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.
In the early ’80s, Daryl Hall and John Oates really had things figured out. After 10 years and 10 albums, they’d moved through multiple phases and settled on a sound — a kind of creamy futurist doo-wop — that suited both them and their moment. They found ways to combine twitchy synthetic new wave with the slick white-boy soul that first made them famous, and they managed that trick without quite betraying either side of their sound. For a while, they were an absurd hit machine, so efficient that they cranked out a new album almost every year and never quite left the pop charts.
Hall & Oates didn’t really like making music videos, but music videos liked them. In their clips, they were smooth and gawky in equal measure. The backing-vocal interjections of their songs gave people a whole lot of chances to turn to the camera for eye-grabbing little close-ups. Even the members of their backing band stood out; for instance, their guitarist, the future TV star GE Smith, looked like a particularly smug ice sculpture. In the early MTV years where Black artists almost never got airplay, Hall & Oates were perennial standbys — White guys who knew how to move in their videos, making variations on Black music.
When Hall and Oates were making their eleventh album H2O, they invited MTV’s cameras into the studio with them. It was one more savvy move in a long list of them. H2O came out in October of 1982, and while it never got higher than #3 on the Billboard album chart, it stayed on that chart for a year and a half, selling millions and becoming one of the biggest albums of 1983, a year that was not exactly hurting for big albums. H2O spawned three top-10 singles, and with “Maneater,” the album’s opening track and first single, Hall & Oates landed the biggest hit of their career.
There’s no big origin story behind “Maneater.” Instead, it’s just Hall & Oates doing their thing, continually pushing and refining one more track for mass consumption. John Oates came up with the skeleton of the song, recording a demo for it with previous Number Ones artist Edgar Winter. Daryl Hall has said that the demo version of “Maneater” was basically a reggae song and that he switched the groove up to make it more of a Motown thing.
He’s not kidding. The “Maneater” intro is close enough to the intro of the Supremes’ 1966 #1 “You Can’t Hurry Love” that it would’ve been legally actionable if they’d done it today. And it’s not like it wasn’t noticeable. While “Maneater” sat at #1, Phil Collins’ cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love” was climbing the charts. (Collins’ take on “You Can’t Hurry Love” eventually peaked at #10, becoming his first US top-10 hit. Collins’ version is a 5. Collins will be in this column a bunch of times.)
Hall’s longtime girlfriend Sara Allen, a frequent Hall & Oates collaborator, helped him rewrite “Maneater.” Hall credits Allen with convincing him to end the chorus after the phrase “she’s a maneater.” In a recent American Songwriter interview, Oates says that “Maneater” isn’t really about a woman. Rather, it’s about early-’80s New York City itself:
Neither Daryl nor I wanted to write a song that was anti-women or negative toward women. So what we did was we transpose that initial idea and use New York City in the ’80s as a metaphor. New York City became the maneater, the city that would chew you up and spit you out. And that is really what the song is truly about.
I don’t believe Oates. “Maneater” sure seems like an ode to a gold-digging femme fatale, a pop-music archetype that’s been at the center of plenty of songs. The woman, a lean and hungry type who only comes out at night, is ready to tear apart any guy with more money than self-control: “A she-cat tamed by the purr of a Jaguar,” “The beauty is there, but a beast is in the heart.” None of that sounds much like a city to me.
That whole image is a classic misogynist trope, but “Maneater” never really judges the woman at its center. Instead, it seems to admire her drive and her magnetism, maybe to the point of envy. Like Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes,” “Maneater” is structured as a warning. But just as in “Bette Davis Eyes,” Hall’s narrator knows that he’s not going to convince anyone to stay away from this woman, and he seems to look at her with a kind of awe. “I wouldn’t if I were you,” Hall sings. I don’t believe Hall, either.
Musically, “Maneater,” just like “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” before it, does great things with brittle, itchy minimalism. The song has mood and momentum in equal measures. It surrounds that big Supremes beat with delay-drenched keyboard tones and icy, skanky guitar strokes. Charlie DeChant’s saxophone solo, the closest thing that the song has to a bridge, is effective atmosphere — an eerily echoing growl-purr with its own sense of momentum and its own climax. The end of the song repeats the chorus a few too many times, and I don’t think much of Hall’s vocal ad-libs. But “Maneater” works. It’s hard, sharp, memorable pop music.
The “Maneater” video builds on that atmosphere. Hall stares at the camera, his face half in shadow and his hair perfectly in place. He looks like a poster on a hairdresser’s wall. John Oates and GE Smith are the comic relief — leaning into the camera, their eyes suspiciously darting all over the place, to hit the backing vocals. We don’t see too much of the maneater herself — just some high heels prowling down a sidewalk, or a pair of eyes that fade into extreme close-up. Those eyes blur into the eyes of an actual panther, who also wanders around the set.
In the early-MTV oral history I Want My MTV, a book co-written by my former boss Craig Marks, Hall complains that the panther was both dangerous and way too expensive:
Somebody decided that the “Maneater” video wouldn’t be complete unless we had an actual panther, a man-eating animal, in the video. It appeared for a second and a half in the video and probably cost $10,000. This South American black panther was wired to the floor so it wouldn’t attack everybody. Of course, it got loose in this gigantic studio in LA and went in the rafters, 50 feet up. Nobody could get it down. That’s when I left the building.
I’ll tell you what, though: That panther looks cool as hell. In the moment that MTV was taking over pop music, little moments like that mattered.
“Maneater” stayed at #1 for longer than any previous Hall & Oates hit. It’s the duo operating at their absolute peak. Hall & Oates weren’t done after “Maneater.” They’ll be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Beavis watching the “Maneater” video on a 1993 episode of Beavis And Butt-Head and realizing that he has Daryl Hall hair:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Guest hook-singer Wyclef Jean interpolated “Maneater” on the Ying Yang Twins’ not-good-at-all 2006 single “Dangerous,” which peaked at #85. Here’s the video:
(As lead artists, the Ying Yang Twins’ highest-charting single is the 2003 Lil Jon collab “Salt Shaker,” which peaked at #9. It’s an 8. As guest-rappers, the Ying Yang Twins got higher than that when they appeared on Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz’ 2003 single “Get Low.” “Get Low” peaked at #2, and it’s a 10. As lead artist, Wyclef Jean’s highest-charting single is 1997’s “Gone Till November,” which peaked at #7. It’s another 10. As a guest rapper, Wyclef will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Bird And The Bee covering “Maneater” on their 2010 tribute album Interpreting The Masters Volume 1: A Tribute To Daryl Hall & John Oates, with Garbage’s Shirley Manson singing backing vocals:
(Garbage’s highest-charting single, 1996’s “Stupid Girl,” peaked at #24. As a producer, the Bird And The Bee’s Greg Kurstin will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the churning “Maneater” cover that the great Baltimore indie band Lower Dens contributed to a 2016 benefit compilation:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Joe Lo Truglio singing “Maneater” to Andy Samberg, changing it to “Manhunter,” on a 2020 episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine:
(The highest-charting single from Andy Samberg’s group the Lonely Island is the 2010 Akon collab “I Just Had Sex,” which peaked at #30.)