THE SMITHEREENS: THE EXCEPTION TO THE RULE|
For The Great Rock Band The Smithereens,
It Was Always About The Music, Not The Marketing
PCC’s Vintage Interview with the Late Pat DiNizio
By Paul Freeman 
Pat DiNizio, lead singer/guitarist/songwriter for The Smithereens, passed away in December of 2017 at age 62. He departed this planet far too early. But he leaves behind an impressive body of work that stands the test of time. The Smithereens knew how to rock. They proved, particularly from the late mid-1980s through the early 90s, that rock ’n’ roll, real rock, with slashing guitars, a strong beat and irresistible hooks, would never die. Among the band’s memorable hits are “A Girl Like You,” “Only a Memory” and “Blood and Roses.” Our 1990 piece on DiNizio and the band follows:
Some of today's chart-topping records are the result of coldly analyzing the marketplace. Others come from musicians who work on instinct to produce their hot sounds. Like the Smithereens, who pride themselves on recording what they want to hear, not what marketing men tell them will work. The New Jersey group's third LP, ''Smithereens 11,'' is their first to go gold.
Pat DiNizio, singer, guitarist and songwriter with the band, laughingly explains the title: "It came from 'Ocean's Eleven,' which recalls that golden era when Sinatra and the Rat Pack ruled the stages of Vegas by night and made horrendous but fun movies by day. The title spawned a subtext of other meanings, like 'This one goes to 11,' the in-joke from 'Spinal Tap,' and the fact that Smithereens has 11 letters, which I hadn't realized."
The album has spawned a number of hit singles including "A Girl Like You." "That was written for the movie 'Say Anything,' "DiNizio reveals.
"I based it on bits of dialogue in the screenplay and video that they gave me months and months before the film was released. At a certain point, the producer wanted me to change the lyrics and I didn't want to, so the band decided not to give them the song. They used an old Peter Gabriel song, 'In Your Eyes,' instead."
The Smithereens wound up with a smash single anyway. DiNizio insists, however, that the group wasn't focusing on sales and airplay on "Smithereens 11." "There was no plan to write an album that would be more popular commercially. I just sat down in my house, locked the door and tried to come up with songs. It's a heavier record than we've done before, but that's a natural reflection of the way the band has changed over the years, especially on stage."
DiNizio agrees that it is possible to take a clinical, calculated approach to recording. "The first thing is to get the record company to spend a whole lot of money and have a proven hit-making producer, then pick a bunch of songs by writers who hand-tailor hits for specific artists. Manufacturing a hit that way can be done. But I wouldn't want to do it."
The Smithereens eschew the slick, synthesized sounds that dominate the airwaves. "So much of pop music has gone that way," DiNizio says. "That's something we've consciously tried to stay away from. You know what P.T. Barnum said about fooling some of the people some of the time? Apparently a lot of pop acts are fooling all of the people all of the time . . . and laughing all the way to the bank. But ultimately, who's responsible? It's put on a platter and the public decides whether or not they want to buy it."
"Smithereens 11" took about a month to record and mix. That's longer than usual for the band. "I know that other groups, like Heart, spend considerably more time in the studio than we do. That's because their sound is different and perhaps they have more money to spend, perhaps that's just the way they like to work. For me, being in the studio for hours on end is a very boring process. I'd rather be hitting baseballs or something."
The Smithereens maintain an aura of spontaneity and excitement when recording. Their sound has crispness and an engaging edge. It helps that they keep one foot in the past, the other in the future. "In terms of writing, my inspiration is the classic pop songwriters of the '50s and '60s. But in terms of the way it's presented and recorded, we're thoroughly modern," Dinizio said.
DiNizio, playing guitar since the age of seven, was spurred on by such bands as The Who, Creedence, Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf and Black Sabbath. Among the songwriters who influenced his work were Ray Davies, Brian Wilson, Lennon-McCartney, Otis Blackwell, Lieber-Stoller, Holland-Dozier-Holland and, most of all, Buddy Holly.
Recently, DiNizio purchased at auction the reel-to-reel tape recorder on which Holly created many of his greatest tunes. "I'm not trying to build a shrine to Buddy, but there was something so special about his approach, a heartfelt simplicity. He always tried to be real, not avant or arty."
DiNizio has always avoided pretentiousness in his music. He began with garage bands as an adolescent, then, in high school, played Uriah Heep covers with a heavy metal trio. The New Jersey native placed a classified ad in a local music paper and hooked up with drummer Dennis Diken. Diken brought in his childhood pals — guitarist Jim Babjak and bassist Mike Mesaros and, in 1980, The Smithereens were born. During the last decade, they've developed a loyal following.
"Somehow, we've managed to carve out a niche for ourselves, because what we do isn't like what everyone else does. We're the exception to the rule. We've hit a responsive chord in some listeners. Our audience ranges in age from 12 to people in their 40s. We have preteens and teens. We have parents coming to the concerts with their children. It's a remarkable cross section, which I believe is the best audience to have. They're certainly not coming for any fashion statement. They're there for the music, which is very heartening."