Daryl and John: A shifting mood for the dynamic duo
by Michael Barackman
As a maid shuffles in time to the music resounding outside the door of their Beverly Hills Hotel room, Daryl Hall and John Oates listen to a tape of their new album, “Bigger Than Both of Us.” They’re trying to guess which song would make the best single.
Hall is slouched on a couch, puffing an imported cigar, but Oates is pacing the room and fidgeting with the monitors. “We’re not very good singles pickers,” he says, and now the small, dark 28-year-old looks confused. “It’s a smash,” he shouts above the closing strings of ‘Rich Girl,’ a lush, disco-tinged number. “But what do I know?”
It wasn’t Hall and Oates’ idea to release ‘Sara Smile,’ the Top Five single that’s made a name for them. It wasn’t RCA’s idea either. Two other songs (‘Camelia’ and ‘Alone Too Long’) were released from their album, “Daryl Hall and John Oates,” first. It was only after Cleveland radio station WIXY began playing the stark change-of-pace ballad off the album to great listener response that RCA put it out.
“It was time to have a hit record,” says the 30-year-old Hall. Their three albums for Atlantic Records, who they left in 1975, had been poor sellers, part of the reason being a less-accessible sound at the time. “War Babies,” the Todd Rundgren-produced ‘74 album, for instance, was a harsh, synthesizer-dominated epic chronicling the chaos of urban life. It sold all of 75,000 copies.
“People just didn’t want to listen to anything like that then,” says the quiet Oates. “It was too much of a listening album… we had the birth of the disco people who just wanted to take tranquilizers and dance all night.”
Their RCA album, on the other hand, accentuates light R&B — one of their earliest influences — and subtle hooks. “After ‘War Babies,’ we realized that in order to bring people along with you… you have to make concessions,” adds Hall. “The reality of the Seventies is that you can’t have merely a cult following and have any type of longevity. So we set out to build a broad audience. It’s our natural desire to please people and give them something they can latch onto, but there is a conflict in doing that and what’s important to us.”
But, then, Hall and Oates have always been a schizoid unit. From Philadelphia, both played that city’s polished R&B as session musicians prior to forming a partnership in ‘69. But their first album, ‘72’s “Whole Oats,” was dominated by contemporary folk music; basically Hall on Wurlitzer piano and Oates on acoustic guitar. On “Abandoned Luncheonette,” the two added a rhythm section and displayed their R&B roots, then had a minor hit single in that vein, ‘She’s Gone’ (which Atlantic has re-released).
Rundgren succeeded in helping Hall and Oates away from their Philly sound association. the two lament that with their current popularity and re-emergence of ‘She’s Gone,’ that association has returned. “It’s the lowest,” Hall smirks. “Obviously we play some Philly music, but it’s only a part. We don’t sound like the O’Jays.”
With “Bigger Than Both of Us” — which has been released — Hall and Oates have crystallized their music inclinations. The LP showcases accessible musical diverseness, but there is less R&B and more hard rock than before. Tracks like ‘Back Together Again’ and ‘London, Luck and Love’ carry a loose, ragged edge.
“We’re trying to invent a new style of music that people can have a more sophisticated range of emotional responses to,” says Hall. “When we do a concert, within a 10-minute range, we can get people to sit in total silence, then get them to rush the stage.”
Hall and Oates’ new stage show, with special lighting and set designs, will emphasize these mood shifts. An extensive fall tour is planned, as is a follow-up live album. regarding their success, both say “The struggle is everything.” And, backstage at the Roxy following a tumultuously received show, the intense performers are enjoying the fruits of that struggle, graciously accepting the endless round of congratulations from well-wishers. Among them is a lascivious young woman who sidles up to Oates, leans over, and wants to know “the secret of success.”