Dressed in leather, brandishing heavy guitars and an unabashed fetish for British Invasion pop, the Smithereens were an anomaly in the American college rock scene of the late '80s. Lead singer/songwriter Pat DiNizio stood out not only with his strange beatnik goatee, but also because his catchy hooks were haunting, not punchy, and because his lyrics were morose. As time wore on, the group became more straightforward, turning into an excellent concert band, one that attacked pop songs with the weight of AC/DC.
Of course, the Smithereens essentially started out as a working band. After playing in several cover bands, including a handful of prog-rock and metal groups, Pat DiNizio (vocals, guitar) was inspired to form his own band after listening to Buddy Holly. Placing an advertisement in a New York paper for musicians influenced by Holly, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, and the Clash, DiNizio eventually came into contact with New Jersey high school students Dennis Diken (drums), Jim Babjak (guitar) and Mike Mesaros (bass), who had all played together in school.
By the end of 1980, they had independently released Girls About Town, an EP featuring four songs with "girl" in the title, which was a moderate local success. For the next three years, the group played around New Jersey and New York, not releasing another record until 1983's Beauty and Sadness. While the EP earned some play on college radio and received a positive review in Rolling Stone, they still had trouble gaining an audience, so they began supporting traveling oldies groups like Otis Blackwell, with whom they recorded an album's worth of material, and the Beau Brummels.
By 1985, the Smithereens were growing frustrated by their lack of progress, as most of the demos they sent to labels were ignored. They did send a demo to Enigma, where Scott Vanderbilt, a former college DJ who was a fan of the band several years earlier, signed the group. In 1986, the band released their debut album, the Don Dixon-produced, Especially for You, to positive reviews.
On the strength of college airplay, as well as MTV's airing of "Blood and Roses" - a video financed by a film studio which included the song in the B-movie Dangerously Close - the album became a hit, climbing to number 51 on the charts and leading to a major-label contract with Capitol. The Smithereens supported the album with an extensive tour, and they recorded their second record weeks after they left the road. Green Thoughts appeared early in 1988, and the first single, "Only A Memory," not only became a college and modern rock hit, but it crossed over to album-rock stations as well.
The Smithereens made their attempt for big-time album-rock success with their third album, 11. Hiring producer Ed Stasium brought a heavier guitar sound, which made "A Girl Like You" - a song rejected as the theme for the comedy, "Say Anything" - a Top 40 hit, sending 11 to gold status. "Too Much Passion," the first single from their fourth album Blow Up, indicated that the new record was more adventurous and produced, and the single did become a Top 40 hit. They moved to RCA for 1994's A Date With the Smithereens, their first album since Green Thoughts to be produced by Don Dixon.
The group retains a sizable cult following which helps them tour successfully through today, with all original members. The band has also released a pair of compilations; the hits package Blown to Smithereens and the rarities collection Attack of the Smithereens.
Official website: officialsmithereens.com
Photo courtesy Paradise Artists