By Chris M. Junior
Every band can point to its share of early events that played an important role in the musicians meeting and joining forces in the first place.
For The Smithereens, one moment included a notebook plastered with photos of The Who. Another involved an ad in a weekly music publication.
The New Jersey-bred band has experienced many other significant moments along the way to reaching its 30th anniversary this year. During that time, The Smithereens have also left a melodic, muscular mark on rock ’n’ roll history, producing a discography rivaling that of its contemporaries while continuing to be a steady presence on the concert circuit.
When Dennis Met Jim
A new school year brings with it infinite possibilities, and in September 1971 at New Jersey’s Carteret High School, drummer Dennis Diken was hoping to meet musicians who also wanted to start a band.
It didn’t take him long to find someone who would fit the bill. During the first week of Earth Science class, Diken spotted fellow freshman Jim Babjak.
“He seemed like he might have been hipper than the average kid,” recalls Diken. “There was something about him.”
Part of that “something” was Babjak’s loose-leaf notebook, the inside of which had color photos of The Who from Hit Parader magazine. Most of Diken’s other friends at the time were into Top 40, and he says those Who pictures made him think this Babjak kid must be cool. Diken introduced himself, and he says they hit it off immediately. When Babjak said he was a guitarist, their newfound friendship was cemented.
Long before The White Stripes or The Black Keys made it hip, Diken and Babjak went with the guitar-and-drums-only format, which they stuck with through their high school years, playing Who and Kinks favorites in the Babjak family garage.
Pat places an ad
Meanwhile, roughly 12 miles west in a township called Scotch Plains, fellow teenager Pat DiNizio was honing his guitar and singing chops. Like many people of his generation, he was blown away when he saw The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” By the late 1970s, he also was enamored with one of the band’s big influences, Buddy Holly.
Around 1978, DiNizio placed an ad seeking musicians in The Aquarian, a publication in New Jersey, and that put him in touch with Diken.
“My first impression was that he had very clear ideas of what he wanted,” Diken says, “and I was pleased to learn that our musical taste and sensibilities paralleled each others’ very closely.”
Their first project together was a New Wave-ish cover band called The Like, which played songs by Devo, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, The Jam, Nick Lowe and others, according to DiNizio. But after nine or 10 months of rehearsing and playing just one show, the band broke up.
Following a year of searching for musical direction, DiNizio contacted Diken about playing drums on some songs he had written. They went to Odyssey, a studio in Long Branch along the Jersey Shore, and recorded a handful of DiNizio originals.
Around the same time, DiNizio says, he was developing a version of The Smithereens that included a different drummer. But the band’s name came from Diken, who had compiled a lengthy list of group names by the late 1970s and had given DiNizio the OK to use the moniker.
When that version of The Smithereens fell apart, DiNizio retained the previous bassist, Ken Jones, and recruited Diken to play drums. One day, Diken showed up for rehearsal at DiNizio’s father’s house in Scotch Plains with Babjak in tow.
“Jimmy had taken it upon himself to learn perfect George Harrison-type leads to my songs — songs in which I purposely left the leads out because I was in a very minimalist frame of mind,” says DiNizio. “Jimmy was never formally asked to join the band — he just stayed.”
The first gig and finalizing the lineup
The first Smithereens gig —- featuring the lineup of DiNizio, Diken, Babjak and Jones — was in March 1980 at Englander’s in Hillside, N.J. Soon after that, DiNizio says he was approached with the idea of replacing Jones with Mike Mesaros, a friend of Diken’s and Babjak’s whose relationship with the former went back to third grade. Seeing the benefits of adding Mesaros while also feeling a sense of loyalty to his good friend Jones, DiNizio moved Jones over to rhythm guitar to make room for Mesaros.
The five-piece Smithereens landed some gigs at the legendary Kenny’s Castaways on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, but another lineup change became necessary. It didn’t take long to realize that Jones, who had more of a funk and R&B orientation, didn’t fit in with the rock direction the band was headed, so DiNizio was encouraged by the others to dismiss him.
The remaining Smithereens didn’t really feel as though they fit in with any trend or scene in the early 1980s, and the band gigged wherever it could.
“We were making music we cared about,” Diken says. “Our template was the classic rock ’n’ roll combo, like The Crickets or The Beatles. [At Kenny’s Castaways], we were somewhat out of our element. It seems like we always were, yet we were able to make a good go with just being ourselves and doing what we loved.”
Early studio efforts and touring abroad
On Oct. 31, 1980, The Smithereens released “Girls About Town,” a four-song EP that they produced themselves at Manhattan’s Chelsea Sound Studio and released on the band’s own D-Tone label.
For 1983’s “Beauty and Sadness” EP, the group pulled in some real pros to handle the production and the engineering — respectively, Alan Betrock (who had worked on early efforts by Blondie and Marshall Crenshaw) and Jim Ball (whose credits included albums by John Lennon and The Go-Go’s).
During the “Beauty and Sadness” sessions, which were recorded at New York’s famed Record Plant (previously used by Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie, among others), Ball remembers four close-knit guys who already had their musical vision, took a straight-ahead approach to recording and wanted a “live feel in the studio context.”
Highlighted by its title track (featuring a drum pattern lifted from The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”) and the rockabilly flavored “Much Too Much,” the “Beauty and Sadness” EP was released in June 1983 on Little Ricky Records. The band’s concert itinerary picked up significantly afterward, with a lot more gigs taking place much farther from home, including Scandinavia, where “Beauty and Sadness” had found an audience after its release there.
During this time, The Smithereens also served as the backing band for Otis Blackwell, best known for writing “All Shook Up” for Elvis Presley and “Great Balls of Fire” for Jerry Lee Lewis. Backing Blackwell was a valuable experience, DiNizio says, because it “put us in front of audiences who were, in general, a very tough sell.”
DiNizio adds, “I think that we kept Otis honest by refusing to do modern or bastardized arrangements or interpretations of classic rock ’n’ roll songs.”
The first album and signing with Enigma
By the mid-1980s, as other bands were being signed to label deals, frustration was mounting for The Smithereens, Diken says. Between band gigs, each member held a day job: At one time or another, DiNizio was a garbage collector, Babjak had his own record store, Diken ran a silk-screen printing business and Mesaros worked in a food warehouse.
The group’s fortunes changed for the better when DiNizio sent a cassette of Smithereens material to Enigma Records, a California-based label that was distributed by Capitol/EMI. Despite its lack of a photo or press kit, the cassette managed to catch the attention of Enigma’s Scott Vanderbilt, who remembered the band from his days as a college radio DJ.
By the time The Smithereens signed with Enigma, they were already hard at work recording their first full-length album at The Record Plant with engineer Ball, who says he would squeeze the band in whenever he could.
“I’d be in between sessions, and they’d have a couple of hundred dollars cash together, so we’d get in the door and stay as late as we could,” Ball says.
Roughly half the album was recorded when producer Don Dixon, who had become a hot commodity thanks to his work with R.E.M. and Let’s Active, became involved. Getting Dixon to commit wasn’t easy. He had heard a few songs from “Beauty and Sadness” and really liked the group, but initially he was having a hard time making his schedule match what The Smithereens needed.
While in New York for a gig of his own with fellow singer/songwriter Marti Jones (now his wife), Dixon remembers being “shamed” into the job, “but in a good way” by the clever DiNizio.
“When we showed up to play, he just had the [rest of his] band show up, and a photographer took a picture of us backstage,” Dixon says. “And the next thing I knew, there was a picture of us in Billboard magazine announcing that I was going to produce the record. … That [DiNizio move] actually made me like them all a lot more.”
With Dixon aboard, the rest of the work on the album (recording and mixing) took about 10 days, with everything wrapping up on New Year’s Eve 1985. Enigma released the album, titled “Especially for You,” in July 1986. Two of its songs became hits on Billboard’s Album Rock Tracks chart: the tension-filled “Blood and Roses” (which was anchored by Mesaros’ ominous bass line) reached No. 14, while the driving “Behind the Wall of Sleep” (in which DiNizio name-checks 1960s model Jean Shrimpton and Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman) peaked at No. 23.
More albums and Top 40 success
Dixon and Ball joined The Smithereens at the Capitol Records tower in Los Angeles to record the band’s second album, “Green Thoughts.” Dixon doesn’t remember hearing any demos prior to the sessions — just snippets of songs that DiNizio played for him a few days before they were to record.
“He was still writing a lot of words and still trying to figure a lot of stuff out,” Dixon says. “I still hadn’t heard the band play any of the stuff, but we met in some little house in L.A. and went through everything, and I tried to help them figure out which songs we should do.”
Diken feels DiNizio really rose to the occasion as a songwriter for that album, and as a result, the band avoided the dreaded sophomore slump. “Green Thoughts” (Enigma/Capitol) dropped on March 16, 1988, and it spawned the Billboard Album Rock Tracks hits “Only a Memory” (which spent a week at No. 1 and also hit No. 92 on the Billboard Hot 100), “House We Used to Live In” (No. 14) and “Drown In My Own Tears” (No. 34).
For the third Smithereens album, 1989’s “11’’ (Enigma/Capitol), the band hooked up with Jersey-bred producer Ed Stasium, whose resumé up to that point included engineering, mixing and/or producing essential albums by The Ramones and Talking Heads, among others.
“A Girl Like You” was written on assignment by DiNizio for the film “Say Anything …” but apparently was passed over for revealing too much of the plot, according to Diken. The song also was oh-so-close to featuring one of the biggest stars of the decade.
In the late 1980s, The Smithereens and Madonna had the same manager, and DiNizio had talked to her about singing on “A Girl Like You.”
“We had the microphone [all set up], and we had a hidden video camera because we didn’t want her to know that we were going to videotape her [vocal session],” Stasium says.
Madonna canceled her first scheduled session, and then she blew off the second without calling, according to Stasium. Veteran background singer Maria Vidal got the job instead, and she would go on to nail the vocal part in one take.
Although “A Girl Like You” missed the cut for “Say Anything …” and was overlooked by Madonna, the hook-filled, guitar-heavy tune had more than enough going for it. The song peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Album Rock Tracks chart and at No. 3 on the magazine’s Modern Rock chart. In 1990, “A Girl Like You” became the band’s first Top 40 entry on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 38 and spending 20 weeks on the chart.
For DiNizio, who grew up listening to the pop and rock hits of the day on New York’s powerhouse AM radio stations in the 1960s, the Top 40 success of “A Girl Like You” left him with a mixed reaction.
“It was a tremendous struggle to get it there,” he says. “It was almost a feeling of ‘We worked so hard for this’ — we were almost angry about it. I know that Capitol Records had pulled radio promotion at a certain point. They said, ‘We already worked this song … it’s not making it.’ ”
Drawing from its early do-it-yourself roots, DiNizio says the band agreed to take its touring revenue and pay independent radio promoters to keep plugging “A Girl Like You,” and that move was what pushed the song into the Billboard Top 40. In June 1990, the “11’’ album was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.
While the song “Blues Before and After” stalled at No. 94 on the Hot 100 in spring 1990, The Smithereens avoided the one-hit wonder tag within the pop Top 40 universe in 1992. That’s when “Too Much Passion,” from 1991’s Stasium-produced “Blow Up” (Capitol), peaked at No. 37, spending a total of 14 weeks on the Hot 100.
Life after Capitol, rolling with the changes
“Blow Up,” which also contained the Billboard Album Rock Tracks and Modern Rock chart hits “Top of the Pops” and “Tell Me When Did Things Go So Wrong,” was the band’s last for Capitol. After being dropped in 1993, The Smithereens signed with RCA, and in 1994, the label released “A Date With The Smithereens,” which was co-produced by Dixon and the band and contained the rock radio hit “Miles from Nowhere.”
A label switch wasn’t the only notable adjustment the band dealt with during the mid-to-late 1990s. Whenever Mesaros was unavailable for a gig, The Smithereens would use a fill-in bassist, and that presented a window of opportunity for Los Angeles native Severo Jornacion.
Jornacion says he became an instant Smithereens fan in 1986 when a friend loaned him “Especially for You.” He first saw the band in 1987 at the Greek Theatre in L.A. and met the band a year later during its tour supporting “Green Thoughts.”
Around 1997, while Mesaros was on a leave of absence to attend culinary school, Jornacion says DiNizio asked him if he could learn 20 Smithereens songs in three weeks. He accepted the challenge, and Jornacion’s performance at the 1997 San Diego Street Scene festival was his first with the band.
The Don Fleming-produced “God Save the Smithereens,” released in 1999 on the Velvel label, became the last new Smithereens studio album to feature the DiNizio/Diken/Babjak/Mesaros lineup. By late 2005/early 2006, Jornacion — nicknamed “The Thrilla” — replaced the retired Mesaros as a full-time member of the band, which kicked off a prolific recording period with “Meet The Smithereens!” (Koch).
The 2007 album (a track-by-track interpretation of 1964’s “Meet The Beatles!”) was “done by design,” says DiNizio.
“I knew it had been many years since we had put out a new album,” he adds. “We needed something really interesting with a hook built into it that would bring the requisite amount of attention to the band. … I knew exactly what we were doing with that.”
Other recent Smithereens releases include “Christmas With The Smithereens” (2007, Koch) and “B-Sides The Beatles” (2008, Koch), plus “The Smithereens Play Tommy” (2009, E1 Music), the band’s take on select songs from The Who’s 1969 rock opera.
In March, The Smithereens were among the artists who participated in a Who-themed benefit concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The band’s plans for the rest of 2010 include scheduled shows in Connecticut, Illinois, Minnesota and Virginia, as well as a return to the studio with Dixon in the fall to record the first all-new Smithereens studio album in more than a decade.
Photos courtesy of Pat DiNizio
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