The Smithereens - Biography
By Brad Austin
The jangle pop movement, or the paisley underground movement or wherever the Smithereens belong, was a nice little piece of music history. The 80's saw many bands of varying talents come and go. Some, like R.E.M., gracefully outlived the movement, while others, like Game Theory, never broke into the mainstream and imploded because of it. The Smithereens were a fine, jangling power pop band that scored a major label contract after their debut full-length. Their next two albums placed commendably in the charts which meant that they had effectively bested the also-rans of their genre. In the 90's, the Smithereens were met with a brand new adversary: Kurt Cobain. Hair bands weren't the only ones who suffered from the shifting tide in popular music. The Smithereens' sound had become more and more mainstreamed, but when Nirvana changed the definition of mainstream, the New Jersey band was dumbstruck, resulting in their worst album and a five-year hiatus. The group reunited in 1999, and have since released an inspired album of originals, a Beatles tribute album, and a Christmas album. Obviously, chart success is no longer a main concern.
The Smithereens got together in Carteret, New Jersey, the hometown of guitarist Jim Babjak, drummer Dennis Diken, and bassist Mike Mesaros. Less than ten miles northeast of Carteret lays Scotch Pines, the stomping grounds of Pat DiNizio. An aspiring guitarist and vocalist, DiNizio tried his hand in many cover bands before resolving to form his own group and placing an ad in a New York publication. The ad specifically asked for musicians who were into Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, the Clash, and Buddy Holly, DiNizio's main inspiration in starting his own group. Soon enough, DiNizio and the three friends from Carteret crossed paths.
Before the end of 1980, their first year as a band, the Smithereens issued an EP all by themselves. Girls About Town was four songs long, and had an interesting hook: each track had the word “girl” in its title. There was “Girls About Town,” “Girl Don't Tell Me” (a Beach Boys cover), “Got Me a Girl,” and “Girls are Like That.” Locally, the band became noteworthy and popular off the EP. They devoted the next couple of years to playing out in New York and New Jersey, expanding their cult audience. A new release finally turned up in 1983 when the Smithereens put out what's often considered their proper debut EP, Beauty and Sadness (Enigma). Over the years, the band has been faced with accusations from publications such as Rolling Stone that their music is a little too similar to the Beatles. Anyone looking for these similarities need look no further than the title track of Beauty and Sadness, a song whose drum beat is a straight lift from “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Drum patterns are naturally and unavoidably similar, but when a drummer copies a beat that is as distinct as that one is, one can't help raising an eyebrow. The guitars, too, were very Beatlesesque. In any case, Rolling Stone wrote a positive review of the EP.
Since the Smithereens' popularity was basically limited to New Jersey, they didn't see any reason to tour by themselves. They hit the road in support of their elders, like 60's folk-rockers the Beau Brummels, and Otis Blackwell, who once penned the Jerry Lee Lewis classic, “Great Balls of Fire.” While it must have been an honor to tour with acts like these, the Smithereens weren't having any luck otherwise. They experienced great difficulty in getting signed. Demo after demo was sent out, but a deal failed to materialize. Finally, they were given a break by a rep who was actually a fan of theirs from long ago when he was a college DJ. Scott Vanderbilt signed the band to the label he worked for, Enigma.
For their debut full-length, the band found the most capable of producers, Don Dixon, who had worked on R.E.M.'s Murmur and knew just how to handle jangle pop. The resulting LP, Especially For You (1986, Enigma), was a remarkable leap from the band's two preceding EPs. A couple of hits, “Behind the Wall of Sleep” and “Blood and Roses” made the Smithereens sudden darlings of college radio. It was quite a feat for a band that couldn't get signed just one year ago to not only have an album peaking at number 51 on the Billboard 200, but to have offers from major labels falling into its lap. The band signed with Capitol and went on tour, re-entering the studio just a few short weeks after returning home.
The chart success continued with Green Thoughts (1988, Capitol), an album that saw the band dodge both a sophomore slump and the strangling pressures that come with a major label deal. Green Thoughts was nearly as great as its predecessor, boasting another set of finely crafted, sensible pop songs from DiNizio about heartbreak and loss. The album peaked at 60 while the single, “Only a Memory,” peaked at number one on the mainstream charts.
While the Smithereens' guitar sound was never terribly light, it certainly was never as heavy as on 1989's 11 (Capitol), an album whose very title is a nod to loud guitars (taken from the bit in This is Spinal Tap about the amplifiers that go to 11). Produced by Ed Stasium (the Ramones, the Talking Heads), 11 wasn't a letdown because of its heavy production, but because of DiNizio's slight drop-off in songwriting excellence. It did sell quite well, however, reaching gold status and charting higher than any previous Smithereens album, at 41. “A Girl Like You” and “Blues Before and After” were both top ten hits, the former (which was originally written as the theme song to Cameron Crowe's Say Anything, but rejected) reaching number two.
Unfortunately for the Smithereens, their next album,the Stasium-produced Blow Up (1991, Capitol), was released just two weeks before Nirvana's Nevermind was issued. Popular music was shifting far, far away from the over-produced power pop that the Smithereens had settled into. As a result, Blow Up stalled out on the charts at number 120.
Other than moving from Capitol to RCA, the Smithereens lay dormant for the next couple of years. They resurfaced in 1994 with A Date With the Smithereens (RCA), a seemingly spiritless affair that finds the band tentatively doing what they do best – short and sweet power pop songs with lovelorn lyrics – but without the magic or feeling of their first two LPs. Even the reunion with Don Dixon didn't turn up favorable results, though they did score a top 20 hit with “Miles From Nowhere.” Following the cold reception of this album, the Smithereens took a break, one that ended up lasting five years. When they finally reunited, it was for a good reason: they missed making music. That longing was satisfied with the release of 1999's God Save the Smithereens (Koch). A Beatles tribute album, Meet the Smithereens (Koch), followed in 2007, as did (oddly enough) a Christmas album, Christmas with the Smithereens (Koch). A new release is slated for early 2009.