WHAT: 80’s Night with The Smithereens and Martha Davis & the Motels
In support of the music and the mission of 91.1 The Avenue Presented by 91.1 The Avenue
WHERE: Meyer Theater, Green Bay WI
WHEN: 7 PM Sunday, April 10, 2016
COST: $50 General Admission, $100 Front Five Rows and Grand Tier
Recently I experienced another “pinch-me-I- can’t-believe-this-is-happening” moment. I received a call from New Jersey, and on the other end was Pat DiNizio, lead singer of one of my all-time favorite bands, the Smithereens. Conducting a phoner with Pat is one more thing I can scratch off my bucket list.
The Jersey-based Smithereens are known for their irresistible brand of power pop/rock music, heavily influenced by the Beatles and other iconic ’60s artists. DiNizio fell in love with the sound after seeing the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. The band put out a trilogy of albums with their dead-on versions of Beatles classics and have also done amazing covers of hits by the Who, the Kinks, and the Beach Boys, to name a few.
Over the span of 36 years, the Smithereens have been responsible for generating hits such as “Blood and Roses,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” “A Girl Like You,” “Only a Memory,” and “Blues Before and After.” The Smithereens are observing the 30th anniversary of their classic 1986 album Especially For You with the release of a special 2 CD set, which includes 47 tracks of electric and acoustic live performances, vintage demos, and rarities.
The Smithereens are Pat DiNizio (vocals, rhythm guitar), Jim Babjak (lead guitar, vocals), Severo “The Thrilla” Jornacion (bass guitar, vocals), and Dennis Diken (drums, percussion).
Jane Spietz: To begin, I would love to hear the story of how your mom whisked you away after school when you were a kid to go see the Beatles movie, Help.
Pat DiNizio: I remember walking down the driveway from school. I was with my best friends, the Front Street boys. I used to have fun and get in trouble with them, grew up with them. It was the last day of fifth grade and we were frolicking, running down the driveway trying to get off the school property. It was like being released from prison. I see my mother’s ’55 Chevy Malibu parked at the end of the driveway blocking our way. She’s beeping the horn and screaming at me, “Get in!” My friends are ridiculing me, laughing at me because we got caught in the act of being ourselves. I got in the car. And instead of yelling at me, she smiled at me and said, “We’re going to see the Beatles new movie!” I’m thinking, ‘Wow, how cool is my mother!’ We sat through Help twice. Afterward, she kept saying “John Lennon’s really cool, he’s my favorite. Isn’t he great?” ‘Wow, my mother loves the Beatles!’ ran through my mind. At that time, if you had long hair in ’64,’65,’66, you had it made. You were really cool and that’s what everyone wanted. On the ride home, I figured she was in a good mood. I said, ‘Mom, can I grow my hair long like John Lennon just for the summer?’ She said, “No, you can’t grow your hair long! Only hippies have long hair!” It’s like it went right back to the status quo. And later when I got home I found out the air conditioner was broken. Part of the reason she took me to the movies was because it was air conditioned. (Laughs)
JS: The Smithereens have put out three super tribute albums of Beatles’ songs, Meet The Smithereens (2007), B-Sides The Beatles (2008), and The Smithereens Play The Beatles Washington, D.C. February 11, 1964 Concert (2014).
PD: Each album was a labor of love. We hadn’t put out a studio album in about seven years. There was no interest there. But I had a relationship with Bob Frank at E1 Koch. E1 puts out a lot of movies now. I called him and said, ‘I’ve got an offer you can’t refuse. The Smithereens versus the Beatles.’ He said, “I love it, let’s do it.” Within five seconds we had another record deal. I was looking for a way to reintroduce our band to those nice people, the millions of folks across America and the world, who had bought Smithereens records and given us a career and a life worth living. In a lighthearted yet serious sort of way. The decision to do the most difficult thing that we could possibly do which was to take, in our opinion, the most important rock ‘n roll record ever released – Meet the Beatles – which changed the world in 1964, and reimagine it as the Smithereens would play it. So what you had was our guitar songs which are considerably heavier than the Beatles, and my vocals, without trying to impersonate John Lennon or Paul McCartney. Not interested in that. The arrangements are exactly the way the Beatles wrote them.
JS: Because for you, the material and the album was somewhat sacred?
PD: It was like playing Beethoven or Mozart. Playing the notes as written, and the arrangement as the composer, producer, and arranger envisioned it. It went to the top of the charts, broke download records on iTunes, and put us on the front cover of the New York Times Arts and Leisure section. So go figure. Then rather than re-create the album cover, I took some Beatles bobble heads that I had purchased and called up our friend Todd who does all of our album covers. I asked him if there was any way he could superimpose the faces of the four Smithereens on the faces of the Beatle bobble heads. And he did it! (Laughs)
JS: The second album you did, B-Sides The Beatles, was another statement unto itself.
PD: Well, if you consider that 90% of the time or more the Beatles’ B-sides were better than most other bands’ A-sides. We went back in time. I found one of our favorite artists, Jack Davis, who was one of the main artists for Mad Magazine and had done a lot of album covers and also Saul Bass, the iconic title designer. We had them do the album cover for us. The third album, The Smithereens Play The Beatles Washington, D.C. February 11, 1964 Concert, was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first American concert. We did our live version of the Beatles Washington DC concert from February 1964. It’s that famous concert where they’re in a boxing ring at the Coliseum, and Ringo has to physically move his drums around. It’s perhaps one of the most, if not the most, electrifying concerts I’ve ever seen. Our music is modern but there’s always that healthy respect for what went before.
JS: You’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Smithereens’ first album, Especially For You, with a 2-CD reissue containing 47 tracks, including live recordings, acoustic versions, and demos. At some of your 2016 shows the band will be playing the entire album along with other Smithereens classics.
PD: A friend of ours who’s a filmmaker created this marvelous 42 minute long film which plays or is projected on stage while we do the album. It reflects themes and images that are represented lyrically in the songs. It’s getting quite a reaction. In fact, soon I’ll be posting it on the Smithereens’ Facebook pages so that everyone can see it.
JS: Who was the inspiration for the woman you sang about in “Behind the Wall of Sleep?”
PD: There was a band from Boston called The Bristols, an all-woman band who modeled themselves, in terms of their image, on The Byrds. They played Rickenbacker guitars. They had a great three chord, 1960s pop sound which we were aspiring to do. It was love at first sight for me and the bass player, Kim Ernst. She was tall; her hair was cut with bangs and dyed jet black. It was like down to the middle of her back. She looked like the famous model and ’60s London pop icon Jeannie Shrimpton. A dead ringer for her. She was way out of my league, but I had to make the attempt anyway. Like the lyric of the song, I called her up when in Boston and her roommate answered and said she wasn’t there. After getting the brushoff, the song hit me like a ton of bricks. The melody, the chord changes, the entire lyric I wrote on a cocktail napkin on a plane in five minutes. It was an epic struggle after that. I got into my rent-a-wreck at LaGuardia Airport and was stuck in the world’s worst traffic jam for two hours. There was no technology at that time so I had to keep singing the melody over and over like a mantra until it didn’t even make sense anymore. I finally made my way home, got to the tape recorder with my guitar, and somehow I hung onto the idea. That’s what that song is about. That’s a true story. Kim still plays with the Bristols. There’s a great deal of affection between all of us. When the song became a hit on WBCN in Boston, as well as the rest of the country, everyone knew it was about her.
JS: Are there any there any plans for new Smithereens music?
PD: Yes, we’re looking at a Halloween 2016 release date for the new original Smithereens studio album. We don’t have anything to prove except to write good three-minute pop songs that have emotional depth, strong melodies, and interesting lyrics. In terms of the songwriting, it’s that same three-minute Beatles melodic pop song that we emulated, adapted, and sort of made our own in a sense. We were lucky enough to come up with our own sound. I don’t want to change anything. I just want people to say, ‘There are another 12 great songs, it’s another great album. These guys are still rockin.’ I want our albums to say new things and make new statements musically, but also feel like an old friend that you can depend upon. I think that’s been a hallmark of our career. The people who know us, love us, have supported us, and have given us a life by supporting our music – they’ve come to expect that from us.
JS: The Smithereens will be performing with Martha Davis and the Motels at a fundraiser for the independent nonprofit radio station 91.1 The Avenue at the historic Meyer Theater in Green Bay, April 10th. What can we expect?
PD: We’ll do the Smithereens greatest hits. We will do the deep album tracks as well and a couple of the Beatles’ songs. Do a little bit of everything. Martha Davis still has the goods. She can really sing and her voice is beautiful. I enjoy watching her perform. It’s a good bill. Thanks for a wonderful interview, Jane.