Born in 1956, Pat DiNizo, the lead singer and songwriter of the Smithereens and a self-described child of the 1960s, can remember exactly where he was when he first heard that other rock quartet, the Beatles: “I was standing on a stool, brushing my teeth in the mirror, with my little transistor radio that I would carry into the bathroom every morning,” he noted in a 1986 Rolling Stone interview. Little did he know that he would grow up to form a band inspired by the 1960s “British Invasion” sound, a band that, according to Davis Schulps of Musician, “everyone with a typewriter compares to the Beatles.”
Known for their devotion to traditional pop, the Smithereens have twice been described in Rolling Stone as “a course in Rock and Roll History, 101.” The group adopts hokey rock-star theatrics on stage: walking down runway ramps during concerts; incessantly encouraging the audience to clap along; flailing guitars with Who guitarist Pete Townshend-style windmill strums; or performing garage-band thrash covers of the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” and the Who’s
Members include James Babjak, lead guitar; Pat DiNizo (born in 1956; father ran a waste disposal company), rhythm guitar, vocals; Michael Mesaros, bass; and Dennis Mikens, drums.
Band formed in 1980; played 1960s cover tunes in New York before getting discovered, c. 1980-86; released Especially for You, Enigma, 1986; contributed single “Blood and Roses” to soundtrack Dangerously Close; dropped by Capitol, 1991; signed by RCA, 1993, and released A Date With the Smithereens, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —RCA, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036.
“Substitute.” In pure postmodern form at a 1988 concert, the band performed a cover of a surf instrumental that segued into the theme from the Batman television show.
In the late 1970s however, DiNizo, far from a concert stage, was running a successful waste disposal company in New Jersey with his father. It was around that time that he saw The Buddy Holly Story, a rags-to-riches movie about a teenager that inspired him to start writing songs combining 1960s guitar rhythms and Hollyesque lyrics. DiNizo had been playing guitar since the age of seven and had studied the upright bass, saxophone, and drums with Tony Williams. While members of his peer group were hanging out in clubs like CBGB’s in New York, DiNizo was commuting to Williams’s Harlem brownstone and memorizing peradittles.
Not long after he saw the Buddy Holly movie, DiNizo answered a newspaper add for a local band that was looking for a lead singer. He met drummer Dennis Dikens, bassist Mike Mesaros, and lead guitarist Jim Babjak. The group soon became the Smithereens. “I think the strength of this band is that we’re all so similar personality-wise and in temperament that we’re almost like one person,” DiNizo noted in Musician. Mesaros, Dikens, and Babjak grew up together and cite learning how to play music together as one of the reasons why the band has maintained its cohesion. “I started playing the summer I got out of high school,” Mesaros recounted in Musician. “I borrowed a bass and Jimmy showed me ’I Can’t Explain’ by the Who. Everything I do came from the three notes of that chord progression. I learned how to play with Dennis and Jimmy, and so much of the way they play has influenced the natural instincts of how I play.”
The Smithereen’s sound is heavily influenced by other musicians and art genres; besides the more obvious Beatles and Buddy Holly comparisons, the Smithereens also point to unexpected and/or obscure pop and rock artists—as well as cinema performances—as inspirational. DiNizo pointed out in Musician that he had seen the rock band Black Sabbath 14 times; Dikens cited the Beach Boys as one of his great favorites; Mesaros named his New Jersey video store after the 1960s band the Flamin’ Groovies; and a single off the Smithereens’ 1988 release, Especially for You, was inspired by the 1950 film In a Lonely Place, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.
Despite their verve and enthusiasm for rock nostalgia, the Smithereens played in the underground club scene for six years trying to get discovered. They even performed in a bar called the Dive, where all their equipment was stolen; for the following eight months they had to play on borrowed instruments. “We missed the boat entirely,” DiNizo told David Frick of Rolling Stone. “The band started in March of 1980, but the whole New Wave CBGB thing had flown out the window by then. Nothing was going on there, nobody was getting signed…. By the time we started playing, that whole scene had died.” Yet they continued to split $20 paychecks four ways and once worked as the backup band for 1950s songwriter Otis Blackwell in order to pay their rent.
The Smithereens’s first EP was the self-produced maxi-single Girls About Town (released in 1980), which included a cover of the Beach Boys’ “Girl Don’t Tell Me” and three other songs about women and girlfriends. Jim Babjak felt so sure of the band’s success that he quit college, even though he was only four credits shy of receiving a degree. The single was played on many college radio airwaves, but it would be three more years before they came out with their next album, Beauty and Sadness, produced by Alan Betrock. To fight the boredom of playing in covers-only bars, the Smithereens developed an eclectic repertoire of over 200 obscure 1960s tunes, as well as their own funky versions of surf-rock instrumentals. Beauty and Sadness was critically well received, but it failed to get the group a record contract or an agent.
What the album did get the Smithereens was a gig that ended in embarrassment. The band played at the Bottom Line club in Greenwich Village in a show that was attended by many professionals from the music industry. Word got back to the Smithereens that their music was received horribly, and the negative response created a cathartic low point for the group. Pat DiNizo revealed in Musician: “We’d been together for about four years and essentially they were telling us we should quit and acknowledge that there was no one interested in us professionally.” DiNizo sold his bass, his saxophone, and his record collection; yet instead of quitting, the band strengthened its commitment, and, as DiNizo continued in his interview in Musician, “decided [that] we weren’t going to give in, no matter what.”
By 1985 DiNizo felt that his songwriting had improved, but he had been rejected by so many labels that he had just about given up approaching them. The new songs were compiled on the LP Especially for You, and on a whim, DiNizo sent the cassette off to Enigma. The cassette fell in the hands of Scott Vanderbilt, a Smithereens fan who had played their earlier independent (indie) label EPs as a college radio deejay. “Apparently it was a struggle on his part even to get us signed,” DiNizo told Dave Schulps of Musician. “I’ve heard that not too many other people at the label were knocked out by the sound of the band, but in keeping with Enigma’s initial philosophy, they decided to release it if they thought it could sell 1000 or 2000 copies.”
Before the album was released, the song “Blood and Roses” was selected by Cannon Pictures for part of the soundtrack for the teenage gore film, Dangerously Close. It was then that the band started getting its long-awaited breaks. They were employed to do a promotional video for the movie that was frequently played on MTV, and Enigma put a press packet together and promoted the single to radio stations. The album far exceeded the predicted sales.
Because of the success with Enigma, the Smithereens finally got an agent—the Premier Talent Agency, which also handled pop stars Lionel Richie and Madonna. By 1988 the band had released Green Thoughts on Capitol (on a joint-label deal with Enigma), and had played four sold-out shows at the Roxy theater in New York.
Reviewing that concert in Rolling Stone, Jeffrey Ressner described the band as playing tight, soaring harmonies and managing “to pay tribute to past rock masters without cloning specific styles.” According to Ressner, the Smithereens still played some straight covers, yet much of their homage to rock greats lay in their chosen chord structures and the subtle echoes of familiar riffs. “DiNizo’s catchy ’Something New,’ sounded remarkably like the Kink’s ’Stop Your Sobbing,’” the reviewer wrote, adding, “If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, the Smithereens must be considered extremely sincere.”
“The sounds we use are thoroughly modern,” Babjak told Rolling Stone, but added that “the song-writing approach is classic.” Nevertheless, the Smithereens were often described by the press as self-taught copycats or a postmodern version of the Beatles, a comparison the group resented. “The live sound of the band bears no relationship to the Byrds’ live sound or the Beatles’ live sound,” Babjak pointed out in Rolling Stone. In a later interview with Schulps he added, “if anything, we’re just trying to recapture some of the spirit we feel has been lost.” The band’s style emulates what was “new” in the 1960s and what is now considered archaic: electric or acoustic guitars plugged into and played through Marshall amps, an equipment choice primarily of heavy metal bands. Yet, like the Beatles, DiNizo’s early writing consisted mostly of light pop lyrics about love and relationships.
In 1989 the Smithereens released 11, an LP produced by Ed Stasium, who tried to enlarge the band’s sound until it reached the top output of the amplifiers used. “While hardly marking a retreat behind that wall of noise, Stasium and the group have built upon that solid foundation to make their next album, Blow Up (Capitol, 1991), a more versatile, fluid record,” Wayne King wrote in Rolling Stone.
While 11 contained references to the mock rockumen-tary Spinal Tap, Blow Up alludes to Michelangelo Anto-nioni’s 1966 cinematic portrayal of swinging London, which featured the band the Yardbirds. In keeping with their history of obscure music and cinematic allusions, on Blow Up the Smithereens included backup singing by the Cowsills (“Love American Style”), a move that King described as “either so warped it’s cool or just plain pathetic.” Later in the same review, King predicted that the Smithereens’ appeal would soon be wearing thin, believing that the “progress shown from record to record has been too small,” inevitably spelling doom for nonmetal groups, especially those that “recycle influences,” and “wear their mid-Sixties rock and roll hearts on their sleeves.”
King’s review in Rolling Stone was some what prophetic;Blow Up never reached the commercial success that the Smithereens had hoped for. The band blamed the album’s poor reception on the label’s pressure to push them into the pop market. The results nonetheless left the Smithereens humiliated: because of low album sales, the group was dropped by Capitol Records, a situation that made DiNizo feel, he told Billboard, like he had gone “from Camelot to Smithereens.”
In 1994 the Smithereens teamed up with former producer Don Dixon to try to recapture some of the success of their old live-sounding style. The result was A Date With the Smithereens, released on their new label, RCA. Don Dixon told Billboard that the RCA album was a more “roots-oriented rock n’ roll project,” similar to the successful sound of their first two albums in their club-playing days.
“I thought it was very important to recapture the essence of the band by using a lot of live stuff and picking songs that were less on the pop side and more on the darker side,” Dixon continued. Many of the songs on the album reflect DiNizo’s anger and frustration about the Capitol Records affair, and veer away from the traditional girlfriend-blaming love ballads. “War for My Mind,” for example, explores mental anguish, and “Gotti” pokes fun at New York mobster Jon Gotti and the corrupt system that had him indicted.
The recording studio used for A Date was the same one used by Lou Reed, former lead singer of the Velvet Underground, for his album Magic and Loss. While the Smithereens were recording, Reed came by the studio and helped Jim Babjak write a guitar solo and added to the album’s appeal by playing on a few more tracks. The group’s acquaintance with Reed dates from the 1980s, when the Smithereens toured as his backup band.
In April of 1994, after the release of A Date With the Smithereens, the band was preparing to leave for a nine-month promotional club tour. “We’re always prepared for the long haul,” drummer Diken explained in Billboard, and judging from their rocky past, they seem to have proven themselves as a band that can’t take short cuts to success. As Andre Odnitz wrote in a 1994 review in Rolling Stone: “Coming from the Smithereens, purveyors of classic pop, this is a statement: Trends fade, but successful methods from the past survive.”
Girls About Town, 1980.
Beauty and Sadness, 1983.
Especially for You, Enigma, 1986.
Green Thoughts, Enigma/Capitol, 1988.
11, Capitol, 1989.
Blow Up, Capitol, 1991.
A Date With the Smithereens, RCA, 1994.
Also contributed song “Blood and Roses” to soundtrack Dangerously Close.
Billboard, April 2, 1988; August 20, 1988; January 11, 1992; March 13, 1994; May 7, 1994.
Creem, July 1988.
Melody Maker, December 20, 1986; February 27, 1988;September 17, 1988.
Musician, August 1988.
Rolling Stone, November 20, 1986; April 7, 1988; October 27, 1993; May 19, 1994.
Spin, September 1988.
"The Smithereens." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 23, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/smithereens
"The Smithereens." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved October 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/smithereens
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