Dawn of the Smithereens (Part 3 of 3)

Continued from Part Two

“Even though we were still climbing and clawing our way towards some measure of recognition and success, just having the opportunity to set up shop in that room really upped our ante,” Diken says. “It made us feel like, ‘We’re on the right path.’”

College radio programmers agreed; released in 1983 on a tiny and short-lived NYC label called Little Ricky, Beauty and Sadness gained airplay on non-commercial FM stations broadcasting from campuses across the U.S. Babjak says that the college radio airplay helped establish a foundation for the band, one upon the Smithereens would build in the years to come. “We would visit all the stations,” he says. “And I think we played every college in the United States, or close to it.”

As The Smithereens sharpened their live act even more, the songs kept coming. So the band made plans to return to the studio. “We would sneak into The Record Plant after midnight,” Babjak recalls. “And Jim Ball let us go in there and record.” In a single day in April 1985, the Smithereens cut five of six new original songs including “Blood and Roses” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep.” In a nod to one of the group’s influences, the latter shares a title with a song off Black Sabbath’s self-titled 1970 debut LP; DiNizio’s lyrics, on the other hand, were inspired more by British pop culture of the mid-sixties.

When the demo sessions were complete, the band made plans to shop the recordings to every label they could think of. “We were sending out cassettes with no bio, no photo,” Babjak recalls. The reasoning was simple: they knew the music was good, but believed that labels might not sign The Smithereens because in the age of MTV, they didn’t look the part. “We didn’t have long hair and makeup,” Babjak explains, rolling his eyes.

Those demo tapes “also got rejected by every company,” Babjak says with a laugh. “Except for Enigma Records. A guy named Scott Vanderbilt was their A&R person, and he was [also] a college DJ.” Vanderbilt recognized The Smithereens’ name from the Beauty and Sadness EP of a couple years before. Babjak says that the Enigma executive played the tape and thought, “Hey! This is good stuff.”

Enigma signed the Smithereens, and booking another week in the studio with R.E.M. producer Don Dixon, the band cut six more songs. After a bit of fixing of the earlier tracks, Especially for You was complete. The Smithereens’ debut album was released in July 1986. The record featured two U.S. hit singles: “Behind the Wall of Sleep” made it to #23, and the powerful and moody “Blood and Roses” (with a commanding and memorable signature bass line from Mesaros) soared to #14. A critical and commercial smash, Especially for You would eventually earn Platinum status (one million copies sold in the U.S. alone).

Further successes followed, with the Smithereens becoming a popular fixture on the touring circuit as well as – perhaps less predictably– on MTV. Highlights from subsequent albums would include the US Mainstream Rock hit single “Only a Memory” (from 1988’s Green Thoughts) and a vocal duet with Go-Go’s singer Belinda Carlisle (“Blue Period” from the band’s 1989 LP 11). Another single from 11, “A Girl Like You” crossed over to the Top 40 chart in the U.S.

Capitol Records began distributing Enigma releases shortly after the release of Especially for You, and by ‘89 had fully absorbed the smaller label. After the Smithereens’ fourth album, 1991’s Blow Up failed to sell in numbers impressing the Capitol brass, the band was dropped. The group would be signed by RCA in 1994, and their career would continue there and on subsequent labels with more impressive (if less frequent) album releases; their pointedly-titled 2011 ranks among the band’s most well-regarded albums.

But in that period between the end of the Capitol deal and the RCA signing, The Smithereens still had a wealth of solid material ready to go. In early 1993 the foursome entered Crystal Sound Studio in New York City. Armed with a fistful of songs – most of which were group-composed – they recorded a dozen tracks. As Mike Mesaros writes in the liner note essay for The Lost Album, “We [were] jazzed about this project, because for the first time, we [were] producing ourselves. And mum’s the word to the outside world.”

Mesaros’ essay reflects on the band’s collective mindset, undaunted by the lack of a deal. “At this point we were really listening to each other, and this was key in our individual styles meshing so well. A real band.” And he follows that observation with one that perfectly sums up the musical and lyrical character of New Jersey’s Smithereens: “We could be mean, sweet, joyful or brooding. As need be.”