Graded on a Curve:
Hall & Oates,
Abandoned Luncheonette

Hall & Oates: You either love them or you hate them. Or, as in my case, you love them AND you hate them. The blue-eyed Philly soul and pop superstars scored some 3,400 Billboard Top 100 hits during the late seventies and early eighties, including such unavoidable classics as “Maneater,” “Out of Touch,” and “Kiss on My List,” which played continually on every car radio and in every mall, bar, elevator, Lothario’s bedroom, police station holding cell (I heard “Rich Girl” in one once), and psychiatric facility in the land.

I loathed Hall & Oates because their largely soulless soul songs (you can’t be a machine and have a soul) were the epitome of slick studio perfection, but even more so because said songs were so monstrously catchy that even if you hated them you still found yourself singing along with pleasure every time you heard one. I experienced much self-loathing over this. Hated myself like lime spandex.

But before there was Hall & Oates, the inhuman hit-making machine, there was Hall & Oates, the soft rock, soul, and folk duo who recorded three albums (Whole Oats, Abandoned Luncheonette, and War Babies) for Atlantic Records between 1972 and 1974. None of them fared well commercially, and Hall & Oates could have ended up a footnote to history had they not been lucky enough to sign with RCA. Most casual Hall & Oates’ fans have never heard the Atlantic-era records, and that’s too bad, because 1973’s Abandoned Luncheonette in particular is a real rocking-horse winner.

What else can I say about Hall & Oates? The ever-humble Daryl Hall, who has recorded experimental LPs on the side with the likes of Robert Fripp, once said of his partnership with John Oates, “I’m 90% and he’s 10%, and that’s the way it is.” Woah. To be fair to Hall, it did seem at times that Oates’ only role was as band mustache. But that’s misleading. Oates’ vocals and guitar playing were indispensable, and he wrote some wonderful songs. As for Abandoned Luncheonette, its list of studio musicians goes on and on, and includes a guy on Howling guitar, whatever that is. I get the idea they had to bring it to the studio in a cage, and keep it on a sturdy leash at all times.

Hall & Oates’ megahits have a cold, glistening, metallic sheen; they sound like the cover of 1975’s Daryl Hall and John Oates, on which the duo have been air-brushed into a silvery glam inhumanity (and Daryl looks like a reaaallly hot girl.) Such is not the case with Abandoned Luncheonette’s very soulful “She’s Gone,” which went nowhere when the LP was released but hit the Top Ten in 1976 upon being re-released following the success of covers by Lou Rawls and Tavares, who duded themselves up in frightful matching track outfits and gave us the ghastly “More Than a Woman.”

“She’s Gone” has a very warm sound, from its opening organ to the duo’s shared vocals on the great chorus (“She’s go-wa-wa-wa-on!”) to Hall’s thrilling cry of “Now I can see/Love taking her toll on me!” Joe Farrell plays a great tenor sax solo, then the boys sing some more before the song reaches its tremendous climax, with Hall & Oates’ swapping cries of “She’s gone” as the song fades out. Hall himself has said “She’s Gone” is the best song the duo ever wrote together, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Oates’ “I’m Just a Kid (Don’t Make Me Feel Like a Man)” is proof that he’s more than just a life-support unit for his lady tickler; a quiet but very addictive acoustic number about cradle-robbing, it has Hall kicking ass on vocals, from his “Fool around with me/Come on/Mess around with me” to the laugh he throws in before saying, “Listen girl/I’m just playin’.” The song really lively ups itself during the final chorus, with the drums and keyboards kicking in and Hall crooning, “I’m just a kid don’t make me feel like a man” (and Oates’ echoing in falsetto, “I’m not a man”) before Hall closes things down saying, like a Philly punk, “I’m just a kid.”

Oates also wrote “Had I Known You Better Then,” a very sweet acoustic number with some wonderful vocals that melt like butter in your ears (unpleasant metaphor, that) on the chorus, some nice organ, and lots of fancy vocal interplay between the duo throughout. These guys obviously spent their teen years in Philadelphia doing nothing but listening to their soul faves, as you can tell from the way Hall’s voice leaps out of the mix to sing, “Had I known you/Had I known you better then” while Oates sings, “Better… then.” It’s a hole in one, as is the very smooth “Las Vegas Turnaround (The Stewardess Song),” which has a faintly Steely Dan vibe and pays homage to the same Sara later immortalized in “Sara Smile.” The tune has an appropriately lounge feel for a tune about Sin City, with the boys singing in tandem about the “gambling fools” flying to the “Holy Land Las Vegas” before a sax solo comes along and the boys sing, “Sara please!” over and over while somebody sings “Las Vegas turnaround.”

Hall’s “When The Morning Comes” opens with acoustic guitars and a mellotron (I think), and is appropriately sunny. The drums keep it moving, while Hall and Oates throw in lots of “oooooohs.” But it’s that wonderful mellotron that makes the song, cutting in and out before soloing to take the tune, which is stunningly beautiful, to its end. Meanwhile, Hall’s downbeat “Laughing Boy”—the only song on the LP I dislike—is mostly Hall and a piano. His vocals are top-notch, but unfortunately the lugubrious melody does nothing for me. There is a nice flugelhorn solo, but as Lemmy (I picked his name out of a hat) once said, a nice flugelhorn solo does not a great rock song make.

“Lady Rain” has a very sweet melody and opens with some cool mandolin and strummed acoustic guitar. It’s funky, too, especially when the drums come in and Hall sings, “Lady Rain, lay your sobbin’ hair down on my shoulder/Lady Rain, do your cloudy eyes see me much older?” Then one very funky guitar enters via stage left, and H’Oates swap lines until some acoustic guitar leads into one freaky electric violin solo. Then the duo return to sing, “Has it all been going down in vain, yeah” over and over as the electric violinist plays some really far-out shit until the song stops abruptly, like it hit a wall.

Hall’s “Abandoned Luncheonette” is a great song, very bouncy and friendly, with Hall singing, “They sat in an abandoned luncheonette/Sippin’ imaginary cola/And drawing faces in the tabletop dust.” He goes on singing until a sax and piano come in and the song’s tectonic plates suddenly shift and Eureka! Suddenly you’re listening to a deliriously beautiful chorus with Hall singing, “Day to day, to day to day/Then they were old, their lives wasted away.” Then comes a sax solo and the second verse, after which that giant and wonderful shift occurs again and a very large “Humanity Chorus” (as it’s listed in the credits) joins H. & O. in singing “Day to day” and “Month to month” until the fadeout.

Hall’s brilliant “Everytime I Look at You” opens with a funky wah guitar and an equally cool rhythm guitar, and it sounds like something off Bowie’s Station to Station. And the vocals are superfunky too, as are the swells of horns that come in and out. Then there’s one very cool guitar solo, joined by some horns which proceed to go ape, and what follows is a long instrumental passage that is deliriously lovely until Hall & Oates sing, orgiastically, “Baby it’s goodbye/Baby it’s goodbye girl” and scream and wail as the song speeds up and you think it’s the end. When from out of nowhere a banjo and mandolin come in and hoe the mutha down until the song fades out. It doesn’t sound like it should work but it does, spectacularly.

And that’s all she wrote. Within a few short years Hall & Oates would ascend to the stratosphere, rule the pop charts like Evil Insect Overlords, and order the mass executions of their enemies. But they would never sound this funky and downright warm again, nor would they ever write songs I love as much as “She’s Gone,” “Abandoned Luncheonette,” and “Everytime I Look at You.”

I may hate “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” but I still sing along every time it comes on the car radio. But I prefer a Hall & Oates I can simply love, like cigarettes or my cat or the Killdozer promo glossy that hangs above as I write this. And that’s what I get with Abandoned Luncheonette, a beloved ship of an LP I’ll never abandon. I’ll go to the bottom with the sucker, singing “She’s Gone” until it sounds like “glug glug glug.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • Kristi

    I have loved this album since I became a Daryl Hall and John Oates fan in 1980 (I was 15).  I have grown up a fan and love the older (aka earlier) Hall and Oates albums…everything before 1980!  You said you dislike “Laughing Boy”.  That song became everything to me as a teen and it is my very favorite Hall and Oates song.  Through that song, their voice became my friend…I was never alone.  Yes, this this may sound sappy, but their music helped me!  I still love the melodies and songs of both Daryl and John and wish them all the success and thank them for writing that beautiful “Laughing Boy” and all of “Abandoned Luncheonette”:)

  • SZWriter

    I recently rediscovered “Abandoned Luncheonette” and I live it more now than ever. I have a new appreciation for the voices, musicianship,.songwriting and overall production of the album. This was a great, thorough review…I do wish someone would give us the background of the haunting, “Lady Rain…”

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