They may have appeared in some cringe-worthy, cheesy '80s videos. They may be deemed "uncool" by critics for their so-called commercial sound. But Hall and Oates will ultimately go down as one of the best blue-eyed soul groups in the modern era, as innumerable artists have covered or sampled their work. Daryl Hall and John Oates succeeded in taking Philly Soul and modernizing it, creating such classics as "She's Gone," "Sara Smile," "Kiss on My List," and "Private Eyes," to name just a few of their numerous hits. The one song that has endured, due to its infectious rhythm and memorable lyrics, is 1982's "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)," a perfect representation of the duo's blend of soul and pop.
Hall and Oates' brand of soul can trace its roots back to 1960s Philadelphia, when Temple University student Hall sang on Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's early records. At the same time, fellow Temple student Oates led his own soul group, and the two friends eventually decided to combine forces. They formed a short-lived band, Gulliver, who released one album in 1968. After briefly parting ways, the duo reunited and refined their then folk-oriented music. Attracting the attention of future music mogul Tommy Mottola, Hall and Oates soon secured a contract with Atlantic Records. They recorded three albums--Whole Oates (1972), Abandoned Luncheonette (1973), and War Babies (1974)--and scored a modest hit with the initial release of "She's Gone" in 1974. But after moving to RCA in 1975, the duo further honed their soul-based sound, and their hitmaking days began. 1975's "Sara Smile" became a top-ten single; the rerelease of "She's Gone" experienced similar success. Their R&B-soaked songs received airplay on both top 40 and urban radio, a rarity for a white act at the time.
Despite these initial successes, their mid-to-late 70s releases met with relatively modest sales. That changed with 1980's Voices, an R&B album firmly entrenched in pop and rock. Steeped in now classics, the singles continued: "Kiss on My List," "You Make My Dreams," a cover of the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling," and "Every Time You Go Away" (a huge hit for Paul Young a few years later). Capitalizing on Voices' massive sales, Hall and Oates immediately returned to the studio to record the followup, 1981's Private Eyes, which further mixed in electronic beats with classic soul. The title track and "Did It in A Minute" became huge hits, but the track which has endured the most is 'I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)," a midtempo number that topped both the pop and R&B charts.
What elements add up to such a classic tune? First, the gently pulsating, drum machine-powered beat immediately grabs the listener's ear, its slightly off-kilter rhythm holding interest. Next comes the bass line and additional percussion; then the smooth keyboards, which introduce the melody. Hall's strong voice, oozing with soul, starts singing the lyrics. The words themselves underscore the strong rhythm pattern: "Easy, ready, willing, overtime/ When does it stop, where do you dare me to draw the line/ You got the body now you want my soul/ Don't even think about it say no go." Notice how the words mimic the drum machine pattern, virtually functioning as a percussive instrument; the first line features words all containing two syllables, clearly an intentional move. As Hall and Oates approach the chorus, they and the band sing perfect harmonies, nodding to old-school 70s soul. When Hall croons the title phrase, he accents certain words, again stressing the heavy rhythmic element: "I can't go for that/ No can do." That technique requires a skillful vocalist, and Hall effortlessly rises to the challenge. A sensual saxophone solo adds another dimension to the song, emphasizing the retro soul sound.
Over 30 years later, hip hop artists still sample "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)," with artists such as De La Soul, Heavy D, and 2 Live Crew incorporating that beat into their songs. In 2010 indie act The Bird and the Bee recorded a tribute album to Hall and Oates, which included the hit. While Hall and Oates racked up their share of successes, "I Can't Go for That just may end up encapsulating their legacy. At the very least, it signifies expertly done blue-eyed soul.