HALL AND OATES: Soul Survivors
Architects of consummately crafted rock and soul, Daryl Hall and John Oates are the best selling duo of all time. Since meeting up in the late ‘60s in a freight elevator, scurrying away from a riot taking place at Philly’s Adelphi Ballroom during a “Battle of the Bands” show, Hall and Oates joined musical forces to create an extraordinary body of work which embraced a wide swath of musical styles and genres-including pop, r&b, rock, folk, prog, funk, power pop, avant-garde, gospel, new wave, doo-wop, reggae, country and jazz.
Master musical alchemists, their legacy is unparalleled, numbering such jewels as “She’s Gone,” “Sara Smile,” “Rich Girl,” “It’s A Laugh,” “Wait For Me,” “Kiss On My List,” “You Make My Dreams Come True,” “Maneater,” “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” “One on One,” “Out of Touch,” “Say It Isn’t So” and “Do It For Love.” Scoring intermittent success throughout the ‘70s, it wasn’t until the ‘80s that their fortunes turned. By taking complete control over their creative destiny, the Philly boys made the top of the charts their second home with such multi-platinum releases as Voices, Private Eyes, H20 and Big Bam Boom.
Taking a self-imposed break in the mid-‘80s, Hall and Oates reemerged stronger and more focused and-most importantly-still in full possession of their immense writing and artistic gifts. Many of today’s contemporaries, ranging from Maroon 5 to Gym Class Heroes (Hall guests on the group’s forthcoming album) routinely cite the band for their prodigious influence. Joining such luminaries as Brian Wilson, The Bee Gees, The Kinks’ Ray Davies, Paul Simon, James Brown, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Dolly Parton, Hall and Oates were recently inducted as BMI Icons for their incalculable contribution to popular music. They are, in a word: legends.
More than 30 years since its release, Abandoned Luncheonette is championed as a career milestone.
Daryl Hall: I consider that our first album, the first album we had really written to be recorded… as opposed to odds and ends we’d been trying to bang around in our Whole Oats act. Abandoned Luncheonette was a very successful album on a lot of levels; it had some great songs on there, especially side one…”Abandoned Luncheonette” defines my whole philosophy of life in one song. I probably never had to write another song after that.
There was a telling jump in quality of writing from Whole Oats to that particular LP. What accounted for that dramatic creative shift?
John Oates: 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 a point of view. All we cared about was getting a record contract and going on tour-and we did that. 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 very distinct, clear purpose and point of view.
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 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 are 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?” That’s always been our approach.
The chords in Hall & Oates songs are simple on the surface, but when you examine them up close, they’re very sophisticated and complex. DH: That approach comes from my own regional history. I’m a Philly musician. I haven’t lived in Philly since I grew up, but I’ll always be from Philadelphia-just like Dr. John is from New Orleans. You can’t separate me from the musical environment of that region, and I think the chords in “Sara Smile” are very Philadelphia kind of chords; they’re very typical of the chords that writers from Philly like Thom Bell and Leon [Huff] would use. That influence comes from gospel, jazz and even classical music. It’s a very interesting racial and geographic mix that makes Philadelphia music what it is.
John, you have a college degree in journalism. Did that education impact your ability as a lyricist?
JO: 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… 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. To me, that’s the mark of a good pop song.
Which part of the creative process do you enjoy most?
DH: It depends really. When you have that first flash of what you think is going to be a great idea-from the mouth, from the hands-that’s an amazing feeling. I don’t think anything’s quite as good as that. Then of course there’s that moment when you’re presenting it to the band, and it all clicks together in some amazing way and goes to another level. That’s another great feeling. Playing live is another one.
How much is songwriting craft and how much is inspiration?
JO: There’s a lot of craft in songwriting. The divine inspiration is when the idea comes. It may be a riff. It may be a word. It may be a phrase. It may be a title. Sometimes, in the best of both worlds, that divine inspiration extends through the whole song. I’ve literally sat down and written a song from beginning to end, almost complete lyrics and everything without ever stopping… in two minutes. The chorus of “She’s Gone” was like that. I sat down with the guitar and sang the chorus of “She’s Gone” basically the way that it is. Then I played it for Daryl because I didn’t have anything else. It just happened. I said, “Hey, I’ve got this really great chorus.” And we wrote the verses together. “She’s Gone” is a song that endures.
Do songs ever come to you without an instrument?
DH: I remember this one song, kind of an obscure one. It was one of the first times I went to London, and I was up in the middle of the night. I was jetlagged and was walking in the park and the bells were ringing. It was like six o’clock in the morning, maybe even earlier. My footsteps, the bells and the traffic sounds all had this kind of rhythm. Not only did I use that to write the song, but I used that for the lyrics too. That’s the first verse for the song, “London Luck and Love.” That’s the ultimate example of that. “Looking for A Good Sign” [from the Private Eyes album] was one of the few songs in my life that I actually dreamed. I woke up in the morning and ran to the tape recorder and sang my dream into the tape recorder and got that. It’s great… it’s a dream song. [Laughs]
Looking back over your career as songwriter, have you changed the way in which you write songs?
DH: Inspiration comes in a lot of different ways. Sometimes, it’s a drum machine and a groove that inspires me to play something on the guitar or the piano. Sometimes, it’s the opposite; I come up with an idea on guitar or piano. Sometimes, I’ll write a lyric, and the rhythm of the words will dictate the rhythms of the song or the chords I choose. I seem to be writing lyrics first more often more than I ever did. The songs come out a little bit different that way. They’re a little less groove-oriented and more singer/songwriter-y.
Is there a song you wish you wrote?
DH: Oh man, “What’s Goin’ On” [Marvin Gaye]. It’s the best song ever written. It’s everything. Its message is timeless. It’s the perfect marriage of groove and vocal. Yeah, I’d wished I’d written that song.
If you could choose one person you wished would have covered a Hall & Oates song, who would you pick?
DH: You could take any song you want and… I’d like either John Lennon or Marvin Gaye to sing it [laughs]. I don’t care what the song is. Otis [Redding] could sing “Every Time You Go Away.”
Share some memories about your hits. “Sara Smile.”
DH: Sara Allen was my life partner, a co-writer and, to some degree, a muse too-for many, many years. We’re not together anymore, but she certainly was a very significant part of my life…and that song said what I wanted to say about her. That song came quick because it was such an easy and direct thing I was saying lyrically. I know the song means a lot to her now, although she’s told me that she can’t hear it anymore. It plagues her; it drives her out of the supermarket. When that song comes on, the reality hits that we’re not together anymore, so it’s a very poignant and hard thing for her to deal with. I can still sing that song today and feel real about it-and always will-because emotions don’t change even though circumstances change. The song is about timelessness. As usual, we were stretching the boundaries of what we were doing, trying to find ourselves, and a song like “Sara Smile” is one of the more pure soul songs I’ve ever written.
DH: “Rich Girl” was written about an old boyfriend of Sara’s [Allen] from college that she was still friends with at the time. His name is Victor Walker. He came to our apartment, and he was acting sort of strange. His father was quite rich. I think he was involved with some kind of a fast-food chain. I said, “This guy is out of his mind, but he doesn’t have to worry about it because his father’s gonna bail him out of any problems he gets in.” So I sat down and wrote that chorus. [Sings] “He can rely on the old man’s money/he can rely on the old man’s money/he’s a rich guy.” I thought that didn’t sound right, so I changed it to “Rich Girl.” He knows the song was written about him.
“I’m Just A Kid (Don’t Make Me Feel Like A Man).”
JO: That’s a really important song. Even though I was still young, I went to a show in New Jersey to see The Byrds. I was only in my early 20s, but for some reason I felt old…and I don’t know why. I don’t know what it was about that show. I felt kind of out of it. Maybe it was because I was in the audience and not on stage. I wrote as if I was kind of a child trapped in a man’s body. I thought that song worked really well.
“Kiss On My List”
DH: That’s the first song Janna [Allen] and I wrote together. It came very quickly. She had a little Wurlitzer piano in her apartment in L.A., and we just started writing, literally, standing there in a room. She started singing things…it was very much the two of us writing together.
DH: That’s a real Janna Allen song. Janna, and I, and Warren Pash wrote that. Warren and Janna wrote most of the song, and I took it and changed it around-changed the chords. Sandy [Sara Allen] and I wrote the lyrics. It’s a real family song, the Allen sisters and me.
DH: John had written a prototype of “Maneater”; he was banging it around with Edgar Winter. It was like a reggae song. I said, “Well, the chords are interesting, but I think we should change the groove.” I changed it to that Motown kind of groove. So we did that, and I played it for Sara and sang it for her…[Sings] “Oh here she comes/Watch out boy she’ll chew you up/Oh here she comes/She’s a maneater…and a …” I forget what the last line was. She said, “Drop that shit in the end and go, ‘She’s a maneater,’ and stop! And I said, ‘No, you’re crazy, that’s messed up.'” Then I thought about it, and I realized she was right. And it made all the difference in the song.