One Track Mind: John Oates on “How Does It Feel,” “Adult Education,” “Do What You Want”

John Oates’ on-going Good Road to Follow singles series continued this week with the release on Tuesday of “Don’t Cross Me Wrong,” a song co-written by producer Vince Gill.

That provided another opportunity for Oates to talk about his inventive new recording project, which finds the mustachioed half of Hall and Oates issuing a song a month for an undetermined amount of time, as well as classic tracks from his chart-ruling partnership with Daryl Hall.

In an exclusive SER Sitdown, Oates also talks about tracks from early H&O projects like Abandoned Luncheonette and Bigger Than The Both of Us, as well as platinum-era triumphs like Voices and Rock and Soul, Pt. 1

“DO WHAT TOU WANT, BE WHAT YOU ARE,” (BIGGER THAN BOTH OF US, 1976): This Oates co-written track would later serve as the title of a massive retrospective box set focusing on their work together — though it largely got lost in the buzz surrounding “Rich Girl,” the first of what would become six No. 1 singles for Hall and Oates. Along the way, it became something of a rallying cry for the duo as they made a series of musical turns — some successful, some not, but all of them interesting — based on nothing more than following their muses. Certainly, that’s the case again with Oates’ decision to forgo the traditional album format in favor of a series of solo singles.

JOHN OATES: That’s who we are. If you look back at our careers, we’ve done weird stuff. We were completely outside the box in a lot of ways — from Whole Oats and Abandoned Luncheonette to War Babies then to recording in LA and wearing makeup, then hard rock — and pop. We look at ourselves as musicians, and we don’t really care about categories. The world does, and we try to work with it. But we’ve always been very independent, and I think only now are we being appreciated for that independence. Unfortunately, if we were starting out in today’s world, we would never have made it — because of that very fact. I’m just kind of doing what I feel like doing, and I am very fortunate that I’m allowed to do that.

“HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE BACK,” (VOICES, 1980): Originally one of the more guitar-oriented tracks on an album that blended new wave with Hall and Oates’ core R&B sensibilities, the Oates-sung “How Does It Feel To Be Back” has been transformed more recently — both in concert and as a free download at johnoates.com — into this stripped-down, much more emotional moment.

JOHN OATES: With the download, it has a poignancy that doesn’t come across in the hard version of it. It’s an actual reinterpretation of the song, with two acoustic guitars. What I did was I basically rewrote the song with the same words, in a folky kind of way. By the same token, the Hall and Oates band right now is just so good — and I’m not saying that from an egotistical point of view. It’s just the truth. Everybody loves that song, and I love playing it. It’s a great feature for myself. It’s a little bit outside the box, a little more country rock. We never have really stopped playing live, and I think it shows. I had some musicians friends who came to the show, guys who play in different bands, and they said: “You guys really bring it. You aren’t going through the motions.” I think, for me, that’s the biggest compliment of all.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: John Oates growled and stomped through the grease-popping 'Mississippi Mile,' featuring songs from Chuck Berry, Mississippi John Hurt, Curtis Mayfield and others.]

“ADULT EDUCATION,” (ROCK AND SOUL PT. 1, 1984): A No. 8 hit co-written by Oates, “Adult Education” was ostensibly about school-age relationship politics. Not that you could tell from the MTV clip, which takes place in an ancient tomb where some sort of time-traveling mating ritual is apparently to take place. See, the chanting shaman-like figure is wearing a Yankees baseball cap, and Oates is somehow playing an electric guitar. These kind of outlandish videos were the norm rather than the exception for Hall and Oates, providing plenty of fodder for critics.

JOHN OATES: No, you’re 100 percent right. But in today’s world, it’s hard to put yourself into where we were at the time. We were friends with the people from MTV, and when they started it, they initially came to us and said: “We’re starting this music video channel, and we need some content.” We said: “What’s a music video?” (Laughs.) If you look at our earliest music videos, like “Private Eyes,” it’s us standing in front of a black curtain, just kind of moving around in front of the camera with costumes and funny clothes. (Stream it!: “Private Eyes.”) We never really took it seriously. We didn’t look at the videos, at the visual presentation, as part of our career. We thought it was an adjunct, like an advertisement — a good way to get the word out about what we were doing. We were one generation before the Madonnas, the people who embraced the video as part and parcel of what they were. To us, it was always just a silly extra thing that we could utilize to help promote ourselves. That’s how we treated them. It comes across as goofy — and yeah, you’re right, it was.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: John Oates, in discussing the 'Good Road to Follow' project, admits that 'really, it's uncharted territory' - and he wouldn't have it any other way.]

“HAD I KNOWN YOU BETTER THEN,” (ABANDONED LUNCHEONETTE, 1973): Though some fans — or at least those who only known Oates for co-written 1980s-era hits like “I Can’t Go For That” and “Maneater” — might be surprised by the rootsier turn he’s taken lately. But the seeds of both his 2011 blues-focused release Mississippi Mile and this Americana-inspired Good Road to Follow series can be found on this sophomore Hall and Oates release, and songs like the bucolic “Had I Known You Better Then.”

JOHN OATES: I met Daryl when I was 19 years old, but I had been playing music since I was six. I had an entire life, and that life prior to Hall and Oates was really roots-based, blues-based, folk, traditional American music — and R&B. It’s funny, though: I’ve always had the same dichotomy, kind of a musical split personality, even back then. When I was kid, I’d be playing in a coffee house in the early 1960s, and doing folk or blues. Then I would put on a shark-skin suit and play with an R&B band the next week. That has always been my M.O.; it never really changed. When I met Daryl, that’s what I kind of brought to the table. Daryl brought more of an urban, doo-wop kind of thing — and a little more musical sophistication, being a schooled music major and a piano player. Then we blended those two things together. As our career went on, we just evolved as people — and we did what we did. Our personalities became something totally different, because of our work together. But the music you grew up on is the music that never really leaves you. So now, I’ve just basically come back to the stuff that I am very comfortable with.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: John Oates discusses his terrific 2011 solo effort 'Mississippi Mile,' as well as career memories with Daryl Hall, Todd Rundgren, the Temptations - and the blues.]

“STAND STRONG,” (GOOD ROAD TO FOLLOW, 2013): Forty years later, the Good Road to Follow singles series launched with “Stand Strong,” another track with a distinctive country edge. As Oates mentioned, these influences didn’t begin with Oates’ time in Nashville, or even with Daryl Hall. Instead, they go all the way back to his childhood in rural Pennsylvania — though the two worlds collided recently.

JOHN OATES: When I first started playing, one of the first songs I ever played was “Oh Lonesome Me,” by Don Gibson. (Stream it!: “Oh Lonesome Me.”) Country music in the 1950s was very basic — you know, three chords and the truth, as the old cliche goes. It’s very true. But here’s the unique thing that happened a couple of months ago. I booked into the Don Gibson Theatre in Shelby, North Carolina, to do a solo show. We went to the airport in Nashville to fly over there to do the show, and I am sitting down next to this older woman. She was on her cellphone, and she was speaking to some one about getting picked up when we landed. And she said: “Then, we’ll go and see the John Oates show.” When she finished, I introduced myself, and she said: “Oh, I’m Mrs. Don Gibson.” I was, like, “you’ve got to be kidding.” So I said: “We’ve got to play ‘Oh Lonesome Me.’” I hadn’t play it since, gosh, 1959, maybe? We worked it up, and we opened up the show with that song, and she was sitting right in front of me. It was really surreal. But that’s kind of an answer to your question.

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.

Here's where you talk back ...