AUGUST 19, 2020

ROCKWiRED REWiND: THE SMiTHEREENS - 11 (1989) up in the Washington D.C. area in the late eighties, it seemed like the only rock music you could find on the dial was hair metal. Not that I was complaining. I was fourteen years old back in 1989 and was enthralled by everything that was being delivered by the likes of GUNS AND ROSES and DEF LEPPARD. And of course I remember feeling slightly annoyed by the offerings by bands such as POISON and WARRANT. There was a bombastic grandeur to the music back then that can be hard to imagine now in a time where there isn't much rock n roll. The hair was big, the men in these bands were pretty and the music was thunderous. But there was also an inaccessibility to it. The rock n roll lifestyle was nothing that my mixed race, gawky, FRANK HERBERT reading fourteen year old self could relate to. The men of GUNS AND ROSES and DEF LEPPARD were rock gods. Not real people.

I have no specific memory of when I first heard A GIRL LIKE YOU from THE SMITHEREENS on the radio, but I do remember the tough yet earnest rock anthem standing out by a mile from much of what mainstream rock had to offer back in 1989. The no nonsense opening metal riff of the song grabs your attention immediately and sustains itself for the course of much of the song without growing tiresome. Doubtless, it is the hook that draws you in but the voice of front man PAT DiNIZIO is what keeps you engaged and it was something you didn't hear too much of in the crop of rock guys back then. His voice was a warm baritone with an everyman quality without screaming or histrionics – an intimate quality for sure. It should be mentioned that DiNIZIO shares the vocals on A GIRL LIKE YOU with pop singer MARIA VIDAL harmonizing on the chorus and the final verse and outro. In the age of anthems like PARADISE CITY, the earnestness of A GIRL LIKE YOU was quite a feat. It was all about winning a girl's love and not him telling her to pour sugar on him.


In the months after A GIRL LIKE YOU was taken out of rotation I made a trip to my local library to check out some books for a term paper I had to write. When I examined the music section, I came across THE SMITHEREENS' album 11 on cassette featuring the song that captured my ears months ago. I wondered what a relatively recent album was doing in library available for check out. I remember being grounded around that time for my inattention to school and low grades so I checked out the cassette of 11 and camouflaged it among my books on FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT and my love of the pop rock stylings of THE SMITHEREENS began and had me wondering where this New Jersey band had been all of my life.

Well, for nine of my then fourteen years at that point, THE SMITHEREENS made a name for themselves with a catalog of punchy power pop tunes with a decided sixties influence. In the early eighties the band made their presence known with a couple of EPs GIRLS ABOUT TOWN (1980) and BEAUTY AND SADNESS (1983) but it was their 1986 LP ESPECIALLY FOR YOU (ENIGMA) where the band broke through with the single BLOOD AND ROSES – a moody, clapping rocker with the most bad ass opening bass lick brought to you by MIKE MESAROS and the positively slamming BEHIND THE WALL OF SLEEP about a bass playing chick who stands like BILL WYMAN and has hair like JEANIE SHRIMPTON back in 1965. Their debut LP reached #51 on the BILLBOARD ALBUM 200 an was certified platinum with over a million copies in US sales. In 1988, after non stop touring, the band released their follow up LP GREEN THOUGHTS powered by the driving power pop of ONLY A MEMORY.

By the time I took notice of the band in 1989, I had no idea that they were in the midst of a shake up in their sound. Having worked with producer DON DIXON on their first two albums, THE SMITHEREENS, now signed to CAPITOL RECORDS, decided to take their sixties sounding power pop and crank it up to eleven, hence the title of the album which cleverly references both SPINAL TAP and the film OCEAN'S ELEVEN with FRANK SINATRA. To achieve this upgrade into mainstream rock radio acceptance, the band worked with producer ED STASIUM who had become renowned in the business for his work with THE RAMONES, TALKING HEADS, and more recently LIVING COLOUR's 1988 breakthrough album VIVID. The power pop smarts of DiNIZIO and company combined with the studio wizardry of STASIUM made for an album that upped the ante for THE SMITHEREENS. 11 is a punchy collection of pop rock tunes both rough and sweet. The enthusiasm for the bigger sound provided by STASIUM and the RECORD PLANT studios can be felt in the performances. Even when DiNIZIO sings of being blue as he does on the songs THE BLUES BEFORE AND AFTER and the BELINDA CARLISLE duet BLUE PERIOD, there is a zeal that can't be contained despite the melancholy of the lyrics. Yes, 11 was a cassette that found its place on my cassette shelf between my copies of THE BEATLES' HELP and AC/DC's HIGHWAY TO HELL. 

It made all of the sense in the world to kick off 11 with A GIRL LIKE YOU. What an introduction! The impression made by the band's newly revved up sound is so strong that the second track THE BLUES BEFORE AND AFTER almost feels like an extension of their modern rock radio hit. However, THE BLUES... is a more raucous affair than their single and the power chord progression may not be as memorable but it's no less driving. This time around DiNIZIO no longer has the girl and the bitterness and longing conveyed in his delivery makes you feels like you are right at home with these Jersey boys.

DiNIZIO's humble baritone has lent itself well to duets with female singers. You couldn't say the same for AXL ROSE or ELLIOT SMITH. DiNIZIO has shared the mic with SUZANNE VEGA on the melancholy cha-cha of IN A LONELY PLACE from ESPECIALLY FOR YOU and with MARIA VIDAL on A GIRL LIKE YOU. On the string quartet led ballad BLUE PERIOD he has ex-GO-GO BELINDA CARLISLE to harmonize with. I don't want to say that the results are heaven on earth but they are, especially the harpsichord solo at the baroque pop's sweet center. BLUE PERIOD is a reminder of the band as sixties pop progenitors and gives the listener a little bit of a break from the band's newly embraced power chord heavy sound.

It's clear from the album's first cut that 11 is all about good vibrations. Even when DiNIZIO sings of a broken heart, it sounds more fetching than it does worrisome. But isn't that the role of good pop music? The band resumes their power chord approach with BABY BE GOOD but this time it's used to spark up the walking beat of a song about wishing an ex-girlfriend all the best. The oohs and aahs recall THE BEACH BOYS, but BABY BE GOOD is a HELP-era BEATLEsque pop confection at its finest.

The sixties inspired power pop that made THE SMITHEREENS a stand out makes a return with the joyous sounding YESTERDAY GIRL. The celebratory guitar heavy tune finds DiNIZIO making the most of a bad situation by choosing to go with the flow as opposed to making any plans or commitments. “I never think about the future I just live for today!”, declares the slacker in song as he cautions his girlfriend that he isn't the singer that she used to know. YESTERDAY GIRL went on to be another single release from the album.

Not only was DiNIZIO an expert songwriter when it came to boy meets girl scenarios and the complexities that came as a result of them, he was also a fine storyteller. You could hear it in the song HOUSE WE USED TO LIVE IN from GREEN THOUGHTS about the toll of a divorce. On 11, we have WILLIAM WILSON, the story of a young man without a care in the world and a seemingly easy life until he meets his long lost father WILLIAM WILSON and a pandora's box of emotional turmoil is unleashed. However, as is characteristic of this album, the bright punchy sound is at odds with DiNIZIO's subject matter making the memorable tune all the more compelling.

*** was soon time for me to return the 11 cassette to the library so I made a copy onto another tape and the album would get blasted over my SONY walkman on the way to and from school and anywhere else I found myself walking around and doing nothing. I played it so much that the tape broke but thanks to better grades and an allowance I was able to buy my own copy. The album went as far as #40 on the BILLBOARD 200 and went Gold so it wasn't an album that resonated with all of my classmates and that was fine with me. I felt like I had that band that was my own and nobody else's and that made the listening experience a little more intimate. I even caught the band on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE with the guy from LA LAW hosting. I didn't give a shit about the rest of the show. I was there for THE SMITHEREENS as they pounded through A GIRL LIKE YOU and YESTERDAY GIRL. In a way, this album and band signaled for me the coming decade where beautifully coiffed rock stars with eyeliner were no longer going to be a thing. Granted THE SMITHEREENS were far from the mope fest that would typify the forthcoming grunge era,11 signaled guitar heavy music being played by an unassuming lot that wasn't all about rock n roll excess. Hell, I credit this album for getting me to pick up the guitar, learning some barre chords and maybe starting my own band (which I wouldn't do until after college). 

Despite my sense that music was changing, THE SMITHEREENS came back again in 1991 with BLOW UP, an album that saw them expanding on their pop music vocabulary with ED STASIUM again behind the recording console and  teaming up up  with songwriters JULIAN LENNON and hitmaker DIANNE WARREN on a couple of tracks. There is so much that I want to say about that album so I think another article is on the way about BLOW UP. Released the week that NIRVANA released NEVERMIND and changed the course of rock music forever, BLOW UP disappeared and my hopes for a guitar driven pop world were gone. In 1994 PAT DiNIZIO wrote about these changes on the bitter A DATE WITH THE SMITHEREENS released on RCA. His song SICK OF SEATTLE matched my sentiments exactly. After being dropped by RCA THE SMITHEREENS continued to be commited pros, continually touring and release albums. They've even managed to do so after the death of PAT DiNIZIO on December 12, 2017. DiNIZIO's passing signaled the loss of a unique voice in rock and left me wondering if we would ever hear tuneful, guitar driven music that doesn't bow to trends or to what a coffee house full of hipsters think is hip. After the loss of DiNIZIO, the surviving band member, guitarist JIM BABJAK, drummer DENNIS DIKEN and bassist MIKE MESAROS, have chosen to soldier on as THE SMITHEREENS with the lead singer role being provided by a rotation of singers such as MARSHALL CRENSHAW, ROBIN WILSON of THE GIN BLOSSOMS, TED LEO and SUSAN COWSILL of THE COWSILLS.

2020 is year marked by a virus, social unrest and political divisiveness but it also marks the 40th anniversary of  the band that dared to make rock n roll snappy, fun and inspired again. There hasn't been a better time to put on a SMITHEREENS  album and crank up the volume and forget about masks, politics and Karens. 11 got me through over thirty years ago and it's doing the same for me today. Yes, THE SMITHEREENS are a gift!

CORRECTION: In an earlier draft I had implied that the band was no more. I have corrected the article by stating that the band is still together with a rotation of guest singers. Thanks CINDY of THE SMITHEREENS OFFICIAL FACEBOOK PAGE FOR FANS!

FOR MORE iNFORMATiON GO TO: Lush is a music industry professional and entrepreneur. In 2005 he launched the online music site to help promote new music artists in conjunction with the weekly radio show Rockwired Live which aired on KTSTFM.COM from 2005 - 2009. In 2010 He launched the daily podcast series Rockwired Radio Profiles which features exclusive interviews and music. He has also developed and produced the online radio shows Jazzed and Blue - Profiles in Blues and Jazz, Aboriginal Sounds - A Celebration of American Indian and First Nations Music, The Rockwired Rock N Roll Mixtape Show and The Rockwired Artist of the Month Showcase. In 2012, Brian Lush and his company Rockwired Media LLC launched the monthly digital online publication Rockwired Magazine. The magazine attracts over 75,000 readers a month and shows no signs of stopping. Rockwired Magazine also bares the distinction of being the first American Indian-owned rock magazine. Brian Lush is an enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe. Brian Lush's background in music journalism, radio and podcast hosting, podcast production, web design, publicity, advertising sales, social media and online marketing, strategic editorial planning and branding have all made Rockwired a name that is trusted and respected throughout the independent music industry.