Ah, the ’80s. In popular memory, which is forever determined to turn everything to kitsch, the Decade of Reagan is now reduced to pastel colors, overworked synthesizers and parachute pants.
And Hall & Oates A tall guy with feathered blond locks, a short guy with a fat mustache and the ever-present beat of “Maneater” on MTV. Perhaps it’s time to set the record straight — which is what Daryl Hall and John Oates have in mind with “Do What You Want, Be What You Are” (RCA/Legacy), a four-CD boxed set that spans their career, including rare tracks, live cuts and all the hits that made them one of the top-selling duos of all time. The set is out Tuesday. “It always has bothered us” to be dismissed as shallow popsters, adds Oates, 60, in a phone interview. “Early rock journalism tended to fluff us off as prefab hitmakers with some sort of formula. … [But now] we have a whole new respect and a whole new generation of musicians and fans who look at our music from a much broader, much more objective point of view.” Fellow musicians have been some of the first to pay tribute. In the boxed set’s liner notes, there is praise from Mick Jagger, Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (who says 1984’s “Big Bam Boom” was the first record he ever bought with his own money). CNN caught up with Hall, just turned 63, and Oates on separate calls and asked them about their first meeting, the stories behind some of their songs and what they’ve been up to recently. Herewith a few answers; supply your own beat. In the beginning …
Both men were raised in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, area and attended Temple University in the late ’60s, but didn’t formally meet until their respective bands were set to play an R&B teen dance in 1967. Oates: “We were waiting backstage to go on and a big gang fight broke out and we went down the service elevator and we left. And as we were going down we kind of met.” Gang fight Gunfire and clubs and dog chains Hall: “Typical Philadelphia scene. We didn’t even blink an eye.” Developing a sound The pair’s work is known for its combination of smooth R&B and punchy rock. The blend comes from their backgrounds, with Hall originally on the “B team” (his words) for Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philly productions and Oates’ roots in folk and rock. Hall: “We were just putting together the sounds that were around us and trying to put our version of it together. One reason we didn’t stick around in Philly — I remember having a conversation with Kenny Gamble, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come and be artists on Philadelphia International — we’re starting this new label.’ And I said, we want to do our own version of the Philly sound, so we need to separate ourselves from you. And so we moved to New York with that idea in mind.” Creating “She’s Gone”
Hall: “I heard John playing this chord progression on an acoustic guitar, going ‘She’s gone, whoa I, whoa I’ … it sort of reminded me of a Cat Stevens song. So I said, let’s get funky with it. So I sat down at my Wurlitzer piano and started playing that riff … and we sat down and wrote about the things that were happening to both of us at the time.” That evocative line about “Let the carbon and monoxide choke my thoughts away” “That was coming straight from living in the streets,” says Hall. “An English person once said, ‘You know, it’s carbon monoxide, not carbon and monoxide.’ And I said yeah, but it doesn’t sing right!” (The song, unsuccessful upon first release in 1974, became a huge hit on its second try in 1976.) How Hall & Oates changed Though the group continued to have hits through the ’70s, it wasn’t until 1981 and “Kiss on My List” they became blockbuster hitmakers. Oates attributes the change to moving back to New York from Los Angeles, California, and assuming production duties. Oates: “We worked with David [Foster] on an album called ‘Along the Red Ledge,’ and during that time we were going back to New York and getting involved in the punk and New Wave scene. … And then we did one more album called ‘X-Static,’ and I remember distinctly while we were making the album, David said, ‘Why am I here You know what you want to do.’ … “And we went on to produce ourselves, and we never looked back. The next album was ‘Voices’ and you know the story from there.” What Michael Jackson borrowed During the making of “We Are the World,” Hall crossed paths with Michael Jackson, who told him he nicked a Hall & Oates song for his own ends. Hall recalls, “Michael was trying to break the ice with me — I’d never really talked with him much, I’d met him — and he said, ‘I hope you don’t mind. I took “[I Can’t Go for That] No Can Do” and made “Billie Jean,” the groove, out of it.’ And I said no, of course not. It’s all part of [the process].” Two sides of “Every Time You Go Away”
Paul Young took this Hall tune to No. 1 in 1985. Hall: “I thought he made a great pop record out of a song that I’d never really related to, in the beginning, as a pop song — it was a gospel song to me, with secular words. … It has a lot of similarity, in spirit, to ‘Sara Smile.’ ” And the hits just keep on comin’ Hall & Oates’ record includes 29 Top 40 hits — including six No. 1s — but they say they never knew what would make the charts. Oates: “The hits were a byproduct of the albums that we made. We never really set out to have all these hits. That was just a bonus.” iReport.com: Hall, Oates on “Sara Smile,” social networking Method of modern music Hall, who’s doing “quite well” after a bout with Lyme disease several years ago, lives in upstate New York; Oates in Colorado. The two are friendly and do occasional concerts, including the final show at Philly’s Spectrum arena October 23, but in general stay busy with solo projects, including Hall’s “Live from Daryl’s House” and Oates’ songwriter series. Still, Oates says there’s something special about the combination of their talents, and he’s happy others appreciate what they’ve done — whether through covers, sampling or simply listening. “We’ve done what we’ve done, it’s a moment in time, we’ve put it out there for the world, and I think for other artists to then reinterpret it is in the great tradition of pop music,” he says. “It’s very much in the tradition of how pop evolves.”