Underrated: Geils, "Monkey Island"

Thursday, January 14, 2021
Geils, Monkey Island, vinyl release

The J. Geils Band were caught in quite a conundrum throughout the 1970s. Renowned across the country as a barn-burning live R&B band that could set the party off in pretty much any situation. The issue came in the form of the Boston band's studio efforts. No matter how hard they tried, scoring that ever elusive hit far too often ended up as a losing proposition. While frontman Peter Wolf and company had climbed as high as #10 on the Billboard 200 with breakout 1973 release, Bloodshot, that LP proved to be more of an outlier.

The group would shoot their shot in 1977 with the full-length Monkey Island, released under the band name of just Geils. The band was coming off the relative success of 1976 double-live classic, Blow Your Face Out, which was packed with high-energy concert classics that became instant FM radio regulars. Monkey Island found the group stretching out and trying a little bit of everything, in hopes of landing one of those left-field hit records. The LP opens strong with the foot-stomping and funky "Surrender," but the excitement is brought to a screeching halt with the melancholy ballad, "You're the Only One." It's actually a fine song with solid old-school vocal harmonies that feels wildly out of sequence. It sets the stage for a record that goes all over the place, making for a surprisingly enjoyable listen.

It's something of a crime that the J. Geils Band's version of 1965 single "I Do" by the Marvelows wasn't a hit record. The production is a little dry, but Magic Dick's energetic harp solo and the band's precision performance more than make up for it. "I'm Falling" is the sweeping and heartfelt piano ballad, followed by the nine-minute title track, which evolves from a cool funky jazz jam into a big rock almost gospel-like hand-in-the-air shout-along anthem. They keep it eclectic by following all of that with a rollicking honky-tonk rave-up, "I'm Not Rough," and the horn-blasted and happy "So Good." They end the record on a folksy, almost country moment, "Wreckage."

Monkey Island was a bit too much for the charts, peaking at #51 on the Billboard 200. The record served as the J. Geils Band's last studio effort for Atlantic, leading them to take their talents to EMI for 1978 follow-up, Sanctuary.