Certain Songs #780: The J. Geils Band – “Centerfold”

Album: Freeze Frame
Year: 1981

This, right here, is my platonic ideal of a pop song.

The first time I heard “Centerfold,” I thought to myself “this is a song that should hit #1 all around the world.” Of course, I’ve thought that many many times, but, thanks a lot to an incredibly clever video that was in double-plus heavy rotation on MTV (with the accompanying rumour that MTV VJ Martha Quinn was in the video), “Centerfold” was a #1 hit single here, and in other countries, as well.

And why not? From the first Seth Justman (who wrote the whole thing) synth squeal over handclaps(!) to the whistling at the fade, “Centerfold” sounds like the soundtrack to the greatest party ever.

It is, of course, the clever tale of a man who discovered to both his chagrin and delight while thumbing through a nudie magazine that his old high-school crush is that month’s centerfold. While this isn’t a universal experience, it’s kind of like winning the lottery: it’s happening to someone just about every single day.

My blood runs cold
My memory has just been sold
My angel is the centerfold
Angel is the centerfold

Peter Wolf delivers the chorus — with the rest of the J. Geils band backing him up at the exact right spots — like it had absolutely happened to him five seconds before he started singing, and he’s still working out what to do, but meanwhile, the rest of the band are all like, fuck it, let’s all sing together and get your mind off of this, so they all do.

Na na na na na na na na na
Na na na na na na na na na
Na na na na na na na na na
Na na na na na na na na na

But that only works for awhile, and he soon drifts into fantasy with the rest of his band making like a doo-wop group in the back:

It’s okay I understand
This ain’t no never-never land
I hope that when this issue’s gone
I’ll see you when your clothes are on

Take you car, yes we will
We’ll take your car and drive it
We’ll take it to a motel room
And take ’em off in private

And had “Centerfold” ended with this fantasy — he would run into this woman and somehow seduce her — it would have been a lesser song. Because it would have made “Centerfold” about a rock star fantasy, and not so poor schlub’s coming to terms with an ex-crush having the agency to pose nude so that other dudes could fantasize about her.

But that’s exactly what it’s about, and almost instantly after having that fantasy — which is of course the exact same fantasy countless dudes who didn’t know her in high school are presumably having — he realizes that there really is only one thing he can do.

A part of me has just been ripped
The pages from my mind are stripped
Oh no, I can’t deny it
Oh yea, I guess I gotta buy it!

In the end, everybody is singing “na na na na” while Wolf is singing the chorus, and they’re all dancing around and singing and whistling and laughing at his predicament in the same way that he is, and “Centerfold” fades out and all you want to do is find its party again.

The raucous vibes of “Centerfold” — and their follow-up, Freeze Frame — were unlike anything else on the radio or MTV in early 1982, and ironically masked some very real tensions in the band, as instead of keeping it together for a string of hit singles, Peter Wolf was tossed out of the band in 1983, and that was that.

“Centerfold” official video

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