Artist Spotlight: The Smithereens

As pop music junkies, I’m sure everyone reading this has that favorite band that came oh so close but never quite broke through; usually they have a decent first record or two, then make that leap into the awareness of the general populace, follow it up with another well-received album, and then….pffffftttt, whether through the lifestyle taking its toll, lineup changes, death, or simply bad luck, the momentum they had built up to that point just peters out and they’re left as a never-was.

New Jersey’s Smithereens followed that road, making earnest, British Invasion worshiping college rock through the 80s; their first 3 albums hit the US top 60, and while their 4th didn’t do as well (maxing out at #120) it DID feature their highest-charting single, the atypical “Too Much Passion,” which made it to #37.

Unfortunately for them, the grunge explosion occurred; while their style was decidedly retro, it fit in fine in the late 80s; once Nirvana hit, their backward-looking tastes seemed to grow stale overnight.

Which is a damn shame, because while bandleader Pat DiNizio may not have been a capitol-g Great Songwriter, he was a fine craftsman. Also he was the college rock singer who most resembled Bob Denver, which should count for SOMETHING.

Even so, being not-so-fashionable didn’t harm similarly minded bands such as Cheap Trick or….um….OK, maybe Cheap Trick is the anomaly here, and it’s commercial death otherwise.

After hearing “The Blues Before and After” and “A Girl Like You” on the em-tee-vees (back when they played music videos almost 24-7, that’s how old I am!), I was excited that this cool band was coming close to me….well, Northern Michigan University, which was about an hour away, but that’s as close as interesting acts came to the middle of nowhere. So my friends and I zipped up there, along with ½ my high school, and these guys were fvckin’ cool as hell, in my eyes. Sure, they more or less looked like the schlubs down the street, but they tore into it, and being small-town kids with no other outlets, the crowd went nuts. Lots of stage diving and a near mosh-pit (perhaps not remarkable, but the audience was acting like it was an Anthrax concert), all to the delight and encouragement of the band.

It was pretty great.

My 2nd encounter was The Parasite (aka my ex-wife) and I were going to a county fair in ’98, and we were going to see Smashmouth, who had juuuuuust started to break big with “Walkin’ on the Sun”….and say what you will about that band’s subsequent career, that intial hit was rad. We’re listening to the radio and as we pull into the parking lot we are told Smashmouth canceled (“booo!”) but The Smithereens were replacing them (P: “Who?”; Me: “YAAAAYYYY!”). And it’s always nice to have your first impressions confirmed – a decade later, and more concert-tested Mr BE in attendance, The Smithereens were indeed, a badass live band, with great charisma and a “no, we aren’t Smashmouth, WE’RE BETTER” attitude towards the audience.

I like them so much that “Maria Elena” was on the short list of names for my daughter.

So if you like power pop that has a heavy debt to the Beatles, with a melancholy lyrical bent and crunchy guitars, you could do worse than check these guys out. They’re still gigging and from the live clips I’ve seen, still kicking ass onstage.