The Story and Meaning Behind “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” by Hall & Oates and How a Push of a Button Began the Making of a Hit

Daryl Hall and John Oates clearly aren’t on the best of terms these days, which is too bad considering all the success they’ve enjoyed together. We’re focusing on the positive today, looking back at “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” their sparkling No. 1 hit single that was released in 1981.

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What is the song about? How did Daryl Hall come up with that incredible, sample-worthy groove? And what other famous ‘80s song did that groove help to inspire? All those answers and more as we explore “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).”

Push Button for Hit Single

Sometimes, at the end of a long day, when weariness removes all filters and hangups, inspiration can strike. That’s what happened to Daryl Hall in 1981 as he and John Oates were lingering around Electric Ladyland studios in New York City with an engineer after putting in a hard day’s work on their upcoming album Private Eyes.

Sitting in front of an early Roland drum machine, Hall simply pushed a button for one of the preset rhythms. On his keyboard, he began picking out some notes for a bassline to sink in between the programmed drumbeats. The engineer, liking what he heard, started rolling tape.

Hall quickly had some ideas for a guitar line, which he described to Oates. As Oates pecked away, the other details of the song came together. In hardly any time at all, the duo had the basic music down pat on a track that would go on to be sampled many times over (most notably by De La Soul on the anti-drug track “Say No Go”).

Lyrical Defiance

After laying down some guide lyrics just to get a feel for the melody, Hall worked on the words with Sara Allen, his one-time girlfriend who often collaborated with him. Although a quick listen to “I Can’t Go for That” might have you believing it’s a message to a too-demanding lover, Hall explained in an interview with The Independent the actual target was something different:

“Most people think the song is about a relationship and it is—but one with the music industry. I felt very manipulated at the time, by management and the record business. Like a pawn. ‘I can’t go for that—no can do.’ That was something I said a lot.”

Speaking of the music industry, a pretty major name from that business had his ears perk up upon hearing “I Can’t Go for That.” When Daryl Hall performed on the “We Are the World” benefit single in 1985, Michael Jackson admitted to him that, when he created “Billie Jean,” he borrowed from the “I Can’t Go for That” bassline to do it.

What is the Meaning of “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)”?

Even though Hall admitted his frustrations with music’s powers that be inspired the lyrics to this song, they’re malleable enough to work as the complaint of anyone who’s willing to put up with only so much before hitting the breaking point. Where does it stop? Hall challenges those he’s addressing. Where do you dare me to draw the line?

He also suggests that where he once played along, he’s now standing firm: I can’t go for being twice as nice / I can’t go for just repeatin’ the same old lines. Hall knows that if he gives an inch, they’ll take a mile: You’ve got the body / Now you want my soul. But his answer shuts that down: Say no go.

We can only hope that Hall & Oates can come to some sort of rapprochement and make music together again someday. But we really can’t ask for too much more from them, considering all they delivered to the pop music world, including “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).” And besides, too many demands are what produced this classic in the first place.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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