By Ken Sharp
In the following interviews, the iconic pop rock duo opens up about the secret to their successful songwriting collaboration, and the side projects that keep their individualism strong.
In 2015, Daryl Hall is busier than ever, balancing a solo career, two successful TV shows (“Live From Daryl’s House” and “Daryl’s Restoration Over-Hall”) and his musical partnership with John Oates. Recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Hall & Oates are finally being afforded the respect, recognition and acclaim for being the finest practitioners of rock and soul. A new DVD and 2-CD set, “Live in Dublin” (Eagle Rock), spotlights a typically sublime Hall & Oates set which showcases the enduring quality of an endless slate of terrific songs, consummate musicianship and two of the finest voices in the business.
Goldmine: In a career spanning more than four decades, how have Hall & Oates evolved in the manner in which you approach a live performance?
DARYL HALL: I think it’s changed quite a bit. When I look at early performances, I don’t think I was as loose as I am now. I was really not that comfortable with being natural and talking to the audience and doing all the things that come so naturally to me now. I think I’ve really learned how to be a performer when compared to what I was back in the early ’70s. In that respect, yes, it’s changed considerably. As far as the approach to the music and the way that we interact with the band, I don’t think that’s changed so much. We’ve always tried to get band members that are almost telepathic. We can have this kind of interplay and improvisation and things can happen onstage spontaneously and they’re not that thought out and they’re not that over-arranged or rigid within the arrangement. So in that respect, we haven’t changed so much.
GM: You’re a tremendous front man. Who were your mentors that inspired how you command a stage?
DH: I learned so much from James Brown I can’t tell ya. When I was a little kid, maybe 12 or 13, I devoured his “Live at the Apollo” record. Even though it wasn’t visual and I hadn’t seen James Brown in the flesh at that point, I listened to that record a thousand times. It was like I was there. I learned so much from what I call his “Showtime” style. When I say to John (Oates), “Let’s do it ‘Showtime’ style,” John even knows what I’m talking about ‘cause John listened to that same album. That’s one of the things that we sort of share. So there are the very beginnings of it unless I want to talk about singing in church, which is actually the beginning. Church is really where most soul singers learned how to do it; a congregation is just an audience to a singer at church. Then watching the Temptations and all the R&B performers, being a regular at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia I just learned, man. I learned timing. There are a lot of bands that don’t understand timing or they don’t know how to build a show that it goes up and down in the right way and that there’s an emotional peak or valley and how you can hold tension and then release tension. There’s all these kinds of things that became natural to me after watching all of these people. I see a lot of artists don’t have that ability to do it the same way as I do.
GM: “Do What You Want, Be What You Are” is one of the tracks on the new DVD/2-CD set. That title seems apropos of conveying the ethos of what you do.
DH: Well, that’s why we called our box set, “Do What You Want, Be What You Are” because that does encapsulate the way that I think. John and I are both very individualistic. We share a view and that is a unique view and it’s hard for me to describe what that is but it’s not the same as most other people. I think we approach music that way. I’m not afraid to do things. I feel that fear is one of those restrictive things that hold you back from fulfillment. Somehow I’ve figured out a way to lose fear, at least creatively and musically. I try and be myself.
GM: What’s the greatest piece of advice you’ve been given about songwriting?
DH: The only thing that comes to mind is what Paul Williams of the Temptations told me, “Don’t ever lose your soul.” I was playing him this song — which had some unusual chords in it — and he said, “That’s good man, just don’t ever lose the soul.” I’m sure people have said other things to me but that sticks in my mind right now. Thommy Bell also used to listen to my songs and comment on them. A lot of people would tell me, “keep it centered, keep it centered,” that kind of thing.
GM: Pick a Hall & Oates song that you swore would have been a big hit and wasn’t?
DH: “I Don’t Wanna Lose You” is a good one. It’s like here is its, this Philly song, it had all the elements. I said, “This has gotta be a radio song” and it didn’t get any response whatsoever. “It’s a Laugh” should have been much bigger. “Wait for Me” was never a real hit. We don’t really operate trying to keep up with trends. Our music evolves at its own pace. Timing has a lot to do with it. As for songs that could be hits today, I’d choose “Someone Like You” from my “3 Hearts” album, “Do What You Want, Be What You Are,” “Method of Modern Love” – they could all be R&B hits now.
GM: I asked John (Oates) to pick a song of yours that he wished he wrote and he chose “It’s a Laugh.” What song would you choose of his?
DH: I’m very proud of “It’s a Laugh.” That song is very real. It’s about a direct experience and it has some surprises in it in terms of the chord changes. As for what song of John’s did I wish I wrote? … Well, how about “Had I Known You Better Then” from “Abandoned Luncheonette” is a fantastic song. I’m sure there’s others I could think of if I really put my mind to it, but that song is a particularly great song.
GM: Are there any Hall & Oates songs that have truly come to life onstage in improved arrangements that you wished were recorded that way?
DH: We sort of invented this acoustic-y soul. I think both of us are getting back to this individually as well as together — the idea of playing these songs more organically, taking that funk and soul thing and playing it a different way, kind of the “Abandoned Luncheonette” approach. We evolved along with technology and that influenced our sound a lot. When you look at what we did in the ‘80s, it was what they call “techno” now. To us it was just using synthesizers and all that stuff. I can’t say I wish I’d played “No Can Do” funkier. I like it the way it was but I also like it the way we do it now. I wouldn’t take it back. There’s a few songs I’d like to have changed the arrangements or might have dropped a bridge. But I think I’m mostly happy with the songs the way they stand.
GM: Hall & Oates have been blessed with working with an ensemble of gifted musicians. With no disrespect toward the current band, do you have a lineup that you deem the best?
DH: Other than the band that we have right now, which I will say without a doubt is my favorite band that we’ve ever had, with the obvious absence of my best friend T-Bone (Wolk). If he was still there it would be the best band I’ve ever had. But other than that, the band that we had with Todd Sharp, Eddie Zyne, Stephen Dees, Charlie DeChant and Dave Kent, that was a great band. There’s a DVD and a few things around of us playing with that band in, I guess, 1976 and, man, that was a good band.
GM: Todd Sharp (guitarist) really impressed me with his improvisational skills and ability to knock out an amazing solo off the top of his head.
DH: What’s even more incredible is when you realize he was only 21 years old! I mean, what am I saying? We were all young. (Laughs) But as for Todd, I don’t know how he learned how to play that well so early on in his life. But he was — and still is — a great guitar player. He lives in Nashville; I saw him not long ago and he looks great. I guarantee he still plays every bit as good, if not better, than he did back then.
GM: In the past five years there’s been a major paradigm shift in the music industry where power is reverting back to the artists who now command control over their careers. In terms of the manner in which you handle your solo career and Hall & Oates, how has that helped freed you up creatively and professionally?
DH: It’s freed me up tremendously. The reason I have this ability is because it’s sort of a good problem. I had so much resistance from the gatekeepers. Yeah, I’ve had a lot of hit records but that’s not what I’m talking about. But resistance as far as people perceived me, and perceived me and John, and this came from writers and business people. I learned early on how to rely on myself. I figured if I don’t do it, it’s not gonna get done. Now that all of the gatekeepers in the world have all kind of fallen away, nobody’s been blowing any wind in my sails over the years; I have to blow my own wind. Now I’m already an experienced hand at doing that. When the opportunity came with this whole change with the way things work now, I was prepared for it. I just said, “OK, I have the opportunity and I’m running with it.” I think a lot of my contemporaries, especially the ones that became famous because there was so much wind in their sails from other places, as soon as that wind stopped they didn’t know what to do. And to continue the analogy, they’re just sitting there in a calm sea and they’re basically without a paddle. I think that I was prepared for this and I’m certainly making the most of it.
GM: Tell us about your “Live From Daryl’s House” TV show.
DH: I first got the idea years ago when there was that SARS scare. Everybody was talking about it – “we’re afraid to go to Canada” and all this nonsense. That was the first pandemic scare. That got me thinking: “OK, they’re saying we can’t tour Canada and people are afraid to fly. What’s gonna happen when the world breaks down?” This was my prescient moment. I asked myself, what happens when touring becomes really hard. People are afraid to go out to concerts because they’re afraid of getting a deathly sickness or they can’t afford to go to the show because gas prices are too high. I wondered as musicians, how are we gonna communicate to the world? How are we gonna tour around the world when we can’t physically do it anymore. I came up with the idea of using the Internet and making the world come to me. That way I could tour without touring. My music is touring but I’m not touring. That was the germ of the idea for “Live From Daryl’s House.” Then I started getting real with it. It’s a true reality. It deconstructs the artist and audience relationship. The audience becomes part of the whole thing. The audience becomes a fly on the wall sitting in the room with the musicians, not sitting in a chair watching musicians perform. So you put all that together and you have what is “Live From Daryl’s House.”
GM: How do you decide what to play on the show?
DH: It isn’t about just playing hits. We don’t do that with Hall & Oates. We play whatever we want to play, we just happen to have a lot of hits. We can do anything we want to do. There are no limits. When you’re a performer there’s an innate sense of timing that one must have to put on a show. You have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. You have to have emotional ups and downs. It’s a theatrical performance whereas when you’re just sitting around in your living room or sitting around on the back porch those rules don’t apply. So you’re not required to have any order to what you do. The other thing I particularly like is it’s not in real time. Sometimes we’ll rehearse a song and film the rehearsal and then we’ll play the song and film the performance and use the rehearsal as B-roll. And if we don’t like it we’ll do it again. So it’s freed of every performing restriction. It totally destroys the fourth wall. We have a lot of content, it’s an open-ended show. I don’t want to just keep playing the obvious songs. “Live From Daryl’s House” and the Hall & Oates shows allow me the freedom to play whatever we want; we’re not limited to playing “Kiss on My List” all of the time. We always wind up doing that but we get to do a lot of other stuff as well.
My first thought was I wanted to have guests on the show because I didn’t want this to be just me playing a bunch of songs. My first guest, obviously, was John (Oates). We did a Christmas album and I figured a Christmas show seemed like a real Hall & Oates kind of thing – let’s get all around the tree and play. After that I wanted to start adding guests from the outside, so Gym Class Heroes immediately came to mind to me. I’d been talking to Travis (McCoy); he called his tour “Daryl Hall for President” (laughs) so, obviously, he likes me. I asked him if he wanted to play on my show and he said yes. It’s interesting because every single person I’ve asked has said yes. That’s a pleasant surprise to me.
Nick Lowe was a guest on the show. I’ve known Nick since 1985. We got together in England and wrote a song called “When The Spell Is Broken.” I still love that song and eventually I’m gonna record it. We’ve maintained a friendship and I was doing a couple of shows in England and called Nick up and he did the show. I call that the first back porch show. Me, Nick and T-Bone were literally sitting at my kitchen table at my house in London playing acoustic guitars. Then we went upstairs and played in the sitting room and then we went out by the river and played out there. Just wandering around, sharing anecdotes and playing songs. It’s more casual than the other episodes. In that show, I play a real early song of mine called “Perkiomen” in the show. I wrote that song when I was 20. I used to go down to visit John when he lived at his parent’s house in North Wales (Pennsylvania) and I lived in Pottstown. I had to cross the Perkiomen creek to get to his house and the song was inspired by that. I saw a sign one day that said Perkiomen, which means “muddy river.” It’s one of those songs John and I did as a demo. This rather unscrupulous guy had the demo and put it out. If you ever get that stupid album, “Past Times Behind,” it’s a series of demos. Some of those songs John’s not even involved in. It’s a travesty. But out of all that, “Perkiomen” was on it and I really liked that song and I played it. I’ve never played it, that was the only time, 20 years old to now.
GM: Working on “Live From Daryl’s House,” has that collaboration with a diverse array of artists rubbed off on your songwriting?
DH: Absolutely. I’m just getting ready to do another solo record. I’m just in the writing stages, but when people involved in it ask me what kind of record I want to make I tell them that it’s an extension of “Live From Daryl’s House.” It may go as far as using some of the same people either in collaboration or as a guest singer or player from the series. It’s all seamless to me now. To me, “Live From Daryl’s House” — the spontaneity, the sound of it, the organic-ness of it — it’s just splashing over into what I’m doing for my next CD. I’m getting closer and closer, so there’s no difference between one thing and another thing. I’m really digging on it.
GM: Were you surprised at how successful “Live From Daryl’s House” has become?
DH: I can’t say I was surprised but I was very pleased and fulfilled by its success. The reason I say that I wasn’t surprised is I know what I don’t like and I know what I do like. One thing that I don’t like is pretension. I really am turned off by performers who are obviously performing and doing this act onstage. I have no time for them, and the performers that I’ve always liked are the ones that are the most natural and that you know that they’re nice people; when they’re offstage they’re not a–holes. The people that I have on LFDH, I’ve never had on a person that wasn’t the kind of person that I wanted on the show. A couple times before the show there were cancellations by people or fights and I said, “You know what? They weren’t the right person to be on the show anyway because they’re the kind of person that I’m talking about – these people that are difficult or have problems. I say screw them, basically. But when people did respond favorably to LFDH, I wasn’t surprised. I was just very fulfilled and happy to know that other people think like I do; people really like to see musicians having a good time, being friendly with each other and not putting on some stupid show.
GM: Is there a wish-list guest of yours for “Live From Daryl’s House?”
DH: Actually, I don’t have a wish-list of artists. I really take it artist by artist. With every show that we do, I learn something and I take something away and I enjoy it. Some of the most unlikely people, people where I wouldn’t have a clue that it was gonna work, like a band like Guster or somebody like that – I had no idea how it was ever gonna fall together or how what they do would have anything to do with anything I would want to do. But it worked out perfectly.
GM: Your partnership with John Oates spans more than 40 years. Can you explain why the relationship continues to last?
DH: No. 1, we’re friends. We’ve known each other since we were teenagers. We were friends before we became musical partners. He’s a very talented guy. He brings a certain attitude to the Hall & Oates experience that definitely puts it in a place and a direction. We’re very different personalities. One of the reasons we became friends is somehow in spite of being opposites we get along. I’m such an aggressive person and he is not. He’s a very passive, laissez-faire kind of guy and it serves him well. I think that perhaps he leads a happier life than mine because of it – certainly a less tempestuous life than I’ve lived, so it’s good for him. That comes into his music. He’s not prolific but his music is very emotional and the subjects he chooses to write about are very unique to him. He brings himself; he brings his personality. More recently, we have both found ourselves individually. He’s finished a solo album and I’m really anxious to hear it. I have my own stuff going on, too. We’re very into being seen as individuals. We call our touring company “Two-Headed Monster” because it’s the irony of being individuals but people look at us as the two-headed monster.
10 Albums That Changed John Oates’ Life
John Oates is living the best of both worlds. Daryl Hall and John Oates’ 40-plus-year creative partnership is being embraced by generations of fans, young and old. Away from Hall & Oates, John is spending time flexing his muscles as a solo artist. His solo album, “Good Road to Follow,” is a terrific 3-disc collection of 15 songs, written and produced in collaboration with a diverse array of artists/songwriters including Vince Gill, Hot Chelle Rae and singer Bekka Bramlett, daughter of Bonnie Bramlett of Delaney & Bonnie fame. He’s also just released a new DVD, “Another Good Road,” which charts his continuing grand musical adventures.
GOLDMINE: Your new solo record, “Good Road to Follow,” traverses a diverse terrain of styles; it’s something that five to 10 years ago a record label would not allow you to do, but thankfully the paradigm has changed.
JOHN OATES: You’re 100 percent right, the paradigm has changed. It’s changed for some but it hasn’t quite changed for others. There’s a wide variety of ways that people deal with music and how it’s delivered. I’m very fortunate because I have my own label (PS Records) under the distribution of Warner/Elektra Nashville. So I have an unusual deal; I have a hybrid deal. I’m in charge of my record company and make my own decisions and spend my own money but at the same time I have the wherewithal of a major label to help me out and come up with concepts and various things. It’s really a unique deal and it has to deal with my personal relationship with John Esposito, who’s the president of Warner Nashville. I think the main thing is the newer indie labels, the smaller labels, and the indie artists are definitely open to do unique things and that’s a very positive aspect of what’s going on today. I think the old paradigm of everything needing to be done a certain way, major label style, is a thing of the past. I’m not even going to radio with my new album, at least not right now. It’s funny, I’m getting spins on different radio stations around the country and they’re playing different songs, which is actually even cooler. It’s not like we’re going Hot AC with “Stone Cold Love” and that’s the end of it. It’s not that anymore. I hope this record has legs that can last for a year rather than come up with a big bang, try to get a big single and then the record’s gone and people have moved on to something else. I’d like to be able to sustain interest in this music for a longer period of time. To me that’s more important than just having a hit.
GM: It’s interesting how you’ve broken “Good Road to Follow” into Route 1, Route 2 and Route 3. And while the album is stylistically diverse, it still holds together, which is remarkable because didn’t this project start out as a bunch of one-off singles?
JO: Yeah, exactly. The album that you have now was an afterthought; it was the result of releasing five or six singles. There were people who kept asking me, “Well, where’s the rest of the record? We like the singles but we want an album.” I thought the world didn’t want albums anymore. But in kind of a backhanded way it turned into a seven-month pre-promotion for the album. So there was a lot of awareness out there about the music and a lot of press, which wasn’t really what I intended. But when there seemed to be a demand for an album, I looked at it and I went, “Well, I didn’t think about this as an album because the songs are all over the map.” We recorded 28 songs and I whittled it down to 15 that seemed to make sense. And you’re right, after the fact I tried to arrange them in a stylistic manner where somehow they made sense.
GM: You’ve also just released the “Another Good Road” DVD. What’s the visual and sonic journey it takes viewers on?
JO: The places where I’ve lived had informed my music over the years in a profound way. This DVD is a look back to the influences and styles that have made me who I am as a player singer and songwriter. Looking back to my past has made my current music what it is today. I also wanted to give the viewers and fans a glimpse into my life beyond the spotlight and stage.
GM: How has moving to Nashville impacted on your art as a songwriter, producer and arranger?
JO: The first thing I began to realize is that the bar was set very high in terms of musicianship and songwriting. I began to woodshed and get back to my roots before Hall & Oates. When I moved there I began to feel part of the musical community and was welcomed by artists in all genres and styles. I’ve had the chance to work with emerging artists as well as established ones. The music and songs I’m creating now is directly related to my experiences in Nashville.
GM: In the past five years you’ve really reengaged with writing and playing. In many ways I don’t think you’ve ever been this productive.
JO: I agree with that. It had to do with a perfect storm of a lot of things happening. We home-schooled our son, Tanner, from the time he was born until he was 13. We took him on the road with us. So my job was to keep working but also to be as good a dad as I could. I needed to make sure I took enough time off and also make sure that we brought him up properly. That was really my focus. For me, music kind of took a backseat during the ‘90s into the early 2000s. But then when my son turned 13, which was five years ago, he decided he wanted to go to school. The only way he could go to school was boarding school because we were going to continue to travel. We talked it over and he said, “That’s cool, I just want to go to school and be with kids.” Once he did that my wife and I had freedom and that coincided with our move to Nashville and it coincided with all these tremendous opportunities coming my way musically and making new friends. I just basically immersed myself in music and the result is this album and all the creative output. I really rededicated myself to music and a lot of it has to do with Nashville on a different level. I began to be a part of the music community there and started to do recording sessions; I started to tour with people like Jerry Douglas and sit in on gigs with Sam Bush — all these superlative players. The first thing that struck me is I had been coasting a little too long in terms of my musicianship. When you’re successful and you’re in Hall & Oates it’s easy to coast. I can go and do the show and not have to think about it too much. I realized that I couldn’t coast in the company of these unbelievably talented and skilled musicians.
GM: Seeing Hall & Oates perform last year, I was surprised to see you playing so much lead guitar, more so than on any previous Hall & Oates tour.
JO: What happened was I started practicing. I had a shoulder operation three or four years ago. That shoulder operation really was an eye-opener for me because I realized how fragile my time is. I realized if one thing goes wrong, I’m basically out of business. That had never occurred to me because I’d never had a major operation. I’ve very fortunate in my life that I’ve never had any physical problems. Then all of a sudden I thought if I break my wrist or shoulder, I’m out, I’m done. When I recovered from that shoulder operation I began to practice and really take advantage of my skills. This also all coincided with going to Nashville and playing with these amazing musicians and I realized the bar was set really high. All those things came together at the same time. Then to add on top of that, after T-Bone (Wolk) died, there was a void. I thought, if anybody’s gonna fill this void it should be me, and so I kind of stepped up in a lot of ways.
GM: Through the years Daryl has expressed a negative attitude about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame organization — and rightfully so — with you being passed over inexplicably for so long. Did it bother you being passed over year after year?
JO: I felt if it happens, it happens. I was totally aware of it and I think the fan base were way more aware of it and way more vocal about it. For Daryl and I it wasn’t gonna change our lives. In a way though it did; the blowback from being inducted is pretty powerful. The world cares about it a lot more than we did, and that’s OK because that just helps us. But honestly, I wasn’t losing sleep over it; I thought if it happens it’ll be great but if it doesn’t happen, well, so be it. And now that’s it’s happened I’m happy about it and I’ve embraced it. What’s really unique about it is Daryl and I are one of the few groups that’s totally intact and we’re totally active and on our game. A lot of bands either don’t exist or they’re fragmented. So all of a sudden here’s Daryl and I and we’re a vital, real band on tour, playing.
GM: Hall & Oates music resonates with young and old and spans generations of fans.
JO: It’s been happening for quite a while now. It started a number of years ago in a gradual way. The audience began to change. Our old guard fans are still there but a lot of younger fans started coming. It had a lot to do with newer bands like Death Cab for Cutie saying how influential we were on them when they were young. Their audience through social media started to rediscover us, and then Daryl’s show (“Live From Daryl’s House”) had a lot to do with it with him bringing in newer performers. Then there’s me working with people like Jim James (My Morning Jacket), and these collaborations with acts like Hot Chelle Rae. It’s really a perfect storm of all this attention and rediscovery. But at the core of it is the songs have endured. They’re able to transcend these eras and they still resonate and speak to people regardless of how old they are. That’s the key. If it wasn’t for the songs, I mean, sure, we can sing and we can play, but it’s the songs; the songs have enabled us to endure and that’s why we’re still out there selling out every night.
GM: Speaking of songs, if you could you could add a lesser known Hall & Oates song to the set, what would you choose and why?
JO: We have a good problem. We have a lot of hits and people come to hear those and we have to respect that. I wish we could do an entire set of album tracks but we can’t do that because the crowd wants to hear the hits. But what we have been doing and we’re doing it more and more often, we’re sprinkling in some of that lesser heard material. Like on our last run we just did we added in “Did It In a Minute” and we kept in “Alone Too Long” (theme song for HBO series “Hello Ladies”). We also played “It’s Uncanny” and substituted “Adult Education” and “Method of Modern Love.”
GM: Characterize the band’s approach to writing.
JO: We never worried about hits. Even during the ‘80s when we were having all those hits, that was the last thing on our mind. We’ve always had the rap of being these pop masterminds who had this formula, just had some kind of key to unlocking the door for pop success. But nothing could be further from the truth. We never picked our own singles. Our philosophy was always, make the best record you can, let the radio and record company people who have to sell the music decide what songs will be released as the singles. First off, we’re not gonna put a song on a record if we don’t like it, so we don’t care which song they pick. There’s always songs that seem to stand out that people say, “Oh, that sounds like a single.” Even a song like “You Make My Dreams Come True,” as a simple and pop as that song is, we didn’t say, “Let’s record this as a single.” You serve the composition. That’s the approach where you get the best results. You write the best song you can and say, “How can this song be best served? What’s the instrumentation? Who are the players? What can make this song as good as it can be?” And that’s always been our approach.
GM: There was a telling jump in quality of writing from “Whole Oats” to your next LP “Abandoned Luncheonette.” What accounted for that dramatic creative shift?
JO: There’s a very distinct reason for that. The “Whole Oats” album was a collection of songs that Daryl and I had assembled over a three or four-year period of time when we were just starting out. It was sort of folky stuff that I’d done separately from him, stuff that he had written separately from me. Then we came together and recorded it. That was the best we had at the moment. But once we did an album and we had Arif Mardin on our side and a contract with Atlantic Records and we were on tour. All of a sudden we had a focus and we had a point of view. All we cared about was getting a record contract and going on tour and we’d done it, so no longer was it the goal. So then the goal was, now let’s make a real record. So even though “Whole Oats” was technically our first record, our first real record was “Abandoned Luncheonette.” Rather than being just a collection of songs we got out of our system, these were all songs written during a one-year period and it was recorded with a purpose and point of view which was very distinct and clear.
GM: Throughout the ’70s, Hall & Oates musical swath was schizophrenic — embracing everything from folk (“Whole Oats”) to R&B (“Abandoned Luncheonette”) to prog (“War Babies”) to pure pop (“Silver Album,” “Bigger Than Both of Us”) to new wave/experimental (“Along The Red Ledge”/”X-Static”). Was this a case of the group flexing its versatility or simply not knowing who you were at that point?
JO: For the first three albums, “Whole Oats,” “Abandoned Luncheonette” and “War Babies,” we really didn’t know who we were. We never thought about what we did, we just did it. After “Abandoned Luncheonette,” we started playing more shows. And the more we played, the more we wanted to rock. Playing live we realized the folky “Abandoned Luncheonette” approach wasn’t getting over to a wild crowd in a club. So all of a suddenly we said, “Well, let’s just notch it up.” For the next album, “War Babies” we worked with Todd Rundgren, who seemed to be this logical person to go to because he came from a rock background yet he was from Philadelphia who had moved to New York. We had all this in common. We had lived in New York for just about two years and were starting to feel the energy and power of the city. We could feel the chaos and the whole vibe and speed of New York and it started to infuse where we were coming from. We started writing these weird songs about being on the road and chaos, songs like “Johnny Gore and The C Eaters,” all these rockin’ songs because we wanted to rock. Todd helped facilitate that. It had its moments. The album was very experimental and very trippy. But then you take the folkiness of the “Whole Oats” album, the blending of acoustic and R&B on “Abandoned Luncheonette” and the rock and experimentalism of “War Babies,” you combine those three albums together and you have the “Silver Album.” We found in the “Silver Album” a blending for the first time of those seemingly disparate elements. The “Silver Album” became the first focused and coherent album we made. Then “Bigger Than Both Of Us,” which followed that album, was keeping in the same vein. We recorded both of those albums in California with studio musicians, which enhanced the quality of the recordings, but we didn’t feel comfortable because we didn’t live in California. Yet we had success. Then we did “Beauty On A Back Street.” Our producer, Chris Bond, was not in good health, mentally or physically. We didn’t want to be in California anymore. The songs were dark and foreboding and kind of strange. It wasn’t a good time for either of us in terms of what was going on in our personal lives and the music sounded like that. The next album, “Along The Red Ledge,” we started to get back to bringing these eclectic elements back together. We hired David Foster to produce it; that was the first album he ever produced of a major label artist. We did part of it in L.A. and part in New York, but felt we just had to get back to New York. Physically, it just wasn’t working for us recording out on the West Coast. Then we did the “X-Static” album. In the middle of making that album, Foster said, “Why am I here because you guys are producing this yourselves?” And that led to the “Voices” album. Everything had a real logical progression. Had we not done all that stuff we would never been able to do what we did in the ‘80s. We had all that behind us and we said, “OK, we know how to make records. We know the kind of records we want to make. We want to make records with our band in New York,” and it brought us back and then we had this tremendous success. Our yardstick for success was never hit singles or sales. It was always, “Did we make a good record? Are the songs well written? Do we like it? Does it sound good? Did it come out the way we envisioned it in our head?” That’s always been our criteria and that stays true to this day.
GM: You have a college degree in journalism. Did that education impact on your ability as a lyricist?
JO: A little bit. I’ve been a writer since I’ve been a kid. I’ve always perceived myself as a writer, even of prose, and it’s always come easy for me. So I never really questioned it. I think my journalism background helped me with being concise and being direct. I think that’s a peculiar characteristic of pop music. I think the best pop music writers are the ones that can communicate complex emotional things in very simplistic terms and in a very direct way that gets across in the restricted format of a pop song. You don’t have 86 words, you’ve got four words and in those four words every word has to count and you’ve got the added restrictions that they’ve got to rhyme, too, for the most part and you’ve got to be able to sing them. So you have words that have to be able to roll off the tongue and be sung, they have to somewhat rhyme or at least have a rhyme scheme and then they have to say something, all in a very, very short period of time. That’s to me the mark of a good pop song.
GM: You and Daryl have vehemently dismissed the “Beauty on a Back Street” album; no songs representing that album were featured on the box set. Why the hate? For instance, one of the songs on the album, “The Emptyness,” is very powerful.
JO: Yeah, you’re right; it is a very powerful song. The reason we don’t care for that album is it brings up bad memories of our working with our producer Chris Bond. It was the last album we recorded in Los Angeles and we really didn’t want to be there. We had been forced to be there by circumstance, by the fact that we had some success with Chris Bond with “Rich Girl” and “Sara Smile.” And as for the record company, we had something going and they didn’t want us to change it. They wanted us to keep doing the same thing. It meant we were on tour for almost a year and then we’d go to L.A. and we’d write and record and then we’d go on tour again. So we were never home. I think after three or four years of that it really started wearing on us. That album felt disjointed and sad to me. But the audience when they listen to that album can listen objectively. I should give that album another listen; I haven’t heard it in years.
GM: Hall & Oates was never a critic’s band. How did the lack of press accolades affect you?
JO: As far as I’m concerned it didn’t bother me that much. It bothered me that what we did wasn’t respected for how good it was and it was misconstrued as premeditated, formula-driven disposable pop music. That bothered me.
GM: Why did you get so much critical flack?
JO: Well, because we had hits. In the ‘70s or ‘80s, if you had No. 1 records and Top 10 records that meant you weren’t deep. It meant you weren’t an album act but a singles act. It was very compartmentalized. My response to that was always, “Well, if it was so easy why doesn’t everyone do it?” Sure, the Grateful Dead didn’t have a single in their lives until Clive Davis signed them but they sold out stadiums. We had No. 1 single after No. 1 single and we had trouble selling out stadiums. I always wondered about that. I could never figure it out. I think the other issue is that the majority of our fans are women. We’ve always appealed to females and the bulk of the rock fans were young guys, and we were not a young guys band. And I think that had a lot to do with it, too. I think our sensibility and the songs with a romantic slant appeal to women and women didn’t support rock the way boys did, and that was part of it as well.
GM: One of the signposts of success are the slew of sound-alike bands that cop your style. That happened with the band Player, who had a huge hit in the late ‘70s with “Baby Come Back,” a song which carried a distinctly Hall & Oates feel.
JO: I could sense our influence on that song. But that’s what radio and labels demanded. As soon as someone had their finger on the pulse of success it was immediately, “We need a song that sounds like this.” They used to say that to us all the time, “Why don’t you do a song like that?” We were like, “No, this is what we do.” There was pressure, but luckily for us, because we kept having hits, we didn’t have to succumb to it. We also had the pressure of trying to emulate yourself. “Can’t you do another ‘She’s Gone? How about another ‘Sara Smile?’” You can’t make another “Sara Smile.” Also, from a production point of view, I hear our sampled snares and bass drums from “H20” and “Big Bam Boom” — that’s when sampling was just starting — I hear that on all sorts of records.
GM: Pick a Daryl Hall song that that you wished you’d written.
JO: “It’s a Laugh.” That’s one of my favorite songs Daryl has written. It’s so interesting musically. That song has this tinge of anger to it, which I really like. I really love that song and we play it live. The chords are so unusual. The song is in two different keys; the verse is in a different key than the chorus, which is very, very unusual. GM
The above article appeared in Goldmine‘s Hall and Oates issue (June 2015, Volume 41, No. 7, at left). If you would like a digital copy of the issue, click here. It’s only a $4.95 download! Or if you would like a print copy (the cover itself is worth framing!) call 1-800-726-9966, Ext. 13369, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.