Personality Clash: Daryl Hall x Mark Ronson
Even after all this time the majesty of Daryl Hall and John Oates has yet to dim.
The pair's deft fusion of rock, pop, and (especially) soul resulted in astronomical success, up-ending the music industry in the process.
New generations are uncovering the duo's work, with their single 'You Make My Dreams Come True' enjoying perennial success.
Recently smashing through the billion stream barrier, it's clear that Daryl Hall and John Oates are capable of reaching new audiences with each passing day.
Clash linked up Daryl Hall with super-fan (and super-producer) Mark Ronson for Personality Clash, and the two picked apart those golden hits.
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Mark: ‘You Make My Dreams Come True’ just hit a billion streams… I mean wow! That’s kind of crazy, congratulations!
Daryl: Yeah I think it’s actually close to two billion by this point… it’s amazing. I can’t believe that people are latching on to it like that.
Mark: What is it about that song, do you think? I mean, your songs, your voice, the production – that’s all embedded in my DNA. And you span so much, because there’s the giant pop tunes and the soulful deep cuts. But this has obviously struck a chord with a new generation – so why this particular song?
Daryl: It’s hard to say. When I hear the song – when I’m not singing it, but actually listening to it – all I hear is this aggressive lead vocal. Everything is on-point. The vocals are that way, the chords are that way, the keyboard part… it’s all relentless positivity! And people like that.
Mark: Also, that song particularly – and I don’t to sound ignorant here – but has it had some kind of viral moment?
Daryl: I don’t really know! It’s been popular… forever, y’know? It isn’t one thing. People come at it from a lot of different directions. It’s not just one factor. That’s as much as I know!
Mark: When you see some of these songs – like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ - they don’t really go anywhere, but it’s wild when they come back. Did you see the video of that guy on his skateboard?
Daryl: I did see it! I know that one. It was used in 500 Days Of Summer, and people literally got up in movie theatres – when people could still go to movie theatres! - and they were dancing in the aisles. If there was any kind of viral moment for ‘You Make My Dreams...’ then it was that. It kicked things around a little bit.
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Mark: What’s good about that song is how steeped it is in Philly vocal groups. I came of age in the 80s, but your roots go a lot deeper. Maybe the song has a lot of that feeling in it, would you say?
Daryl: Absolutely. When you break down everything I’ve done over the years then it really all comes down to that Philly thing. It’s a distinct sound. When you did Amy’s record (‘Back To Black’) I was really into the idea that you tapped into that 60s R&B sound. And I think you were one of the first people to put focus back on it! It definitely interested me. But that’s my roots, man. That’s where I come from. That mid 60s, street corner singing style. It’s a distinct background that I’ve made use of over the years. It’s a good thing to have come from, that’s for sure.
Mark: It’s so romantic – did people really sing on street corners? Would you be on the corner with your boys, singing as girls went by, trying to impress them?
Daryl: It actually was real. Yes. That kind of shit actually went down. We’d go down to the candy store or something and then we’d sing with our guys. Sometimes with girls coming in. And yeah, everybody would gather round because it was something to do at night. You’d get guest singers from other places, other street corners. It was a really vibrant scene. Almost like early rap, it was similar in that it came from that real home made roots thing. And yeah, that’s where I came from.
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Mark: I guess the first hits that people associate you is that early 70s sound - ‘She’s Gone’ and things like that. The period before that, were you struggling? How did you find your calling?
Daryl: I had a band. A vocal group called the Temptones and we worked with a few producers, and that was the first record I ever made. Then I got friendly with Tommy Bell and I used to hang out with him. I’d literally sit with him if he was writing songs. Then we got pulled into the Sigma Sound recording group – the people that were playing, the side guys. So I’d do some background singing or extra keyboards, but I was right there in the middle of all that Philadelphia thing. That’s where I learned it. I had it in my heart, right from being a child… but that’s where I learned it.
Mark: And I suppose it’s combining all of those things. As a vocal group, you could never be the Temptations, but you combed up all these pieces that lay around you. So the time you came to Hall & Oates it was it’s own thing.
Daryl: That’s it. I knew John, as I was going to school with him. We were trying to write songs, we came up with all these ideas, and then Kenny Gamble asked me if I wanted to join Philadelphia International as an artist and writer. I actually had to make the decision, and I said “nah, I want to do this thing with John Oates”. I said, we’ve got a different sound to what you’re doing. And that’s when we moved from Philadelphia to New York, and began forming our version of what Philadelphia music is.
Mark: Todd Rundgren has had a bit of a resurgence these past few years, working with a number of new groups. Did you look up to him?
Daryl: Well, we were contemporaries. He’s about the same age as me. It’s funny – being the cantankerous son of a bitch who he is… who I love, by the way! He wanted to go against the grain and do a whole Beatles kind of thing, a real British Invasion sound, in the midst of Philadelphia music. And at the time, everybody was like: what is he doing?! He had all these different bands. And it was very, very different. He was trying to not be Philadelphia. And then he left about a year before I did – to go to New York – and good on him! Because he’s a great guy. He has a unique personality and it comes out in his music but it’s very unique while also having its heart in Philadelphia. I can hear it in every note.
Mark: He produced you guys, right?
Daryl: He did our third record. He did our ‘War Babies’ record. We’d moved to New York and that’s when we worked together. Our first two records were Arif Mardin.
Mark: What was Arif like? He must have been amazing.
Daryl: He was, yeah. Did you ever meet him?
Mark: I used to see him when I was younger. He was a neighbour in New York. But looking back, as a kid I would see all these people, and it blows my mind that they just lived around me! I would see this person or that person, but at 11 years old I’m not gonna run up and ask them about their work or the studio! But I do think it’s crazy to think of all these people that I’d see not knowing who they were. Arif seems like a gentleman, though – there’s something regal about him.
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Daryl: That’s a good description! He had a regality about him. He was unbelievable. I never actually worked with anybody like him. He had this encyclopaedic knowledge of every aspect of music. And a way of dealing with the artists! I watched him work with people – not just me, lots of other people – and a lot of different types of musical styles that I watched him pull together with ease. And I can’t think of anybody who would have been a better person for me to start with than John… in terms of leaving Philadelphia and trying to start something new. He was just the perfect guy to bump into because he just knew how to pull it out and make it work. He was quite a gentleman and a real nice guy.
Mark: And then you didn’t really use producers after that – you’d bring people in, but you just had it in your head, didn’t you?
Daryl: After we parted company with Arif we tried a lot of things. We worked with this guy Christopher Bond for a while, but we really didn’t feel comfortable with any other producers until we started doing it ourselves, forming these ad hoc teams that we were in charge of. That seemed to work better for us.
Mark: I know it sounds like an overly deep question but… arguably you’re the most beloved Blue Eyed Soul singer – if we’re even allowed to use that term any more – and then there’s Todd Rundgren, then there’s all the Philly soul, and all those Black musicians… what is it about Philly? It’s not New York, it’s not L.A… is it about being off the beaten track? Is that why Philly produces the best shit?
Daryl: You know, there’s something about Philadelphia. It’s as unique in its own way as, say, New Orleans. It’s got its own geographic roots – it’s sort of the Southern most Northern town. I call it Hoagy Nation because there’s a certain mentality that goes around – Hoagies and cheese steaks! But the truth is… Joe Biden! To bring him into it. He’s the first modern Philadelphia President. And the way he is – the reality, the down home, working class Joe thing – that’s the essence of Philadelphia, right there in his personality. He’s like everybody in Philadelphia’s uncle. I guess it’s a certain kind of realism that comes into the creative part of it, and people write what’s real and what’s true. And the ethnic congregation has always been so diverse and yet so cohesive in its own way, that it allowed the true strength of American music to come through. So there you go!
Mark: I remember the first time I worked with the string arranger Larry Gold – he worked on ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’ which is obviously pretty iconic – but in the beginning when I did these records before Amy, I would touch on Philly soul and disco. But I’d speak to him, he was a friend of mine, so I would drive out to Philly for the day to work in his studio – and that was when Questlove was still there, and a lot of those guys were based there – and I remember being so excited. When you were putting strings and horns on, it really made it. If the singing was good then you had it, to a point, but getting in the car to drive to Philly… and the first time I was like: wait, it’s only an hour and 20 minutes away! But it weirdly blew my mind that this place that was so close to New York conceptually felt like its own world and universe.
Daryl: That’s true. As close as it is – and it’s only 90 miles – there’s always been this weird rivalry between New York and Philadelphia. A different way of looking at things, and that comes out in the music. I mean, you know how different New York music is – inherently – than the roots of Philadelphia music. It’s amazing that only 90 miles separates the two but it’s such a different world.
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Mark: Now, I ask you this question because… well, people overuse the word ‘obsessed’ but the sound, production, the songs, everything about that album ‘Big Bam Boom’ was so masterfully done. Songs like ‘Out Of Touch’ or ‘Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid’ are amazing. When I met you the first time I asked you so many questions about it, imagining all these drug-fuelled late night sessions… and you were like, nah! You just went in, knew what you were doing, and everyone was firing on all cylinders.
Daryl: That record came together really well. We had a fantastic team that we put together. We had Arthur Baker who was just… hot as a motherfucker then! There’s something about him. He’s got a big personality and he kept the energy going in the room. And we had a fantastic bunch of players. It was just an amazing core. And each person added to the vibe. It was like a party everyday – during the day, and with no drugs! Partying away!
Mark: You were always a pretty focussed guy in the studio – you weren’t a party guy, were you? -
Daryl: Yeah. Neither John or I like to allow things to get in the way of the moment. We don’t let that control the moment. I mean, we were more moderate people.
Mark: Were you ever writing in the studio? Was some of that stuff coming out of studio jams?
Daryl: It wasn’t jams but we would come in with not-completed things and then let the moment and the arrangement complete the songs. Most of the songs were pretty much written… at least structurally. There wasn’t really a lot of jamming going on.
Mark: Didn’t some people help you with your early lyrics?
Daryl: Oh yeah. I was co-writing a lot of the lyrics with Sara Allen, who I was with for many, many years… her sister. And also with Sara herself. The three of us would do a lot of the writing. I’d come up with most of the ideas but they also helped, and we’d put it together. They were as much a part of the team at the team as what I was doing with John. We were sort of all the writing team! I usually do most of the writing and then I’ll bring people in for various things… but it was a real team.
Mark: You’re generous with the credit, for sure. Which were some of the bigger ones they worked on? ‘Sara Smile’ maybe?
Daryl: Well, I wrote that one… because it’s just so personal. I think a song like ‘Private Eyes’. That was a real team song. Janna came to me with that idea, and played me a rudimentary version of the song, and then I changed it around into this distinctive Daryl chords… and then I sat with Sara Allen and we wrote the lyrics together. There’s a real team song, right there.
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Mark: Is there a specific era of Hall & Oates that you look back on most fondly?
Daryl: Well, I looked at it all… everything we did at that time was an evolution. We talked about ‘Big Bam Boom’ - I love that album. To me, that’s what we could do at its best. And we did it together. And I can’t think of an album that I feel more strongly about in that respect. Maybe ‘Along The Red Ledge’ is similar. That was similar… in that we put a team together. I think ‘Big Bam Boom’ represents a high point of what we did with John.
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