Hidden Gems: Hall & Oates’ “War Babies”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

Instead of writing about neglected albums every week, I could just as easily use this column to rap about things I don’t understand. (Of course, Hidden Gems’ modest readership would plummet tremendously, and rightly so.) Here’s one for you: For some reason, Hall & Oates are not only popular again, but over the past five years or so, they have been appreciated by a new generation of audiences. But why? Let me preface this by explaining that this is in no way a dig at the duo; I’m a giant H&O fan. My confusion lies in the fact that although Hall & Oates are the biggest selling duo in the history of popular music, for many years, their legacy outside of the mainstream was one that was filled with great disdain.If you went back in time to the early ‘90s to ask grunge fans who they thought was the least cool band of all time, chances are Hall & Oates would be a common response. (Also, what a supreme waste of time machine usage, dude.) To many creators and fans of “real music,” the group was seen as schmaltzy corporate-rock whores who made corny songs/videos and had even worse facial hair.

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So why the recent change? Whoever decides what things are cool now would be the best place to find an explanation, but I’m certainly not one of them. I don’t have the answer, so I can only theorize that it’s a mixture of these three things:

1. Time/Ingrained Nostalgia. As the years goes by, what’s considered “classic rock” or “oldies” naturally begins to take a different shape. People who came of age in the early-to-mid-’80s have since had kids, and these children have been growing up in the vicinity of what their parents listened to. Presently, many teenagers and people in their early 20s (including members of new bands) have developed a fondness for Hall & Oates’ music, since they’ve grown up hearing it. (It’s also our parents’ fault that young, drunk girls know about “Don’t Stop Believin’”—something else we can blame on them.)

2. Irony? Let’s face it, Hall & Oates aren’t cool, but in a lot of people’s eyes, that’s what makes them cool, because of irony or something. Not gonna lie, I’m not entirely sure how this works either, but like Justice Stewart, I know it when I see it. (As with most things, The Simpsons explains this perfectly.) For example, a few years ago,The Cool Powers That Be decided that canning/preserving food is the hip thing to do, even though it’s an incredibly uncool hobby that was seemingly picked at random—comparatively, food canning makes yo-yo’s look like Iggy Fucking Pop. [The views expressed on canning in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of MAGNET or its employees. —Ed.]

3. The Music. New fans might have first heard “Private Eyes” or “Rich Girl” from their parents, and maybe there’s a small percentage of Hall & Oates’ fans who do like them to look cool (or uncool?), but it would be very cynical to not give most of the credit to their music. Try as you may, it’s hard to ignore the pure pop brilliance of “I Can’t Go for That” or “Kiss On My List” without getting hooked. The band churned out earworms better than almost anybody, especially during their remarkable hot streak in the early ‘80s—you don’t sell massive copies of decades old albums for any other reason.

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The bad part about retroactively gaining a new audience is that new fans might automatically gravitate toward getting a best-of collection or download a few of their hits, especially with a single-heavy group like Hall & Oates; for a large amount of these folks, this might be the only amount of the band’s output that they’ll ever hear. As is the case of most artists, a greatest-hits collection can only give you a small portion of what the band can do, and with H&O’s large discography, much of their most interesting music will be passed over. Although the perception of the duo is that they were the ultimate radio-friendly unit, Hall & Oates were actually more experimental than people give them credit for. Case in point—their third album, 1974’s War Babies. Although it had no hit singles and was dismissed by much of their fan base, War Babies is a strange and fascinating look at their early expanding sound.

After the disappointing sales of folky debut Whole Oats and the slow-burning soul of Abandoned Luncheonette, Philly natives Daryl Hall and John Oates began work on their follow-up. With growing pressure from their label, Atlantic Records, they were frustrated with their lack of a hit song. (Ironically, they had already written one; “She’s Gone” appeared on Abandoned Luncheonette and was released as a single, though it didn’t become a mega-success until it was re-released in ‘76.) Instead of swinging for the fences once again, their third album would be a vast departure. Their first two records had already utilized a wide-range of styles, but the guys had an even harsher left turn planned, facilitated by multi-talented solo artist/producer Todd Rundgren.

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For all the parties involved, War Babies was a unique work—a loose concept album about the perils of touring, as well as a look at the struggles of the baby-boomer generation. Hall and Oates had recently moved to New York City, as had Rundgren, so the frantic noise of their new home inspired the record a great deal. Hall, who wrote the bulk of the LP, found some wild, new influences from the likes of King Crimson and David Bowie’s recently released Diamond Dogs. Much of the musicians used on the record were members of Rundgren’s newly formed Utopia, including the guitar work of Todd himself. And even though most of the songs had already been written by Hall & Oates, Rundgren always manages to leave his imprint, and his musical and production influence are a major factor as a result.

The album opens with “Can’t Stop The Music,” Oates’ only solo credit on the record. Inspired by his disillusion with touring, his lead vocal portrays the life of an aging, senile rock star who has forgotten much about his heyday, detailed in the repeating hook, “And he can’t stop the music or remember the ending to his song/He played it much too long.” It’s a perfect example of the irresistibly catchy songwriting skills that pervade the duo’s work, enough to make you wonder why this wasn’t a hit, in and of itself. (The same could be said about several other songs on the album, especially “Better Watch Your Back.”) Although Hall was the more experimental member, Oates’ melodic touches could add sugariness wherever it was needed. For an album that Hall later claimed was his first solo work, it’s Oates who walks away with one of its best moments. (The tune fades into “Is It A Star” using an echoed drum machine, the first use of an instrument that would later become a foundation of their sound.)

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In Paul Myers’ 2010 book A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio, Rundgren calls “War Baby Son Of Zorro,” the “centerpiece” to the album, and the epitome of its sound: “There was no intention, at all, of making anything resembling a pop song; this was high-concept music at this point.” Over distorted guitars, deep synth tracks and television sound effects, Hall attempted to create what Myers calls a “musical collage of their shared memories of childhood in ‘50s Cold War America.” Even though they were only kids, baby boomers had already “been through momma, the Bomb and ‘Nam,” giant events they had no control over. The group’s harmonies vary from sweet to manic over Rundgren’s dense production, which is simultaneously sad and unhinged (“He’s a scared baby, afraid of a plane/Hid under his desk in a hundred air raids/Dug in dirt, watched Wyatt Earp, in the atomic age”).

A few years back, I fumbled around on the car radio when I came across a funky and prog-ish instrumental tune being played by a local radio station in Philly, WXPN. I instantly enjoyed it, but had no idea who the artist was; it was my first interaction with War Babies, and I didn’t even know it. I was very shocked to learn that it was Hall & Oates, and I hunted down the record immediately. The song was “Screaming Through December,” the album’s longest track, and possibly the most radical departure for the group, before or since. Although the tune is bookended by a very strange, psychedelically warped description of life on the road by Hall, the large breakdown in the middle section is its highlight, held down by Utopia bassist John Siegler, future Utopia drummer Willie Wilcox and guitar work from Rundgren.For fans that are only familiar with “Maneater,” it’s definitely a trip.

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War Babies was released in November ’74, and despite becoming Hall & Oates’ first Billboard charting album (number 86), Atlantic dropped the group soon after. Amidst the shakeup, the label, angry fans, even the band’s manager (future Sony head Tommy Mottola) wrongly blamed Rundgren for what they perceived as the album’s artistic and commercial failure. Almost immediately, Hall & Oates would sign to RCA and release their self-titled 1975 album, which featured massive hit “Sara Smile.” Although they toned down their weirdness for their subsequent works, War Babies is a unique highlight for the duo, and a weird detour on their road to master pop music.

Bryan Bierman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. He’s very quiet and enjoys puzzles. You can e-mail him here.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted May 24, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Great find and a great piece!

  2. Posted May 26, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Hall and Oates at their rare anti-Top 40 best (although the third track, ‘You’re Much Too Soon’, already foreshadows ‘Wait For Me’ and ‘Private Eyes’ that are more than 5 years to come)! Good call on how ‘Better Watch Your Back’ (to me, a psychadelic nod to the catchiness of the Jackson 5’s ‘ABC’) should have been a hit single. Much experimentation and psychadelia all over this album. Is it a Hall & Oates album or a Utopia one? How about BOTH (if quite more so the latter)? ‘War Babies’, which actually did sell 100,000 copies in NYC alone upon its release, was recorded just a hop and a skip from the underground pre-punk/new wave scene which wasn’t too far from exploding into mainstream and it shows in this recording, especially the uncharacteristically wild n crazy for Hall & Oates closing track, ‘Johnny Gore and the “C” Eaters’! The originally funky ‘Beanie G and the Rose Tatoo’ another fine example of them being in the vicinity of that very NYC scene. Could it be that ‘I’m Watching You (A Mutant Romance)’ may very well be a prophecy of street-corner video monitoring/voyeurism and, yes Bryan, title-track ‘Can’t Stop the Music (He Played it Much Too Long)’ CERTAINLY more than makes up for this being the only Oates-composition on the album. As for Hall & Oates not being considered…’cool’, my only theory to that could be the two being known all too well for scoring pure ‘pop’ hits in the early-’80s as opposed to, say, a ‘deeper’ more seriously-taken duo such as Simon & Garfunkel (although I do enjoy that part of their catalog; great songs just the same) and the fact that with video-making being a new art form in the early-80s, video directors could not make a video without unintentionally making the acts involved look rather silly (enter ‘Shakin’ by Eddie Money) thus making Hall & Oates look kind of silly in them early videos of their ’80s hits. Then again, who ever should CARE about those who judge musiacians by their ‘image’ as opposed to the MUSIC itself! Again, I DO enjoy their early-’80s hits but do lean more toward their more experimental begins with Atlantic which came to an apex with this particular album, ‘War Babies’. If you like the ‘weird’ experimental feel of ‘War Babies’ you may also be interested in Daryl Hall’s 1980 solo release (recorded in ’77 actually) ‘Sacred Songs’ that was produced by…Robert Fripp!

  3. Posted June 10, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    thanks to my thanks to my colmpete and utter addiction to hall and oates and pop up video i know that this video was actually the idea of the director and H&O wanted to do this in a high school where they were singing in multiple teenage type situations but the director wanted to do this and hall later said it looked like survivor on acid

  4. Anthony
    Posted August 11, 2013 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    Kids in the seventies and eighties(punks) hated the self-absorbed nature of the baby boom generation. Diamond Dogs is a brilliant album. It has nothing to do with baby boomers just George Orwell mostly. Fripp from King Crimson is a brilliant musician. Way too ideosyncratic to affect Hall & Oates.