I preface this by saying that it’s hard to completely dismiss Seger’s ’70s hits, starting with the transitional “Main Street” and “Night Moves,” and jumping all-in on country-rock-ish hits like “Against The Wind,” “Like A Rock,” and “You’ll Accomp’ny Me.” (I suppose I should state that it’s weird that the transitional hits are all two-word titles and the main examples are all three-word titles, but it is such a small dataset to take from that I’m sure I’m statistically fooling myself.) Take that back: I do have a problem with “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” since it now sounds like Biff Tannen quasi-threatening to take the future Lorraine McFly to the dance.
Then you go back to the heavier blues rock of The Bob Seger System, with albums like Mongrel and the largely cover-song collection Smokin’ O.P.s and realize just how diluted those later songs really were. One has to wonder what would have come of Bob Seger had he stuck with that raw, gutsy sound. Odds are, he would have gone broke and quit the business. Financially, the decision he made and the direction he took paid off. Licensing “Like A Rock” to Chevy Trucks likely set him up for a few years alone.
Seger wasn’t the only one. The Steve Miller Band was a sturdy psychedelic-blues band initially fronted by Boz Scaggs, with Miller focusing on the guitar. The eventual parting of the ways didn’t hurt either party. Scaggs, with large support from members of what would become Toto, had a tremendous run of success. Miller, now stepping in front of the mic, tailored his pop-rock to be more radio-friendly and practically ruled AM radio in the ’70s.
So it is that we come to The J. Geils Band, originally a rhythm & soul-based unit of house-partiers from Massachusetts. It was fitting that they debuted on the Atlantic Records label, and there was a degree of stylistic torch-passing that seemed to occur from Atlantic’s years as Stax Records’ distributor to Geils’ Bloodshot album. They stood toe-to-toe with other bands with similar inclinations: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes comes to mind. To say “throwback” is incorrect. These records were recorded a decade away from their most prominent inspirations, sometimes less.
But The Bob Seger System did not set the world on fire. Neither did early Steve Miller or early J. Geils Band. It wasn’t until these three organizations made a change in their overall sound that they finally got due recognition. Let’s dismiss with the palaver of “selling out” because, if you look hard enough, what these groups were doing was fairly risky. Having a small fanbase frequently means having a very devoted fanbase, devoted to a particular thing you do. “Fly Like A Eagle” or “Jungle Love,” “Like A Rock” or “Against The Wind,” or “Centerfold,” “Freeze Frame,” or “Love Stinks” carried with them no guarantees of extended success but absolutely carried with them the possibility that the die-hards would object.
The one thing that will have to be reckoned with is that the essential qualities of each group are bound to be overlooked — Geils’ and Miller’s guitar abilities and Seger’s roaring voice. In each case here, the mind will flash to a point where they were at their most successful but not particularly at their best. That’s kind of a shame. Even if you like those previously mentioned hits – and I do, for the most part — they’re hardly emblematic of the players’ capacities.
I mention all of this because on March 11 it was announced that J. Geils — John Geils, aged 71, of Groton, Mass., so they keep saying — died at home. There’s a lot he will not be remembered for, mostly thanks to the massive success of “Centerfold,” a song he doesn’t actually have much of a stake in. That’s kind of sad if you dwell on it too long.
But hey. There’s a folk trio that once sang Dylan songs at peace rallies that will be remembered mainly for a tune by John Denver and another that’s probably an allusion to smoking marijuana. We all have our crosses to bear.