Memory Motel: The Smithereens' Secret Backstory
'80s alt-rock heroes' remarkable run-up to success
The "overnight success" phenomenon is not exactly a myth in music -- it has undeniably been known to happen -- but more often it simply means that most of the world wasn't watching while the artist in question was working away at developing a sound and a stance. For instance, Bruce Springsteen conquered the world with Born To Run in 1975, but the vast majority of new fans who flocked to The Boss at that point probably weren't even aware of the two albums he'd released in '73, much less the long succession of bands he'd worked with in the decade leading up to his "sudden" fame.
But there's another Garden State rock & roll institution that makes for an even better example: The Smithereens. As far as 99.9 percent of the population is concerned, the story of The Smithereens started in 1986, when the band's debut album, Especially For You, yielded the hits "Blood and Roses" and "Behind the Wall of Sleep." But while that album definitively displayed The Smithereens' signature blend of power pop hooks and ‘80s alt-rock edge, the New Jersey foursome had already been kicking around the East coast for six years by that time, releasing two little-known but nevertheless essential EPs.
In 1980, the newly formed band made its maiden vinyl voyage with the four-song Girls About Town, a crucial piece of power-pop history. The EP's concept -- every song title is based around the word "girl" -- shows that The Smithereens already had both a passion for and understanding of the genre's core theme. More importantly, it was already obvious to the few who heard the record that frontman Pat DiNizio had a knack for turning out flawless pop gems. While the angular riffs of the title track bore a bit of the New Wave feel that was prevalent at the time, a cover of The Beach Boys' "Girl Don't Tell Me" shows where The Smithereens' hearts were at, and "Got Me a Girl" and "Girls Are Like That" follow through in that fashion.
After three years of dues-paying, the band followed up their seemingly self-released debut EP with Beauty and Sadness, on the tiny, NYC-based Little Ricky Records (also home to The Cyclones' immortal single "You're So Cool," but more about that another time). Though their second four-song statement didn't earn too much more attention than its predecessor, it showed that The Smithereens had already evolved impressively. The title tune, an homage to Revolver-era Beatles, ventures into psychedelia without sacrificing tunefulness. "Some Other Guy" and "Tracey's World" are more fully realized versions of the pure pop visions on the previous EP. And the rockabilly-tinged "Much Too Much" makes it plain that these pop practitioners had a garage-rock beat in their guts.
It would take another three years after Beauty and Sadness for the rest of the world to get hip to The Smithereens and start their string of hits rolling, but even if the band's discography ended at its second EP, their output will still be well worthy of celebration. Fortunately, this period of the group's development has not been totally lost to the ravages of time; Beauty and Sadness made it to CD at one point and is currently available in MP3 format. The title track from "Girls About Town" can be found on From Jersey It Came: The Smithereens Anthology, but it would be a boon for fans of the band -- and power-pop aficionados in general -- to at least have the option of downloading the 1980 release in its entirety. Still got those masters hanging around someplace, Pat?
|Girls About Town|
|Beauty and Sadness|