In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Daryl Hall and John Oates must’ve felt like they’d cracked a mystical code. In the fall of 1981, MTV had only been airing for a few months, and most people didn’t have cable. Hall and Oates have said that they didn’t even like the idea of making music videos, that they considered the process a distraction. And yet Hall and Oates may have been the first true MTV stars — the people who figured out how to get the most out of pairing simple, cartoonish imagery with songs that lingered in people’s brainpans.
Jay Dubin, director of Hall and Oates’ “Private Eyes” video, says that the duo called him up, basically on the spur of the moment, and asked him to come to New York’s Electric Lady studios, where they were recording, to shoot a clip. They had a small budget and a few hours, and Dubin got it done. “Private Eyes” gets its point across in the simplest way imaginable: Hall, Oates, and their backing band members all dress up like old-timey gumshoes. Oates peers at the camera through a magnifying glass. They sing the song. That’s it. It was enough.
Lyrically, “Private Eyes” is all about romantic obsession and intuition. Daryl Hall tells a girl that he can tell whether she’s lying, that he’s always watching her — not exactly the most romantic sentiment. The lyrics come laden in hidden meanings. “I see you, you see me,” Hall sings. “Watch you blowing the lines when you’re making a scene.” So he’s using old movie lingo to talk about how she’s getting her stories mixed up, and he’s maybe throwing a sly cocaine reference in there, too. She’s shady, and he’s suspicious.
But thanks in part to that instantly-memorable video, “Private Eyes” takes that tense, unsustainable situation and makes it fun. In the video, Hall is an ur-yuppie, staring into the camera with his vivid blue eyes and his rooster haircut and his green hepcat suit. Oates plays the fool, mugging and willing himself to become a human cartoon character. The guys in the backing band all maintain blank expressions — GE Smith manages not to pull any goofy faces, even during the solo — and do the clap-clapclap chorus bit. It’s exactly the kind of silliness that made an impression on the nascent music-video channel.
Musically, “Private Eyes” fits the tone of the video. Hall and Oates had come from Philly soul, and there’s a whole lot of doo-wop in the way they layer up the backing vocals. But like “Kiss On My List,” the duo’s previous #1, it’s cold and synthy and skeletal — tendencies that Hall and Oates presumably picked up from new wave. Back then, Daryl Hall said that their songwriting largely consisted of removing as much as possible from their tracks, leaving only what was entirely necessary.
But Hall wasn’t the main writer of “Private Eyes.” A Los Angeles musician named Warren Pash had the idea for the chorus one day when he saw a billboard for a 1980 Tim Conway/Don Knotts comedy called The Private Eyes. Pash brought the song to Jana Allen. Allen had co-written “Kiss On My List” with Daryl Hall, and she was the younger sister of Hall’s girlfriend Sara. At the time, Jana was still trying to get a solo career going. (“Kiss On My List” was originally supposed to be her song.) Jana wanted to record “Private Eyes,” so she and Pash banged out a demo version of the song in a bare-bones recording studio.
Soon afterward, Jana decided that it would make more sense for Hall and Oates than for herself, so she brought it to them. Hall and Sara Allen rearranged the song and rewrote the lyrics, working it over until it sounded more like something Hall and Oates would do. At the time, Hall was reimagining the idea of how a Hall and Oates song would sound. He made “Private Eyes” work. In the end, Pash, Hall, and both Allen sisters all got songwriting credits.
Hall and Oates were easing into their imperial era. They’d scored their first hits in the mid-’70s, gone through a dry spell in the high disco era, and come back strong with the 1980 album Voices. All of a sudden, Hall and Oates were bigger than they’d ever been. Their Private Eyes album came out just over a year after Voices. It built on that album’s sound, reimagining stiff lounge-lizard whiteboy soul as itchy-scratchy minimal new wave. They hit on the exact right sound for that moment.
“Private Eyes” is a smart piece of music, but I don’t love it. The sound is richer and more fluid than the one on the pretty-similar “Kiss On My List,” but it has the same rigid clompiness to it. There’s no syncopation in its beat, which is a problem for anyone making music that’s rooted in R&B. The song has a slightly off-putting studio sheen; GE Smith’s guitar solo, for instance, is weirdly muted. The chorus is just catchy enough to drive me nuts when it get stuck in my head. And there’s something at least a little bit creepy about Hall using an upbeat pop song to tell a girl that he’s going to watch her every move.
Still, I can’t deny the level of craft involved in “Private Eyes.” Hall hits some big, buttery notes, but he never oversings, and he only shows off in little ways — “Private eh-hiiiiies” — that serve the song. The track is also full of tiny, playful, attention-grabbing hooks, like those crowd-participation handclaps, or like the vocoder effect that hits the backing vocals near the end of the song. In the mechanistic precision of its goofiness, “Private Eyes” reminds me a bit of Devo, Hall and Oates’ fellow early-MTV darlings. (Devo have never had a top-10 hit. Their highest-charting single, 1980’s “Whip It,” peaked at #14.)
Jana Allen, co-writer of both “Kiss On My List” and “Private Eyes,” never got a chance to launch a singing career of her own. She died of leukemia in 1993, when she was just 36. But Jana and her sister Sara both made a real impact as songwriters. Hall and Oates will be back in this column soon, with another song that Sara co-wrote.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ken Marino singing “Private Eyes” to rival private eye Kristen Bell on a 2005 episode of Veronica Mars:
(Kristen Bell has never had a top-10 hit. Her highest-charting single is “Love Is An Open Door,” a duet with Santino Fontana from the soundtrack to the 2013 film Frozen. “Love Is An Open Door” peaked at #49.)