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’80s stars Hall & Oates back in spotlight

The duo is undergoing a resurgence, thanks both to nostalgic fans and to the musicians’ willingness to connect with admirers.
/ Source: Reuters

When Greg Kurstin, half of esoteric Los Angeles pop duo the Bird and the Bee, speaks of Hall & Oates, it's in a reverent tone usually reserved for devout believers meeting a major religious figure.

"'One on One' is the perfect song with the perfect production," he says with unblinking earnestness. "I strive for that level of greatness every day."

On March 23, Kurstin and bandmate Inara George released their homage to the pair, "Interpreting the Masters Volume I: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates," on Blue Note. It's the latest example of the unlikely pop-culture resurgence for the fourth-best-selling duo of all time (13 million albums shipped, according to the Recording Industry Association of America).

In the past two years, Hall & Oates' music, which peaked chart-wise during the first term of the Reagan White House, has been featured in everything from tastemaking films like "(500) Days of Summer" to taste-questionable outlets like QVC. The driving force behind the resurgence is twofold: the giddiness of 30-something nostalgics like George and Kurstin, and the willingness of Daryl Hall, 63, and John Oates, 61, to connect with these fans in the free-flowing back-and-forth of today's media world.

Jonathan Wolfson has been the band's publicist for five years; he took over as their manager in 2009. He remembers being a teenager in New York, sitting in the nosebleed seats and thrilling to Hall & Oates performing "Maneater" live. Now, Hall & Oates are his sole clients, and he navigates opportunities for exposure for the act from a two-story, peach-colored strip mall in the west San Fernando Valley.

"Daryl and John allowed me to push on their behalf," he says. "A lot of the bands get in the way of themselves. I feel like I work with them -- obviously, I work for them -- but I feel like I work with them."

Not press darlingsOates, for one, is appreciative of how the duo's music is branching out into everything from film to online animation; it stands as a comeuppance to those who once questioned the relevance of their music. "We were not in the cool club with the rock press," he says. "But in the end, it's the songs that stand the test of time -- they've been covered, sampled, and there's a generation of creative people who grew up with our music."

This younger generation of fan appreciates the commercial artistry of their techno-savvy blue-eyed soul and takes kitschy pleasure in the decadent, shoulder-padded extravagance of the surrounding era. This gives Wolfson a large playing field to hype the band: It can perform on the hipper-than-thou "Daily Show" even as middlebrow TV chef Rachael Ray pushes for their entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

"When I started doing press for them, it was the same cliched rock critics saying, 'Well, you didn't play CBGB's in '78 ...' It was kind of bulls--t actually," Wolfson says. "I hate to be an ageist, but when I started going to people who were contemporaries, it was a way different conversation than it was with the Robert Hilburns of the world, who basically called them the Thompson Twins and said, 'I'll never write about these guys.' It's one of those things -- if they don't let you in the party, you create your own. And the party got bigger and bigger and bigger."

Ever since the single "Sara Smile" was certified gold by the RIAA in 1976, Hall & Oates have always been just on the wrong side of cool with the rock establishment. Despite seven platinum albums -- three of which went double-platinum: 1982's "H2O," 1983's "Rock 'n Soul, Part 1" and 1984's "Big Bam Boom" -- the Philadelphia duo has never won a Grammy Award. ("Always the bridesmaid, never the bride," Hall muses; the pair was nominated this year for best performance by a duo or group with vocals for a version of "Sara Smile" on "Live at the Troubadour.")

Pop fans have long embraced Hall & Oates -- leading to six No. 1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 -- but critics derided their music as "yacht rock," slick '80s smarm designed to lure radio programmers across a variety of genres.

With the resurgence of Hall & Oates among hipsters, that attitude has changed, and in a very public manner. "They were hated, they really were," Wolfson says. "But the Internet has really been their friend. The fact that the Internet has no gatekeepers and bloggers can write whatever they want -- if something's good, people respond."

Sales have been on the increase: In 2009, they sold 177,000 albums, up from 161,000 in 2008. In that same time period, digital song downloads were up 19 percent to 547,000.

The recent Hall & Oates revival seemingly started with the harmonic convergence of Howard Stern and a series of Google Alerts.

In November 2007, Hall appeared on Stern's show on Sirius Satellite Radio to promote his Web-only series, "Live From Daryl's House." It's a monthly performance program where Hall and a visiting musician jam in his farmhouse in New York state, playing Hall & Oates standards and songs by the accompanying artist.

But as usual on Stern, things got weird. The recap on summed it up as such: "Daryl then opened up about his Lyme disease and the debilitating effect it has had on his life, adding that we should 'kill all the f'ing deer. They're like giant rats' ... Howard told Daryl that he might have him cut some public service announcements about the 'f'ing deer,' but Daryl insisted that he'd rather just be given a machine gun. Daryl then treated the crew to a live performance of 'Sara Smile.'"

With a later mention that he and Oates have had sex in the same room -- not with each other but apparently close enough to notice that Oates was a "German shepherd in a chihuahua's pants" -- Hall & Oates earned something that largely eluded them during their heyday: street cred.

"I've booked everyone from Yanni to Suge Knight onto Howard Stern, and this was the craziest interview," Wolfson says. "That really generated a lot of hits (for "Live From Daryl's House"). It was a good way to break it out."

Around that same time, Wolfson noticed something every time he opened his e-mail: Google Alerts detailing how various bands were paying tribute to Hall & Oates. In 2007, Gym Class Heroes named its summer trek the Daryl Hall for President Tour 2007. Brandon Flowers of the Killers said "Rich Girl" was a perfect pop song. Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie wrote an exegesis of his 10 favorite Hall & Oates songs on Pitchfork.

‘House’ callsSoon, an idea was born — to approach the musicians who were vocal in their love for Hall & Oates to appear on "Live From Daryl's House." "We went through a few stages with the whole renaissance of Hall & Oates," Wolfson says. "At first it was like, 'Oh, it's OK to like these guys.' And then, all of a sudden, once all the bands started giving testimonials, it just started snowballing. (Fall Out Boy's) Patrick Stump isn't just praising Hall & Oates, he's on the show. He's playing 'Out of Touch.'"

A new episode of "Live From Daryl's House" debuts on the 15th of each month; each episode has a budget of $35,000, Wolfson says, and uses five cameras to shoot in HD. Recent guests have included Smokey Robinson and Diane Birch; each episode receives about 30,000 views upon its debut, and it builds to about 100,000 per show as they're archived, Wolfson says.

Some artist appearances sparked new opportunities: The connection Hall made with electro-funk duo Chromeo on the show has lead to the group prepping a version of "Live From Daryl's House" for this year's Bonnaroo festival. "Bonnaroo is significant because it's taking 'Live From Daryl's House' into an additional place," Hall says. "It shows how the show is evolving into a live entity."

Other H&O appearances came about the old-fashioned way: connections and invites from influential fans. They've included performances on "Dancing With the Stars" and "The Daily Show," whose producers invited Hall & Oates to do a farewell song to Alan Colmes after Fox News' token liberal host left "Hannity & Colmes."

For the 2009 film "(500) Days of Summer," director Marc Webb turned the placement of the duo's "You Make My Dreams" into a song-and-dance extravaganza featuring a literal bluebird of happiness. "The filmmaker thought the song epitomized euphoria," says Oates, who saw the film at the Grove movie theater in Los Angeles with his family. "I have never been in a theater before where people started clapping for the music in a movie."

It was a licensing deal with impact. In terms of digital track sales, "You Make My Dreams" sold 103,000 downloads in 2009, compared with 51,000 in 2008, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Some recent Hall & Oates promotions are a blend of traditional music revenue streams and digital initiatives. "J-Stache" is an online cartoon financed by publisher Primary Wave that features Oates' famous mustache as his zeppelin-exploding superhero alter ego. "We wanted to accomplish two things: incorporate additional Hall & Oates music and give us the opportunity to let the public hear some of the undiscovered gems," Primary Wave chief marketing officer Adam Lowenberg says.

The cartoon premiered on, where it has received 37,000 viewers. "It created a cool buzz with a younger generation of fans," Oates says. "And it appealed to my insane side."

For Hall & Oates, all these appearances keep them part of the public domain, and the knowing spirit of the enterprises makes them enduring and endearing. It's a strategy that involves a willingness to laugh at one's self, and adapt.

"I'm a firm believer in the intergenerational interplay," Hall says. "In order for an artist to really achieve significance you have to go out of your own generation, and luckily I think I've pulled that off."

In an appearance that veered into the it's-so-uncool-it's-cool territory, late last year Hall & Oates went on QVC to sell their boxed set, "Do What You Want, Be What You Are: The Music of Daryl Hall and John Oates" (RCA/Legacy).

QVC may conjure visions of late-night, drug-fueled purchases of vacuum cleaners, but Wolfson cautions people not to mock. "The boxed set sold 5,000 copies the first hour," he says. In total, the $50 set has sold 15,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, peaking at No. 89 on the Billboard 200.

The release was a significant undertaking for Hall & Oates, who curated the selections on the four-disc set and contributed extensively to the 60-page booklet that accompanies the discs. "There's a lot of overlooked songs that were very significant in our growth," Hall says. "And I wanted to make sure those songs were very much in evidence so people could listen and see how it all happened for these two guys from Philadelphia with backgrounds in soul."

While Hall & Oates march on -- the duo is planning to tour this summer on a few select dates, after a 15-show trek last year that grossed $1.5 million, according to Billboard Boxscore -- both artists are also pursuing new endeavors individually. "We're going in sort of new directions, but not losing the old direction," Hall says. "I'm basically running two careers here, and that's rough. But it's a labor of love."

Hall returned to the studio recently to begin work on a solo album for Verve, and Oates is putting together a songwriter's festival in Aspen, Colorado, where he now lives.

"I'm at the point in my life and my career where I can do exactly what I want," Oates says. "And that's all any creative person wants to do."