When Daryl Hall and John Oates arrived in New York from Philadelphia in 1972, they were a folk-soul duo signed to Atlantic Records. The city, particularly the Downtown scenes at the Mercer Art Center and Max’s Kansas City, would have a profound impact on them personally and musically. Even after their music became MTV and radio staples, they continued to live in New York and the city continued to sift its vibes into their songs. John Oates spoke with Chris Epting, his memoir collaborator, about those days for PKM
When most people think of Daryl Hall and John Oates, they probably picture the wildly successful 1980s version of the duo that dominated the record charts, radio, and MTV. But before they were helping close the show at Live Aid or bringing down the house at the Apollo with the Temptations, they were just a couple of wide-eyed wanderers from Philadelphia who found themselves smack dab in the middle of the cultural explosion that was happening in downtown New York City in the early 1970s.
When we were writing his memoir, Change of Seasons (2017), John looked back heavily at those days and how the city helped shape what became the most popular pop duo in history.
CE: You and Daryl arrived in New York from Philadelphia in 1972 after signing with Atlantic. The downtown scene at places like the Mercer Arts Center and Max’s Kansas City were red-hot cultural enclaves. How long did it take you to figure out what was happening downtown?
John Oates: It took a little bit of time. After we signed to Atlantic Records, we were still on the road playing lots of shows as basically a folk duo with a supporting band, and so Daryl’s girlfriend, Sandy, actually found a place for all of us on the Upper East Side. It was a cool apartment but we didn’t really fit in up there. I mean I would come out in the morning wearing all kinds of crazy clothes, clogs, and all that, and everybody around me was dressed in suits and carrying briefcases. So we definitely knew the art scene was not up there. But we didn’t do any homework before moving to New York. We just found a place we could afford and that was it. But once we were settled in and recording the first album, then, of course, we learned about what was happening downtown and so we had to go experience it.
CE: What are some of your memories of first heading down to the Village?
John Oates: The Mercer Arts Center was a very happening place. The New York Dolls had pretty much become the talk of the Downtown world. There were lots of rooms and performance spaces at that place, but the Dolls were definitely the main attraction. And they already had a following that was very androgynous and colorful. We were going through our own transformation at that point as an act after opening for David Bowie at one of his first shows in America, I think his second one, in fact, in the fall of 1972, down in Memphis. Our show at that point was really stripped-down. No production to speak of. But we watched his show that night out front as part of the crowd and it really inspired us. I mean, we knew we couldn’t do what he was doing, but we understood that we had to dial things up and put on more of a show if we wanted to survive. So, by the time we were hanging out down in the Village, we were already going through the transformation.
CE: There was a moment Downtown back then that helped inspire what became one of your most iconic songs.
John Oates: One frigid December late night morning about 3 a.m., as 1972 was drawing to an end, I was rambling around, starving in need of a bite to eat. It may seem strange today, when one thinks about the “city that never sleeps” but back then, despite the evolving art scene, there were hardly any eateries in Downtown New York that stayed open that late, much less all night. However, on Bleecker Street between Grove and Bedford there was this great little all-night soul food restaurant called the Pink Teacup; a cozy joint that had been there since the early 1950s. And at that hour of the morning, it was the only place where a light glowed on that darkened block; ham hocks, chicken fried steak, biscuits and gravy with ‘60s soul on the juke box. Perfect.
Patti was very charismatic right from the outset… For me, there was something very beatnik about her poetry readings but instead of a bongo drum, you had Lenny Kaye on guitar. It was a really creative evolution of what beat poets have been doing.
No sooner had I settled into a back booth facing the street, when the door flew open and in from the cold wafted this willowy, beguiling girl incongruously wearing a pink tutu, cowboy boots and no coat. In the middle of winter! We started dating that night; hey it was the 70s and things happened fast…so with New Year’s Eve approaching we made a plan to hang out. Daryl and Sandy were out of town, so I had the apartment all to myself. She said she would come over and meet me so I settled in on the sofa and began strumming my acoustic guitar to pass the time. 9 o’clock became 10 o’clock became 11 o’clock. No girl. I had been stood up. When I finally realized that she was going to be a no show on that night of nights, I thought to myself, “If she’s not coming tonight… then she’s gone.” Simple as that I started singing this folky little refrain: “She’s Gone…Oh I better learn how to face it…She’s Gone Oh I…” The disappointment of getting stood up didn’t last long but that simple melody and chord progression was about go on forever. The very next day, Daryl came back and there I was still sitting on that sofa still plunking away at that little chorus idea and he said, “What’s that?” So I gave him the Cliff Note version of my no show date and he sat down at his black Wurlitzer electric piano and inspirationally began playing the classic alternating chord riff with the pedaled bass note that is now so well known as the intro and verse to the song. We started tossing around ideas about love and loss and how to personalize a well-worn universal subject. Propelled by an odd but provocative opening line: “Everybody’s high on consolation” we were off and running. Like manna from heaven the lyrics manifested themselves as we pooled our collective emotions focusing on relatable, everyday imagery. “I’m worn as her toothbrush hanging in the stand.” A line both evocative and so real that anyone could picture it. Building on that theme, the song almost wrote itself through our hands. In less than an hour, “She’s Gone” was born and in a way, so were we.
“She’s Gone”-Hall & Oates, on Old Grey Whistle Test in 1976.
CE: Todd Rundgren would produce the New York Dolls debut album in 1973, and then he would produce yours and Daryl’s album, War Babies, the year after that.
John Oates: We had done some great work Atlantic Records with Arif Mardin at the helm. But we wanted a change at that point. We were absorbing the energy of the city and it just felt like the right thing to do. We actually interviewed George Martin as a potential candidate to produce what became the War Babies record, but we wanted to do something unconventional and at that time, Todd Rundgren had a great production track record. But he was also very unconventional. We all knew each other a little bit from the Philadelphia area so we thought it would be a good fit. It’s an interesting album, to be sure, a transitional moment for us. We recorded the whole thing at the Secret Sound, a little homemade studio Todd had created with Moogy Klingman in a loft on West 24th Street.
“War Baby Son of Zorro”-Daryl Hall & John Oates, from War Babies album (1974):
CE: Did you hang around Max’s Kansas City much during this time?
John Oates: All the time. I really liked it there. Always interesting people, always good music, decent food; it was a very cool place to hang out. We actually played there a bunch of times as well. We even opened for Bruce Springsteen there in 1973. It was a five-night residency. I guess in the late ‘60s, Max’s was a place frequented by Andy Warhol and his crowd but by the early 70s, it had morphed into more of a glitter/glam music scene. I think Andy would still be there once in a while and we would get to know him really well later on. But it also became another home away from home for the New York Dolls after the Mercer Arts Center, literally, came crashing down.
CE: In your diaries, which we were going over as we wrote your memoir together, there were a bunch of references about going to see Patti Smith right when she started performing.
John Oates: Patti was very charismatic right from the outset. There’s always a buzz about her; when she performed it was an event. See you wanted to be there. For me, there was something very beatnik about her poetry readings but instead of a bongo drum, you had Lenny Kaye on guitar. It was a really creative evolution of what beat poets of been doing, I mean, that’s how I saw it.
Television. … They just blew me away. You could tell right away that the dual-guitar dynamic between Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine was unlike anything that anybody else was doing at that time.
CE: Was there a band that most impressed you in the early to mid-70s and downtown New York City?
John Oates: Absolutely. Television. I remember the first night I saw them; I believe it was at CBGB. They just blew me away. You could tell right away that the dual-guitar dynamic between Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine was unlike anything that anybody else was doing at that time. I mean many bands have two guitars, that wasn’t a big deal, obviously, but those two managed to create a kind of a new sound between them and weave together in a way that was really special. I would see them whenever I could. I remember we were out in California recording and I saw they were going to be playing the Whisky a Go-Go, so I made sure I was free to go catch the show. They were by far my favorites back then. There were lots of bands starting to make noise in the city around that time, the Ramones, of course, Talking Heads, Blondie, Mink DeVille, but for me, it was all about Television
CE: Once the War Babies album was finished you went out on the road as the opening act for the Lou Reed. But his crowd wasn’t that warm and welcoming, right?
John Oates: To say the least. We went through a lot of changes in terms of the band with War Babies. We became much more of a hard rock outfit, we were wearing flamboyant stage clothes and wearing lots of makeup, really embracing the whole glam approach. I mean the album itself has many progressive, metallic moments on it. But we were also out there playing “She’s Gone” and other songs that were more representative of our Philly soul roots. So let’s just say the Lou Reed Fan base was not that interested (laughs). Most nights it was like Night of the Living Dead out there, vacant-eyed zombies staring us down and screaming strange things. They were there for Lou Reed. It was a great tour slot, I mean he was playing some big shows, we even played the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden and Mick Jagger was backstage to meet us after the show. So they were definitely some high points. But for the most part, his audience was rejecting us outright.
CE: Your glam rock stylings continued, at least visually, with 1975’s Silver album. Both you and Daryl were featured on the cover wearing very heavy feminine makeup.
John Oates: We had met a guy downtown named Pierre LaRoche. He was a very well-known makeup guy who had crafted many of David Bowie’s most famous looks in the early ‘70s. He was about to hit the road with the Rolling Stones on their tour in the summer of 1975 but before he left, over dinner one night he said to both Daryl and I, in his very strong French accent, “I am going to immortalize you.” And with that, he created the cover that still stands out as our most provocative.
“Alone Too Long”-Daryl Hall & John Oates, from the Silver album (1975):
CE: In the mid to late ‘70s, you started recording out the West Coast. But you still lived in New York and hung out when not on the road.
John Oates: We did. In about 1978, in New York, I connected with a singer named Judy Nylon. Judy was very cool. She had gone to London in the early ‘70s and became half of a punk duo called Snatch. She appeared on record with Brian Eno now and had a lot of other interesting and eclectic musical projects. I was producing a band called Billy’s, which was kind of the new wave outfit that wanted to be a lot like The Who. A fun band that never really made it, but in working with them I got to know Judy. And we decided to work together. I was playing some guitar, doing some writing. It was fun and a nice diversion from what I was doing with Daryl. Judy and I actually performed in the summer of 1978 at the old club called Hurrah over on West 62nd Street. Pat Place of the Bush Tetras also played in the band with us that night. I remember Daryl came to watch the show. He was sitting in the back of the room looking at me like, “What the fuck are you doing?” It was just something different. It wasn’t musical in the way that Hall and Oates was musical but it was a cool experience.
CE: And by 1979 you are back from California and recording in New York City, basically for the rest of the decade.
John Oates: We did come back. It felt good to be home. I mean Daryl and I both lived in Greenwich Village all during those years. But making music on the West Coast meant we weren’t as in touch with what was happening on the streets of New York. We came back to do part of the X-Static album in New York, at the Hit Factory. We definitely picked up on early hip-hop culture, boom boxes in the street, and all that. And some of that’s reflected on the album. New York was going through a very heavy transformation at that time. The city wasn’t in good shape. Crime was up and everything was very gritty.
CE: The 1980s album, Voices, re-established you and Daryl as a major act and really set the stage for even bigger success throughout the decade.
John Oates: Voices was really influenced by New York City. It’s a very stripped-down record with lots of nervous energy. I would walk from my apartment to Electric Lady studios, about 15 blocks. It was an incredible microcosm, lots of chaos, very dirty and dangerous. Dogs shitting all over the place. I think that album harnessed is a lot of that feeling. We just were absorbing a lot of the local culture. I remember being at Daryl’s apartment writing with him, and the New York Post had a headline about some guy who was slashing people up on the subways. So right there we wrote a song about a serial killer who becomes obsessed with the doo-wop voices singing in his head (“Diddy Doo Wop”).
“Diddy Doo Wop (I Hear the Voices)”-Daryl Hall & John Oates, from the Voices album:
There’s a lyric in that song that says, “Charlie likes the Beatles, Sam he likes Rich Girl.” The references are Manson of course who was a Beatles fan, and the Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz who had mentioned the song “Rich Girl” had meant a lot to him or something like that. But for me, there is just something very New York about that album. We had a listening party for friends and when it was done, everybody liked it. But Daryl and I felt it was still missing a key piece. In a pizza place afterward, we both were sitting there having a couple of slices, and “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” came on the radio. We both looked at each other knew that was it. The missing piece. The next day we went in there and cut our version of it. That was a New York City moment. Two guys having a pizza listening to the jukebox. That’s the inspiration.
CE: And from there you dug even deeper into New York City roots.
John Oates: By the time we got to the Big Bam Boom album a few years later, New York was a thriving music scene once again; lots of clubs and dance music, lots of street energy, hip-hop was starting to blow up, lots of remixing and crazy production techniques. You just couldn’t walk to the studio and not be inspired by what was happening. But it was still dangerous, too. I actually carried a blackjack in my pocket just in case I got attacked. Walking home late at night, you just felt you were always taking your life into your own hands. But even that was kind of exciting (laughs).
Hall & Oates – Rich Girl (live 1977)
CE: Do you think New York will ever be the musical hotbed that it was 50 years ago?
John Oates: It’s hard to say. Times are so different today. The business is totally different. I’m not sure what it would look like. I mean there will always be good music that comes out of New York City. But I think the 1970s was especially unique. It’s like Paris in the ’20s, or Swinging London in the ’60s. There are certain cultural eras that can’t be replicated because the circumstances were just special. I’m just glad Daryl and I had a chance to live through it because it definitely helped to make us what we are today. It still affects us when we perform.