Hall and Oates:The Self-Righteous Brothers

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

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

Sitting behind his desk at his company, champion Entertainment, Tommy Mottola is surrounded by platinum records and hunting paraphernalia. Intricately painted duck decoys and glossy Hall and Oates photos. "I like to hunt," Mottola says. "But I always eat what I kill. I don't believe in shooting it if you're not going to eat it." Mottola smiles. He knows this sounds vaguely dangerous, and he likes the edge. "You've probably heard stories about me," he says with a certain mysterious glee. "Some of them are true. Some of them aren't."

There are Mottola stories – lots of stories – about Mottola's outrageous business dealings. Hall and Oates once wrote a song about their manager. The lyrics went, "You're a patent leather lover/With your Gucci-Pucci pointed shoes/And you're swearing on your mother/That 'all this can be yours'/Sign on the line on the line sign on the line."

Mottola loved the song – "I thought it was true, and I thought it was great" – and it fueled the myth. "We know he's crazy," says John Oates. "That's a given. But it's okay to be crazy as long as you deliver." And Mottola does deliver. At least most of the time. Occasionally, he's become too extreme. Gone too far. Like the time he was renegotiating Hall and Oates' RCA deal and suggested "as a sweetener, that RCA should throw in a couple of Rolls-Royces. I specified red Corniche convertibles." The cars never materialized, but a contract did. "I have this thing inside me," Mottola explains proudly, "that says, 'Ask for it. What's the big deal?' They had this one little hit, 'Kiss on My List,' when I went into RCA and asked for $13 million. My own lawyer was telling me I was crazy. I said, 'I don't care. We're doing it.' We sat down and I said $13 million, and they all fell off their chairs. As it turned out, it was RCA's golden opportunity. Hall and Oates are their banner artists." (They didn't get the $13 million, though.)

Mottola likes this story. He likes the Pontiac story, too, in which he makes Pontiac a sponsorship offer for the North American tour, and they tell him he's crazy, only to turn around and say, "The markets for the [Pontiac] Fiero and for Hall and Oates are almost identical . . . They fit that very important lifestyle concept." True to its demographics, Pontiac Fiero is now the official Big Bam Boom concert sponsors. "What can I say?" Mottola asks. "I think they deserve the fucking world. And I have no shyness or embarrassment about asking for it."

The insatiable approach is longstanding with Mottola. He met Hall and Oates when he was twenty-one and head of the contemporary-music division at Chappell Music. He heard their demos and went nuts. "We threw our lot in with a guy who had never managed a band," says Oates. "A guy who worked at a publishing company. A guy who was younger than us, for God's sake." But Mottola was convincing: he had contagious belief. "The first time I met them," he recalls, "I saw an amazing situation that I thought could really be developed into something special and major. From that point to now, the three of us have been relentless in trying to make it work."

Mottola, however, has always been the main strategist. It was, for instance, he who thought of the infamous chewing-gum tour, and it was he who kept the record company interested in Hall and Oates despite poor sales. "That Care-Free gum tour in '78 made me look like a genius," says Mottola. "But it was done out of necessity more than anything else. I had to create something that would bring in dollars and would also keep the band fresh and hot. We had to create some situation, and that situation fit perfectly.

"But those were hard times," Mottola continues. "We came from three Number One records and went into the toilet. And I'll tell you why. Because of journalists and the way the business and radio were structured. When Daryl and John felt the need to evolve musically, those people didn't. I think, as a result, those people became arrogant and resented us. But now people are starting to see it. If you have enough hits, everyone will see it."

This is a familiar Hall and Oates lament, but it's not accurate, just emotional. Great reviews or enthusiastic journalists don't guarantee record sales or radio hits, and bad reviews do not necessarily cause a financial slump in an artist's career. But Mottola and Hall and Oates want it all: the press, the business, the stardom and the acclaim. The notion of anything less is, well, less. Less is not a concept Tommy Mottola endorses.

"Pseudointellectual bullshit journalists," Mottola rages on, "think it's cool to make an album in your basement that doesn't sell more than 300,000 copies. They give those people praises like God walked down the street. And I don't buy it. It used to bug us to the point of making us crazy, but now we don't give a shit."

Mottola pauses, resuming his game voice. He realizes this talk is pointless. He's better off sticking to business, a point of obvious success. "I'm known to be a wild man," he says. "But lately I've taken off the boxing gloves. I don't have to fight anymore. Now I just have to keep my eye on the ball so hard. That takes up all my time. We span five radio formats – adult contemporary, dance, pop, AOR and R&B – and that's the trick. That's the modern business. And for Hall and Oates it's golden. Golden. Because they span all formats. Radio looks for a Hall and Oates. They aren't competitive without us. And now, finally, we can get some recognition.

"You know," Mottola continues, returning to the credibility refrain, "Daryl said something this summer. He said, 'You know how I'm going to be seen as an artist? It's going to be art through recognition.' And that's it. To me, that's the key. To not be recognized, to not have that on-sight recognition, and to still be considered an artist, well, I don't know. Yeah, I guess that exists, but so what? Is it more important, is it better, than art through recognition?"

Mottola glances at the platinum albums to his right and to his left. "I look at these and I see proof," he says. "And proof is enough for me."

It's a week later at the taping of Hall and Oates' new video, "Method of Modern Love." Tommy Mottola is standing outside Daryl Hall's dressing room looking a good deal like John Oates: shortish, dark, Italian. "I live vicariously through Daryl Hall," he is saying. Inside the dressing room, Hall, six foot two, blond, blue eyes, is idly staring at his reflection in the mirror. He looks great. He doesn't hear Tommy Mottola's remark, but, then, Hall doesn't have to. He already knows about it.

Daryl Hall is the star of Hall and Oates. The name, in fact, almost seems inaccurate. Oates is, technically speaking, an equal partner, but Hall writes most of the songs, performs most of the songs and dominates their videos and concerts. The two have a strange relationship: they are a cross between business partners and brothers. Hall doesn't seem to really like Oates, and Oates seems removed, even distant, from the entire Hall and Oates organization. But they're both professionals. They work well together, and they would never slag each other publicly. It would just be bad form.

Oates claims that the two of them have a "symbiotic relationship. He needs me, and I need him." Yet, in a professional sense, it is easy to see Hall without Oates and nearly impossible to see Oates without Hall. (In fact, Hall's next project will be a solo album.) There is a reason for this: Hall has terrific charisma. He's a natural. Oates can seem forced; Hall usually seems effortless. Offstage, Oates, who must have one of the least destructible egos in the entertainment industry, is easier to read. He has concrete passions: he races cars, he enjoys skiing. Hall, though, is inscrutable, his contrasts are sharper. There is a moment in the "Out of Touch" video that neatly synopsizes the difference between them. Hall is leaning against a pillar, arms crossed, his eyes staring off. As he stands there, Oates does a cartwheel in front of him. Hall doesn't move – it's as if he can't even look at Oates' foolishness. There's the same difference between them in concert. Oates often seems mannered, while Hall combines ease with intensity, showing glimpses of a darker side.

"I'm an elusive person," Hall says in his dressing room as a hair person arrives, fluffs and leaves. "Much more so than John. I like to scatter myself. I do try to take chances, break patterns. When you're scattered, you have to think. You're not operating under a set of rules, so you have to make your own rules. As Robert Fripp says, 'Danger is a point in time when you have to think your hardest.' I like to put myself in states of peril. I like the sense of aliveness that comes from being out on the point, way out in front."

Hall, nicknamed the Führer by his band, says all this with some animation. He refers to his lyrics as examples: "I can't go for being twice as nice/I can't go for just repeating the same old lines." He refers to the fact that he went into the studio to record Big Bam Boom with nothing planned. He was, he says, "daring myself. Because, if I have a religion, it's the religion of the self. I don't follow anybody. And that scares people, but I like the idea of scaring people. I wish I scared people more. I don't know if I scared anyone on this new album, but I'm better at scaring people in my personal life. I change quickly. I go from nice to not nice. I'm like a snake. Don't back me into a corner or I'll bite hard. Deadly hard."

Hall won't explain further. He offers no examples, just laughs, looks at the tape recorder and shakes his head no. This is not surprising. "I mean," Hall explains, "how would that look in print?" He's clever. He mixes philosophical allusions with practical sense, "meaningful" lyrics with pop songs. He wants to be heard.

But Hall does have belief, at least in himself. Two of his uncles were ministers, and his great-grandfather was a warlock. ("He cured cattle and all.") "I grew up around that seein'-the-light kind of thing," he says. "And now I'm a secular version of it. In my uncles' time, you were a minister. Two generations before that you were a warlock. Now you're me. It's just a current. I believe in the ability to change reality through will, and that is the definition of magic. I feel I have done that."

Not surprisingly, Hall claims to have come to this conclusion around the time of Voices, the first wildly successful Hall and Oates album. He had been very frustrated up until then; he had even seen a psychiatrist. ("He told me I needed to make more money," Hall says. "That's when I realized psychiatry was bullshit.") When Voices hit, Hall, who had been nurturing these theories for some time, became certain. There was validation, proof that he had the power. And it was power, not money, Hall had always craved. He identified as a child with King Arthur. "I used to walk around and whack people with my wooden sword," he says. "And now Arthur is seen as sort of the English Jesus. I identify with that. The image of him holding the last candle of civilization against the barbarian hordes. I feel I do that. I view everyone else but me as the barbarian hordes."

Hall laughs. First quietly, then rather hysterically, but this clearly isn't a joke. He's serious. "Tommy Mottola wouldn't wanna be me if he was me," he says finally. "It just looks good from the outside."

Jeb Brien, head of marketing for champion entertainment, is concerned. He's worried about the cover of Rolling Stone. "Can I suggest a headline?" he says, glancing over at Daryl Hall, who is rehearsing "Method of Modern Love." "Here's my headline: Two heads are better than three. That would be my headline. I'll tell you why. Here's why: It's not cool for guys to walk around with a T-shirt that has two guys on it."

Brien, who is nearly as obsessed with Hall and Oates as Tommy Mottola is, says this with great seriousness. "I'll explain," he says. "Two is a couple. And male couples, like Hall and Oates, are threatening to males. For instance, at the Rolling Stone cover shoot, I didn't want Bert Stern [the photographer] to know my inherent problems. I didn't want to say, 'Daryl, don't put your arm around John!' which is what he was doing. That was a really comfortable pose, but that's the fucking problem we fight: don't touch each other.

"Daryl never poses, but John needs the closeness," Brien goes on, still steaming, still trying to explain. "I didn't want to say anything in front of Bert Stern, but when we left, Daryl and John said, 'That was amazing.' And I said, 'Amazing! You're gonna get a Rolling Stone cover with your arms around each fucking other.' And whatever the headline says, it's still two guys. Not three. It's not, 'Hey – it's the guys.' It's yin and yang. It's here's this macho, fucking asshole and this pretty blond with blue eyes. Do you know what I'm saying? There's no band. There's just Daryl and John. It's two guys.

"Our audience is seventy-five percent female," Brien continues. "We're trying to garner the male audience. And while I'm not trying to say that Daryl Hall is a man's man, he is an artist's artist. I'd like to see him perceived like Sting. Or David Bowie. Men should be able to respect an artist's artist the way they do a man's man."

Daryl Hall has a tattoo on his right shoulder, a seven-point star. "It's a symbol of aspiration," Hall says. "And emotion and inspiration. It's kind of the target for the arrow. So I wear the target and I'm the arrow."

Hall lights a cigarette. We are in a San Francisco hotel room, a month and a half after the videotaping. The band is touring now, playing live, and "Out of Touch" has just hit Number One on the pop charts after a bitter battle with Wham! and "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." (Hall: "I hate that song.") Big Bam Boom is speeding up the album charts as well, and on tour fans have been receptive to the new material. Hall and Oates have dropped "Sara Smile" and "She's Gone" from their act with little audience complaint, and the arenas are selling out. You can almost hear the arrow hitting the target, but Daryl Hall doesn't seem particularly happy. "There is so much misconception," he says, pouring some red wine into a glass. "And Top Forty radio isn't a forum for deep thinking. But, then, neither is the world. And I have to live in the world, so all I can do is make music that I think is the best music I can make. There's enough depth in our music to satisfy anything that anyone would want. I can't think of anything anyone could do that would be more complex than what I'm doing right now."

Hall pauses. This is, of course, the same Hall and Oates refrain, yet Hall repeats it with great authority. It's no pose, although it's still difficult to accept. Hall is, however, quite evangelical on this point. He wants converts, he wants believers. And his fervor is convincing.

"People think I'm a pop star who is controlled by the business," he says, "and that I somehow sold my talent out. It is anything but that. If anything, I control the business. I've given them what I want, and it's my best shot, and if they can sell it, then that's good. But I'm proud of everything I've ever done. And I think what I do is as significant as anything anyone's doing in the world right now. And fucking listen to me. That's what I say."

Hall smiles. He looks vaguely evil. "That's the end of the sermon," he says. "But you haven't heard the last of me." He pulls out a cigarette and lights it. "You'll see," he says, "I'll get you yet. And that's a promise, not a threat."

This story is from the January 17th, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 439: January 17, 1985
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