J. Geils Band co-founder and guitarist John “Jay” Geils, Jr. passed away on Tuesday at age 71 in Groton, Massachusetts, an hour’s drive northwest of Boston. His namesake group has in the days since been fondly remembered for its decade-straddling career and its unlikely journey from Boston bar-rock heroes to ’80s hit-makers. But there’s one song, from the band’s 1981 album Freeze Frame, that truly embodies the seismic musical and cultural shifts, and the links, between the classic rock and MTV eras for both the band and the world at large.
The year of Freeze Frame‘s release, the number-one pop song in America was “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes, who had been knocking around since the early ’70s to middling success. The song had been an obscure album track for Jackie DeShannon, who co-wrote and recorded the country-swing original in 1974. But Kim Carnes’ slick synthesizer arrangement made it a massive hit — and a harbinger of changes to come.
Despite what calendars may claim, the 1980s really started in 1981 for pop music. Although the year’s top hits read like a Midnight Special hangover of ’70s stalwarts like Kenny Rogers, Ronnie Milsap, and Barbra Streisand, those artists were, somewhat sadly, dinosaurs obliviously awaiting the new-wave asteroid that had already entered the atmosphere in the form of new names like The Police and Devo.
Those most likely to survive the blast quickly adopted the new decade’s trademark synthetic sound, for better or worse. The most egregiously ’80s studio affectation — next to gratuitous synths and crappy sax solos – was the wholesale over-production of drums, which were suddenly engaged in a frantic race to be as monotonous and absurdly loud as possible. Compared to the faithful way drums were recorded in the ’70s, it sounded like people were keeping time with anti-aircraft guns.
Geils’ fellow soul-loving ’70s rockers Hall & Oates reached the zenith when the duo made rock’s concussive new sonic order the theme of their video for 1984’s “Out of Touch,” from an album entitled Big Bam Boom, in which the drums literally steamroll over the band.
What would become the J. Geils Band originally formed in Boston the mid-’60s as an acoustic blues trio, later adding two members including new frontman Peter Wolf, a former WBCN radio DJ. What resulted was a sweaty, harmonica-fueled, bar-tested R&B machine that set the local club scene on its ear with incendiary live shows and earned it the tag “The American Stones” just before fellow Bostonians Aerosmith wrestled it away.
In 1970, the band signed to Atlantic Records and soon became one of America’s most successful touring outfits on the strength of its increasingly airtight, powerful live shows. Over the next decade the band would release a string of R&B-driven top-40 singles, none of which would crack the top 10, seemingly unable to replicate the energy and excitement of their live performance.
Just when it seemed that history would brand it as nothing more than an above-par Animal House-style party band following the disappointing chart stall of 1980’s “Love Stinks” at No. 32, along came “Centerfold.”
“Centerfold” was unique on many levels — not the least of which being its distinction as the first chart-topping single about softcore pornography to be released by a band that counts someone named Magic Dick among its members. It was the first of two huge crossover pop hits from the group’s 1981 album Freeze Frame, which marked the band’s first foray into the poppy, new-wavey songcraft and slick production style that ’80s hits demanded. As a result, the album was as off-putting to old fans as it was rapturously received by what must have been a startling magnitude of new ones.
Beyond possessing the requisite synth and drum excess, “Centerfold” perfectly encapsulated the moment by crashing the new decade’s charts with one tentative foot in ’80s pop and one tenuously, but still credibly, lodged in their R&B roots, in the fleeting moments before heritage bands would be displaced by Men Without Hats.