Daryl Hall interview: ‘The definition of cool is hiding your emotions – I'm not cool’

·18-min read
Daryl Hall and John Oates in the 1980s
Daryl Hall and John Oates in the 1980s

Ask one half of the most successful rock duo of all time to name their peers and rivals in the pair’s Peak Eighties pomp, and he expresses bafflement.

“My mind doesn’t work that way,” says Hall and Oates’ vocalist Daryl Hall with a palpable shrug. So he has no idea which artist he and John Oates spent six weeks battling for the US Number One slot in 1983 with their song Say It Isn’t So? “Phew…” exhales the Philadelphia-born singer, and owner of one of the best white soul voices of the late 20th century. But he might well be confused – in a near-50-year career, the American duo have sold 40 million records and had six US Number Ones.

“Well, Say It Isn’t So is one of my solo ones,” the 73-year-old begins ruminatively, meaning that he wrote it alone, without Oates. “Well, I did a lot of them solo,” he adds. “Um…It’s really well-produced. But… no.”

The answer, caller, is Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson doing Say Say Say. So, Hall and Oates were nipping at the heels of Jacko at the height of Thriller mania.

“Wow. What do I say about Michael Jackson?” Hall muses. “[Producer] Quincy Jones is a genius, and Michael was an outrageously talented person. The only time I ever had any interaction with him was the recording of We Are The World,” he says of the 1985 USA for Africa song, the American version of Band Aid. “We got talking and we were all very friendly. He said: ‘I hope you don’t mind I took [the bassline for] Billie Jean from No Can Do!’ And I said: ‘No, I don’t care. You did a pretty good job!’”

So Jackson told him directly that he took inspiration for Billie Jean from Hall and Oates’ 1981 hit I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do), the duo’s fourth US chart-topper? “That’s what he told me!”

Does he receive royalty payments from the Jackson estate? “Oh, I’d love to have his royalties!” he laughs softly. “But I don’t know, I’ll never get ’em!”

To be fair, he doesn’t really need them. This week brings news of the landmark achievement of another Hall and Oates banger. Forty years since it was recorded, You Make My Dreams has just hit one billion streams. Not bad for a song that was the fourth single released from their ninth album, 1980’s Voices. In 2018 it was the UK’s most-streamed Eighties song – especially impressive given that it wasn’t a single at all here.

What does that figure and achievement mean to him? “It just confirms that it’s a song that makes the world dance,” replies Hall of a song used in myriad films, most memorably in 2009 romcom 500 Days of Summer, in which the song does exactly that to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a cast of dozens.

“It makes the world happy and smile. It’s just pure positivity. I listened to it – by accident of course – the other day and it’s so… what’s the word? Pointed,” he says with the feeling, clearly forgetting to say “sexy” and maybe even “libidinous”.

Libidinous: Hall & Oates in 1983 - Getty
Libidinous: Hall & Oates in 1983 - Getty

What I WANT, you’ve GOT, and it might be HAAAARD to handle,” Hall says, grunting out the lyrics and the instantly recognisable sound of the song's Yamaha CP-30 keyboard, his voice jumping down the phone line. “It’s very, very aggressively pointed in what I’m singing and the way I’m singing it. It sort of defines ‘in your face.’”

Hall is talking to me from his garden in Millerton in upstate New York, which is his “studio house, where I have a recording studio”. This now-famed restorer of historic homes – he even had reality TV show, Daryl’s Restoration Over-Hall, in 2014 – has another home over the border in Connecticut, which he’s currently restoring. “I’m bi-state at the moment,” I can hear him grin.

But long before he was an expert in house restoration – he’s done a few in the UK, too – at the end of the Seventies, he and Oates’ musical career was also what we might term a fixer-upper.

Voices came at a crunch time for the duo, after the promise offered by early hits Sara Smile and She’s Gone had petered out. It was the first album they’d produced themselves, and their first wholly “New York” album, where the pair lived at the time, after recording for much of the Seventies in Los Angeles.

“Autocratic producers and me, we don’t get along so well,” says Hall mildly. “I have very strong opinions about how the music should sound, as does John, but especially me. And talented producers, most of them are very opinionated, too, and I just didn’t feel comfortable with that any more. So we just said: ‘Why don’t we just do this ourselves? We know how to, we know what the songs are supposed to sound like…’ And we never looked back.”

Hall & Oates in 1970 - Getty
Hall & Oates in 1970 - Getty

For his part, Hall had recently been produced, on his 1977 solo album Sacred Songs, by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. But the singer insists he’s not dissing the English prog legend. “We were friends before we did that project. And working with a fellow musician who is a friend, even thought he was the producer, it was very much a duel [project]. But that was actually one of the things that made me realise I could do this – working with Robert was sort of like being self-produced.”

In the same period, Hall and Oates had also made X-Static (1979), with David Foster, future discoverer and mentor of Celine Dion and Michael Bublé. The single Wait For Me was a modest US hit, but that was it. Hall thinks the album fell between the cracks sonically at a time when disco, punk and New Wave were duking it out in the American press and on the airwaves.

“Other than Wait For Me, it was very disjointed because we were caught in this disconnected time. Being singers with our own particular rock’n’soul sound, it spans all those genres. The idea of disco versus rock and all that nonsense – that was a very difficult time for us to figure out what we were going to do musically.

The late Seventies in New York, he adds, “were the worst time, the nadir, for the public being controlled by, well, guys like you!” he laughs again. “The rock press! They were very, very entrenched in their opinions. And overblown – if you look at some of the reviews of my albums then, and others’ in those days, it was outrageously pompous and over-the-top. That polarised and manipulated people. Not dissimilar to what’s going on right now, politically.”

At least the floundering duo had some heavy hitters in their corner. While still in his teens, Hall had worked with fellow Philadelphians Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, architects of the Philly Soul sound. Then, in 1972 he and Oates were signed to Atlantic by its legendary founder Ahmet Ertegun. They were produced in the early days by Arif Mardin (Michael Jackson, The Bee Gees, Queen) and managed by Tommy Mottola, then some years off working with (and marrying) Mariah Carey and carving out a formidable reputation in the music industry.

“Tommy was only 21 years old at the time. He wasn’t a big name at all. He was just some kid.” So nothing like the big name he became? “Oh f___ no!” exclaims Hall. “He had an office the size of a phone booth. Why did we go with him? Well, he was very persuasive!” he chuckles. “I was conned very early on. He had a certain amount of, ah, efficacy, I’ll just say.

Hall & Oates today
Hall & Oates today

“He did a very good job of getting us on the radio,” he continues. “But at the same time, he didn’t really understand what I was doing. He had his own version of reality. And eventually those two realities… went in two different directions. That’s the best way I can put it.”

Hall will allow, though, that up until Voices, he and Oates were “in an experimental stage, trying to figure out what it is we did do together. We went to every extreme you could go to in the Seventies in our music.” This included a period playing storied New York club venues like Max’s Kansas City, where they performed alongside an up-and-coming Bruce Springsteen. “I don’t remember which of us opened for the other, but there was probably like a 100 people there – it was upstairs at Max’s. it was very early days for both of us.”

This was 1973, and in fact history records that Hall and Oates were the openers, supporting Springsteen and The E Street Band during a five-night-residency. Could he see The Boss in the young Bruce even then? “Mmmm,” he muses. “It was a bar band from New Jersey, ha ha!” comes his pointed reply.

'It certainly was a statement: the cover of the duo's self-titled 1975 album
'It certainly was a statement: the cover of the duo's self-titled 1975 album

Those extremes also included the sleeve art for 1975’s self-titled fourth album. It features the pair in full androgynous make-up. Looking at it now, Hall looks like Eighties British pop star Marilyn and Oates looks like boxer John Conteh got in a fight with the Boots cosmetic counter. The artist responsible was Pierre LaRoche, who’d created a somewhat more successful glam look for David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.

“I knew Pierre through Ahmet and the Atlantic connection,” explains Hall. “Because of that I was hanging around a lot with The Rolling Stones, and Pierre was sort of… how do I put it? He spent a lot of time with the Stones, on the road and off the road. So we got to know each other. He said something like: ‘I will immortalise you!’ And I was like: ‘OK, sure, immortalise away…’

“He was all full of himself – he was very much of ‘Pierre LaRoche’. But we allowed him to do that to us, that’s all I can say! And, oh, the sleeve was over the top, but we were trying.”

Another of those shrugs. “We were all about breaking barriers. We thought: ‘F___ it, let’s f___ with people’s minds.’ So it was what it was – I don’t know if it represented the music that was inside, but it certainly was a statement.”

What was it like running round mid-Seventies New York with The Rolling Stones, then at the heights – and depths – of both their creativity and their drug-crazed debauchery? “I liked those guys. You know, they’re real. What you see is what you get with The Rolling Stones.”

Daryl Hall and John Oates in 1970 - Getty
Daryl Hall and John Oates in 1970 - Getty

Yes, and? “All I know is that, at a certain point in the evening, I vacated and they kept on going! So whatever they did is known only to them and their friends. I do know that Keith practised constantly to make sure he could do today what he did yesterday. That was his thing. He was very worried that he was gonna somehow lose that ability. So he’d sit around and play the guitar to make sure he could still play all those licks just like he did yesterday.”

As the Eighties dawned, Hall and Oates’ ideas “coalesced” into a polished but soulful strain of dance-pop, using the coming synth technology of the day. Voices, recalls Hall, “was relatively effortless to make. We were very focused – the songs were written right at that time, not cobbled together from the past. I remember being in my apartment in the West Village, sitting at my CP-30, which is that distinct sound you hear in the beginning of You Make My Dreams, and coming up with that lick. And then just started to sing over it, coming up with the words… And there it is, the song wrote itself.”

At the time his writing and romantic partner was Sara Allen, immortalised in the song Sara Smile (they were together until 2001). “It’s a funny thing,” he begins with a chuckle, “Sara and were discussing this exact moment the other day. She told me that I was sitting at my piano, she was sitting at her desk across the room, and she said: ‘That sounds good.’ And apparently I started throwing lyrics out and she said: ‘Say that!’ So she was sort of participating and cheerleading at the same time.”

He was also writing with her sister Janna, who died of leukaemia in 1993 aged 36. That pairing created Kiss On My List “right around the same time. She came up with the original idea for that song, then we worked on both music and lyrics together. And that’s sort of how it started going with the Allen sisters. Then, sometimes a song like Maneater was literally John, Sara and I sitting round a table writing the lyrics. So it worked in different ways.”

What did he make of Miley Cyrus’s recent performance of Maneater on Jimmy Fallon's chat show?

“I didn’t see it. Was it good?” It was excellent, I tell him. She put in a different strain of soul: Tennessee country soul. “That’s cool,” affirms Hall. “She’s definitely got intensity, so good on her.”

Taking him back to You Make My Drums, Hall is surprised when I remind him that it was the fourth single – and, in fact, was still in the charts when the pair’s follow-up album, Private Eyes, was released on September 1981.

“It was a more simplistic time,” is his explanation for that furious work-rate. “There were no TV shows about building houses! We were just focused on touring and recording. We were doing these albums in maybe six weeks. Things weren’t complicated.”

In what little time they had off, the impression was always that Oates was off with drugs and the women while Hall was… doing what exactly? Indulging his passion for brick-thick historical fiction (“I’ve always been an historian at heart”)? He laughs heartily.

“Basically we were both rocking and rolling. But neither one of us was that much into drugs – hardly at all. But, you know, everything else, we were pretty much doing the same thing. John is also a reader, by the way, although different kind of books.”

Still, for all this talk of a “simpler” time, MTV launched in August 1981, the summer when You Make My Dreams was all over US radio. Hall acknowledges the huge impact of the channel, not just in terms of beaming pop videos into the planet’s living room.

“MTV was a very New York thing, and we were living in New York, so it was local, so we were really involved with MTV. I mean, it was the Wild West – nobody really knew what they were doing. And that was the cool part of it. Sometimes me by myself, or sometimes with John, they’d say: ‘OK, you guys be VJs today. You have two hours. Here’s the playlist.’ And we just went for it. There were no cue cards, no teleprompters, no nothing. We would just talk, say whatever we felt like saying, ‘and by the way, here’s Pat Benatar…’”

“It was very, very, very loose. We’d have Christmas parties on-air and cook pizzas. Yeah, it was pretty cool, actually.”

Hall & Oates performing in 1975 - Redferns
Hall & Oates performing in 1975 - Redferns

Speaking of which, one of the other things that make Hall and Oates timeless is their lack of cool. They’re above fashion, above scenes, above being hyped or hip. The frontman wouldn’t have it any other way. “People use cool for a lot of things that aren’t that at all. To me, the definition of cool is hiding your emotions. Using that as a definition, I’m very not cool! I call us hot!” he says with an obvious smile. “I don’t hide my emotions in any way, whether it’s musically or just my personality. I never act cool.”

Spotify is, you might say, the MTV of today: an instantly accessible global platform that can supercharge careers. But does streaming also supercharge finances? Does one billion streams for You Make My Dreams mean big fat payday cheques for Hall and Oates?

“Well, I wish that I had more control of my publishing than I have,” Hall says. “But what I have is making me a very respectable amount of money. It’s one of those things. It’s steady income – what I call mailbox income.”

As to the discussion of the fairness – and, more pertinently, alleged unfairness – of the royalty rates streamers like Spotify and Apple Music pay artists, Hall admits to being in a privileged position.

“Everybody has different deals. We negotiated early and I think we have a better deal than most people do. But, hey, that’s the story of the record business, come on, right? It never leans in favour of the artists; it leans in the other direction. That’s just part of the tradition of it all.

“The problems with musicians, especially in my day – I think it’s slightly different now, I’d like to hope it is – is that we didn’t know what we were doing. It’s the old story. Musicians traditionally got ripped off! Let’s face it, the music business in those days was organised crime.”

All that said Hall, clearly, has done very well out of his talents. Away from music he’s spent time and money over the last 20 years or so indulging his passion for house restoration, here and in the US. He maintains a family townhouse in Notting Hill Gate, despite the painful memories attached.

“Unfortunately my wife died but we still have the house. I’ve had many houses in London over the years – I don’t know how many people understand that I’ve probably spent as much time in England as I did America once I got touring. And it’s been that way since the mid-Seventies.”

He credits his late English ex-wife Amanda Aspinall (they were married from 2009 to 2015; she died last year), with the restoration of the Notting Hill property. “It’s still intact the way it was,” he says, his voice quietening.” When I ask if they met through their shared love of homes, interiors and restorations, he says not.

“But I found out very early that we did share that passion. One of the first times I was alone with her – I wouldn’t call it a date – I don’t know what you’d call it – an outing! – we went to the Geffrye Museum,” he says of the east London institution, currently undergoing renovation ahead of its reopening as the Museum of the Home. “And we looked at all the rooms and we talked about which periods we liked the best. I thought: ‘OK, I think I found somebody here that really gets me – and vice versa.’ And we really did bond over these things over the years.”

The historian in Hall also tweaked when he learned of her parentage – she was the daughter of gambling and zoo mogul John Aspinall. “She grew up in that world and that was also extremely interesting to me. And still is – I’m still very close with the family.”

As he is with Oates – they’re two years into recording another album, their first since 2006’s Home for Christmas album. “We’re very much like brothers. We’re family. We have a very calm relationship. We don’t need to spend a lot of time together. We don’t really have the same interests, for the most part.”

Why this resonance, still, for 40-year-old You Make My Dreams? “It is a totally positive song. Everything about it is focused and pointed towards positivity – the sound, the vocal, the chords, the lyrics, everything. That obviously has some undying appeal to people. It’s feelgood. And in this world,” he says with a sigh, “feeling good is a rare commodity.”

And how will he be celebrating this achievement? “A bottle of Bowmore, I believe. I’m a whisky man. I had some ’64 Macallan – back in about 1989, I bought 10 cases of it. That’s the stuff that goes for thousands a bottle now. I gave it away and sloshed it around. Oh God, I want to kick myself for that," Daryl Hall says wistfully. “But my sister has one that she keeps wrapped up, so to celebrate this I may have to burglarise her house!”