When Hall & Oates Got Weird on 'War Babies'

'War Babies'
Photo Credit
Atlantic Records

While the image of Daryl Hall & John Oates as we knew in the '80s - slick style and killer rock 'n' soul singles (including six No. 1 hits) - is what you probably see when you think of the dynamic duo, they weren't always attacking the pop charts with such precision. In fact, there was a time when they were kind of weird - case in point, their underrated third album War Babies, a collaboration with producer Todd Rundgren.

The Philly rockers were working hard to gain attention with their work at the time. Debut album Whole Oats came and went without a trace, and follow-up Abandoned Luncheonette (1973) only spun off a minor single in the soulful "She's Gone." (The song would later reach the Top 10 as a belated follow-up to breakthrough single "Sara Smile.") Around the same time, Rundgren - also born in Philadelphia - was starting to attract pop audiences with his artistic ambitions, scoring hits like "Hello It's Me" off breakthrough album Something/Anything? (1972) and then challenging audiences a year later with the psychedelic A Wizard, A True Star (1973). Rundgren was also in the process of assembling the prog-rock outfit Utopia, and brought many of his bandmates into the studio for War Babies.

War Babies sounds like nothing Daryl Hall & John Oates did before or since. Its poppiest track is its opener and sole single, the Oates-sung "Can't Stop the Music (He Played It Much Too Long)"; from there, it's a mix of keyboard-based jams and woolly freakouts like "Is It a Star," "70s Scenario" and "You're Much Too Soon," making room for Daryl and John's vocal brilliance alongside acerbic musings on a wayward generation burned out by war, television and corruption.

"It scared the shit out of these gingerbread eaters. They literally threw their gingerbread at us," Hall later boasted of their changing style in an interview. "I’m not kidding! I remember there was this one club we played called the Main Point where people started throwing their gingerbread at us. It was a very gratifying thing.”

Indeed, War Babies failed to chart and marked the end of Hall & Oates' tenure with Atlantic Records. But real success was only a short stretch ahead of them - the kind of blockbusters that have made the pair Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees and continuous moneymakers as a touring act. And Daryl Hall, who's also enjoyed a varied solo career (including the groundbreaking web series Live from Daryl's House), used the weirdness of War Babies as a springboard for many of his solo ventures, from art-rock records with Robert Fripp to a 2022 theater tour that'll see him reuniting with the album's producer, Todd Rundgren.

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