Daryl Hall & John Oates: ‘Michael Jackson told me at Live Aid that “I Can’t Go For That” had inspired “Billie Jean”’

·11-min read
'We never wanted to be stars': Daryl Hall and John Oates in 1982 (Andre Csillag/Shutterstock)
'We never wanted to be stars': Daryl Hall and John Oates in 1982 (Andre Csillag/Shutterstock)

One of the pop acts for whom the term “guilty pleasures” had to be coined, Daryl Hall and John Oates have never been cool. Even in the 1980s, when their impeccably catchy hits were outsold only by Madonna and Michael Jackson, the duo goofed their way through “the embarrassment” of music videos with blow-dried mullets and “absolutely no regard for our image”.

So it comes as no surprise when Oates tells me he’s celebrating the billionth stream of the duo’s 1981 single “You Make My Dreams Come True” not with a hip party but with “some sort of a gluten-free vegetable pizza. There’s some kind of fake meat on it, I think. I’m not a vegetarian but my wife is forcing me to eat this…”

Talking, between bites, from his home in Nashville, the 72-year-old sounds also endearingly touched by the “very nicely put-together commemorative plaque” he’s been awarded. “I’m flattered that so many young people are enjoying our music today. I used to hate it when people referred to our songs as ‘classic rock’ but as I get older I’m learning to appreciate that means they’ve stood the test of time. ‘You Make My Dreams Come True’ is just such a joyful song, I’m really happy it continues to make people smile.”

Not originally released as a single in the UK, the track was actually the fourth US single to be released from the duo’s 1980 album, Voices. It got a boost with millennials when it was used in a giddy flash-mob scene in 2009 romcom 500 Days of Summer.

But today, Oates tells me the song failed to impress its first audience. “Our manager didn’t like it too much! We took him a demo and he didn’t like the opening lines about ‘the flame that burns the candle/ the candle feeds the flame’. He thought they were too flowery. I remember he said: ‘Who do you think you are? Wordsworth!’ Actually we were hurt. We always took great care over our lyrics.”

Short, moustachioed John Oates (born in New York in 1948) first met bouffant blonde Daryl Hall (born in Philadelphia in 1946) when they were both studying at Temple University in Philadelphia. Their respective bands both had local hits and Oates says: “We’d been invited to lip synch along to our records at a record hop in a very bad area of Philadelphia. There we were, in this tiny backstage area, when a big gang fight broke out among the kids. We both jumped into the elevator to escape and got talking. My band fell apart and so I joined Daryl as a back-up guitar player, then his band fell apart and we just started hanging out together in the hippy neighbourhoods of Philadelphia.”

While the more flamboyant Hall was into R&B and soul, Oates had his roots in more folk and rock. He reminds me he’s “old enough to remember music before rock’n’roll. My parents were into the big band, swing sound. That was the first music I heard and those bittersweet wartime melodies run deep in my musical DNA. After rock’n’roll came out I had my radio tuned to Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard 24/7.”

Although comics have often made fun of Oates, lurking in the background while Hall prances for the camera, it turns out the guitarist was also a born performer. “I was two,” he recalls, “when my parents took me out to Coney Island and dropped a coin in one of those phonograph booths to cut a record of my singing a nursery rhyme. I went back to the exact same booth when I was about 10. This was the late 1950s. Elvis had just released ‘All Shook Up’ and I recorded my own version.”

Daryl Hall and John Oates perform at a jazz festival in the Netherlands in 2019AFP/Getty
Daryl Hall and John Oates perform at a jazz festival in the Netherlands in 2019AFP/Getty

Although they’re popularly known as “Hall and Oates”, Oates reminds me that “we always saw ourselves as two separate, creative individuals. Not some two-headed monster. Every record sleeve reads ‘Daryl Hall and John Oates’.”

Their 1972 debut album, Whole Oats, didn’t yield a hit. But their second album, Abandoned Luncheonette (1973) saw them sway up the charts with the cafe soul of “She’s Gone”. The song was written by Oates, “about a girl I met in [Greenwich] Village in the middle of the night wearing a tutu and cowboy boots. We’d seen each other once or twice and arranged to meet for New Year’s Eve. But she didn’t show up, so I sat on my own with this acoustic guitar, playing this sorrowful lament. It was quite a folky old refrain. When Daryl came in the next day, he sat down at the piano and gave it a more groove-oriented R&B sound.”

The Seventies hits began to flow slowly from that point, including 1975’s “Sara Smile” (about Hall’s then-girlfriend and collaborator Sara Allen) and 1976’s “Rich Girl” (actually about an arrogant, ex-boyfriend of Allen). In a disturbing twist, the serial killer David Berkowitz claimed that he’d been “inspired” to commit his 1977 “Son of Sam” killing spree by the bouncy melody to “Rich Girl”.

Today Oates sounds, perhaps understandably, offended when I ask how he feels about that. “I can’t help it if deranged people like our music,” he protests. “We wrote the title track for the Voices album based on the headlines in New York City at that time, because there was a guy riding around on the subway slashing people with a machete. We were looking at the stories, wondering what could make somebody so crazy that they would be driven to do something so terrible. Then we thought: you know when you get a song stuck in your head and can’t shake it and it’s infuriating? What if that happens to somebody who’s mentally imbalanced? What if you had something like ‘doo wop’ stuck in your head… So that song – ‘Diddy Doo Wop (I Hear the Voices)’ – goes ‘Charlie liked the Beatles/ Sam liked Rich Girl…’ [referring to Charles Manson's belief that The Beatles’ songs contained hidden messages].

The cover art for the pair’s hit 1981 single ‘You Make My Dreams’RCA
The cover art for the pair’s hit 1981 single ‘You Make My Dreams’RCA

Oates attributes many of the duo’s 1980s hits to “happy accidents with synthesisers”. “Out of Touch” (1984) arose out of a stoned Oates hitting an “arpeggio” option on a keyboard and rolling with it. The “dinky” drum sound of “Kiss on my List” (1981) came from mucking about with a Roland CR-78. The track was played on the first day of MTV broadcasting. Despite Hall & Oates’ mutual discomfort with video making, they enjoyed a close relationship with the channel which they’ve described as a “very New York thing”. The pair would often appear as VJs, eating pizza live on air and larking about. Their massive 1982 hit, “Maneater” – given a sultry, soft rock makeover by Miley Cyrus on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show last month – was actually about New York during the Greed is Good decade.

While Hall & Oates “were never part of the New York celebrity scene, with no drink or drug problems – we were too boring for the gossip columns”, they still got sucked into the era’s excesses. For one publicity stunt they raced each other’s private jets to the middle of the US, having started on different coasts. The 1981 hit “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” had been a joint statement about refusing to be pushed around by the industry. But they were struggling to hang on to their souls.

“It began to get too much,” says Oates. “You have to remember, we had put out a record every year from 1972-1986. We’d had number one after number one across the world for 20 years. We didn't want to chase fame or commercial success. We topped the bill at Live Aid in 1985 and Michael Jackson came up to us backstage. He said he loved to dance to ‘I Can’t Go For That’, and it had inspired the bassline for his song ‘Billie Jean’.”

The pair at Live Aid in 1985Rex/Shutterstock
The pair at Live Aid in 1985Rex/Shutterstock

Oates told me he realised he needed a break after the duo were invited to reopen the Apollo in New York in 1985. “We’d been there to see The Temptations just after we first met, and it had been an incredible night. So we thought we would bring things full circle by inviting Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin on stage with us. I don’t know when we’ve had a better show. Just go and look at our faces on the video of that night – it’s all online. I think we didn’t know how to top that. I needed to reboot and cleanse my soul. I basically checked out in the 1990s. I left New York City for Colorado, sold everything I had, and started my life over again. I shaved off my moustache, which felt symbolic. I got remarried, had a kid, built a house.”

Things weren’t totally calm for Oates in the countryside, though. Turns out he bought a house over the road from gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson. “I didn’t meet him at first,” says Oates, “He worked at nights and slept in the day. I worked in the day and slept at night.” But Oates found Thompson’s 1973 Chevrolet Caprice convertible — nicknamed “Red Shark” — locked into his “cabin” – he’s presumably referring to a log-built garage space. “He didn’t own the land or the cabin,” says Oates. “But he just put the car there and put a lock on the door. He had left the keys in it, though, so I got it started and drove it up onto his lawn and knocked on the door. He didn't answer so I put the keys though the door and left.”

Twenty years went by and Thompson never said a word to Oates about it. “I guess he assumed the car just appeared there.” Oates laughs. “In the end I wrote a short story about the car, so I thought I better run it by him. I went up there with my wife and young son during a football game. Hunter wouldn’t let me speak during the game. Only during the commercials. That was his rule. I handed him the paper, but he insisted I read it aloud, but then the game came back on and he told me to shut up. I had to stand there until the next commercial break. At which point he pulled out this big bowie knife and started jabbing me in the ribs because I wasn't reading loudly enough. But he kept saying: ‘Top notch, this is good stuff.’ I guess that meant he liked my writing. I don’t think he liked our music.”

In addition to solo projects, Hall & Oates have released several albums together since their heyday and retain “a brotherly relationship and a commitment to touring – we never wanted to be stars, just successful musicians”. They had just begun working on a new album when lockdown began, and Oates won’t tell me what ideas were bubbling up.

On the road with their band, Oates says they now “regale the other musicians with stories from decades in the business. It’s a bonding ritual that helps us all play better”. He’s not referring to the recent claim on the celebrity gossip site Page Six that he slept with “thousands of women” in an interview in which he reportedly said: “If you didn’t live through the Seventies and Eighties, if you weren’t a rockstar during that time, there’s no way you can comprehend what it was like. There were no cell phones and people taking pictures of everything you did.” He tells me today he was "joking" about the number of sexual conquests, but "the humour didn't translate to print".

“Bands always enjoy the story of how we caught a famous mugger – called ‘the Rusty Gun Bandit’ – in Australia in 1980.” The duo were reportedly confronted by the robber in a ski mask waving a sawn-off shotgun in a restaurant – an incident that ended with Oates putting the bandit through a glass door. “Between us, we've clocked up so many stories and so many songs.” Oates pauses. “It can feel like we froze moments in time and the music can take us right back there. But it’s also amazing to see those moments reimagined and reinvented by kids today. I think of the young people who know our songs from TikTok or Spotify and never saw those awful videos we made and I’m glad the music survived. I hear Miley Cyrus sing ‘Maneater’ and I love what she did with it. She made the song her own, but she kept the core of its essence. She made me proud to have written ‘a classic’.”

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