Tuesday, February 18, 2014

J. Geils Band - The Long Haul To The Top

When the J. Geils Band rocketed to the top of world charts in early ‘82, many would have thought (as I did at the time) that they were a relatively new artist who had suddenly cracked the formula for chart success.  But beyond the centrefold of their success lay a road paved with the ebbs and flows of a fifteen year ascent to the top.  What follows is a closer look at that journey.

In 1967, Boston based guitarist Jerome ‘J’ Geils started up an acoustic blues trio called, imaginatively enough, the J. Geils Blues Band.  Alongside J, were bassist Danny Klein, and harpist come harmonica come saxophone player ‘Magic Dick’ Salwitz.  A few months into the venture they recruited vocalist Peter ‘Wolf’ Blankfield, and drummer Stephen Jo Bladd, and soon after the quintet plugged in and went electric.  Both Wolf and Bladd had played together previously in the doo-wop and rock revivalist band the Hallucinations.  Their addition to the J. Geils Blues Band added the extra dimension of doo-wop and rock & roll ambience to  proceedings.  Wolf in particular had a larger than life persona, a kind of hyper-kinetic front man in the manner of Jagger and Iggy Pop.  Within a year they had dropped the ‘Blues’ from their moniker and added keyboardist, and song writer Seth Justman to the company.

The J. Geils Band played relentlessly in Boston and the East Coast and built up a strong following and reputation for being a dynamic live act, a bar band gone big (and baaaad), churning out a no-nonsense fusion of blues, rock, R&B, and soul.  The band had positioned themselves as East Coast ‘greasers’, the antithesis of the prevalent psychedelic-rock movement of the time.  Such was their reputation in the region that they were invited to play Woodstock in 1969, an invitation they declined (out of integrity or stupidity? - who knows).  They were playing support for Dr. John in 1969, when they were spotted by a talent scout from Atlantic Records, and they were duly signed to a recording contract soon after.

Atlantic released the J. Geils Band’s eponymous debut set in February of ‘71.  Though neither album or associated singles, ‘Homework’ and ‘Wait’, made the chart grade, critics were impressed with the band’s high energy takes on classic blues numbers by the likes of Otis Rush and John Lee Hooker, along with several Peter Wolf and Seth Justman compositions.  It was a meagre appetiser for what would be served up in the years to come.

What followed the night before, arrived ‘The Morning After’ (US#64) in the form of the J. Geils Band’s second album.  The album, released in late ’71, offered up the same blend of rock infused blues and soul numbers, with once again a mixture of covers and original songs on offer.  The track that brought the rock band to the attention of a more mainstream audience, was the top 40 cover of Bobby Womacks’ ‘Looking For Love’ (US#39).  The Justman/Wolf original ‘I  Don’t Need You No More’ is a dynamic album opener, and to prove the band had a gear other than overdrive, the rock ballad ‘Cry One More Time’ is on offer.

As the J. Geils Band had built up such a phenomenal following as a live act, it was logical that the group venture into live album territory, which is exactly what they did in October of ‘72.  ‘Live - Full House’ (US#54) was recorded at Detroit’s Cinderella Ballroom, and the band churns out songs from their first two albums.  J. Geils Band were among one of the most popular touring acts in the U.S. during this era.  Their shows were built around high energy, no frills, rock infused R&B.  Peter Wolf had the perfect onstage persona, fusing  scorching vocals with jive talkin’ DJ like banter (he had previously been a DJ on Boston radio station WBCN-FM, where he was known as Woofuh Goofuh), with a  churlish attitude reminiscent of Iggy Pop.  This album catches all the forceful rock energy J. Geils Band had to offer - and that was plenty some.

The band then returned to the studio in early ‘73 to record their third studio album.  ‘Bloodshot’ was released in April of ‘73, and boasted nine high energy tracks in all, with all but two original Justman and Wolf compositions.  The reggae inflected ‘Give It To Me’ closed the album but opened the single releases with a #30 effort.  The band performed the song on the U.S. TV show ‘In Concert’ where censors removed the phrase ‘get it up’ from the lyrics (it was still the 70s after all).  The doo-wop-ish ‘Make Up Your Mind’ skimmed the very surface of the U.S. Hot 100 (#98), but the album delivered J. Geils Band their first top ten effort (#10) and first gold album.

The follow up album, ‘Ladies Invited’ (US#51), was the first J. Geils Band album to boast all Justman/Wolf compositions between the covers.  The album was, in relative terms to ‘Bloodshot’, a commercial disappointment, but it lacked none of the verve and dynamism of previous outings.  The group were also receiving some attention in the gossip pages via Peter Wolf’s courtship and 1974 marriage to actress Faye Dunaway (the two would divorce in 1979).

In late ‘74, the band offered up another album with the quirkily titled ‘Nightmare…And Other Tales From The Vinyl Jungle’ (US#26).  The lead out single was ‘Must Of Go Lost’ (US#12/OZ#72), a honky-tonky-ish track that delivered the J. Geils Band their biggest hit under the Atlantic umbrella.  The follow up singles, ‘Gettin Out’ and ‘Givin It All Up’ missed the charts but sit comfortably in the album’s grooves which offer up ingredients from funk, serious blues, and tight yet expansive instrumentation.

1975’s album ‘Hotline’ (US#36) missed the correct numbers for chart success, but did offer up another satisfying mix of originals and covers, all edged with the J. Geils Band high energy delivery.  The single release, ‘Love-Itis’ was a cover of an obscure soul song by Harvey Scales & the Seven Sounds, and opens proceedings that embrace everything from funk based soul to classic rock balladry.

With double live albums all the rage in the mid 70s, it was understandable that such a powerhouse live drawcard as the J. Geils Band should get in on the act, and so they did with 1976’s ‘Live - Blow Your Face Out’ (US#40).  The album(s) once more captured the furious kinetic energy of the band, recorded over two shows in late ‘75 - Boston Garden, and the Cobo Hall, Detroit.  The live track ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ (US#68) was released as a single, whilst other highlights included the nine minute epic ‘Chimes’.  Produced by Bill Szymczyk, the double disc set doesn’t disappoint.

By the time J. Geils Band arrived at the recording studio in 1977, they were at somewhat of a career crossroads.  They had enjoyed fleeting mainstream popularity, and were as big a live attraction as they had ever been, but their last couple of outings seemed to miss the mark, audience numbers wise.  They opted to release their next album, ‘Monkey Island’ (US#51/OZ#97), under the name Geils, possibly in an effort to re-brand themselves.  The band self-produced the album, and all but two of the nine tracks were original Justman/Wolf compositions.  The single released was a mellow, soft rock offering in the form of ‘You’re The Only One’ (US#83).  To display their range of stylistic playing, such a low key song was balanced by the high energy funk of ‘Surrender’.  It was an album of many modes, confusing on some levels, yet paradoxically cohesive in its diversity.

The J. Geils Band switched labels from Atlantic to EMI America in late ‘78.  When work began on their next album, Earth, Wind & Fire producer Joe Wissert was assigned the task of retaining the band’s energy, whilst melding it slightly to hone some of the course edges, introducing a sleeker, more polished sound to proceedings.  The resultant collaboration was late ‘78s ‘Sanctuary’ (US#49/OZ#82), the band’s first gold accredited disc since ‘Bloodshot’.  All nine tracks were penned by Justman and Wolf, including the radio friendly single ‘One Last Kiss’ (US#35/UK#74).  Other highlights included the searing rock of ‘Sanctuary’, the surging ‘Just Can’t Stop Me’, and the second single ‘Take It Back’ (US#67), a glistening cut of pop-soul.

Having traversed so much ground during the 70s, as the 80s dawned it begged the question of which direction the J. Geils Band would undertake next.  A strong clue as to that direction was offered up in the early 1980 album, ‘Love Stinks’ (US#18/OZ#43), a prelude of sorts serving to broaden the band’s mainstream appeal in readiness for the rush of popularity that was to come next.  Keyboardist and co-writer Seth Justman took on fulltime producer duties, and 8 of the 9 tracks on offer were written with Peter Wolf.  The synthesiser crept into the instrumental mix more than it had previously, in keeping with the burgeoning new wave movement of the time.  The opening single, ‘Come Back’ (US#32/OZ#31), was slick, funk-edged fare at its best.  The title track and single, ‘Love Stinks’ (US#38) would be at home comfortably in the Cars’ songbook.  The album’s opening track, and third single, ‘Just Can’t Wait’ (US#78), captures the synth/guitar synthesis so prevalent of early 80s perfectly, and was indicative of the evolution of the J. Geils Band in recent years - an evolution that needed to take just one more step before pay dirt would be struck.

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