The track was the turning point for the band, the apotheosis of its longstanding theme of unrequited love. Many of their previous tunes address love gone astray. The ebullient “Looking for a Love” — originally recorded by the Valentinos — ended with the protagonist still searching for connection; in the swaggering rant that preceded the version of “Musta Got Lost” found on 1972’s Live: Full House, singer Peter Wolf told his audience that the tune is about relationships and desperation.
Those songs address love obliquely, but “Love Stinks” is on target. Spurred perhaps by the 1979 dissolution of Wolf’s marriage to actress Faye Dunaway, “Love Stinks” songwriters Wolf and keyboardist Seth Justman approach thwarted love head-on. The song is funny and memorable, and it’s got a great beat, but there’s little doubt that it’s about failed romance curdling into cynicism.
Just as they sharpened the lyrical bite, the musical attack was tightened too. The syncopated funk and reggae-tinged rhythms present on ’70s FM radio staples like “Give It to Me” or “Make Up Your Mind” are streamlined into a glam-rock stomp, reverberating drums and crunchy guitars that wouldn’t be out of place on an album by Joan Jett, who wound up covering “Love Stinks” for the soundtrack of the 1996 movie Mr. Wrong. The wailing blues harmonica on “Cruisin for a Love” gives way to bright synthesizers similar to the carnival-like keyboards later heard on the Kinks’ “Come Dancing” and Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life.”
Plus, the James Brown and Isley Brothers influences, the inspirations for the R&B- and funk-infused rave-ups that characterized the band’s earlier material, are jettisoned for New Wave electro-pop accents: spiraling synthesizer stings that zap like currents jumping from a Tesla coil and a deliberately retro call-and-response doo-wop chorus that sounds like the Electric Light Orchestra. Despite the song’s disparate elements, it all comes together thanks to Justman’s clean and unfussy production and the band’s in-the-pocket playing.
Watch J. Geils Band’s ‘Love Stinks’ Video
The song’s success came not a moment too soon. Before their first album for EMI Records, 1978’s Sanctuary, the J. Geils Band had gone five years without a gold LP; 1973’s Bloodshot and Live: Full House were their only other releases up to that point that were certified. That’s an eternity in ’70s pop-music terms. Even though sales lagged, they earned a devoted following on the strength of their shows.
Love Stinks and its title-track single solidified the band’s standing with its new label. In 1982, they took their tightened musical and lyrical focus to the top with Freeze-Frame, which topped the chart in the U.S. Success was short-lived, however, after Wolf left the band in 1983 for a solo career. With Justman taking over vocals, the J. Geils Band released just one more album, the disappointing and dispirited You’re Gettin’ Even While I’m Gettin’ Odd, before calling it a day until a 1999 reunion.
But it was “Love Stinks” that primed the pump for commercial success. The New Wave nihilism that must have seemed up-to-the-minute and the then-state-of-the-art ’80s production that should date it terribly are tempered with the humor and soulfulness of Wolf’s wise-guy vocals. That mix made it a perfect choice for Adam Sandler’s dumped titular character in 1998’s The Wedding Singer to launch into the song.
Watch Adam Sandler Sing ‘Love Stinks’ in ‘The Wedding Singer’
Wolf has continued to play the song live, releasing a bluegrass version on his 2016 solo album, A Cure for Loneliness. The idea for a down-home “Love Stinks” arose one night before a live gig, Wolf said. He and his band were rehearsing some Bill Monroe songs and started tinkering with “Love Stinks,” bluegrass style. They played it live that night, and that performance is the version present on the album.
New arrangements and experiments aside, “Love Stinks” endures because it entwines the two most attractive strands of the J. Geils Band: a kick-ass tune that doesn’t lose touch with the band’s good-time rock ‘n’ roll roots and Wolf’s acerbic smart-ass stand-up.
With “Love Stinks,” Wolf’s wickedly funny commentary about the fractious nature of male-female relationships is already woven into the song.