Song Writing

"Private Eyes" - The Story Behind the Song

by Carl Wiser

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"Private Eyes"

Artist: Daryl Hall and John Oates
Writers: Janna Allen/Sara Allen/Daryl Hall/Warren Pash
Album: Private Eyes
Year: 1981
Chart Position: #1 US, #32 UK
Warren Pash was driving down Ventura Boulevard when he spotted a billboard for a new movie: The Private Eyes, starring Tim Conway and Don Knots. A musician/songwriter trying to make it in LA, Pash was working on a song called "I Need You To Need Me," but he knew that title wasn't the right bait for this hook.

"A little lightbulb went off in my head," said Pash. "I turned the car around, went back to where I was living, banged it out on the piano, re-titled it 'Private Eyes' and changed the lyric."

The song became the third #1 hit for Hall & Oates and made the duo stars on MTV, thanks to a detective-themed visual motif. Embedded in their set lists from the start, it's still the last song they play before the house lights come on.

Pash made his Hall & Oates connection on Valentine's Day, 1980, when Daryl Hall and his songwriting partner Janna Allen came to Los Angeles. "They were fans of a band I was in called The Cheaters, and Daryl and I had a writing relationship for about a year when he would come to LA," said Pash. "He would throw some ideas at me and see if I could come up with anything, and nothing was really sticking, but he kept trying. And I was trying my best not to disappoint him, because like a lot of young people who didn't have a career at the time, I was intimidated by someone who was so talented. But I thought it was great that he wanted to work with me."

Janna Allen was an aspiring singer, and in 1981 she was back in New York looking for material. She missed out on "Kiss On My List," a song she wrote with Daryl, when the demo they made was deemed Hall & Oates hit material. (Daryl and John rarely knew when they had a hit on their hands, so they let the record company pick the singles. When the folks at RCA heard that "Kiss On My List" demo, there was no way they were giving it up. The song went to #1 in April, 1981 and stayed there for three weeks. "Private Eyes" followed seven months later.)

Returning to LA, Janna called Pash, who told her about "Private Eyes."

"We went in a little rehearsal room somewhere - I think it was five bucks an hour with a beat-up, old piano with cigarette burns and half the keys not working, and a cassette player. We banged it out with some stuff that she added to make it more singable for her and more melodic for her. She took it away and I said, 'OK, we'll see what happens.' She calls me maybe a month later and says, 'I don't think that song is for me.' I said, 'Yeah, I understand.' And she goes, 'But I think it's perfect for Daryl and John, so I gave the cassette to them.' I went, 'What are you trying to do, kill my opportunity to work with Daryl again? Why'd you give him that piece-of-crap tape?' She says, 'No, no, no... they'll know what to do with it.'"

They did indeed know what to do with it. Daryl Hall took it to Janna's sister, Sara Allen, who was his girlfriend (the muse for "Sara Smile") and also his collaborator - Pash calls them the "Goffin and King of the '80s." They molded it into a post-disco pop powerhouse, complete with that inescapable hand clap percussion and just the right flavor of synth.

"Private Eyes" was anointed the title track and lead single from the album, and issued a month after the debut of MTV. Ravenous for new music by American artists, the network put the video in hot rotation, where it became one of the great low-budget triumphs of early MTV.

Daryl Hall and John Oates considered music videos a necessary evil, akin to dental work. The "Private Eyes" promo was done at their rehearsal space while the bus was being loaded up for their tour. The director, Jay Dubin, was the right man for the job, since he had a similarly low opinion of the art form. Dubin abandoned a career in engineering and staked his claim in the music video gold rush. "I'm a fast talker, smarter than most," he told us in 2014. "I was a smart guy with geniuses; I just thought I could be a smart guy with dummies. I thought it would be a better life."

The "Private Eyes" video was a classic git-r-done affair. Someone had the foresight to buy fedoras and trench coats, but that's the limit of the planning. Dubin offers this account:

"There was no plan. It was just like, 'Whaddaya got around here? What can I do?' Okay, I got this, this, and this. All right. And I've got a camera. Let's do it. Get outta here. Okay, 'bye. Two hours, done, boom. Go and edit it and I finish the next day. It was no big thing. Had nothing to work with. You have the room and the two guys, and a couple of other guys. So you walk in and go, 'Okay, everybody sing, point the cameras at them. Okay, now we'll do a close up, now we'll do this, now we'll do that.' And, 'All right, I'll have it done in the morning.'"

The shoot took place around midnight when the band took a break from rehearsal. Soon after, they decamped for their Private Eyes arena tour. While they were on the road, the song shot to #1. Two months later their next single, "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)," notched the top spot.

For Warren Pash, having his humble song become the calling card for the biggest band in the land should have been a time of jubilation, a running-through-the-meadows moment soundtracked to "Mr. Blue Sky." But sometimes life intervenes even during the best of times.

Warren Pash
Photo: Theresa Kereakes
"My life was already changing as it was coming out," Pash explained. "My father dropped dead of a heart attack at 63 years old a week before it came out, so I had the strange sensation of being dropped on top of Mount Everest in a private helicopter, only to realize that I was rolling down the mountain. It was a time of great emotional extremes. It wasn't an easy time. It wasn't what's in your hopes and dreams before these things happen, that everything's going to be amazing and you're going to have this giant party and go dancing down the street. That's not what happened to me at all - it was quite bittersweet."

That goes a long way toward explaining why co-writer of the #1 hit "Private Eyes" is just a passing mention in his bio.

"After that, I became very disillusioned and disinterested in anything to do with pop music," said Pash. "I got into all kinds of darker goth stuff, just more off-the-grid stuff. That seemed to be where I was finding myself creatively and culturally."

So the disillusion was the circumstance, not the song then?

"I think it was a reaction to the enormity of the pain that came with that time, the personal family stuff. It was like, If this is what success is, I don't want anything to do with it. My brother died three years and a day before my father. My father dropped dead of a heart attack in a mental hospital where my mother was a patient - he died in front of her. It couldn't have gotten more difficult."

Pash landed on his feet, forming a band called Laughing Sam's Dice (from a Hendrix song: "The Stars That Play with Laughing Sam's Dice") that was produced by Steve Earle but never landed a deal. Relocating to Nashville in 2000, he joined a group called Swag in a lineup that included Ken Coomer from Wilco and Jerry Dale McFadden of The Mavericks. They played the Conan O'Brien Show in 2001. Pash released a solo album called Plastic Rulers in 2007 and is working on another one.

Janna Allen never did make her solo album, but remained a songwriting mainstay for Hall & Oates, co-writing "Did It In A Minute" and "Method Of Modern Love." She died of leukemia in 1993 at age 36.

Sara Allen had many additional hits as a co-writer as well, including "You Make My Dreams," "Maneater," and "Possession Obsession." She and Hall broke up circa 2001.

Daryl Hall still has fond feelings for the song (he wouldn't play it if he didn't), and he recently heard from another musician who was doing some detective work on it: Ben Folds, an upcoming guest on Live From Daryl's House. "He was really interested in the chord progressions of 'Private Eyes,'" Daryl told us. "That really fascinated him, and he never really knew them. He was watching me, and I sort of gave him a lesson on how these chords fall together."

What does Pash think when he hears the song today?

"I'm quite proud of it. And I think Daryl's a brilliant guy. He gave me the break of a lifetime. Every day I wake up and have a little thank you Daryl moment - and John and Sandy (Sara Allen) and Janna. I have tons of gratitude toward him and all the people in that camp for what they did for me. I was a nobody - I was not part of that family, and they brought me into it. It was amazing."

February 18, 2015
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Comments: 6

  • Albert Ross! from Tokyowhen I was little boy I thought the name of the group was ''Haulin' Oats''...
  • Susan Pethtal from Fairfax, VaWow. Immense tragedy! I can't imagine all of the loss Pash went through!
    And then Sara Allen goes on to write 3 more phenomenal songs and SHE dies at the incredibly young age of 36! Wow! Such heavy losses!
    I used to watch Live at Darryl's House and it was an amazing show with the best musicians that would come and sit in with Darryl and play in this gorgeous country home! I gotta look up the show!
    They were a great band. Good songs.
    Pop was not my mainstay form of music. I was constantly trying to get away from it. I was into Heavy metal and hard rock. Motley Crue, Molly Hatchet, Blackfoot, Ted Nugent, and Great White. I also liked a lot of the other bands that could do crossovers into Pop. Like 38 Special, KISS, Bob Seger, and Journey to name a few. The 70's music was my backbone. Late 60's and 70's formed me. But i still got a lot of attachments to the 80's! They were my accessories.
    Great interview!
  • Rebecca from Florida That was a wonderful interview. Bittersweet. I was lucky enough to have seen Laughing Sams Dice in the LA clubs and they were fantastic.
  • Ruth Pash from Wpg CanadaCongratulations on your socan award for this song u wrote!!!!!!!--
  • Jannelle Ormond from Victoria B.c. Canadavery interesting facts about the process of your creativity. like to hear more
  • Dave Matyas from Bellevue, WaThanks so much for the back-story. I enjoyed learning the little things, the details of how such great music came about. Keep it going.
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