 1985’s “Method of Modern Love” (from late ‘84’s Big Bam Boom), Hall and Oates released 13 singles, and an astounding 12 of those hit the Hot 100’s top 10. (The only exception during that run was the fourth single from H2O predecessor Private Eyes, the thumping, bottom-heavy “Your Imagination,” which crawled to #33.) 

 

VIDEO: Daryl Hall & John Oates “Family Man”

And the diversity on display here, wow. “Crime Pays” has a subtle new waviness, not new to their work at the time, but more pronounced here; I can almost imagine this getting played on the likes of KROQ or WLIR. “Open All Night” (the side one closer) simmers and seethes, all tension and no release – check out the guitar solo on this one – until it drifts off into the, well, night. Hall’s vocal here is superb. Oates gets leads, meanwhile, on the silly “Italian Girls” (clichés ahoy!) and the excellent “At Tension.” The latter has a military-like precision, particularly in its drums and percussion, and its sound pairs perfectly with lyrics about “standing ill at ease” with a romantic partner (“standing at tension,” attention, get it?).

Hall and Oates made good albums before this one, especially its immediate predecessor Private Eyes. And they’d make good ones again; I often rep for its studio follow-up, the clattering Big Bam Boom. But they never topped H2O, which came at the perfect time: the moment when they indisputably ruled the American pop landscape.

 

 

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Thomas Inskeep

Rock and Roll Globe contributor Thomas Inskeep tweets more frequently than he blogs, reviews singles on a regular basis for The Singles Jukebox, and has previously written for SPIN, Seattle Weekly, and Stylus. He lives in Indianapolis, IN.

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