By Rick Reger
Last year, when Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach fused muses for a collaborative LP and tour, they extended a long-standing pop tradition: since as far back as the 70s, rock/pop luminaries have come together to twine their creative tendrils and see what unique flora might spring forth. These collaborations have ranged from the indie underworld (Yo La Tengo/Jad Fair) to the avant-garde (Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart) to the mainstream (Neil Young/Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan/the Grateful Dead), and while the results have varied in quality, they generally succeed in stirring up media coverage and public curiosity.
Unfortunately, listeners are rarely rewarded with anything truly groundbreaking. Even partnerships that seemed daring on paper--Public Enemy and Anthrax, Joni Mitchell and Charles Mingus--have produced considerably less audacious sounds than one might have hoped. Musicians--like most people--aren't really interested in fraternizing with people who have radically different tastes and standards. Putting Run-D.M.C. in the studio with Aerosmith might seem like genre bending, but it's not like sticking Whitney Houston in front of the Residents.
The recent reissue of Daryl Hall's Sacred Songs (1980) returns to print one of the few truly weird collaborations in pop history--Hall and guitarist Robert Fripp. Though nominally Fripp was just the producer, Sacred Songs was a genuine songwriting, performing, and arranging collaboration between two seemingly ill-matched musicians. In 1977, when the record was cut, Fripp was only three years past the most aggressive, abrasive version of King Crimson ever assembled. Sick of the music business, he'd decided to work as a solo performer outside the industry machinery, creating improvised, guitar-based soundscapes with his "Frippertronics" tape-delay system. Hall and his partner John Oates had been plying a smooth, sophisticated brand of blue-eyed soul and folky pop for the previous five years and were fresh from recording their first platinum LP (Bigger Than Both of Us) and number-one single ("Rich Girl"). On the verge of becoming a Top 40 fixture, Hall seemed a distinctly odd partner for the crotchety experimental guitarist.
According to the reissue's liner notes, Hall and Oates had grown increasingly resentful of the pressure to produce hits and of their record labels' interference in the recording process. They decided to take some time off, and when RCA gave Hall permission to record a solo album, he sought out the similarly alienated Fripp. Apparently the two had crossed paths several years earlier and formed a friendship based on "shared musical and theoretical interests," whatever that means. After the album was recorded, over three weeks in the summer of '77, both the label and Hall's management felt the record lacked hit singles, so it was tossed in the label's vault and given an unspecified (i.e., no) release date. Incensed, Hall and Fripp began sending session tapes to sympathetic music writers and disc jockeys, asking them to tell fans about the project. The duo didn't exactly foment widespread public outrage, but they did rally enough support to force RCA to rethink its position, and finally Sacred Songs was released, almost three years after it was submitted.
Even then, Sacred Songs didn't seem to merit the minor furor it had produced. It wasn't packed with Top 40 singles, but neither was it a particularly strange record; it's a collection of straightforward, catchy pop that's a bit odd around the edges. Some of its tunes differ little from Hall and Oates's earlier work. "Why Was It So Easy," "Survive," and "Without Tears" all feature the instantly fetching chord progressions and long, lilting vocal melodies that distinguished the duo's Abandoned Luncheonette (1973) from the MOR pack. And while the barrelhouse rock of "Sacred Songs" and "Don't Leave Me Alone With Her" are punchier than most Hall and Oates fare, neither cut ventures outside the boundaries of your typical bar band.
Hall and Fripp got more adventurous with the thoroughly catchy "Something in 4/4 Time" and the Beatles-esque "Babs and Babs." The former is the most radio-friendly cut on the album, but its sarcastic chorus articulates the duo's slightly subversive mission: "You're selling yourself / And that's a matter of fact / Your love is your life / And your life is your act... So ya gotta have something in 4/4 time / Ya gotta have something that always rhymes." It's cleverly underscored by Fripp's off-kilter guitar break, which slurs the song's 4/4 meter without actually violating it. On "Babs and Babs," a rolling piano tune reminiscent of "The Fool on the Hill," Hall's lyrics depict a conversation between the left and right brain, while a spacey, hypnotic swarm of Frippertronics textures in the middle section and outro jarringly but effectively echo the surreal lyrics.
But only twice do Hall and Fripp's talents truly merge to create totally uncharacteristic, ear-opening music. "NYCNY" (which sneaked out on Fripp's 1979 album Exposure) is a torrid punk-metal love-hate rant against the Big Apple; it sounds a bit like King Crimson's "Red" overlaid with a howling vocal performance from Hall. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, "The Farther Away I Am" is a lulling, haunting exercise in minimalism, with Hall repeating a single whispered line over a few languid electric piano chords and a shimmering pool of Frippertronics.
Sacred Songs is an engaging, offbeat pop record, but it's not the weird, avant-pop oddity one might expect. It is, however, vastly more interesting than Young and Pearl Jam's Mirror Ball or Costello and Bacharach's Painted From Memory. Most high-profile collaborations plow a comfortable middle ground between the collaborators' respective styles, but Hall and Fripp remain at creative loggerheads, veering back and forth between mainstream pop and experimental soundscape. A tug-of-war is inherently more dynamic than an hour of mutual ass-patting, and that's why Sacred Songs is a more interesting listen than most "genre-crossing" collaborations.
The genesis of Sacred Songs also serves as a cautionary tale, showing how difficult it was--and still is--for two artists from opposite ends of the pop-music spectrum to get label support for genuine cross-genre projects. Just as corporate labels are primarily concerned with their bottom line, most indie labels are protective of their image. Since records like Sacred Songs contribute to neither, they're liable to remain uncommon, almost freakish events--conceived conspiratorially and released only under duress.