J. Geils Band Solo Albums from the Lost and Found: Lights Out

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

In the annals of dubious career moves over the course of rock’n’roll history, there are some that will simply never be lived down. Take, for instance, Kiss’ inexplicable decision in 1981 – and immediately following the departure of original drummer Peter Criss – to release a prog-rock-tinged concept album, Music from the Elder (after which Ace Frehley would also wisely jump ship). Or take the Clash’s inexplicable decision at the height of their fame in America (following the Top Ten success of “Rock the Casbah”) to boot vocalist/songwriter Mick Jones out of the group, Jones going on to form the successful dance-rock outfit Big Audio Dynamite (who would survive into the ‘90s and score a Top 40 hit on American shores with the “Baba O’Riley”-sampling “Rush”) while the Clash fell apart after their next album, the poorly-received Cut the Crap. Or take hard-rocker Billy Squier’s decision to hire Kenny Ortega to direct the video to “Rock Me Tonite” and allow himself to be filmed prancing around effeminately in a pink tank-top on a largely-pastel-colored set to what was actually a good and fairly muscular, Jim Steinman-co-produced single, simultaneously revealing himself to be perhaps the worst dancer in the history of music videos and causing fans to seriously question his sexuality.

Just as dubious, though, is the J. Geils Band’s decision to actually keep the band going even after losing its one-of-a-kind lead singer Peter Wolf to a solo career. You simply can’t replace a guy like Peter Wolf, and the fact that the band tried to fill his void by letting keyboardist Seth Justman take over as lead vocalist made the decision all the more questionable. Justman is a fine, fine songwriter – in fact, he alone penned the band’s biggest hit, the 1982 Number One smash “Centerfold” – but as a vocalist, he’s not terribly distinctive, whereas Wolf (a former deejay on Boston’s WBCN and, interestingly enough, a former roommate of Twin Peaks creator David Lynch, as well as the former husband of Academy Award-winning actress Faye Dunaway of Network and The Thomas Crown Affair fame) arguably is one of the greatest frontmen in the history of rock music. [For younger readers who might think this is extreme hyperbole, I urge you to go watch any live footage you can find of the band from the ‘70s.] The J. Geils Band had a reputation as one of the greatest live acts of the ‘70s, in large part because of Wolf’s energy and charisma as a performer, often preceding songs with legendary ad-libbed bits of stage chatter or full-blown monologues [such as the “Love Rap” that precedes the song “Love Stinks” on the band’s live disc Showtime!]

In hindsight, Wolf’s departure turned out to be not the greatest of business moves for either party. Overnight, the J. Geils Band went from being one of the hottest rock bands on the planet – coming off a pair of massive hits in “Centerfold” and “Freeze-Frame” – to being completely finished, the band’s first and only post-Wolf album, You’re Gettin’ Even While I’m Gettin’ Odd, peaking at #80, while its single “Concealed Weapon” would only climb as high as #63, the band splitting up the following year. (Justman would go on to produce Debbie Harry’s sophomore solo album Rockbird, which yielded a minor hit single in “French Kissin’ in the USA.,” written by Chuck Lorre – yes, the same Chuck Lorre who went on to create Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory!) 

Wolf, meanwhile, would fare only moderately well as a solo artist; though a phenomenal frontman, he also didn’t quite have the household-name status as a Mick Jagger or Diana Ross, and though his solo career would start out on a moderately promising note, his sales would continue to dwindle over the years, and – in spite of releasing some great albums – he never would reach the Top Ten on his own (while his few solo hits as a solo performer have long-vanished from radio airwaves), and though he has become a critics’ darling in recent years, he still remains far better known to the average person as the former frontman for the J. Geils Band than as a solo performer, and you can’t help but wonder if the band would have become an even bigger name post-Freeze Frame had Wolf simply remained in the group (if occasionally releasing solo discs on the side, much like Phil Collins would do throughout the ‘80s during breaks from Genesis.)    

So why did Wolf leave, anyway?  The old “creative differences” cliché was the reported reason; allegedly, the band had passed on recording several songs Wolf was keen to record that he had recently written with R&B legend Don Covay. It turned out to be a huge loss for the band in more ways than one – not only would they lose their legendary lead vocalist, but the Wolf-Covay collaboration “Lights Out” would end up being used in 1984 as the title cut on Wolf’s first solo album and stopped just two spots shy of reaching the Top Ten.

Surrounded by a great supporting cast that includes the horn section from P-Funk, Hall and Oates guitarist (and future SNL house-band leader) G.E. Smith, Cars lead guitarist Elliot Easton, King Crimson’s Adrian Belew, Maurice Starr (the pop impresario and songwriter/producer responsible for assembling both New Edition and New Kids on the Block and writing most of the latter band’s hits), and, coolest of all, the greatest frontman of all, Mr. Mick Jagger, who adds his unmistakable voice to “Pretty Lady,” Lights Out (produced with Michael Jonzun) is naturally a very fun album, albeit a very pop-flavored affair that might turn off some more rock-or-blues-purist J. Geils Band fans. (Be advised: Wolf does rap on “Oo-Ee-Diddley-Bop!,” but when you’re Peter Wolf, you can get away with that.)

Wolf sounds as if he’s having a blast, blast, blast on the title cut – for good reason; it’s both instantly memorable and very danceable – and the song was big enough to land Wolf a high-profile (and predictably lively) solo appearance as musical guest on SNL during the show’s ’84-’85 season, while the follow-up single “I Need You Tonight,” a Top 40 hit in its own right, almost sounds like a Cars tune and sports a great chorus you can imagine Ric Ocasek singing.

“Crazy” is crazy catchy, and “Billy Bigtime” George Clinton-worthy, while “Here Comes That Hurt” has a fun, retro, ‘50s-pop-like sound to it and Wolf’s remake of – of all things –  the Hungarian standard “Gloomy Sunday” is surprisingly great.

Wolf would go on to score a third Top 40 solo hit in the arena-rock-flavored title cut of his next effort, 1987’s Come As You Are, and Wolf – in between sporadic reunions with his old band beginning in 1999 – would return to blues-rock (and quite a great deal of critical acclaim) in the late ‘90s and ‘00s with albums like Fool’s Parade, Sleepless, and Midnight Souvenirs, but this album remains the most commercially successful of his solo discs, and though its hits have sadly faded from the airwaves, you’d be hard-pressed to find people who were in their teens when this disc came out who don’t have very fond memories of this album’s title cut.