Dawn of the Smithereens (Part 2 of 3)

Continued from Part One

But even playing covers, the three musicians quickly developed a musical character all their own, defined by Diken’s assertive yet tasteful drumming, Babjak’s powerful and melodic guitar, and Mike Mesaros’ thunderous bass. Diken notes that the band’s influences extended well beyond the Dave Clark Five and beat era groups. “We listened a lot to The Stranglers,” he says. “Mike loved JJ Burnel’s bass playing. The Stranglers informed our attitudes and how we played more than people might think.”

By the late ‘70s, they were playing bars and clubs in and around New Jersey. Babjak recalls a regular Thursday gig at a place called The Stone Pony. “We were paid $25 for the entire band; my bar tab alone was more than that!”

“Graduation was ‘75, and it took us a few years to get anywhere,” Diken says. Almost all of the pieces were in place. “We had a sound, and we were looking for a singer,” Babjak says. The band went through a few lead vocalists, but none was quite right. In 1978, they took out classified ads in The Village Voice and The Aquarian.

At the same time, Diken was reading those ad sections himself, looking for additional band opportunities. He spied an ad in The Aquarian that caught his attention: “Seeking drummer to play in a band covering The Who, The Jam, Buddy Holly, Devo, Elvis Costello, Beatles.” He called the number, and singer-guitarist Pat DiNizio answered the phone.

Diken ended up joining that cover band for a short while; when that ended, it led to some studio sessions – his first-ever – recording some DiNizio originals. Pat played everything but drums on those tracks, so at one point Diken made a suggestion. “I’ve got these two other friends who would be really good for this music,” he told DiNizio. Soon thereafter, the songs were re-recorded with what would become the classic lineup of the Smithereens. “Our first gig was March of 1980,” Diken says.

One night soon after, while the band was onstage in Greenwich Village, Babjak’s car was stolen. When he received the insurance money on his claim, he used the funds to open a record store in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He soon became friends with the owner of a nearby bar, the Court Tavern. “He started giving us weekend gigs,” Babjak says. The band also landed a regular gig at another bar, Kenny’s Castaways in Greenwich Village. “Those were our stomping grounds,” he says. “We played three sets a night.”

The Smithereens recorded their debut EP, 1980’s Girls About Town at Chelsea, a 24-track studio in New York City. A sort of mini-concept record, the four-song seven-inch featured three DiNizio originals (all with titles beginning with “Girl”) plus a cover of Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys classic, “Girl Don’t Tell Me.” Self-released in October 1980 on the band’s own D-Tone Records, Girls About Town is among the rarest of all Smithereens records.

The songwriting credits for most Smithereens originals would read “Pat DiNizio,” but the reality is much more nuanced. “It was a collective effort,” Babjak says. “Pat would come in with a skeletal demo, and then we would do our thing. I came up with all my solos and a lot of the riffs, and Mike came up with wonderful bass lines and countermelodies.” (Starting in the 1990s, Smithereens songwriting credits reflected that collaborative approach.)

The Smithereens became an in-demand opening act, booking shows with The Ventures, Robert Gordon and Blue Angel, a band fronted by future star Cyndi Lauper. “In ’82 or ‘83 we opened for The Searchers at The Bitter End in New York,” Diken recalls. “We tried to get opening slots,” Babjak says. “And those were pretty big for the early days before we were signed.” For more than a year, The Smithereens worked as the backing band for Otis Blackwell, the hit songwriter for Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Del Shannon. “You can’t help but learn and be enriched by the presence of these people that have had so much experience, talent and success,” Diken says.

The group also met and started opening for Marshall Crenshaw. “We thought he was one of the best songwriters around,” Diken says. “To actually open for him was an eye opener, because he was a step ahead of where we were. He was where we wanted to be.”

In October 1982 the group began work on its second EP. This time they would record at one of New York City’s most hallowed studios, The Record Plant. “John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges, Mountain’s Climbing!, early Raspberries and [albums by] Bruce Springsteen were all cut there,” Diken says. The band had forged a relationship with engineer Jim Ball (noted on the sleeve of the Beauty and Sadness EP only as “JAB”), who recorded and mixed the EP’s four songs. And sitting in the producer’s chair at The Record Plant was Alan Betrock, who had moved on from the influential New York Rocker to focus on studio work.

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