Friday, October 14, 2005

Why the J. Geils Band Belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The nomination of the J. Geils Band to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was met by some folks with a scratch of the head. What was it about this Boston-based band, who scored a few FM radio hits in the 1970s but aside from the early-1980s smashes "Centerfold" and "Freeze-Frame" never got the attention they deserved, that places them in the pantheon of great American rock and roll bands? Here's a few comments from a discussion that transpired on the email list that inspired this blog:

Steve Messick writes:
It was partly Peter Wolf's singing, but also the material. They wrote and picked really good-to-great songs.

To me, though, there's a couple of myths surrounding the Geils band. The general one is that the first couple/few albums are good, the ones in the middle are bad, and then they were good again. True, the first two, maybe three, studio albums are wonderful. True, the stuff in the middle isn't as good as those first three, but they're still really good. The real thing wrong with those albums is that they don't exhibit any growth...the playing is still top notch, and the energy is there. The songs mostly aren't as memorable. The last four studio albums, though, have growth in spades. Monkey Island, to me, is an overlooked classic, the way a Nick Drake album is to some yahoo over at Spin. (Magic Dick shows his chops on that one.) Sanctuary was a step back in one sense (not as sprawling, less variety in the keyboard textures), but the songwriting is more focused and streamlined, with a higher sense of craft (not that they didn't have this before, but it's really consistent here). Love Stinks and Freeze Frame continue those directions, becoming more accessible and more exploratory at the same time.

The second myth, if you've ever been around blues purists, is an extension of the first: everything after Bloodshot sucks. Okay, maybe that's not quite it. Really, it's that Love Stinks and Freeze Frame suck (the other stuff is sort of assumed, since most of those guys stopped listening after Bloodshot, or, more likely, the live album that preceded it).

This is silly, and says more about the listener than about the band. When I was on an Internet mailing list for harmonica players, one guy actually wrote back to me "'Whammer Jammer’ good, 'Centerfold' bad." Or maybe he wrote "...'nah nah, nah nah nah nah' bad" (which is sorta funny). Either way, they didn't like the change, because the band wasn’t bluesy anymore, it was pop. But to me, the pop sensibility was there from the get-go. Short songs, with hooks, like the blues guys they listened to. On the flip side, I don't think the blues/R&B roots ever left what they did, not even counting their in-concert version of "Land of 1,000 Dances."

And that gets to the thing I love about the J. Geils Band, aside from the music itself. The sense of yin and yang. Great studio band, killer live act. Tight band, crazed frontman. I really can't think of anything about the band that doesn’t make me think of something in tandem with it.

The rhythm section...Stephen Jo Bladd and Danny Klein are so tight and right, I can't think of one without the other (but I can think of Charlie Watts without Bill Wyman). Tight and loose at the same time. Versatile--blues shuffles, soul grooves, reggae riddims, country, arena rock--they played each like it was the only thing they knew how to do. Never overplaying. I'm not sure that any rock band of the 70s had a better rhythm section.

The soloists...almost a misnomer, since even on the live albums (where they do stretch out a bit), J. Geils, Magic Dick, and Seth Justman all play concisely. The song, or rather, the presentation of the song, is the thing. And these guys are all phenomenal on their instruments, so they could've been forgiven some showing off. And again, versatility.

Songwriting...Wolf and Justman worked really well together. "Teresa", "Angel in Blue," "River Blindness," "Musta Got Lost," "Give It Up." On top of that, their choice of cover material was top-notch.

The frontman...Wolf was one of the best fronters in all of rock & roll. His sense of history rivals anyone's, and he brought the whole ball of wax to the stage. Manic energy, great singing, James Brown, Mick Jagger, and Van Morrison all rolled into one, and an influence on anybody from Springsteen to Steven Tyler. But he wasn't just showboating, and he couldn't have done it without the band that surrounded him. He knew that. And like everyone else in the band, he did what was needed, but nothing excessive.

Dave Marsh writes:

This is a first-rate analysis. But the key is also that the sum of the parts was often beside the point, because the parts themselves were so grand. Imagine a jam band with a sense of humor, an authentic rhythm section with the ability to shuffle and swing both, a couple guys with the chops (Pete and drummer Stephen Jo Bladd) to sing doowop, one of the great harp men, fantastic guitarist, musical genius keyboardist and arranger (Seth Justman who musta been about 15 when he joined them), and on top of that, a frontman who really could dance and sing (the real Mick Jagger by my lights; meaning, I think of him the way others think of Mick, except I don't need all the excuses)...

They were the only great American rock band that lasted.

I think the thing Steve is talking about with the balance and the conciseness--to me, the model for it all was the Stones, sure, but even more than that the great Muddy Waters Band with Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter.

The BEST live show. HUGE parts of Springsteen’s act are excavated from studying Peter; as much as from Sam Moore, no lie.

I remember the first day that Geils came to town. I conked my hair like J.'s, and it took three weeks to wash out.(What did I know? There wasn't all this honky hair gel then, and anyhow I lived in a basically black neighborhood, at least as to hair products). And they came to the Creem house and we were all blown away, instant friends, instant party, then we walked three blocks and went to Fortune Records and that was like the beginning of a cult. And then...and then they played that night, and it was like maybe 500 people in a theater (Eastown Ballroom) for maybe 2000 or 2500. Everybody was in the back of the dance floor, which had a severe rake down to the stage, 'cause it had been a movie house. Everybody hung back. I would say we hung back for like, probably, a whole chorus and then everybody was down front and swinging and rocking and bopping. White folk REALLY danced that night, even me. It was hard to do, too, 'cause you could barely breathe, it was all so perfect. I can't remember the set list but I can't remember the set lists of any of the ten greatest shows I’ve ever seen, because they all seem to happen in an INSTANT, like in the blink of a finger in your eye or something.

So whatever you can hear on the records, multiply by many dozens and then, if you're in Detroit, some exponent of that. High exponent, too.


Anonymous krankyman said...

J. Geils Band was a killer killer
live act. i saw them at the Aragon
Ballroom in Chicago in the seventies. i had a throat infection
but that didn't stop me from seeing
them. They absolutely rocked. One of the best live acts i have ever seen.

12:39 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home