If you went strictly by the rock 'n' roll history books, The Smithereens would forever be viewed as a product of the 1980s. But for the true inspiration that ignited the New Jersey-based pop-centric rock troupe, you would have to peel back a few more years.
Specifically, your destination would be 1959. That was when a not-quite 4-year-old Pat DiNizio saw Elvis Presley in King Creole for the first time. And the second. And the third.
"That summer of 1959, my dad made the mistake of taking me to a theatre on the boardwalk in Wildwood, N.J., to see the re-release of what was, arguably, the best movie Elvis (Presley) ever made," DiNizio says. "I mean, he is really cool in King Creole. I'm told that I insisted on sitting through it four times, because you could sit in the theatre as many times as you wanted in those days. I ate 100 lollipops or something like that."
There was no turning back at that point. The Elvis infatuation led to his first guitar which led to his first band. In 1980, one of those bands became The Smithereens, a group that ignored the post punk and New Wave trends of the time as well as the synth-pop sounds that would soon overtake radio. Instead, the Jersey quartet drew on traditional pop and rock songcraft but toughened the edges with a litany of guitar riffs that ignited DiNizio's songs before bouncing about the melodies like a mantra.
A few of their tunes — Behind the Wall of Sleep (1986), Only a Memory (1988) and A Girl Like You (1989) — became sizable hits. But there wasn't an album The Smithereens constructed, from the 1986 breakthrough Especially for You through the recent Smithereens 2011, that didn't boil over with songs embracing melody, muscle and a sense of poetic darkness.
"We were influenced by songwriters like Ray Davies of The Kinks, (John) Lennon and (Paul) McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb, the Rolling Stones to a lesser extent, the Beau Brummels, the Byrds — really any songwriter or band that could deliver a really powerful and emotional musical statement in three minutes or less," DiNizio says. "That's what we're all about.
"We loved Buddy Holly. We loved Creedence (Clearwater Revival). And we liked heavier stuff like The Who. But I was also a major Black Sabbath fan. I met Ozzy (Osbourne) when I was 15, when they played the high school in my hometown. I followed them on the Paranoid tour, hitchhiking all over Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. I must have seen them about 15 times on that tour, and that's reflected in some of our heavier material, songs like Blues Before and After and A Girl Like You.
"In truth, it's a love of heavy riffs and that minor-key dark thing combined with the optimistic pop of the Beatles that really fascinated me. So I would say The Smithereens are like Black Sabbath meets the Beatles in a very odd sort of way."
The resulting music has carried The Smithereens long past the '80s. In its 34-year history, there has been only one personnel change. Severo Jornacion took over bass guitar duties from Mike Mesaros in 2006 with founding members DiNizio, Jim Babjak (guitar) and Dennis Diken (drums) still piloting the band's mighty sound.)
"It's not something we think about consciously, but this is a band of brothers, certainly," DiNizio says. "There's a little bit of dysfunction, but that comes with the territory.
"In the old days, when we were lucky enough to become successful, we were living on a bus 300 days a year. That lasted for about 10 years. The fact that we survived that and everyone is still alive and everyone is still friends says a lot. But we come from a certain dedication, a certain set of ideals, a certain aesthetic, if you will. There is a spirit of brotherhood here that says we're all on the same page."