Wednesday, December 10, 2008

J Geils Band Wanna Suck On Your Gums

In 1974 one of the stranger and more interesting songs on the Radio 5 playlist was a soul style rock tune called I Must Of Got Lost by the weirdly named J Geils Band. Not ever seeing the song title in print and not being au fait with America slang, I thought the song must be called I Must Have Got Lost, as that was the proper English, and for all I knew the artists were the Jay Giles Band. I liked the song. It had a sing-a-long chorus and a great lyric about how easy it is to lose your love: you never see it coming but you always see it going.

I Must Of Got Lost ranks up there for me as one of the great Seventies tunes. The Seventies tunes that aren't bubblegum, boogie, glam, disco or Abba. Unfortunately the J Geils Band never made it back onto the Radio 5 playlist until the release of Freeze Frame in the early Eighties, kind of their commercial peak, but not the best of the band by a long chalk. In between there was a long, dry spell when J Geils simply did not feature on the South African airwaves.

Round about 1979 I was at Stellenbosch record bar (I think it might have been Sigma Records) one day when there was a whole bunch of albums in the "sale" bin and one of them was the "Live" Full House album by the very selfsame J Geils Band.

It was a live recording released in 1972, it featured a version of John Lee Hooker's Serves You Right To Suffer (at the time I was listening to a Greatest Hits album of his and was very interested in anything else featur4ing his composer credit) and band members featured on the photographs on the back cover looked weird and mean at the same time, especially the wonderfully named Magic Dick whose hair was a band member all of its own.

I believe I listened to the first couple of tracks at the counter top turntable, as one was still able to do in those days, and was immediately blown away, and bought the album right there and then for something like R1,99, which turned out to be one of the great record bargains of my life.

Suffice to say, "Live" Full House immediately became one of my top albums of all time, a frequent guest on my tape deck (once I'd taped the album to preserve the integrity of the vinyl) and a dead cert for inclusion on my desert island disc LP's along with Dr Feelgood's Malpractice, as two examples, from different sided of the Atlantic no less, of how white boys can play the R & B card with energy, commitment and a sense of humour.

The Geils boys came from Boston, and the album was recorded in Detroit, at the time the hard rock capital of the USA, but they sure did rock the house with the Boston Monkey vibe, Peter Wolf's jive and the incredible talent of Magic Dick who was the blues harp maestro of the band. The other guys were not shabby either. This was high energy the way it ought to be.

First I Look At The Purse opens the album, and if one ignores the chauvinistic lyric – the man cares not for his woman's looks if she has a lot of bank – it is one of the great set openers of all time, soon followed by an equally intense and frantic Homework. The old one-two knockout punch. I could just see the crowd instantly up on their feet at the first notes.

As a quick aside I must mention that in 2004 I bought Nick Hornby's book 31 Songs, because he discussed influential tunes in his life, but mostly because First I Look At The Purse was one of those songs and I figured that a book featuring this song, and the album, as a personal top favourite could not be too shabby a read. Some of Hornby's choices seem a tad strange given my own preferences and predilections, but I guess that is what a personal selection is all about. Perhaps my own choices are not as radical or interesting as I might fondly believe.

"Take out your false teeth, mama, I wanna suck on your gums" must be one of the funniest and weirdest things ever said on a rock'n'roll by a White boy, even if that jiving White boy is Peter Wolf, who was probably born black but just did not know it and so he settled for being a Jewish motormouth with a ghetto slang all his own. This opening line precedes Pack Fair And Square, a fast little boogie showcasing Magic Dick and his blues harp deluxe.

Then Magic Dick really gets it on with Whammer Jammer, and instrumental where he blows his face out and the band rollicks behind him in fine style. The tune is short but makes its mark. Many years later Whammer Jammer became a featured blues harp wailing number for Cape Town blues musician Rob Nagel in bands like All Night Radio and The Flaming Firestones. Just for this reason alone I really rated Nagel; if he could be into such a relatively obscure album, he must be the real deal.

The first side of the album ends with Hard Drivin' Man, a road song of sorts where Wolf really goads the happy and noisy crowd into a frenzy with his reference to various dance routines culminating in the so-called Detroit Demolition, which he probably made up on the spot. For the first time the eponymous J Geils makes a very audible appearance on guitar, and Seth Justman pounds the ivories as if he were channelling Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

After the power and energy of the opening side of the album, the band slows down a tad to get into the South side of Chicago groove of Serve You Right To Suffer, one of the few really great covers of John Lee Hooker songs. Peter Wolf turns what is actually something a hateful lyric into an almost comedy routine. At almost 10 minutes it is also by far the longest tune of the set, almost the equivalent of the bloated, lengthy jams boogie bands tend to slip into to make up time on their sets, but in this case there is no tedious or extraneous histrionics and the song almost seems to short. Seth Justman goes crazy on the Hammond B3 and J Geils gives every other living White bluesman a run for their money with a rip-roaring solo of extreme blues power.

J Geils Band close the show with another one-two knockout combo of the stomping R & B tunes, Cruisin' for A Love and Looking For A Love, that must have brought the crowd back to their feet, punching the air and generally getting down something fierce. Wolf and the boys took the crowd by the scruff of the neck, made them sweat, wrung them dry and wiped the floor with them. "Live" Full House is one of those albums, and the brevity of the set also has something to do with it, that I used to turn over and listen to again from side one as soon as Looking For A Love ended. It was very much like the brief yet intense rush of crack cocaine long before I had even heard of crack.

Definitely one of my desert island discs!

My next J Geils purchase happened to be Nightmares (and other tales from the vinyl jungle) the 1974 album from which I Must Of Got Lost was taken, and this album too was bought at a record sale at Sigma Records. The low price was the unique selling proposition because it seemed to me that from the track listing on the back that the blues part of the band had gone for a bit of a loop, and I remembered the wise words of some rock critic or other, referring to a later J Geils album, perhaps Monkey Island, that things tend to go wrong in funky R & B bands when the keyboard player takes over the songwriting function. I think the explanation was that keyboard players want to write and record sloppy ballads, showcasing their sensitive keyboard-playing ability and mawkish sentiments that seem to go hand in hand with the ballad fixation. Keyboard players tend to be musically educated and like to show off those chops, whereas the guitar player is more likely to play according to feel and groove.

Anyhow, Nightmares was a different kettle of fish to "Live" Full House and at first listen I was shocked by the difference and very glad I'd paid so little for it. I only like I Must Of Got Lost and the Magic Dick feature Stoop Down #39 which was about the only blues derivative on the album. J Geils had gone all sophisticated mid-Seventies soul infused funk and I was not sure I liked it all that much. The title track was not even much of a tune but more of a skit about, well, nightmares. Nightmares is not a bad album by any means, and it was a bit of a grower for me but it has never had the same visceral excitement as that live set.

In about 1982 J Geils Band popped up as pop-R & B hitmakers with Centerfold and I was happy for them that success was happening at last, or maybe it was a second round of success. Over the years I'd regularly read reviews of current releases, mostly in the NME who had an ideological thing about most American music made by White guys, and a particular dislike for White men who presumed to venture into what was considered to be a Black genre, and on the whole the NME writers panned J Geils Band. For this reason, and after my experience with Nightmares I made no effort to buy any more of their album. It must mean that I was shallow enough to be guided by the not necessarily infallible tastes of a bunch of prejudiced Brits, but I had limited resources and concentrated on records I believed would be worthwhile owning, although I must confess that price was always a serious consideration when it came to making the decision to buy something. If it were cheap, I did not mind taking a risk. J Geils Band simply did not seem like a risk worth taking. I preferred sticking to the unblemished perfection of "Live" Full House.

As an aside I should mention that it took me almost 17 years or so before I bought a CD version of "Live" Full House. In 2005 I was flipping through the electronic catalogue of Amazon when I looked up J Geils Band and saw that they had a terrific deal where you could buy the Houseparty J Geils Anthology double CD and get "Live" Full House thrown in at a special low, low price. I did the deal and waited for delivery. As it happened the albums were delivered to my office during my first ever overseas holiday.)

When I returned home I had the unadulterated pleasure of getting down and dirty to the Geils boys rocking the house in Detroit, and finding out more about their career as set out in the two CD's of the anthology. Some of the tracks were from "Live" Full House, and some from the first couple of albums, but most of them came from the middle part of their career and showcased a soulful R & B band growing ever slicker as time passed. Those early tracks were still the best, though.

I had in any event kind of caught up with the development of the J Geils Band by way of expanding my vinyl collection in the late 90s. There were a couple of music shops in Cape Town that still sold vinyl as well as CD's and they were Outlaw Records and Vibes Vinyl, both of which were favourite haunts of mine where I spent a lot of money over the years.

Vibes, in particular, had the best selection of records and it was from them that I bought The Morning After (the second album), Ladies Invited,
Love Stinks and a third live album. These albums represented the more sophisticated, progressive aspects of J Geils, with lots of good tunes had good playing and they brought joy in not the total adulation I had for "Live" Full House. By the time I bought the records, I had long since ceased to buy vinyl and my interest in J Geils Band was historical more than anything else, and the records were cheap. As had been my practice so many years before, I taped the albums and then put them away and listened only to my tapes. This selection of records represents the kind of collection where one could easily just lift a few tracks off each album and then make a decent double album. Not one of the records made compelling listening on their own and I was glad I had not paid full price for them and to this day I have not felt the need to replicate them in digital format. The Anthology double CD took care of that anyway.

The only J Geils album I would still like to own is the post Nightmares double live set Blow Your Face Out, Baby! that is a record of the band at the peak of their first taste of commercial success, playing stadiums and going large. It may be, as some critics claimed, bloated and self-indulgent but I believe it could well the same powerhouse set of high energy rock and blues and R & B represented by "Live" Full House.

The thing of life is that one can never regain the visceral excitement new discoveries bring, and you can never feel about records the same way you felt about them as teenager, whether you relisten to old favourites or hear new music, but new, previously unheard music is always interesting on first listen and if you are lucky you may well have a hint of that old feeling of orgasmic pleasure that a genuinely great record brought you once. J Geils was one of those bands, one of those unexpectedly delightful discoveries, and for this reason they will always rank in my estimation as being on par with Dr Feelgood and Cream.

How can you resist a record where the lead singer introduces the blues harp player with "On the lickin' stick: Mister Magic Dick!" ?


No comments: