Monday, November 26, 2007

The first three songs of Peter Wolf's album "Lights Out" (1984)

Out of print and sitting in eBay auctions, Peter Wolf's first solo album, Lights Out, turned out to be one of the most ingenious rock and R&B albums of the early 80's. As the era of corporate rock was beginning to take over many radio station formats, Wolf's album stands as a triumph of colorblindness in an era when consultants were segregating every musical strand.

Peter Wolf was the perfect candidate to draw no color lines. After spending years touring as the lead singer of the fabulous J. Geils Band, which turned rhythm and blues, doo wop and soul into a rock and roll party, the group split after its biggest-selling album, Freeze Frame. Before joining Geils, Wolf played all those black-based musical genres DJ'ing on Boston's progressive WBCN, famous for his rhythmic patter and rap between songs. As a matter of fact, that rap style can be heard prominently on the J. Geils Band live album Blow Your Face Out in his intro to "Musta Got Lost" [Hey Rapunzel! Heh heh... Hey Reputa the beautah! Reputa the Beautah! Hey Reputa the Beautah flip me down your hair and let me climb up to the ladder of your love!"].

Wolf made a brilliant decision to invite Michael Jonzun and his Boston-based team to work on the solo album. At the time, Jonzun was a pistol-hot producer of the burgeoning "electro-funk" scene, creating hits with his Jonzun Crew like "Pack Jam" and with his brother Maurice Starr masterminded New Edition and New Kids On The Block. You could call it "black bubblegum"

The resulting album was a landmark, synthesizing electric guitar power chords, funk and R&B rhythms, letting Wolf sing with soul and a dash of his rhyming "patter" rap. There was something "old school" and slyly innocent about the lyrics, while the music sounded fresh and edgy ("Dancing in the dark/To the radio of love").

I listened to the first three songs over and over, and frankly, that's all I wanted from it. After that, it would have felt spoiled. Those are the same tunes I played for my eight-year-old daughter, who not only has them on the iPod we share now, but sings them back to me.

  • "Lights Out" -- the big title song hit, "Light out! Uh huh! Blast, blast, blast!" Nothing more to say about that.
  • "I Need You Tonight" -- To a thumping drumbeat, shimmering 16th electric guitar notes played cleanly on a tube amp, with a cheesy synthesizer pushing the chords. More of those throwback lyrics: "When the music stops, I walk you to your door/I say goodnight, like a thousand times before/This is the night, I just can't walk away/This is the night, I need you even more."
  • "Oo-Ee-Diddly-Bop" -- "I'm about to blow my top." Electro-funk at its prime, with Wolf rapping about his electricity, phone and heat turned off, can't get a loan (an old blues stand-by), the beat continues while he drifts off to a land where he's "dancing with mermaids" only to find himself back in reality. However, "But I keep on dreamin'/Nobody better try to take/My dream away from me" and right into a breathy flute solo."
The real shame was that Wolf was never able to top that solo album. He had one more terrific tune from his next album ("Come As You Are"), but nothing ever clicked the same way afterwards. I always thought Wolf would take a cue from David Johansen and create more ingenious ways to entertain and educate (really) audiences with his great R&B music knowledge. To me, Wolf was made to return to his DJ ways on one of the satellite radio networks.

Below are the three videos of those songs, in order. Check out Wolf's tackily-dressed DJ rap at the opening to "Oo-Ee-Diddly Bop":

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