Monday, August 04, 2014

J Geils Band revisited

Live: Full House (1972) was my full scale introduction to the J Geils Band as a smart, snappy, rumbustious R & B and blues based rock and roll band. That was around 1978 or 1979. I first took note of them, though, when "I Must Of Got Lost" from the 1974 album Nightmares … And Other Tales From The Vinyl Jungle received a fair amount of airplay on Radio 5 (as it then was) in 1975 when it took over from LM Radio as South Africa's rock radio station. This tune was considerable different to the crowd pleasing R & B styles of the live album. It was still R & B bur not the gut bucket variety that caught my attention in the first place and rather a smoother more soulful mid-Seventies version with less brio and more soulfulness, the kind of pathos that is eminently suited to a heartbreak ballad.

The lines "you never see love coming but you always see it go" was quite inspirational to me, who had not even see love go yet and had definitely not seen it coming either.

Anyway, this song was the only J Geils tune that was played on local rock radio, as far as I knew, until "Centerfold" became a massive hit in 1981. I did not even know from album "I Must of Got Lost" came and in fact, until I saw the spelling on the album cover, I thought the song was called "I Must've Got Lost." At the time my knowledge of American slang was sketchy.

I guess it must have relatively soon after I acquired Live: Full House that Nightmares popped up in a bargain bin at a Stellenbosch record store and I bought partly because it was the J Geils Band and partly because it had "I Must of Got Lost" and "Stoop Down #39" on it. I had fond memories of the former and I knew that "Stoop Down" was a harp blues classic and guessed that this was a version of it.

On first listen I was somewhat disappointed because the high energy and brio of Live: Full House was just not there and at the time, when I was in my late teens of very early Twenties, I did not care all that much for soulful White R & B. "I Must of Got Lost" was the killer, and "Stoop Down #39" was as great as I had hoped and "Detroit Breakdown" was a strong opener but the title track was a brief skit and "Funky Judge" was a joke that did not make me laugh all that much.

I think it was Robert Christgau who remarked of the J Geils Band, and possibly particularly when reviewing Nightmares, that it is always a danger sign when the keyboard player in a rock and starts contributing the lion's share of songs. Keyboard player tend to have musical pretences guitar player do not have and want to make more ambitious music, often also more precious and pretentious music. On Nightmares is certainly seemed as if J Geils' fiery guitar playing had been downplayed in favour of the keyboard driven soul grooves.

Over time, after repeated listening and probably as my musical tastes broadened, Nightmares began sounding a lot better and even quite enjoyable if not as viscerally pleasing as Live: Full House, still one of my top ten favourite albums of all time. I spent good money on importing this album and the J Geils Band Anthology double CD from the USA back in 2005 and waited until 2013 and a very good price on iTunes before I bought Nightmares again.

This time around, perhaps because of the nostalgic rush of revisiting of an album I'd not listened to in a very long time, the record does sound damn fine. The rhythm section is tough, J Geils does spank that plank with a satisfactory degree of thoroughness, Magic Dick is still the master of the lickin' stick, Peter Wolf sings the hell out of the songs that are in truth strictly top drawer. In short, I'm loving this record again.

Many years after buying Live: Full House and Nightmares, I went on a bit of a J Geils spree when a couple of their records in Vibes Music second hand record store and I bought The Morning After, Love Stinks and Showtime! The first LP of the three was in a bad state and I could not really play it. And, also, by the time I bought The Morning After my turntable was not working too well anymore. The condition of the other albums was good enough for me to be able to tape them onto C90 cassette tapes and listen to them that way.

The later period J Geils band was a good time late Seventies R & B infuse rock band with a good deal of energy and some decent tunes. The music was not nearly as visceral as the Live: Full House set but every album represented a decent effort at making a pop music with some more smarts than the usual dumb stuff on AM radio. I must admit though, that I would not have paid much attention to that style of music when the albums were contemporary releases because they did not rock enough in the way I liked to be rocked back then.

This also applied to Nightmares, which I bought purely because it was the J Geils Band and because it was cheap. And probably because "I Must Of Got Lost" was on it. I would never have paid the full price for that kind of record. It just was not loud and fast enough for me. Fortunately Nightmares kind of grew on me over time, like the slow songs on It's Only Rock 'n Roll, which I also disliked at first and eventually liked most of all, apart from the title track and "Ain't Too Proud To Beg." In the same way the generally slower tunes on Nightmares also became good friends by and by. It was also due to a degree of musical maturity that had kicked in by then, that I could buy and appreciate the later albums in die J Geils oeuvre, like Love Stinks, which more or less carry on in the sophisticated R & B vein of Nightmares, before the somewhat slicker Eighties pop reinvention of Freeze Frame.

I recently watched a YouTube clip of a section of a 1972 show of the J Geils Band, around the time Live: Full House was recorded, of a medley of "Floyd s Hotel", a Peter Wolf jive novelty number, and "Hard Driving Man," another version of which is on Live: Full House although some of Wolf's vocal antics are a tad over the top and too much like old fashioned huckstering and showbiz, perhaps knowingly so, the performance is high energy and a good visual complement to the live album. The quality of the black and white clip is often poor and every now and then truly odd psychedelicisms pop up, as if 1967 was still alive and well for a fairly non-psychedelic band, but somehow the weirdness fits in well with the music and the performance. It is a blast from the past and it looks so dark and primitive it could be from the archives of the Fifties or earlier. Peter Wolf's neatly coiffed beard gives away that the band is very much early-Seventies, New York hip; not quite the scruffy hippie bears of the late Sixties.

The oddest thing, though, is that Peter Wolf straps on a foam rubber guitar that he plays with while he performs the two tunes on the clip. He doesn't go air guitar crazy with it and that is really the weird part. Why does he have this faux guitar if he is not going to make a feature of it? Having said that, the performance is full of pure, nervous high energy similar to what one hears on Live: Full House. Whereas the prog rock bands of the era simply stood on stage, possibly not even engaging with their audiences and simply getting on with the job of replicating the most recent album, the J Geils Band sweated, jived, hustled and delivered a high octane show that truly entertained the fans who were there to jive too and not simply to stand watching the noodling musicians on the stage.


J Geils Band (1970) and The Morning After (1971) provide the material for Live: Full House and are probably the first and last sightings of the band as the tough, gritty and unvarnished White R & B band that first live album celebrates. Three years later the band was a known entity with ambitions to hit singles and career longevity. Progression is the watchword for serious ambitious bands, and was particularly big in the Seventies but in many cases progression means that technical ability improves at the expense of raw energy and passion. Some of this is true for J Geils Band too though they made pretty decent albums all the way through the Seventies and into the early Eighties. Freeze Frame proves my point, I think, in that the album is smooth, sophisticated and has the hits yet almost feels like joke record; music made with the tongue firmly in the cheek and with a knowing smirk, more so than even the younger jive talking Peter Wolf would have let on. There is no longer any sense that the Boston bad boys are keeping it real in any way whatsoever. Now the swagger has become a mannerism where once it was an expression of youthful vigour and insouciance.

This is why one should not be an unhappy that any band made just one damn good record and why, in the main, there is no real need to own every album made by any artist, however legendary they may be. No-one is infallible and no-one can make one compelling record after another for 40 or fifty years.

J Geils Band will always be one of my top bands of all time, and Live; Full House will always be my number one Geils album and will always be in my list of all-time favourites.



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