Sunday, August 24, 2008

Top Of The Pops Blown To Smithereens

Unlike their New Jersey compatriots Bon Jovi, power-pop quartet The Smithereens never quite made it beyond the fringes of mainstream commercial success. The band came together during March 1980 when singer/songwriter/guitarist Pat DiNizio responded to an advertisement in the local music press, place by high school friends Jim Babjak (guitar), Mike Mesaros (bass) and Dennis Diken (drums).

Quickly establishing themselves on the local live circuit, The Smithereens recorded their debut four track EP ‘Girls About Town’ (all tracks featuring ‘girl’ in the title) in late 1980 on the independent D-Tone label. Early on the band showed an unabashed penchant for guitar driven power pop, harking back to the sounds of the Sixties British Invasion groups like the Kinks and The Who, but laced with DiNizio’s acerbic take on life, love and the world (strongly influenced by Elvis Costello). Their 1983 EP ‘Beauty And Sadness’ was another independent release, as a big label contract continued to elude the talented quartet. The band sustained their career over the next four years by playing a combination of original material and covers, along the way supporting older acts like the Beau Brummels and Otis Blackwell (who they recorded with as well) on the revival circuit.

In 1985 Pat DiNizio had planted the seed for the band’s future success when he submitted a demo tape to Enigma Records. Former college DJ and Smithereens’ fan Scott Vanderbilt was now an A&R man with Enigma. Soon after The Smithereens released a live EP ‘The Smithereens Live’ in 1987, Vanderbilt signed them to Enigma’s roster (they were soon picked up by Capitol Records). The Smithereens released their debut album ‘Especially For You’ later that year, the album featuring guest appearances from Suzanne Vega (see future post) and Marshall Crenshaw (who was credited under the pseudonym Jerome Jerome). The album performed solidly on the Billboard Album charts (#51) and Australian Top 100 (#97), and yielded a minor hit (#99) in ‘Blood And Roses’, which benefited from its inclusion in a B-grade film called ‘Dangerously Close‘ and associated music video which gained some airplay on MTV. Enough promise was shown to encourage both band and label to continue their mutual quest for pop supremacy.

The Smithereens second album ‘Green Thoughts’ (1988 - OZ#85/US#60) consolidated the band’s status as potentially the next big thing on the modern rock scene. The single ‘Only A Memory’ again flirted with the lower reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 (#92). The Smithereens third album saw the group aiming squarely at the mainstream modern rock market. Producer Ed Stasium helped the group gain a harder edged sound overall on 1989’s ‘11’ (which featured a very cool cover paying homage to the ‘Oceans 11’ film). The album achieved gold status in the U.S. (#41/OZ#94) and yielded the band’s biggest commercial single to date ‘A Girl Like You’ (US#37) in late ‘89. The follow up ‘Blues Before And After’ (#94) highlighted DiNizio’s morose lyrical bent hadn’t been compromised by the band’s push for marketability.

Album #4 ‘Blow Up’ (US#120/OZ#60) was released in early 1992 and proved another strong ticket in the group’s campaign to rival the likes of new chart sensations Nirvana and Pearl Jam. It featured two great pop-rock songs, ‘Too Much Passion’ (US#37/OZ#87/Ca#22) and my favourite track ‘Top Of The Pops’ (OZ#90/Ca#58). ‘Top Of The Pops’ was a tongue in cheek swipe at the superficial vagaries of the rock business, the band unreservedly thumbing their collective noses at the very industry they continued to seek the approval of. I purchased the song on CD single, which also featured a MTV ‘unplugged’ version of ‘A Girl Like You’ and The Smithereens take on The Beatles ‘The One After 909’. But as appealing as The Smithereens retro-power pop sound had become, it was sadly never flavour of the month and the band suffered in the shockwave produced by the explosion of the alternative rock/grunge movements.

The Smithereens made the move to RCA for their next album, 1994’s ‘A Date With The Smithereens’ (US#133). They reunited with producer Don Dixon (who had worked with them on their first two albums), and they also acquired the services of Lou Reed playing guitar on two of the album’s tracks. But The Smithereens foot had been firmly removed from the doorway to commercial rewards by the whole grunge revolution, and the fact that they pre-dated the Brit-pop movement by a couple of years didn’t help their cause.

Despite not cracking the big time The Smithereens had gathered a loyal fan base which stood firmly by them in the decade to come and beyond. Following the release of two compilation albums, ‘Blown To Smithereens’ (best of) and ‘Attack Of The Smithereens’ (rarities), the band shifted to the smaller Koch label. In 1999 they released ‘God Save The Smithereens’ following a five year hiatus from the recording studio. 2006 saw original bassist Mike Mesaros leave the fold, replaced by Severo ‘The Thrilla’ Jornacion. The 2007 album ‘Meet The Smithereens!’ featured the band doing a song for song tribute cover of the album ‘Meet The Beatles’. It reached #24 on the US Top Independent albums chart, proving the band could still command an audience for their music. ‘Christmas With The Smithereens’ confirmed they still had a sense of adventure, and most recently 2008’s ‘Live In Concert! Greatest Hits And More’, recorded at the Court Tavern in New Jersey, showcased The Smithereens as still being a kickass live act. At time of writing The Smithereens is planning the September 2008 release of ‘B-Sides The Beatles’, their second tribute album to the ‘Fab Four’, featuring cover versions of all the Beatles’ B-sides up to 1966. A cool band just keeps getting cooler.

1 comment:

Jean Robur said...

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