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Hall and Oates:The Self-Righteous Brothers

For Daryl Hall and John Oates, life as pop music's biggest duo is not good enough

January 17, 1985
daryl hall john oates hall and oates 1985
Daryl Hall and John Oates of Hall and Oates on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Bert Stern

Daryl Hall and John Oates are staring into a camera on the MTV soundstage, trying to answer the question "Why are you guys starting to dress so punky?" The question has been phoned in by a fan named Cinnamon, and since this is live TV, and since Cinnamon is waiting for a response, Daryl Hall and John Oates are staring blankly into the camera trying to think of one. "Well," Hall says finally, "I have no answer for that." He is clearly miserable. Oates is clearly miserable. Even Mark Goodman, the VJ who is hosting this phone-in to promote the duo's new album, Big Bam Boom, is clearly miserable. But all three men are very professional. Which means, instead of looking miserable, they just look dead.

"Okay," says Goodman, with forced enthusiasm, "this is the Big Bam Boom phone-in on MTV. Let's show the first video, from that album." As MTV cuts to the video, Tommy Mottola, Hall and Oates' omnipresent manager, scurries about the soundstage. "Who are these callers?" he asks with some urgency. "Do we have people ready to call with better questions?" Mottola sends Jeb Brien, one of his closest associates, off to investigate the switchboard situation. He reports back. Calls are coming in rapidly, but the questions are no good. "Are John and Daryl really fags?" seems to be a favorite inquiry. Brien shakes his head: "They're better off with questions about their clothes."

Back inside the studio, Goodman is trying to discuss the just-seen video, in which Hall and Oates are squashed by a giant drum and then resurrected to perform their first Big Bam Boom hit, "Out of Touch." "I hear Jeff Stein, who did that great Cars' video 'You Might Think,' directed this," Goodman says. Hall nods, smoking a cigarette. Oates just stares. "Ooo kay," Goodman says, "I guess we should take another call."

The phone buzzes. "What's your favorite group?" says the caller. "The Three Stooges," deadpans Hall. "How'd you get the drum so big in the video?" someone from Detroit asks. "We just rubbed it, and it grew," deadpans Oates. "What was your most embarrassing moment?" caller number three wants to know. "Right now!" Hall and Oates scream in unison. They crack up, and Mark Goodman, relieved, laughs, too. He's still laughing as he announces a commercial break, but Mottola isn't even smiling. "This isn't funny," he says to no one in particular. "This really isn't funny at all."

"So," Daryl Hall is saying the next day over pasta salad, "did you see MTV last night?" We are at the SIR rehearsal studio in Manhattan, and the phone-in show seems like the distant past, like a bad dream, what with Mottola letting Mark Goodman have it afterward – "You were there to insulate them, goddamnit" – and approximately 12 million viewers tuning in to watch the mess.

After the taping, Mottola, Hall and Oates and assorted members of their management company went to Jerry's Bar and Mesquite Grill, an in-spot Manhattan restaurant owned by the former manager of the Ritz, Jerry Brandt, an in-spot Manhattan nightclub. Warren Beatty, Melanie Griffith, Steven Bauer and assorted other notables join their party. It was an unusual evening: Daryl Hall and John Oates, who live only a few blocks from each other in Greenwich Village, don't socialize together much. Actually, they're not terribly social types to begin with. Hall pals around with actors Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn, and Oates spends a lot of time with his wife, Nancy, a model. There isn't much time for socializing: these guys are always working. They're in business. They're either recording in the studio or they're on the road or they're preparing for the studio or they're preparing for the road. It's an endless cycle. Hall and Oates have become the most successful duo in music history by combining art with business. And they know it – they've been balancing the two extremes for the last fifteen years. But their strategy, despite its success, has its price: business can easily overwhelm art.

"You're often in situations where you think, 'Why am I doing this?'" says Hall. "You think, 'Nobody really understands what I'm doing. I'm killing myself out here, and why? Is my life Spinal Tap? Is my life just a giant cliché?' Most artists try to avoid clichés, but it's pretty hard to avoid them if you, yourself, end up being one. But that's the nature of show business. It's ridiculous, but, yet, it works. The operative word becomes business. And the business of music has never been a foreign idea to me or to John."

Since their early days in Philadelphia, where they grew up in the suburbs, Hall and Oates, both 35, have longed to be popular. Hugely popular. They weren't looking for cult status; they wanted hits, pop recognition. Hall has been singing since he was a kid: his mother, who named him after Darryl F. Zanuck, was a vocal instructor, and she taught him early on about breath control and pitch. When he was very small, Hall regularly rode his bike to visit family friends living in a nearby black ghetto, and by high school he was cheering against white football teams at games. "I kept getting into trouble," he has said. "All these people got down on me for hanging out with blacks: 'Hey, fucking fruit.' I got my first sense of oppression for being different."

Oates received his early musical education on the accordion before shifting to the guitar. He began doing sessions for legendary soul producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff after high school, as did Hall, who was working as a backup singer. The two wound up as street-corner doo-wop singers. When the pair met in 1968, it was by chance: they were both waiting backstage with their separate bands – Hall's was the Temptones, Oates' the Masters – when someone on the dance floor was shot. Hall and Oates ducked out in the alley and introduced themselves. They became roommates at Temple University and began collaborating musically. "Music was everything to me then," recalls John Oates. "When my song came on the radio for the first time, that was one of the heaviest things I remember."

"Yeah," says Hall, "the first time I ever heard myself on the radio I was making out with my girlfriend in a basement. And I was heavy into the middle of something deep. Suddenly, the record came on, and I jumped up and screamed. There was no sex once that record started."

Hall and Oates' first album, Whole Oates, appeared in September 1972. It was folky, and it wasn't popular. Next was Abandoned Luncheonette, a blend of Philly and Motown R&B. The album was critically acclaimed, and the song "She's Gone," written about Hall's divorce from Bryna Lublin, was a mild hit for Hall and Oates, and a Number One hit for the group Tavares. "That was our first test right there," Oates says. "It would have been easy to make Abandoned Luncheonette II. That would have set our entire career, but we didn't do it. And people walked out of our concerts when we didn't."

War Babies was the follow-up. Produced by Todd Rundgren, the album alienated everyone, folk and soul fans alike. Atlantic Records dropped Hall and Oates from the label. "They didn't know what to do with us," Oates has said. "And we didn't know what to do with them." In 1975, they signed with RCA and released the so-called Silver Album. The record became notable for the hit "Sara Smile" – written for Hall's longtime girlfriend Sandy (Sara) Allen – and became notorious for the cover photo, a glitzy shot of Hall and Oates in heavy makeup. As a result of that photograph, a rumor began to spread: Daryl Hall and John Oates were lovers.

"People still think that," says Hall, repeating his standard rebuttal. "The idea of sex with a man doesn't turn me off, but I don't express it. I satisfied my curiosity about that years ago. I had lots of sex between the ages of three or four and the time I was fourteen or fifteen. Strange experiences with older boys. But men don't particularly turn me on. And, no, John and I have never been lovers. He's not my type. Too short and dark."

The next album, Bigger Than Both of Us, topped the charts with its single, "Rich Girl." (The song was written, incidentally, about a man, one of Sara Allen's ex-boyfriends, whose father owned a fast-food chain. "But you can't write, 'You're a rich boy,' in a song," Hall has said, "so I changed it to a girl.") Then Hall and Oates went into a decline. Neither Beauty on a Back Street (John Oates has said that it's their only album he truly hates) nor Along the Red Ledge (their foray into all-out rock & roll) generated a hit single.

Then came Voices. And "Kiss on My List." And "You Make My Dreams." And Private Eyes. And "I Can't Go for That." And H2O. And hit after hit after hit. "It was great," Hall says. "We were vindicated. We were accepted on our own terms. To all those people who said, 'Those guys are on their way out,' we said, 'You guys is wrong.'"

The difference, according to Hall and Oates, was that radio had opened up and that Hall and Oates had begun producing themselves. The band had always been terrific live – much better than on record – and they were now able to capture some of that quality on their albums. Plus the fact that Hall and Oates were willing to push their records like mad didn't hurt. They did videos before anyone did videos. They toured for nearly yearlong stretches. And their tours were sponsored by big-name corporations before sponsorship was common. They even did a tour for Care-Free sugarless gum in 1978. The high schools across America that sent in the most gum wrappers got Hall and Oates performing live in their auditoriums. "It was great," says Oates. "We got off at three o'clock every day."

But stuff like a chewing-gum tour takes its toll on one's artistic credibility. The fact that Daryl Hall has one of the greatest voices around, that he's one of the smoothest, most technically perfect singers ever, is glossed over by the fact that he's also a mainstream pop star. "It's weird," Hall says, without a trace of irony. "I'm just about the best singer I know, and it's time for everybody to say that. I have total facility with my voice. And for some weird reason, critics don't talk about it. Americans think that if you're popular there must be something wrong with you. To me, the best music now is music that everyone's listening to. Obscurity is just obscurity. There's no romance in obscurity." Hall pauses to spear some more pasta. This subject clearly frustrates him; Oates shrugs it off.

"I think we're the Eighties Beatles," Hall continues. "If we had been born twenty years earlier, maybe the world would have seen that. There's something about our personalities that is very Lennon-and-McCartneyesque. And there is something about the body of work that we both have that's similar." Hall pauses again. "I know people will have trouble accepting that," he says finally. "But I don't have any trouble accepting it."

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