Released in 1978, Darryl Hall and John Oates were in a strange place in their careers. In the mid 1970s, they had a string of singles that garnered them airplay and chart action, then they got adventurous.
The album, Beauty on the Backstreet (1977), followed “Rich Girl” and “Sara Smile” but had no singles. The album was a curiosity, a dense, harder rock collection. As I was listening to it recently, I thought about Robert Fripp (King Crimson) who produced a solo album by Hall and an album by Peter Gabriel, both were eclectic soundscapes that defied commerciality. Beauty on the Backstreet is well-played and has a complex set of songs, but none that radio would embrace. This was the era of Frampton Comes Alive and Saturday Night Fever.
Along the Red Ledge was a step toward a commercial project, yet it continued the hard rock/soul vibe that Beauty on the Backstreet embraced. Hall and Oates were the blue-eyed soul duo that seemed to tweak their sound from album to album. Along the Red Ledge also featured a change of producers. David Foster, a young musician/arranger was beginning his producer career. He would amass a boatload of Grammy Awards working with Chicago, Seal, Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion, Michael Buble, Natalie Cole, Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston and many others. Foster has recently worked with George Harrison on his 33 and 1/3 album, and Harrison showed up to play on the sessions.
Hall and Oates started using their road band in the studio, and although the band would change over time, the playing is seamless. The album does supplement the core musicians with many sidemen including Todd Rundgren, Robert Fripp (I told you), members of Toto, Rick Nielson, Dick Wagner, Jay Graydon and Harrison.
Foster and engineer Humberto Gatica ensure a polished sound to the album, even when the guitars are distorted and layered several deep. This contrasts with Beauty on the Backstreet, which lacks the clarity, in part due to the arrangement style of the songs. It seems like the approach on that album was a dense wall of sound with not much instrument separation. Gatica went on to engineer for many of Foster’s hits, and was a producer for Cher, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Air Supply, Tina Turner and many others.
Along the Red Ledge was more of a return to classic Hall and Oates songwriting, although the sound kept the harder edge, Foster helped with the arrangements, a skill that he would use to shape the sound of The Tubes and Chicago to give them a more radio-friendly groove.
There were two singles released from Along the Red Ledge, “It’s a Laugh” (U.S. #20) and “I Don’t Wanna Lose You” (U.S. #42), neither huge hits, but a return to the radio.
The album opens with “It’s a Laugh” which is a bright, upbeat song, with a nostalgic, old fashioned pop feel to it. It segues into “Melody For a Memory,” a moody, serious John Oates lead vocal. It has a Philly-soul vibe to it, with strings and serious guitars. It is the longest song on the album and had a long, great fade out. It is one my favorite songs on the album.
The next song, “The Last Time” returns to the nostalgic feel with lots of echo and strings, and oohs and ahhs in the chorus. The lead vocals are a bit buried in the mix and in one channel. That’s rather odd. “I Don’t Want to Lose You” continues the slick Philly vibe with the R&B strings and strong beat. You might think the O’Jays or the Commodores with this bouncy groove.
Side A ends with “Have I Been Around Too Long,” a glorious piece of blue-eyed soul, moody and sad, with many guitars. Hall and Oates paint the song with awesome background vocals. This song could have been a strong single if it had been released.
Side B opens with “Alley Katz,” which is a high-energy, punk-type guitar song. It’s an okay song, it just repeats and shows the Hall and Oates are rockers. The rock vibe continues with “Don’t Blame it on Love,” a power chord song with many guest guitar players, it is more effective than “Alley Katz” in showing off the guitar aggression. I have always liked this song, the guitar riffing and tonalities are great.
Continuing with the hard rock is “Serious Music,” with Oates on lead. The remastered album really brings out the edge in the guitars. A great arrangement brings out that melodic textures in this song. They almost sound like ELO with the string arrangement. Give Foster, Hall and Oates credit for the great overall arrangement. I never really warmed up to this song, but hearing it again, it is strong and moving.
“Pleasure Beach” seems another trip to nostalgia land, like something from the film Grease. Not my favorite song.
“August Day” ends the album with still a nostalgic look back. Hall with strings, synthesizer solo and electric piano, it is much more effective than several other similar themed songs on the album. Hall the vocal range to pull this off.