What can we say about John Oates other than to belabor the obvious? He is one-half of one of the most successful acts in contemporary music, Hall & Oates, having recorded six No. 1 singles, 34 Billboard Top 100 hits, seven platinum albums and six gold albums.
Hall & Oates is the most successful duo in the history of pop music. Ever. This, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Hall & Oates has sold more music than the Everly Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel, the Righteous Brothers, Pet Shop Boys, everyone.
But, individually, what can be said about John Oates is that he is always yearning to grow as a songwriter and a person, an avid reader known to juggle three books at a time and (long ago) a would-be journalist. Hall & Oates is back in Las Vegas on Thursday night performing at the Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel (tickets in the $91 range are still available at Ticketmaster.com.
Following are highlights of an interview with Oates this morning during a Hall & Oates tour stop in San Jose, Calif.:
Johnny Kats: You studied journalism at Temple University. Has that education helped you in any area of your career?
John Oates: Writing is writing, the way I look at it, whether it’s poetry, prose, lyrics, however you want to look at it. I think there is a certain discipline to the craft, a certain discipline to using the elements of inspiration, and there are the simple elements of hard work. You know, I just love to write. I appreciate writing. I’m a reader, an avid reader, so to me writing is writing. There are just different versions of it.
I think in pop music, it helped me in recognizing the salient points in what I was observing and understanding how to make the greatest impact in my songwriting.
J.K.: What are you reading?
J.O.: I just finished a book called "The Madness of Leadership," which is a book about bipolar characteristics in great leaders. Really interesting. … I’m always reading something.
J.K.: This is, in part, a way to keep growing as a songwriter?
J.O.: Definitely. My songwriting has evolved, just as I’ve evolved as a person. When I was a kid, I was writing about kid stuff. Not always juvenile things, but observing what was going on around me, but it was mostly about pop songs built around a hook or catchphrase. And it grew from there. If you consider a song like "Maneater," which seems like it’s about a woman, but it’s not. It’s about New York in the ’80s, about avarice, and it’s about greed and the attitude that he who has the most toys wins, that stupid concept. It’s a very ’80s song, and it’s a song about the ’80s in general.
J.K.: But those themes are still prevalent today. "Maneater" could have been released this month.
J.O.: And I think that’s one reason these songs are still resonating. Somehow or another, Daryl and I have been able to capture some universal ideas, through these pop songs, that seem to just continue to reach and touch people. When you talk about songwriting, that’s where you set the bar: touching people. We’ve been able to achieve that, and I think that's why Daryl and I are still around and why our songs are still being played.
J.K.: I want to ask about a particular song that you sing, "Las Vegas Turnaround." Are you playing that on this tour?
J.O.: Actually, we put that song back in the show about two or three years ago. It’s considered an album cut, and it’s a fan favorite. We have a really good problem in that we have so many hits, we could play a show full of hits. But at the same time, Daryl and I always sprinkle album cuts in. "Las Vegas Turnaround" has really become a kind of a fixture, and people really request it.
J.K.: What was the inspiration behind the song?
J.O.: It came from a true experience. I was sitting on some steps in Philadelphia, just killing some time, and two girls walked by who were airline stewardesses, or flight attendants. We struck up a conversation, they worked for a charter airline, and they told me, "We’re going to do a Las Vegas turnaround."
I’d never heard that term before. I said, "What the heck is that?" And they said, "That’s when we take a bunch of gambling fools to Las Vegas and back." I was like, "Wow!" My songwriting antenna went up and I thought, ‘That’s a really cool thing to build a song around that.” One of these girls turned out to be Sarah (Allen), who eventually became Daryl’s girlfriend.
J.K.: Sara of "Sara Smile?”
J.O.: Yep, that’s her. That’s what songwriting is all about.
J.K: You’re obviously unique in that your fame is strongly linked to another person. You talk of evolving individually, but how has that relationship evolved over the years? Is it more of a business partnership these days?
J.O.: It encompasses a personal relationship and a business relationship and goes beyond that, certainly. It’s an old friendship, almost like a brotherhood that goes back to the time we were teenagers.
We have spent so much time together over the years, traveled the world together and shared all of these crazy experiences. There’s this bond between us, and we’re not necessarily pals, so to speak, in very general terms. We don’t go hang out with each other when we’re on the road. We don’t go to dinner together because we travel together and work together a lot. We see each other all the time but not outside the actual work.
J.K.: I know this is a hard question for anyone who has written a lot of hit songs, but is there a song, or even a short list of songs, you prefer?
J.O.: There’s a lot of them, really a lot of them. But I think of the songs we still play, "She’s Gone" is the quintessential Hall & Oates song. It put us on the map, and it’s a song we still enjoy playing to this day. If I had to isolate one song, it would be that one.
J.K.: When you’re in public and hear a Hall & Oates song, what goes through your head?
J.O.: Another four cents (laughs)! I am joking. I hear the experience behind that song, from the beginning to the end. From where the idea came from all the way through what happened when the song came into the studio, working with the engineers and technicians and how it grew into a great record.
We’ve had many great ideas for songs, and we have managed to make them great records. I am really proud of that, of all that we’ve done, definitely.