The Song Remains the Same
Newspaper and magazine profiles are supposed to be written around what we in the trade call an angle, which is to say a method of approaching the subject that ties it to current events, granting the subject status as news, and so justifying the space it hogs in a news paper. Since, however, there is very little actually new under the sun, the magazine or newspaper profile is usually built around some shabby excuse for an angle. For instance: a band has released a new record, or a band is traveling through town. The fact that there's something new to buy -- a CD or a concert ticket -- is all the angle you really need.
And so New Jersey's Smithereens, having recently released a greatest hits collection called Blown to Smithereens, and having scheduled a stop in Houston this week to promote it, are news, in this loose manner of speaking, again.
At which point the writer of said profile will look a bit harder in an effort to locate a less obvious angle, something to shroud the cheap commercialism of yet another consumption opportunity, perhaps a more interesting and less shopworn approach to lend some sense of urgency, some drama, to the non-news. It's a hell of a hard job to pull with The Smithereens. None of the standard fallback angles apply. There's little reason to discuss new material with a band touring on an oldies package, and the excitement that may sometimes be mustered over an up-and-coming band new to the scene was spent soon after The Smithereens' 1986 debut Especially for You. The band's sales peak topped off with 1989's 11 and its signature anthem "Girl Like You" (though 1991's Blow Up contained the flukishly soulful "Too Much Passion," which rode VH-1 and the Top 40 into becoming the band's all-time bestseller). In 15 years, no member of the band has left, none has been added and none has been arrested in front of a TV camera. It's already long established and no surprise that The Smithereens are one hell of a live rock and pop band, and it's already been widely noted that singer and lyricist Pat DiNizio is a legitimate if small-scale heir to Pete Townshend and Paul McCartney and Ray Davies.
If you've got the slightest interest, you already know these things. It's no fun to write about The Smithereens, because there's really no defensible reason to do so. There's just that ticket for sale, and that seems such an insulting justification, because even if the continuing fact of The Smithereens isn't particularly newsworthy, it remains true that few American bands play the sort of music they play as satisfyingly, or as well.
"There is no angle. You know, there never was an angle." That's DiNizio on the phone from a tour stop in Toledo, Ohio, mumbling under the weight of what sounds like a bad head cold, and not trying terribly hard to make his band out to be anything more than it is.
"The real angle of the press always seems to be: well, we'll find an angle if you're selling a lot of records at the time," says DiNizio. "The fact is that no one was ever really interested in writing about us until we started selling a lot of records, but, you know, that's just the business. We've always just wanted to be known as a good rock and roll band that wrote good songs with catchy melodies. And that's still what it's all about. People are gonna hear it and like it and buy it, or not."
So far, over the course of five full-length albums, people have bought it, though not in the usual pattern of apparently overnight success. "We've always been a road band, and the records have never really sold of their own accord," DiNizio says. "We've had to go out and work like dogs our whole life, basically. Even our biggest album, which would be 11, that album went gold after 15 months of solid touring. And Especially for You, the first album, went gold after four or five years. Green Thoughts [released in 1988] just recently went gold. It takes years for our albums to achieve that status."
That status, though, when the albums finally get there, has more to do with staying power than units moved, which is an appropriately happy sign for a band that places more emphasis on deceptively snappy songwriting than on flash and fad. It's a sound forged on DiNizio's fascination with "the classic pop songwriting that I grew up with, writers like Lennon and McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Ray Davies, John Fogarty, Pete Townshend, people who wrote those kinds of songs. We had two favorite groups in the early '80s, The Jam and The Stranglers. The Jam were just a tremendous band. And then there's our own musical personality, too, something that you can't predict or really define. Sometimes you put several different musicians in a room and they just don't connect at all. In our case, luckily enough, you put the four of us in one room and we had our own sound from the very first time we sat down and played together."
It's a sound that borrowed from others, but it's a sound that's loaned to others as well, and DiNizio's been around too long to be overly modest about The Smithereens' quiet influence on a generation of American bands such as Nirvana, the Gin Blossoms and Candlebox. Suggest, now that the greatest hits package has been done, that a Smithereens tribute album might loom in the future, and DiNizio admits that "apparently we've been an influence on a lot of bands," and that the tribute album's "not a half-bad idea, or a half-baked idea, either."
But if that line of thinking comes across as a bit self-serving, DiNizio's exceptionally frank in assessing the band's present status.
"Right now, we're certainly not as popular as we used to be, and when I tell you honestly that we're not as popular as we used to be, or I give you my honest age [it's 39], it's because I've been there and I've been back a few times," he says. "But we're still here, and I think what we do musically... the [forthcoming in January] new album and the new material is as relevant as it ever was, at least to my ears. I think we're pretty much in the place that we were during the first five years of our existence, during the first five years that it took us to get a record deal -- our music is a bit out of time."
The trends, of course, come and go, and there's a better than good chance that songwriting as fine as that of The Smithereens will enjoy a few more cycles of salad days before the planet spins out into space, but the band's last, greatest hit, "Too Much Passion," isn't the model DiNizio would choose for any Smithereens re-emergence.
"It was a huge hit for us, strangely enough," he says. "That was a sort of one-off homage and tribute to the songwriting style of Smokey Robinson and the sound of those Motown records we grew up really loving. We never recorded anything else remotely like it, and I think because it was a sweet soul ballad that we got a bad rep with people who thought we had sold out. We lost a large part of our audience at that point, because it didn't sound like "Girl Like You" or "Blood and Roses" or any of the other heavier, moodier tracks that we're known for. Blow Up, in fact, was a blatantly clean and optimistic sounding pop record. It was in direct contrast to its three predecessors, which were moodier and dirtier. It sounded totally different, but I thought it was a fine album. I'm still proud of that record, and I'll stand by it."
So maybe The Smithereens' longevity -- the unlikely ability of four bandmates to stay sane and stable and vital over the course of 15 uninterrupted years, and the freedom that non-meteoric pace allows -- is the real angle to our Smithereens profile. We're living, as DiNizio points out, "in the era of the disposable rock star. It seems as if you're first album doesn't go gold or platinum, forget it, you're not accorded the second shot." How, in that atmosphere, does a quality band survive without becoming ridiculous or, worse, irrelevant?
"You just keep your nose to the grindstone and keep working and pray for the best," DiNizio says. "Working hard is certainly a key element, standing on the right corner at the right time certainly comes into play. We wouldn't have been able to survive for over five years without a record deal, without any kind of success initially. But the common love of a certain type of music held us together, and it continues to do so."
The Smithereens play at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 17 at Rockefeller's. Tickets are $18.50. Call 869-TICS for info.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.