Nine Songs: John Oates
It’s tricky to know where to even start with Daryl Hall and John Oates. And yet, the most successful pop-rock duo of all time really ought to do it.
Since coming together in 1970, three years after first meeting at Philadelphia’s Adelphi Ballroom, the pair have steadily upended the landscape of contemporary pop via selling a certified 13 million albums and six million singles in the U.S. alone. From the sheer omnipotence of FM staples like “Maneater,” “You Make My Dreams (Come True),” and “I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)”, to a slew of carefully-crafted gems like “She’s Gone,” “Rich Girl” and “Private Eyes”, the pair’s synonymy with pure pop finesse has long been beyond speculation.
2020 was all set to be a landmark year for the pair. Setting off on the road with Squeeze and KT Tunstall to mark a half-century making music together, things got off to a smooth start. And then everything ground to halt. Speaking to me from his home in Nashville, Tennessee, John Oates, thankfully, can see the wood for the trees. “We did literally one show together and then it was over,” he explains, “but the sequestered period has actually been quite inspiring for me. It’s given me time to do a lot of things I would not have been able to do if I had been on the road. I worked on a great movie Gringa, which is out this year. The director - a good friend - asked if I would come up with a song and I ended up coming up with five. I also collaborated and sang in Spanish with a young artist from Mexico, Ximena Sariñana. So I did all these things that were totally outside of the box for me.”
A picture of health and the sound of contentment, 72-year-old Oates has good reason to be in high spirits. Late last year, he and his old friend Daryl Hall reached yet another milestone when their 1981 Yacht Rock classic, “You Make My Dreams (Come True)”, became one of a handful of songs to hit 1 billion digital streams. Though it wasn't originally released as a single in the UK, the song - which has featured in films such as 500 Days of Summer and The Wedding Singer - has evolved from a minor hit to bona fide pop classic over the last four decades.
It’s just the latest chapter in the pair’s cultural renaissance over the last two decades. Along with myriad younger listeners, your writer first encountered their music in the soundtrack to the hugely successful Grand Theft Auto: Vice City back in the early 2000s. That one song, the singularly ear-worming “Out of Touch,” first released in 1984, doubled as a perfect gateway for the uninitiated.
“My son was quite young, but he was starting to play the game,” Oates tells me. “He told me that our song was in this video game. I’d never heard of the video game and I didn’t even know that video games had songs. So that was totally eye-opening for me when he turned me on to it. I guess I kind of discovered it the same way.”
Fast-forward two decades and John Oates is firmly intent on making the present moment count. At a time when many families are struggling to make ends meet, he and his wife, Aimee, have spent the last few weeks planning a fundraiser event, Oates Song Fest 7908. Going live on 20 March, the free webcast will feature virtual performances from the likes of Oates, Dave Grohl, the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir and many more.
“All the benefits from the event go to Feeding America,” Oates tells me. “It’s a great organisation and a very transparent company. 98% of money raised goes directly to the food. My wife and I are very aware of what’s going on. It’s incredible how many American families are going without food. For us personally, to think of a country like America, with so many resources, it just didn’t seem right. We wanted to do more to help out. Just being home this period of time has given me more time to think and to contemplate other things, other than what I would normally be doing, like running around, doing shows and things. So we’re collecting videos from various artists. I also have a very interesting co-host called Saxsquatch. He and I have become good friends, believe it or not.”
Looking further down the line, Oates is cautiously optimistic that he and Hall will be able to celebrate their half-century together before the year is out. “Daryl and I have our tour planned for August of this year,” he says. “It’s a moving target but that’s our plan and we’ll hopefully do it. Our promoters think that we’ll be able to pull this off in some way, shape or form, so we’re going to try to do it. Right now, that’s what’s happening. If things change for the worse we’ll push it back, but if they don’t, hopefully we’ll be able to start playing live music again.”
As will come with any two artists working in each other’s pockets over five decades, Daryl Hall and John Oates haven’t always seen eye to eye. Many have been quick to over-scrutinise this when, in reality, it’s simply been one small facet of what is ultimately a healthy working relationship between two artists in their very own right: hence their desire to be referred to by their full names.
“I think there’s a tradition with most duos, or people who work together, that there is going to be a little conflict,” Oates says. “That they have this dynamic that is less than friendly or less than positive. Daryl and I have our differences. We’re not the same people. Our company is called Two Headed Monster, which is an ironic name for what we do. But at the same time, we gave ourselves space. I think we learned, and we’re smart enough to not push each other in certain directions. We have the individual freedom to do whatever we want. He started making solo albums in the ‘70s and it wasn’t even a thought in my mind to be like, “Oh, you can’t do that.” Who am I to say what he can and can’t do with his music, and vice versa?
“I think establishing that kind of relationship early on really was a positive thing that could carry us into the future,” he adds. “And it has. We have that kind of attitude. In fact, Daryl’s going to be on the song festival. He’s doing one of his great solo songs. I thought that was really cool, because I’m sure everyone expected Daryl and I would do a song together. Well, we’re actually not. I’m going to do a brand-new song that I wrote and he’s going to do one of his. We further establish ourselves as individuals who work together. That’s the gist of our relationship.”
This level of nurtured understanding and - crucially - interdependence is precisely why the pair are still an active proposition 51 years in. While the road ahead remains uncertain, and the turn-offs aren’t always clear, one suspects we’ll be hearing from them for many years to come. As for Oates, his Nine Songs choices here - including several artists set for Oates Song Fest 7908 - reveal a deep love not simply of song, but of creators and their craft, and the many worlds in which they can thrive and belong.
“Being a guitar player, and especially living in Nashville over the last ten or so years, I have been really focusing more on my acoustic guitar playing, which really takes me back to where I was as an artist before I met Daryl. I played mostly acoustic. I always feel that that’s probably my strong suit.
“Jerry Reed was a genius. I think he was a savant in a sense, because a lot of stuff that he was doing, I actually don’t think he had a foundation in music theory or anything like that. It was just this natural gift that he had for putting together very unusual and complicated chords and riffs. It’s amazing to hear what he does.
“The reason I chose this song is because whenever I’m sitting around, I like to test myself. I like to push the boundaries of my playing, so I’ve been trying to learn this song for quite some time. I’ve heard a lot of people try to play it and there’s not many people who can play it like he does, if at all. It’s just one of those things where it’s one of my go-to’s. I’ll go pull it up on YouTube and I’ll sit there and grab a few bars and try to notch out a few bars and go from there. It’s definitely spectacular.
“So moving to Nashville in the early 2000s and beginning to play with studio musicians here, I realised that the bar was set very hard instrumentally. I was very comfortable playing the Hall & Oates songs, and of course still am, but I really needed to go back to the woodshed and dig in a little bit. Playing with people like Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas and people like that - their musicianship is on such a high level, I wanted to test myself.”
“I chose this version of “Breaking The Rules” because it’s so real. It showcases his amazing voice. We just worked on a song together, he sent me a song to play guitar and sing background vocals on. After meeting through Instagram, we realised that we had a lot of friends in common in London - friends that I’ve had since the 1970s. So it was kind of bringing that full circle.
“There’s a certain sound of Italian male vocalists - there’s this thing that they have. It’s this gritty, kind of soulful thing. I joked with him the first time I spoke of him. I said ‘I’m only part-Italian, so I guess I’ve only got about half of that.’ I just love his voice and the video of this version. It’s very real and it’s very heartfelt. He’s a good soul and I wanted to showcase one of his songs.”
“Sara and I share the same drummer and percussionist, Josh Day. I’ve always admired her and the fact that she could create a Broadway show. She’s very artistic, very musical, and she has a social consciousness as well.
“I can't say I was listening to her all the time - I actually began to listen much more closely after having met her. We were playing a show in New York with my Nashville Good Road Band, and she and her husband came down. I’m a big admirer of her bravery and her musicality, and I think this song really showcases that.”
“Jim and I got together back in 2010 through management and some mutual friends. His guitar player (My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel) lives here in Nashville and they asked me if I would jam with them. I think we were both in Colorado at Red Rocks, which is such a fabulous venue, and any time I can play at Red Rocks I don’t want to miss that opportunity. So they asked if I would jam with them, and I came out in the encore and we did a Curtis Mayfield song. We really rocked out.
“I just love the band and I like Jim’s energy and artistry. He’s always very adventurous and I chose this song because I think it showcases his musically adventurous attitude. It’s an unusual song. It’s got a really quirky kind of charm to it.
When it goes into the A.E.I.O.U bit, it’s not exactly jarring but it definitely feels like a curveball in terms of the melody. But after two of three iterations of that, it’s like, “This really works.”
“When I first heard it, I had the exact same feeling. I was thinking, “What? Wait a minute.” And then I realised what was happening. That’s what I like about it. The way it sort of unfolds for you.”
Presumably you’re aware that My Morning Jacket have covered “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” in the past?
“Yeah. That’s one of their trademarks and traditions, covering some really cool songs. And they always change it up. I think it comes from that jam band tradition.”
“I like that Black Pumas are a young, new band but they’re really grounded in an old-school approach. They’re a band. They play their instruments. “My Favourite Colors” is solid, it’s well-written, it’s got an amazing groove and Eric Burton’s voice is great.
“I like that they’re carrying the flag for the style of playing and musicianship, and the sound of the type of band that I’m all about, so it appeals to me on that sort of level. I’m proud that they’re carrying the flag in a somewhat traditional way, but making it their own and making it modern.
“I haven’t seen them live before, but I will, as soon as there is live.”
“Shawn is performing at the festival. In fact, a few of my song choices are performing, like Sara Bareilles, Jim James and Shawn. She and I have had a great musical relationship. We played together many times in what I guess you would call one woman, one man shows, where we’d just swap songs. She’s also been part of a songwriting festival that I did around ten years ago in Colorado.
“Shawn is also an avid skier and I was as well, so we like to combine shows where we could go skiing, so we’ve played in Montana together, we’ve played in Colorado together. She’s just great, she’s an amazing lyricist and a very, very good guitarist as well. She’s very natural. And the John Leventhal production on this track is just super.”
Do you think there’s been any good songs written about skiing?!
“I wrote a couple! I don’t know if they’re good or not, but I wrote them. On my first solo, Phunk Shui, I’ve got a song called “Go Deep”. And I wrote another one called “Soul Slide”. I was a Telemark skier, it’s a freeheel skiing style, and it goes back to the old, Norwegian style where the heel of your boot is not locked down in the ski. It’s a very graceful kind of thing, being out in the powder. I lived in Colorado for 25 years, and I skied for 100 days a year, so I was addicted, to put it mildly. So yes, I’m sure there’s been a few.”
“Bob Weir is another artist who will be joining us for Oates Song Fest 7908. To be honest with you, I didn’t listen to a lot of Grateful Dead albums back in the day. Bob and I met in the late ‘80s. We went on a bike ride together in the Montana National Forest for a week. We were both mountain bikers and we went on this bike ride to talk about saving the national forest that was being cut down in clearcut. He has a very environmental sensibility, and so do I.
“That led to Hall & Oates playing with the Dead at Madison Square Garden for a rainforest benefit, which musically was one of the most unusual experiences that I’ve ever had. I remember we were standing onstage during soundcheck and I was next to Jerry Garcia. I’d never met him before; he wasn’t very talkative, and I was trying to make casual conversation. I made the mistake of saying, “Hey, Jerry. What are you guys going to play tonight?” and he looked at me kind of sideways and went, “This is the Grateful Dead, not the freakin’ army.” So I never forgot that. It’s one of my favourite stories of all time.
“Bob and I have always kept in touch. I played at his club Sweetwater, out in the Mill Valley area of California, and he’s come up onstage and jammed with us when I came with my band, so we’ve just had a lot of synergy. The reason I’ve picked this live version of Bob and the Wolf Bros’ take on “Hell In a Bucket” is because I was actually on that show in Nashville last March. I sat in with him on “Friend of the Devil” and I also did an old Mississippi John Hurt song with them guys.
“I’m a big fan of what he’s doing with Wolf Bros. I love the stripped-down trio. It’s very clean and very open, and it gives Bob a chance to really play guitar. I don’t think a lot of people really appreciate what he does on the guitar, because Jerry was such a commanding figure when it came to the guitar parts in the Dead, and it’s great to see Bob have a little more free space.
“Bob had just bought that Stratocaster for that show. He bought it the day before or something at one of the great vintage shops in Nashville. It’s a very rare, vintage Stratocaster and he was really proud of it. It was cool just seeing him buy a guitar and going to play it straight away.”
“The Brummies are signed to a company here in Nashville. One of my best friends is a manager principal at that company and he had turned me on to them. He said, “I think you should hear this new band we’ve just signed. I think you’d like them.” I heard the song and was like, “Oh yeah, of course I’ll like them.”
“I love their sense of humour. It’s trademark-y and a little bit Hall & Oates-esque, but that’s not why I picked them. I just really like the song. I think it’s a great, new pop song. I like their playfulness. They’re just having fun from it.”
“I chose this one because I couldn’t choose all of them. I am such a giant Joni Mitchell fan. I mean, I’m obsessed, and I have been since the early ‘70s. To me, she’s everything, she has it all - she’s a poet and a highly-developed melodist. The tunings that she uses and her chord changes. Everything about her sets the bar as a songwriter.
“The only reason I chose “Big Yellow Taxi” and not any of her other songs was because it’s so timeless, yet so contemporary. It could be written today, and it would be just as important and just as powerful as the day she wrote it. I guess it was her only song that was close to being a hit record at the time, which was unusual because of the fact she has written so many songs. But I guess it had more of a contemporary, radio-friendly feel.
“I don’t know if she was pandering to radio. I doubt it, but it just turned out that way and she went with it. All you have to do is say that line, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." It's so succinct and so perfect.”