John Oates discusses 1980’s Voices by Hall and Oates
As the 1980s began, Hall & Oates, assumed creative control over their music resulting in another triumph for the songwriting duo when Voices was released in 1980.
By the end of the 1970s, Daryl Hall and John Oates were in the early stages of developing their distinctive rock and soul sound that would catapult them into superstardom in the following years. During the decade, their catalog included their platinum-selling Abandoned Lunchonette (1973), gold-selling Daryl Hall & John Oates (1975), Bigger Than Both of Us (1976), Beauty on a Back Street (1977), and Along the Red Ledge (1978). But they were collectively at a crossroads in their respective careers. As the 1980s began, Hall & Oates, assumed creative control over their music resulting in another triumph for the songwriting duo when Voices was released in 1980.
The record became a turning point for the duo’s career, spawning the successful singles “Kiss On My List,” “You Make My Dreams,” the Righteous Brothers 1967 remake, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” and “Every Time You Go Away.” It became their highest selling album during that juncture. I recently spoke with one half of the legendary songwriting tandem, John Oates regarding the process of making such a groundbreaking album.
What is the story behind the forming of your duo?
Back in the late 1960s, Daryl had a group called the Temptones and I had a group called the Masters. We both made singles in Philadelphia with some of the people who became the main people in Gamble & Huff. But we weren’t working together and we didn’t know each other, but we were aware of each other. Those two respective singles were getting play on Philadelphia radio at the time. I remember seeing Daryl’s group playing at a show in Philadelphia and I thought they were really great. I knew that he was going to Temple University and I was going to Temple University as well. What happened was my group started falling apart because two of the guys were drafted to go to Vietnam and, Daryl’s group starting falling apart too. He actually had a vocal group with a backup band. He needed a backup band. And I joined his originally as a guitar player to be just a backup guitar player. His band broke up shortly thereafter and it left just the two of us. We started gravitating toward each other. We started writing songs together and hanging out in downtown Philadelphia scrounging around looking for work. We continued to play in bands. I played in blues bands and Daryl was playing with another group while doing some studio work here and there. I went to Europe for four months because I wanted to do something different and it was something I always wanted to do. When I came back, I didn’t really have a place to stay, so, I stayed at Daryl’s house. This is when we got the idea that we should go out and start playing some of the songs we’d be writing. It was a very casual thing to see what would happen. So, we started playing at coffee houses. At the time, in the 1960s, in Philadelphia there were a lot of hippie coffee houses and a small performance art centers. We did those things and eventually we got a record contract and there you go.
Coming off your 1979 album, X-Static, what direction were you trying to take the group’s sound going into a new decade with Voices?
If you look at the albums we done in the 1970s up to X-Static, we started out recording in New York City with Arif Mardin and then we went out to L.A. to record three or four albums with a guy named Chris Bond and then, eventually David Foster. When we met David Foster, our album was the first project he ever worked on. He was basically just starting out. We did Along the Red Ledge (1978) together and we really enjoyed that process. But Daryl and I started taking over control of producing our records at that time with David Foster. We started asserting ourselves more on the production side of things. We were in that old fashioned mentality of we were the artists and you had to have a producer. Things were starting to change and we began using our own band during the making of Along the Red Ledge. It was a key element in moving toward what happened in the 1980s. Then we did X-Static. When we did X-Static, we were really tired of recording in L.A. because we didn’t live in L.A.; we lived in New York. We wanted to get back to recording in New York, so we told David that we wanted to record the X-Static album in New York. He was cool with it, but he was an L.A. guy. As we began to make the X-Static album, we used our band in New York and it all began to crystallize in our minds in terms of what we were doing and what we wanted to do for the future. I remember David Foster saying in middle of the X-Static album, “Why am I sitting here? You’re making the record yourselves.” And that was the key element that led us to the Voices album. We kind of looked at each other and said, “Yea, we should just produce ourselves and that way we’ll be able to do exactly what we want to do and how we want to do it. Now we have a great band and we don’t need studio musicians. We’ll play with our own band and make our own records.” So we went into the Voices album with that frame of mind and that approach.
What was the collaborative process between Daryl Hall, your songwriting partners and you during the making of the album?
Voices may have been the most collaborative record that Daryl and I ever made in terms of the fact that he and I were really writing together. We kind of made that album between the two of us. There weren’t a lot of outside collaborations with this album. Sara Allen and Janna Allen hadn’t really done too much with us at the time. They became more involved with the albums that followed. But with Voices, Daryl and I did a lot of it ourselves. We sat around New York City and we were really glad to be back in the city. Many of those songs have to do with the sound that was going on, which were the early days of new wave. New wave was kind of hitting New York City and the punk movement was kind of going on. We were subtlety using elements of stuff that was around us. The album had a lean, stark quality to it. The one song in particular called “Diddy Doo Wop” is where the title Voices came from because in the chorus we sing, “I Hear the Voices.” It was about a mask murderer who was circulating in New York subways at the time. He was hitting people in the head with an axe at the time. We were reading these crazy headlines and hearing about it on the news. We started writing about it. We were saying to each other, “What could be going on in someone’s mind to do something as crazy and horrible as this?” You know how sometimes you get a song in your head and you can’t stop singing it over and over again. We made up in our minds that he got stuck on a doo-wop song. He couldn’t get a doo wop song out of his head and this is what was drove him to do these things. I know it sounds crazy, but I thought it was kind of cool.
Can you talk about the recording process and the creative atmosphere that existed at the time?
We made this record in a very traditional, old-school style. We had a great band and we were in the studio and we cut tracks. I remember a lot of the tracks were cut at the Hit Factory Studios in a very small room. It was a very traditional, old-school setup with drums, bass, guitar, keyboards just sitting in a room all in a circle. We played the instruments and recorded the tracks and went back and did the vocals. It was an old-school approach, which is still to this day what I like to do best. You get a great band and great songs and good things happen. That’s how it was. The only thing that was completely different on that record was that the song “Kiss On My List” came from left field. “Kiss On My List” was a song that Janna Allen came up with the idea for it. She and Daryl worked on it together. And Daryl as a favor for her was going to put it down as a quick demo in the studio so she would have something for herself because it was one of the first songs she had ever written. So he went in with a drum machine and piano and actually recorded the song that way. I distinctly remember it wasn’t going to be on the album because it was just this one little thing that Daryl was doing for Janna. We recorded it at 15 ips tape speed. Normally, in those days you would record at 30 ips tape speed so you would get a little bit better recording quality at a higher speed. But because we wanted to save tape and we didn’t think the song was really important; we recorded it at 15 ips just to save some tape. That demo when other people started to hear it and our manager heard it everyone kept saying how great of a song it was and how we should put it on the album. So we ended up taking that original demo that Daryl put down with the drum machine and keyboard and that became the basis of the track. We flushed out the rest of the track with guitar and vocals. And, obviously it became a big hit. It was kind of unusual how that song came about. The one thing about our writing style is that with Daryl and me there were no rules. Anything could happen and we took it anyway we could get it. Sometimes it would come from a title. Sometimes it would come from something in the news. Usually, there would be some type of musical element whether it was a beat, a groove or a set of chord changes and that would become the beginning. A title or a hook would glue it together. We spent most of our time working on the verses. We would sit around and throw out ideas and write verses.
What were the instruments you used while recording and how long were your studio sessions?
We were never all-nighters in the studio. We would come in the studio around ten or eleven and slowly get going. Normally, what would happen is we would eat first and on a good day in our sessions we would cut two to three songs and others days maybe one. It would just depend on how much work needed to be done on the track. Some of them went very quickly. I recall doing “Every Time You Go Away,” which was the last track on the album. It was recorded completely live. We wanted to record it in a Memphis Stax old-school R&B style. I remember that song being played by our band and the vocals were cut the same day. I remember a lot of the songs from the album being played by the band and we would put vocals on. Then we would overdub a guitar solo on a record. There wasn’t a lot of production to that album. It was very lean and straightforward. I used various guitars during the making of the album. I used my ’58 Stratocaster, which is the guitar I used on stage and it is my go to guitar. I used a twelve-string Rickenbacker on “How Does It Feel to Be Back.” I used a few acoustic guitars on other tracks. Our band set up was very similar to what we would use to perform at a live show. We didn’t have anything different than what we had on stage with us. Whatever we had on stage we brought into the studio to record with. We had wah-wah pedals, overdrives, a little echo box. I believe Daryl was using a Yamaha keyboard at the time. We had one of the early analog synths, a Hammond B-3 organ, a traditional drum set and a bass. It was very old-school.
The Philly sound was evident in the way you crafted your songs. How influenced were you guys by R&B and Soul music from the late 1960s and early 1970s?
Our influences are very wide and deep. The fact that there are two of us makes our influences more varied. I go back to early 1950s and music that came out of the big band era right into the early rockabilly and rock and roll era with Chuck Berry, Elvis, Little Richard and that kind of stuff. I’m also influenced by the doo wop music of the 1960s, street corner music, and the early days when Gamble & Huff were starting out. We were starting out at the same time. The sound of Philadelphia was developing and combine that with the traditional ‘Americana’ acoustic thing I was into that is how our sound developed. We were very much influenced by where we lived and what we were doing. New York City was a big influence on us even though we grew up in the Philadelphia area. We never recorded in Philadelphia. The funny thing is after all these years Daryl and I have never made a record in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is a big part of our sound, but we’ve never recorded there.
How was each song constructed from a musical standpoint for the album?
“How Does It Feel to Be Back” was a song I wrote about my girlfriend who was a model and she was traveling all over the world. I was traveling around the world on tour as well. It was one of those things where I was in a hotel room in a different part of the world thinking about how it was going to feel to get back together with her. When you’re so far apart and traveling in two different worlds I wondered how it was going to feel to get back together. That’s what I was writing about. It had this kind of folk and rock feel to it.
“Big Kids” and “United State” were songs that I don’t remember much about. I know they were both Daryl’s idea, but I don’t know “Big Kids” evolved. With “United State,” it was a play on world and governmental politics, which are similar to personal politics. How countries and organizations deal with each other isn’t that much different than the way people deal with each other in personal relationships.
“Hard to Be in Love with You” was a song I came up with. It came from a guitar riff. I sat down with a guy named Neil Jason who was a bass player in New York and he was a friend of mine. He’s a great bass player. We were just hanging out and started writing this song together. Then, we brought Daryl in to help finish it.
“Gotta Lotta Nerve” is one of the first songs that Sara Allen was involved with. I’m not sure if it was Daryl or her who came up with the title for the song.
“You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” definitely came about through an unusual circumstance. What happened was we finished the whole album and we felt we were done. In those days, we would be recording ourselves and we didn’t have a lot interaction with the record company. The record company left us alone. When we were done with the record, we would present it to them. The way we would present the record to them is we would have a listening party where we would be in-studio and invite people over to have some wine or beer. We would play them the album in the studio. We had this listening party at Electric Lady Studios in the village. After the album was done, we were feeling really good about it. Everybody loved it, but there was something that was missing. We couldn’t figure out what it was. There was just some element missing. It needed something. We went out for pizza in the village right near the studio. And on the jukebox, the original Righteous Brothers song, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” was playing. We looked at each other and said, “Why don’t we just cut that.” We went back in the studio the next day and we recorded the track and sang it and finished it in about four hours. And that was it. We put it on our album and it became a hit for us.
“You Make My Dreams” this song was a hidden gem. Daryl had this great piano groove that you hear when you hear the record. It’s really the heart and soul of that record. It had this positive, upbeat type of feel to it. It was a very simple idea saying you make my dreams come true. We were kind of laughing saying that this was too simple to be anything. When we wrote the words, we were really concentrating on writing some interesting words because the chorus was so simple. We thought the verses needed to have some meat and potatoes to support the simplicity of that chorus. I remember our manager at the time when we played the song for him; he was making a joke about the words in the verses. He said, “You guys are trying to sound like poets.” He was laughing at us because he didn’t get it. After all these years, that’s probably the song that gets the most play out of almost any song we’ve ever done.
“Africa” was a song that went back to my girlfriend. She was traveling around the world and she was in Africa on a photo assignment. I came up with this weird 1950s jungle beat and I was making a joke about the world she was living in because there were so many good looking people. I was saying I hope lions and tigers weren’t jumping her bones, but I wasn’t talking about actual lions and tigers.
How do you feel about the impact you and Daryl Hall have made on popular culture during your respective careers?
Well, it’s hard to talk about yourself in that regard. I think we’ve been a big part of the culture in terms of popular music when popular music was really at its height through the era of the late ’60s, 1970s and 1980s with music videos where music became a focal point in popular culture. We were a part of that and the music we’ve made over the past thirty years has endured. When you’re a songwriter, your ultimate goal is to write something that can stand the test of time. When you write something that can stand the test of time, you’ve really done it. I don’t think there’s a higher goal that you can attain. So, that being said, I feel very good about the fact that even to this day we play our songs live and our music gets played on the radio. A whole new generation of kids still enjoy our music and it is a testament to our hard work, dedication and professionalism that we’ve put into our careers. I leave it to the other people to say the other stuff.
Check out Issue 54 to read Daryl Hall’s interview on his career and working with John Oates.
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