Snapshot J. Geils Band Images, Frozen Without A Sound

1. Put on the J. Geils Band’s self-titled debut during muted pre-Obama-interview Super Bowl pre-game festivities, and yeah, it pretty much kicks the butt of every other Geils album I’ve pulled out lately. Just real solid, and never much winds up seeming stodgy or sluggish no matter how bar-band blues it gets. Six covers out of 11 tracks (assuming Jukejoint Jimmy, who wrote “Cruisin’ For a Love,” is not connected with the band), but I think my favorite cut might be an original — namely “Hard Drivin’ Man,” which is some truly hard drivin’ music actually. (Also pretty sure it used to get played on rock stations in Detroit.) After that, I’d probably pick “Homework” (from Otis Rush) or the hilarious “First I Look At The Purse” (from Smokey Robinson). Album truly gives you a better idea why the band was named after their guitar player in the first place, though I do love those funky tribal-glam Burundi drums in the closing Albert Collins instrumental, “Sno Cone.” Band looks badass on the LP cover, too — Peter Wolf’s picture actually makes me wonder whether Steve Tyler might have learned a pose or two from him up in Boston.

2. Had actually forgotten The Morning After from ’71 was on my shelf. Will say this — it’s consistent. But nothing much seems great on it. Pretty sure “I Don’t Need You No More”, “Looking For A Love” (Bobby Womack/Valentinos soul cover and Geils’ first top 40 single, though just barely), and “Wammer Jammer” (which must be the most popular harmonica instrumental in rock’n’roll history, unless I’m forgetting something) used to get played on Detroit radio; possibly one or both of the interchangeable ballads (one a Don Covay cover apparently), too. Am proud of myself for thinking “So Sharp” on Side One sounded a lot like “Funky Broadway” before noticing the cover says it’s “in memory of ‘Dyke’ Arlester Christian,” who wrote it. “Floyd’s Hotel” is an okay Wolf jive rap, and the band stretches out somewhat in side closers “Gotta Have Your Love” and “It Ain’t What You Do (It’s How You Do It)” — okay, maybe that last one is great, I dunno, but you have to sit through the whole album to get there. And albumwide the guitars never sound beefed up like they did on the debut. Awesome LP cover, though.

3. Third studio set, Bloodshot, from 1973 — their only top 10 Billboard album before Freeze-Frame, strangely (even Love Stinks only got to #18) — turns out, again, to be consistently at least fair but almost never terrific. Only great great great cut would probably be closer “Give It To Me,” not so much for its shorter Top 30 single version (still probably Geils’ best reggae ever) but for the multidirectional rhythm workout it turns into in the six-and-a-half- minute mix that closes the LP — Magic Dick harp solo into fluid almost proto-disco funk into a Mardi Gras sort of parade drum thing, all seamless. After that I’d take side-openers “(Ain’t Nothin’ But A) House Party” and maybe “Southside Shuffle,” but I could take or leave the rest. “Don’t Try To Hide It” at the end of Side One seems to be trying to do some kind of second-line New Orleans funeral wake rhythm, too, but its groove winds up a diet version of Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” of all things. And they clearly tried to hide all the filler in the middle of both sides.

4. Like both Nightmares (And Other Tales From the Vinyl Jungle) from 1974 Monkey Island from 1977, but gotta say, not as much as I expected to — maybe I just wish the band kicked harder? Still confused about why Monkey Island is (or at least used to be) considered the band’s early classic. Guess just because it seems kind of dark, with the title track (which I suppose is supposed to sound reggae maybe?) and “Wreckage” and all. Like that album more overall, I guess, for its overriding mood, though Nightmares has “Detroit Shakedown” and “Must of Got Lost” (more replayable without the famous interminable Blow Your Face Out live monologue intro about Woover Groover with the green teeth) and the Shorty Long/Pigmeat Markham update “Funky Judge” and I guess Screamin’ Jay Hawkins update “Nightmares,” which is mainly Wolf doing his old-school race-music DJ rap thing on Halloween. Maybe somebody should compile all his old “raps” on one record; give or take Steve Tyler (another Bostonian, wonder why), seems he was more ready than any other classic rocker when hip-hop came along. Don’t know if he ever quite did anything about it, though.

5. Gave Monkey Island another listen; still stumped why ’70s rock critics considered it their high point, when really it was just their most pretentious record. Only actual “reggae” I notice (with stabs at dub and instrumental ska, never really pulled off), is in the intro to the nine-minute title track, which from there turns into an even less realized answer to Springsteen’s “Jungleland” or something. (Guessing the “island” is more likely Manhattan than, say, Martha’s Vineyard, but it’s not like Wolf says anything about it either way, except that you get stuck there; also, too bad the title chorus begs the racism question.) “Wreckage,” another long morose moody track with an almost-metal guitar climax ending the album, is better but still pretty vague; to me, these seem more like unfinished versions of Geils’ just as dark but way more muscular and less half-baked stuff on Sanctuary a year later. Same goes for “Somebody,” a paranoid sort of thing about being chased or followed. Opening cut “Surrender” starts out as the kind of post-Santana percussion-rock experiment that got Barrabas and Babe Ruth tracks into discos; backup vocal (either Luther Vandross or one of three women named in the liner notes) could even pass for Babe Ruth’s Jenny Haan, but it’s still no killer cut. “I Do” is the radio hit (#24 pop) and, really, the most memorable thing on the album. “I’m Not Rough” is a pretty decent Louis Armstrong cover. And there’s a couple ballads.

6. I’ve pretty much decided (albeit with perhaps more research pending) that Sanctuary from 1978 is my favorite album by them. The debut and Freeze-Frame (two very different records obviously) come close, but this one somehow splits the difference between what’s great about those two — Geils’s toughest, meatiest, most sinewy no-nonsense blues-rock sound since their first couple, but they’re already figuring out the clever ingratiating pop-craft skills that’d get them into the Top 10 in the early ’80s. Everything’s credited to Wolf et.al.; no cover versions (though “I Don’t Hang Around Much Anymore,” one of two cuts in the middle of side two that I’d call merely good, comes close), and probably as consistent an album as they ever made. Heavy, but not so much guitar-heavy; funky but rarely fast and never frivolous — guess the sound is just dense, and there are plenty of minor keys or something, but the songwriting is so good (best: #32 pop hit “One Last Kiss,” sax-crazed dance-rocker “Wild Man,” AOR hit at least in Detroit “Just Can’t Stop Me,” extremely menacing title track) that the darkness and even dirgeness never get dull like they mostly did on Monkey Island. A lot of it seems to be a breakup record (when exactly was Wolf with Faye Dunaway? No idea, probably not near this, but it’d be cool if she’d just dumped him), and I dunno what Wolf’s religious upbringing was but Boston’s clearly got plenty of Catholics, and the “Sanctuary”/”Teresa” pairing at the end of Side One is total Catholic Rock (“Teresa” is basically a prayer, pleading for help from the Saint, complete with high-mass piano.) Played the thing back to back with Darkness At The Edge Of Town yesterday — another depressive bar-band blues-rock LP by a catechism-obsessed upper East Coaster from the same year — and maybe Bruce managed higher high points but Geils still won the contest easy, with way less let-up and fewer dead spots.

7. Hadn’t realized how much of the rest of Love Stinks (outside the obvious instant classic title cut, which I only ever owned as a 45 until I picked up the LP for $1 a couple weeks ago) got rock radio airplay, but listening to it, I’m almost positive I remember hearing four other tracks (so, in total, 5 out of 9) in Detroit at the time: “Just Can’t Wait” (#78 pop single, sorta Carsy new wave move); “Come Back” (#32 pop hit — technically higher than the title track’s #38 oddly enough — with a cool expansive rhythm break at least in the 5:09 LP version, not sure if the 45 was shorter or not); “Night Time” (bluesy bar band cover of 1966 hit by quasi garage band the Strangeloves of “I Want Candy” fame); “Till The Walls Come Down” (which I would’ve guessed had come off one of Geils’ late ’70s albums — sounds less slick than most of the rest of what’s here.) (Actually, I could be wrong about “Night Time”‘s airplay — never hit me before that George Thorogood covered it in 1980 too; maybe his version got played instead? Or maybe even both did, the same year??) Anyway, these are all catchy enough, and add up a pretty good LP — sort of a transition between Sanctuary and Freeze-Frame, though not as good as either of those. Plus “Takin’ You Down” and “Tryin’ Not To Think About It” have moderately heavy guitar bits — riff in the latter reminds me a little of “Buick MacKane” by T. Rex, though the song wanders otherwise. Which leaves “Desire” (a mess of a ballad which Robert Christgau pretty accurately called “endless at 3:35”), and the spoken-word sorta old-time radio serial parody “No Anchovies Please,” which I’d remembered as being really short, but actually lasts a pointless and punchline-free 2:39. Album made Dave Marsh’s Top 10 that year (above Second Edition and London Calling!) regardless.

8. Interesting that — how many bands can you say this about? — their most blatantly pop album, Freeze-Frame, is also probably their most blatantly experimental album. (Well, besides Monkey Island maybe, but I still haven’t figured out what experiments they were conducting on that one.) Anyway, I’m mainly thinking of three non-hit tracks nobody ever talks about — “Rage In A Cage,” “Insane, Insane Again,” and “River Blindness” — where it sounds like they were listening to, maybe, the Contortions or James “Blood” Ulmer or harmolodic-era Ornette Coleman or Captain Beefheart or the Gang Of Four. Frequently frantic funk-via-free-jazz stuff, in other words, yet given a rock push that usually helps to keep it catchy. Also love album-closer “Piss On The Wall,” which sounds like ’60s frat rock (those post-doo-wop bah-buh-buh-bah parts) sung in an ironic snotty ’70s punk voice. That the new wave move was intentional is clear from the LP cover alone — not unlike Alice Cooper’s excellent 1980 Flush the Fashion, which likewise harked back to ‘60s garages. And of course there’s also “Centerfold,” “Freeze Frame” (kinda weirdly angled itself), “Angel In Blue” (one of their most moving ballads) and especially “Flamethrower” — the last their best rhythm experiment ever, which is why it got played so much on funk stations (well, at least WGPR in Detroit, Electrifyin’ Mojo’s show) when this came out. Can’t think of many other early ’80s rock tracks that had a better idea of where black pop was heading: “Voices Inside My Head” by the Police, maybe? Either way, “Flamethrower” is way up there. So actually, I might prefer this to Sanctuary after all, even if Geils’s nastier hard-rock tendencies were mostly left behind in the ’70s.

9. Showtime! is a “historic live album” (its cover says) from 1982, post-Love Stinks/Freeze Frame. I’m thinking they were basically a studio band by this point, just a lot slicker than in the ’70s, and it shows — way more horns than guitars even in previously fairly heavy-ish songs, my ears tell me, and only in non-hit “Stoop Down #39” (from Nightmares) and maybe the closing cover of “Land Of A Thousand Dances” (which goes into a sort of James Brown vamp) do you hear much musicianly interplay or possible spontaneity going on. Still, the slickness doesn’t bother me much; selection’s passable enough. “Love Rap” at the end of Side One is 5:14 of Peter Wolf standup comedy jive-talk about Adam and Eve, embarrassingly minstrel-like in its attempts at blackness; he works in Rapudah the Beyoodah stuff, No Anchovies stuff, lame Cheech & Chong-style pot jokes about getting the munchies, etc. Odd thing is how Side One ends with the word “love,” and then “Love Stinks” on Side Two starts with the word “stinks” — weird that they split it up like that.

10. Finally, there’s Lights Out, Peter Wolf’s first solo LP, from ’84 — not nearly as loaded with Michael Jonzun electrofreakazoid beats as often claimed (by people other than Christgau) at the time: Only “Mars Need Women” (how many bands have done songs with that title? There’s even one on the new Rob Zombie album!) and maybe Army-maching-cadence-inspired “Oo-ee-diddley-bop!” come anywhere near Jonzun Crew levels, though closer “Billy Big Time” is the biggest funky surprise — a sequel to Electrifyin’ Mojo hit “Flamethrower,” sounds like, possibly with a decent rebel story attached. The rest is mainly reasonably crafty Prince-age crossover pop, ballads (not as Motowny as Xgau suggested, but still nice) and more upbeat trifles like the title-track hit and “Crazy” (sort of Wolf’s version of Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right” in that he keeps telling some girl how crazy he is but you never buy it for a minute.) He also covers Billie Holiday’s suicidal show blues “Gloomy Sunday,” for some reason; maybe he was inspired by the Lydia Lunch version from a few years before? Okay, probably not. Still, overall, another real good example of how spirited mainstream pop sounded in 1984.

I Love Music, 2010

1 comment

  1. “Jukejoint Jimmy” is a pseudonym for the whole band. And yes, both Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were huge J. Geils Band fans growing up in Boston. Perry said so himself one more than one occasion.

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