Back in 1988, Daryl Hall was shooting a video with his longtime collaborator John Oates. He was standing near the old World’s Fair site in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, pausing for a break in filming, when he was visited by the ghost of pop to come—disguised as a group of teenagers carrying a boom box.
“They were just kids from the neighborhood,” Hall says. “Around 15 years old. And one goes, ‘You wanna hear a song our friends did?’ ” Hall said sure, the kid pushed PLAY, and some eerily familiar music rang out. The song, “Say No Go,” would be released a year later on De La Soul’s revolutionary debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, heralding a new musical era of liberal, maximalist sampling. But it didn’t sound that new to Hall—one of the samples was from Hall & Oates’s No. 1 hit from seven years earlier, “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).”
“I’m hearing the song, I’m recognizing the music, and I’m thinking, Wha—?” says Hall, who had his last top-ten hit that same year. “And they’re like, ‘Our friends did this! You like this, man?’ ”
At the time, no one who cared much about the cutting edge cared about Daryl Hall. He was about to join mousse and Spandex as shorthand for eighties-lame. For nearly a decade, his windblown blond pompadour had presided over mainstream music, as a series of MTV videos cast him as a sylphlike anima to the darkly mustachioed animus of John Oates. While this image made them widely reviled over intervening decades, their music remained secretly influential, and lately has been recognized as a key DNA strand in the post-rock, post-soul, post-rap body of modern pop music itself.
At 64, Hall has spanned so many eras, releasing songs that were so consistently popular, he can now play entire sets filled with top-ten hits and yet go unrecognized by name. “When people say, ‘Who are Hall & Oates?’ I say, ‘If I play you their music, you’ll know, like, 90 percent of the records,’ ” says Gym Class Heroes rapper Travis McCoy, whose Hall & Oates mash-ups represent a tiny fraction of H&O-sampling tracks by everyone from Young Jeezy to Lil Wayne to Wu-Tang Clan to Mobb Deep. The half-black, 29-year-old McCoy credits Hall with that notional and problematic attribute, the “ghetto pass.” “Dude, they played the fuckin’ Apollo with the Temptations,” says McCoy. “Lauryn Hill got booed there, and Hall & Oates got a standing ovation.”
Such endorsements—along with the countless samples, and a more proactive approach to getting their songs on TV and film—have recently amounted to a stealth-marketing campaign for Daryl Hall. “Right now, I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my life,” he says, stepping between open guitar cases and strewn power cords in his longtime recording studio—a century-old farmhouse in woodsy Pawling, New York. Hall has been squeezing in sessions here for an upcoming solo album on Verve in between arranging Hall & Oates’s Japanese tour; prepping for slots like last summer’s Bonnaroo, where he shared a bill with Phoenix, Flaming Lips, LCD Soundsystem, and Kings of Leon; and booking guests for his critically acclaimed webcast “Live From Daryl’s House.” On New Year’s Eve, WGN is broadcasting a show featuring highlights from the series’ 36 episodes, which included performances by greats like Smokey Robinson and Nick Lowe and younger artists like Neon Trees, Kevin Rudolf, and Diane Birch—all jamming with Hall and friends at two conjoined Colonial houses upstate. Next fall, the show will be nationally syndicated. “They just bring in their guitars and set up,” says Hall, who calls his show a rougher analogue to Elvis Costello’s TV music series Spectacle. “I love Elvis, but his show is more like Inside the Actors Studio. My show is the exact opposite of that. There’s no audience, and it’s balls-to-the-wall craziness and chaos.”
“Craziness” and “chaos” aren’t the first words that spring to many minds at the mention of the phrase “Hall & Oates.” In fact, the duo has recently become a cultural Rorschach test. In the last five years, new media and morphing demographics have changed the longtime perception of Hall & Oates as a symbol of slick, overproduced eighties pop to, variously, great American songsmiths on a par with Lerner and Loewe, master studio craftsmen who wrought our very sonic firmament, and—to a broad and fervid demographic—the epitome of True Pop Values.
The cult ranges from TV cook Rachael Ray (who campaigned for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) to art-song duo the Bird and the Bee (who recorded an album of their songs for Blue Note) to Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (who wrote a paean on Pitchfork) to Killers singer Brandon Flowers (“Everything you need to know about writing a hit song, it’s in ‘Rich Girl,’ ” he said) to Gym Class Heroes’ McCoy (who has Hall’s face tattooed on one hand and Oates’s on the other). To such people, the current Hall & Oates moment is, quite literally, a renaissance. “Renaissance artists considered themselves midgets on the shoulders of giants,” says David Macklovitch, singer-guitarist for electro-funk duo Chromeo and Columbia grad student—a band he considers “an Erasmus or Petrarch to [Hall & Oates’s] Homer or Plato.”
Whether this makes Hall Plato or Homer, his golden-boy looks and phenomenal voice always made him something of a cipher. As a doo-wop-singing teenager in Philadelphia, he knew future members of the Stylistics and Delfonics. Hall worked with Philly producers Gamble and Huff, and after he teamed up with Oates, they faced the standard challenge of their milieu: crossing over to white people. Releasing classic Philly-soul hits like “She’s Gone” years before image ruled pop, Hall & Oates were typically assumed to be African-Americans. After a few years in New York, the image started to change.
“Honestly, we are a New York band,” says Oates, calling from his present home in Aspen. “Our roots are in Philadelphia, but our music came from New York.” As new transplants, the duo had their first commercial breakthrough when “Sara Smile” crossed over from R&B radio, and, in 1977, their first true pop hit with “Rich Girl.” Then Hall & Oates started getting buzzed, morphed, and remixed by one of the most explosive cultural moments in this city’s history.
Within four years, they’d perfected a blend of soul, New Wave, and power pop that made them the top-selling duo in the country and the uncoolest band in New York. Hall lived in a two-bedroom apartment on Sheridan Square; he’d see Lou Reed walking his dog, and went to clubs like the Mercer Arts Center and CBGB, where he saw Patti Smith, Television, and the New York Dolls—once witnessing Dolls singer David Johansen’s Mick Jagger act in an entourage that included Mick Jagger. “We loved the music, we’d hang out backstage, but we never were really part of it all,” says Hall, who nonetheless captured the chill of coke-fueled, Wall Street–Warholian nightlife in songs like 1982’s chart-topper “Maneater,” which was based on observing the scene at the West Village hot spot Marylou’s.
Around this time, Hall & Oates’s then-manager Tommy Mottola suggested the duo get involved with a new-media start-up out of Times Square. “They had these fledgling V.J.’s,” says Hall, “but they had so many hours that they’d have us on and say, ‘Just go on for three hours.’ ” The band shot their first formal music video, for “Private Eyes,” in about an hour—lip-synching in fedoras and trench coats in a West 54th Street rehearsal space—and became regulars on MTV, unwittingly sealing themselves into a moussed-up, wide-lapeled epoch that has been very hard to escape from.
The end of the Hall & Oates era came in a hotel bathroom in 1990 in Tokyo, where they had just performed at a Yoko Ono–sponsored concert commemorating the death of John Lennon. There, in a sad, reflective moment, John Oates said good-bye—to the mustache.
“It really was a kind of spiritual moment for me,” Oates says, laughing. “The mustache represented a me I no longer was. I shaved it off and never looked back.” The next day, he and Hall were waiting at the Tokyo airport for a flight back to the States when Miles Davis appeared. “He came up to me with those red eyes of his,” says Oates. “He got like three inches from my face and kinda drew his finger across his own upper lip, as if he was shaving, and he said to me [in a deep, raspy voice], ‘Now the lovin’s gonna be better.’ ” Oates pauses. “And then he went up to Daryl and said, ‘I used to tell my hairdresser, I want my hair to look just like Daryl’s.’ ”
Twenty-one years later, this hair shows a silvery tint in the light streaming through Hall’s farmhouse-studio window. Sitting among Gibson guitar cases and Hammond keyboards, he wears a black Schott leather jacket, navy hoodie, Levi’s bluejeans, and cowboy boots—a rural craftsman at work. He gazes at a Pro Tools monitor displaying a track from an upcoming solo album that draws from the last ten years of his own songwriting. Hall was about four tracks into recording the album when his close friend and bassist of 30 years, Tom “T-Bone” Wolk, died of a heart attack, on February 28, 2010, hours after leaving this room.
“You have no idea,” Hall says when I offer condolences. “I’m still recovering, to tell you the truth.” He takes a sip of a quadruple iced espresso. “I’ve been through a lot in the past ten years. I formed a new relationship [with British socialite Amanda Aspinall]. I’ve had changes in my career, and my best friend just died. It all goes into music.” His album is tentatively titled Laughing Down Crying.
In the process, he has shaken off his most enduring malady, eighties-phobia. “For a long time, I dismissed that part of my work,” he says. “I was labeled as an eighties pop musician, and then I shied away from that. Now I’m not afraid of it.”
Motown’s de facto house songwriter, Smokey Robinson, who wrote dozens of hits that lasted long after his heyday, ranks Hall’s output with his own and calls him a fellow soul singer. “He feels what he’s singing and playing,” says Robinson. “When that’s happening, you’re soulful. It doesn’t matter what color you are or where you came from.” But he also names the crucial attribute every true soul artist needs. “You have to adapt, man,” the Motown guru says. “You better adapt if you wanna stay around.”