‘Everybody bought into it’: John Oates says production changed in 1980s, but Hall and Oates’ songwriting didn’t

Hall and Oates, the story goes, started out as this folksy doo-wop inspired duo. Then, the 1980s happened. Synthesizers, videos and a plasticine production style changed everything, right? Not so, says John Oates.

Making an impassioned argument with Scott Mervis of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oates says the roots of their sound remained, even during their biggest Reagan-era successes.

And, of course, there were many: Hall and Oates had an amazing six No. 1 Billboard hits, with all but two (“Rich Girl,” and “Kiss On My List”) coming after the premiere of MTV: Songs like “Private Eyes,” “Maneater,” “I Can’t Go for That” and “Out of Touch,” and their brightly colored promo reels, established the duo as one of the video channel’s staple acts. It was a long way from seminal, acoustic-based recordings like 1973′s Abandoned Luncheonette, which included “She’s Gone.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: John Oates discusses some of his signature collaborative successes - with Daryl Hall, of course, but also the Temps and Todd Rundgren, then went in depth on his solo effort 'Mississippi Mile.']

“Sara Smile,” from Hall and Oates’ 1976 self-titled released, became their first Top 10 single — but that was nothing compared to the success that would follow. Eventually, the group became more associated with its later, slickly produced hits than with anything that came before.

It became hard, for some, to hear anything of what came before in their new sound. Well, except for John Oates.

“This is a complex subject,” he tells Mervis, “but if you distill the songwriting, if you strip away all the production of the various eras and just take the songs — for instance, if I were to sit in a living room and play ‘Sara Smile’ on an acoustic guitar and play ‘Maneater’ on an acoustic guitar — there’s not really that much difference. It’s our unique chord sensibilities and melodic sensibilities that we impose over our chords that make our songs what they are. The production is really window dressing and icing on the cake.”

Besides, Oates adds, much of that was a product of its time. Musicians of that time could hardly be expected to ignore the changing tastes, not to mention the technological advances, he says.

“Everybody bought into it. You have to remember, musicians are very, very much affected in the creative process by their tools, and you have to remember it was a very unique time. It was really the end of the analog era and the very birth of the digital era. We were straddling those two worlds, and so as these new digital recording devices and instruments became available, we of course adopted them immediately.”

Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on John Oates. Click through the titles for complete reviews …

SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: JOHN OATES: John Oates has always been more than the Other Guy in Hall and Oates. In fact, the mustachioed one co-wrote half of H&O’s six Billboard No. 1 songs, including “Out of Touch,” “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” and “Maneater.” That’s to say nothing of his writing contributions to memorable sides like “Sara Smile,” “Adult Education,” “How Does It Feel To Be Back,” “You Make My Dreams” and “She’s Gone.” Oates even co-wrote and sang backup on Icehouse’s 1987 Top 10 hit “Electric Blue,” before starting a low-key parallel career on his own. While personal efforts like 2002′s Phunk Shui and 2008′s 1000 Miles of Life were well received, neither garnered the critical praise and broad attention afforded his newest project, the gritty, cool-rocking Mississippi Mile. He stopped by for an SER Sitdown to talk about the new album, as well as key moments from his career with Daryl Hall, the Temptations, Todd Rundgren and, yeah, the blues.

GIMME FIVE: HALL AND OATES: Hall and Oates are, of course, the poster boys for what happens when hair gel meets R&B. Funny thing is, they were originally anything but polished. Hall had reportedly been in an early Philly band with Thom Bell, later a central figure in that city’s R&B legacy. Along the way, H&O tried out an acoustic bent, art rock, guitar-oriented sounds, then new wave, mainstream pop, retro-Motown, keyboard-dominated dance music and moldy oldies. Of course, nobody bought any of it until those last few permutations, most presented through the gauzy sheen of MTV. H&O, even now, are best known for affixing synthesizers to an already established blue-eyed soul sound. That means I have to hate them? OK, I tried. (“One on One,” a tepid basketball metaphor taken to teeth-splintering extremes, certainly tried the patience.) But, in the end, well, no can do.

ON SECOND THOUGHT: HALL AND OATES – ABANDONED LUNCHEONETTE (1973): Hall and Oates began their career with so much promise. After the listenable, folky debut LP Whole Oats, they achieved greatness with one of the best albums of the classic rock era, Abandoned Luncheonette, released in 1973. The best way to describe this record is to use the term “acoustic soul” because so much of it sounds like folk music with Philly soul harmonies.

ONE TRACK MIND: JOHN OATES ON ‘SHE’S GONE,’ AN ALL-NEW ‘YOU MAKE MY DREAMS,’ “BACK TOGETHER AGAIN’: On this special edition of Something Else! Reviews’ One Track Mind, we handed the reins over to John Oates, one half of the pop-soul hitmaking duo Hall and Oates. Hear more about the love-gone-wrong beginnings of “She’s Gone,” and how the birth of Oates’ son sparked a standout solo track. He also laments that doo wop never gets its due, and how he remade a signature Hall and Oates hit into a boot-scootin’ swing tune on his new record, “Mississippi Mile.”

Something Else!

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.

3 Comments

  1. I’ve seen Hall talk a bit about this on some television interview a while back, maybe Behind the Music or something. And he explained how some of those Casio, cheap-sounding keyboards factored into their ’80s stuff. A song like “You Make My Dreams,” for instance–pretty sure that opening riff originated from some toy sold at a Radio Shack.

  2. Serge Ramshackle says:

    …I bought Beauty on the Backstreets and Along the Red Ledge was a regular in my cassette deck back in the late 70s. I even had a red vinyl version of …Red Ledge and copies of Abandoned Luncheonette and War Babies… I guess somebody bought em…. ;>) ….

  3. Oh please don’t say you won’t be recording again! :(

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