Rock and Roll Book Club: John Oates's 'Change of Seasons'

John Oates's 'Change of Seasons'
John Oates's 'Change of Seasons' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

If pop-music fantasy leagues were a thing, you would definitely want to draft Daryl Hall and John Oates. Affordable, consistent hit-makers, long career, no injuries, no showboating.

It's been a fulfilling creative life for John Oates, but it makes for a memoir that's really just for the serious fans. Collaborating with writer Chris Epting on the new Change of Seasons, Oates has produced a personable but somewhat bland account of his extensive history onstage and in studios.

The sports comparison begs extending — in part because Oates himself is an avid sportsman (cars and skis are particular passions), and in part because he seems like he'd be a great coach for rock stars. Stick to the fundamentals. Don't get distracted. Respect your teammates.

Oates, of course, has one particularly important teammate. That would be Daryl Hall, the other half of a pair who are "not a duo," Oates clarifies right away on the first page. They are "two creative individuals," Daryl Hall and John Oates. "It has never been Hall & Oates."

It has, however, been Whole Oats. That was the group name they took in 1970 when they first joined up as dual frontmen, having already been friends for several years and having previously performed together in an early Hall group: the Temptations-styled Temptones.

They came out of Philadelphia (both having grown up in smaller Pennsylvania towns), and the influence of the legendary Philly soul sound was foundational. While the British Invasion was the key influence for many of their peers from other cities, writes Oates, the local feeling in the '60s was that "the new Brit sound was not very danceable, and in Philly, if you couldn't dance to a song it pretty much wasn't worth shit."

As Oates notes several times over the course of his book, it's understandable that Hall and Oates (I refer to them here, I must clarify, as two distinct individuals who happened to make all their records together) are seen as '80s icons — but in fact, they had a successful decade under their belt by the time the ball dropped on 1979.

In fact, they even had a video that was never seen on MTV, but has since become infamous: a 1974 clip for the hit "She's Gone," a weirdly fascinating exercise in creative low-budget storytelling. The urban legend has it that the two were duped into making the video by an overambitious film student or a slyly mocking director, but the reality is that the film student was Oates's sister, who made the video at the behest of two artists who didn't want to just promote themselves on TV by lip-syncing while teenagers awkwardly slow-danced.

By the late '70s their early big hits were behind them, and the two were down from playing arenas to clubs. They were still around, though — still sober (enough), still talented, and ready to revel in the new sonic possibilities that technology like drum machines and samplers made possible. The result was the sound that made Hall and Oates (same disclaimer) into two of the decade's biggest stars: sterling blue-eyed soul jams, souped up with all the studio wizardry a major-label contract could buy.

Oates's story about the writing of one smash is worth quoting at length, because it's emblematic of his attitude towards the era. The story starts at a New York bar, when a stunningly gorgeous woman walks in, and everyone goes silent in awe.

The spell she cast was at once shattered and heightened as from the mouth of this goddess spewed forth the most foul, crude, and expletive-laced soliloquy I'd ever heard. [...] "She would chew you up and spit you out" popped into my head, lodging somewhere deep within the right lobe of my brain. [...] To this day when I hear "Maneater," Charlie DeChant's sleek and sensuous saxophone becomes the sharp, late-day sunlight slanting off the city's steel-and-glass towers, and the song that started as an ode to a beguiling, if incongruously foul-mouthed, siren becomes a statement on life in the go-go '80s. A soundtrack to the excesses that brought many a man (myself included) to their knees. The maneater wasn't just the woman. It was New York City.

Less metaphorically, what brought Hall and Oates to their knees was both the beginning of the '90s — Oates says he felt, no doubt correctly, that the grunge movement had no place for he and Hall — and the accumulation of the debt they'd amassed to their record labels thanks to the pyramid-scheme accounting practices of the era. With no animosity, the two parted ways, and Oates retreated to the Rockies where he remarried (his first wife, a model, is only passingly mentioned in Change of Seasons) and started a family.

Today, Oates and Hall are back at it, touring often and enjoying their refurbished status as a new generation of artists blend electronic sounds with R&B in a way that makes the once-maligned music of Hall and Oates sound fresher than a lot of their peers' hits. While Oates swears it's always been first and foremost about the music, he doesn't shy from owning the other aspects of his legacy. For example, he excerpts a tongue-in-cheek (but also totally serious) introduction he wrote to a book spotlighting "50 badass mustaches."

"Having a mustache and never smiling became a permanent component of my persona," Oates wrote, "through the quaintly self-important decade of the '70s. Enter the big '80s and, symbolic of the zeitgeist of the era, my facial hair grew denser and more imposing, and like the supernova that was my career, the 'stache seemed to explode from my face, luminous and larger than life itself... But still no smile."

Oates had to lose the 'stache to learn to smile, he writes. Fortunately for all of us, though, he ended up growing it back.

The Current's Change of Seasons Giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Change of Seasons giveaway between 8 a.m. CT on Wednesday, April 5, 2017 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, April 11, 2017.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of Change of Seasons by John Oates. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $29.99

We will contact the winners on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. CT on Thursday, April 13, 2017.

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This giveaway is subject to Minnesota Public Radio's 2017 Official Giveaway Rules.

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