Hall & Oates Solo Albums from the Lost and Found: Sacred Songs / Three Hearts in the Happy Ending Machine

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

Considering that they’re statistically the most successful duo in the history of rock music, you might think that Daryl Hall and John Oates might get more attention than they do for their occasional solo albums and side projects, but their extracurricular work remains somewhat obscure. Oates would wait until 2002 to release his first solo album, but he did quietly score a major Top Ten hit away from Daryl Hall as a songwriter by co-writing (with Ira Davies) the biggest hit Icehouse ever had in America, 1988’s “Electric Blue.” (He also produced, co-wrote and duetted on the Parachute Club’s “Love Is Fire,” a sizable Canadian hit that strangely went unnoticed in the States despite Oates’ involvement.) Hall, in contrast, started his solo career all the way back in the late ‘70s but to a very curious result.

Surprisingly enough, Hall would ask King Crimson’s Robert Fripp in 1977 to produce his solo debut, the wildly fascinating Sacred Songs. Fripp might seem like an odd choice of producer but it did make some sense: Hall was a longtime King Crimson fan and – perhaps not surprisingly – was listening to them heavily around the time that he made his own most avant-garde album with Oates, the 1974 Todd Rundgren-produced War Babies. Sacred Songs – recorded with the assistance of three then-members of Hall & Oates’ backing band, former Elton John sidemen Caleb Quaye (guitar), Kenny Passarelli (bass), and Roger Pope (drums) – would get finished in a matter of weeks but, upon completion, RCA balked at releasing the affair, deeming it not commercial enough, and shelved it, though they’d ultimately give the disc a belated release three years later in 1980, just months before Hall & Oates released the massive-selling Voices album. 

In retrospect, it’s slightly hard to understand why RCA sat on Sacred Songs for three years; true, with the possible exception of the excellent ballad “Why Was It So Easy,” this doesn’t sound much like the soul-pop Hall & Oates were making at the time (although some of the songs that would pop up on 1978’s Along the Red Ledge and 1979’s Wait for Me were experimental in their own right, not in the least the latter disc’s synthesizer instrumental “Hallofon”), but some of the songs here are still reasonably commercial, if not quite obvious single material, either, particularly the bouncy boogie-rock of the title cut, the insistent piano pounce and layered harmonies of “Something in 4/4 Time,” and the beautiful, shimmering acoustic grooves of the epic “Survive.”

But, in RCA’s defense, there are also some pretty weird – though extremely intriguing – moments here, like the Fripp-penned instrumental “Urban Landscape,” centered around his renowned trademark “Frippertronics” (a tape loop system that ultimately produces a synthesizer-like droning sound), the near-punk of the unusually manic rocker “NYCNY,” the stark Frippertronics-heavy atmospheric ballad “The Farther Away I Am” (the vocal of which doesn’t begin until nearly halfway through the track), and the sprawling, near-eight-minute “Babs and Babs.”

Hall and Fripp would continue to work together even after Sacred Songs got shelved, and Hall would end up recording lead vocal parts for the majority of the songs that would show up on Fripp’s 1979 solo album Exposure (the third part in a trilogy that includes Sacred Songs and Peter Gabriel’s Fripp-produced second solo disc), although contractual disputes necessitated that all but two Hall-sung tracks (“North Star” and “You Burn Me Up I’m a Cigarette”) would get re-recorded with different vocalists.

Hall would wait until 1985 to record his next solo outing, 1986’s Three Hearts in the Happy Ending Machine. It was a decidedly different affair from Sacred Songs and was much more deliberately commercial. The production is handled this time around by Hall himself in conjunction with Hall & Oates bassist Tom “T-Bone” Wolk and the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, hot off his extracurricular success as the co-writer and co-producer of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” while the album also sports several high-profile cameos: the Boomtown Rats’ frontman (and recent Band Aid and Live Aid organizer) Bob Geldof pops up on “Next Step” and “Only a Vision” while the legendary Joni Mitchell provides backing vocals on “Right As Rain.” [Other cameos of note to music enthusiasts include Pretenders lead guitarist Robbie McIntosh on “Someone like You” and the Dream Academy’s Kate St. John on “Dreamtime,” while the Fixx’s wildly underrated guitarist Jamie West-Oram is one of the guitarists featured throughout the disc, along with Stewart and longtime Hall & Oates sideman (and future SNL house-band leader) G.E. Smith.]

Three Hearts is much more akin to your average Hall and Oates album than Sacred Songs, but Hall still throws in some unusual touches to distinguish this as a solo album. The catchy “Let It Out” jettisons Hall’s usual soul-pop in favor of a distinctly Bryan Adams-like arena-rock cut (which isn’t too radical a move, considering that Adams and Hall & Oates shared the same drummer in Mickey Curry), while “Only a Vision” and “Next Step” both dabble in dance-pop and Hall gets quite unusually lyrically heavy in the subdued album closer “What’s Gonna Happen to Us.” But Hall’s trademark soulful side still emerges on cuts like “I Wasn’t Born Yesterday,” which sports a great Spinners-like chorus, the fantastic ballad “Someone like You,” and, even better, the Top 40 hit “Foolish Pride.” [The song would get remixed significantly for radio, so the version included here isn’t the same as that on the song’s 45, but the more organic-sounding LP mix is just as strong, if not perhaps even superior.] 

But the album’s most famous and distinguished cut – if not also its most adventurous – is the opener, the swirling psychedelic pop of “Dreamtime,” which is comparable to a less-obviously-indebted-to-the-Beatles version of Tears for Fears’ “Sowing the Seeds of Love.” It’s certainly psychedelic by Hall and Oates standards, but it’s not so over-the-top as to seem too retro, and its breezy sound seems a little more informed by “Penny Lane” and “Hello, Goodbye” than by “I Am the Walrus” or “Strawberry Fields Forever.” It’s one of Hall’s most daring and ambitious singles, with or without John Oates, yet still commercial enough to possess a fairly memorable melody, and the song would deservedly make it all the way to the Top Five, though it’s all but vanished from FM radio in the intervening years and has become quite the lost hit.

Hall has gone on to make several more equally neglected solo full-lengths – 1993’s Soul Alone would yield a minor radio hit in “I’m in a Philly Mood,” while his most recent solo effort, 2011’s Laughing Down Crying sports some fine tunes like “Talking to You (Is Like Talking to Myself”) – but it’s Sacred Songs that remains his most interesting and experimental solo outing to date and Three Hearts his most commercially successful.