Rolling Stone, July 28th, 1977. Issue No 244 – By Dave Marsh.
Earning its blues. Geils takes a hard road back.
Geils hasn’t made a studio record since 1975, when it was the J.Geils Band, once America’s finest R&B group, lately descended into shameless, pandering boogie. More than the name has changed since then: Geils has never been further from boogie music, and it’s never made a better record. Of all the J.Geils discs, Monkey Island is closest in spirit to Ladies Invited, the group’s first, hesitant and ultimately rescinded attempt to define a post-blues style. Monkey Island makes up for the subsequent retreat – partly by explicitly owning up to it – but without sacrificing a shred of the great R&B storehouse from which Geils always derives its power.
That basis is expressed variously here: in the driving “Somebody,” the doo-wop Motown “I Do,” the Stevie Wonder-styled ballad “You’re the Only One,” even in the ancient “I’m Not Rough,” which evokes Louis Armstrong as primordial rock & roller much more effectively than John Fogerty’s similarly intended “You Rascal You.” Nearly everything about the group has grown; Magic Dick’s part on “You’re the Only One” is as heartbreaking as harmonica gets, J.Geils’ stinging solo in the intro to “Rough” is only the most joyous statement of his renewed capacities. Most impressively, Peter Wolf’s vocals have become more polished, without losing their authenticity, and the melodies of the always-underrated pianist Seth Justman makes this the best group of songs Geils has ever had. Even “Surrender’ and “So Good,” which tread perilously near a disco dive are redeemed by wit, and the resources of a group that knows the roots of the idiom.
The real focus here is on the three long originals: “Monkey Island,” “I’m Falling” and “Wreckage.” These are ominous songs (even more so than “Somebody,” which is about a Maltese Falcon-style sellout) and, for the most part, obsessive ones, full of thinly disguised ruminations about their near stumble into the boogie trap. “Monkey Island” sets the story to a latin beat, creating a variety of jazz-rock fusion, and places it in the most Gothic of settings; “I’m Falling” uses the sort of piano melody and horn and string arrangements the Stones used for “Memory Motel” and “Fool to Cry,” though more successfully.
These are confident songs, in their way, but the air of disaster won’t be dispelled. “Wreckage” takes the disaster on its own terms – it is anguished, tortured, a song about the worst kind of self-defeat, a song about ultimate failure just as one has the pinnacle in sight. So Peter Wolf stares into the blackness of a truly personal abyss:
To see that face again
Who would’ve believed it then
They had it all
How far they fall
Set against the harsh organ and acoustic guitar, with Wolf’s voice at its most abrasive, those might be fragments of conversation heard at a rock star’s graveside. But the grave doesn’t belong to Geils – they are among the few who’ve returned, with the story to tell. And at the end, with the Led Zeppelin-like coda emerging from the somber Magic Dick harp solo, it is clear that this is the song about the agony of victory. Geils earned its blues the hard way, by almost beating itself; it retains the right to tell the story by having the courage to lift its head and admit it all. With that story – which resounds from Monkey Island’s every song – Geils regains its place as one of the handful of great American rock bands. And its a pleasure to welcome them back.