The Smithereens’ Dennis Diken shares the story of the band’s first hit
The day before I spoke with the Smithereens’ drummer, Dennis Diken, the long-running New Jersey power pop act celebrated the 43rd anniversary of the band’s first-ever show.
It’s a testament to the band’s verve and drive that they continue on, despite the passing of frontman and vocalist Pat DiNizio in 2017.
In the years since DiNizio’s death, the band has delved into the archives, releasing the Covers collection in 2018 and The Lost Album, a collection of demos recorded in 1993 while the band was between labels, in September of last year.
With the assistance of Marshall Crenshaw on vocals and guitar, the band has soldiered on in live performances and comes to Knuckleheads this Friday, March 24. Ahead of that show, we spoke by phone with drummer Diken about the band’s longevity and the early breaks which contributed to their popularity.
The Pitch: Despite the loss of Pat DiNizio six years ago, the ability for The Smithereens to continue on has been rather heartening, I think, for fans of the band.
Dennis Diken: I think you’re right. And it’s heartening for us as well. We’ve been doing this–actually, what is today, the 21st? Yesterday marks the 43rd anniversary of our first gig. 43 years. Can you believe that? It’s all we know how to do really, is play music. We soldier on.
Jimmy Babjak, our guitarist and I go back to high school together. We met the first day of high school. We started playing together that week. There’s no way we were gonna stop, you know? Mike Mesaros, too. We’ve known him–our bassist–since grammar school. The three of us were playing together since high school, and then we were always in search of a fourth member that was sympathetic to our taste and our sensibilities and when we met Pat, it all came together.
When we lost him, of course, that was an unspeakable tragedy, but we were fortunate that we found Marshall [Crenshaw]–and not that we found him, we knew him–but we found that he could fit in with us and interpret music. The same thing with Robin Wilson from Gin Blossoms. They both had a real feel for what we do.
We never intended to find a “replacement” for Pat or a soundalike or lookalike. We were just hoping that an organic continuation would occur and it and it did. We’re really glad that our fans are staying with us.
You have been digging into the archives and releasing things in the last few years. In 2018 you had the Covers album that collected all of these amazing covers you’ve done over the years and then last year was The Lost Album. So many bands over the course of COVID dug into their archives to find stuff because recording was so difficult. What was the genesis of bringing this album out almost 30 years later?
Well, we just finally got round to it. We were between labels in 1993 and decided to record all the songs we had in our bag. There were about two dozen songs, actually. We produced it ourselves. 12 of those songs ended up being rerecorded for A Date with the Smithereens. We signed with RCA shortly after we cut the tracks that turned up on The Lost Album. Those other 12 songs just were hanging out and we were going through our tapes, as you said, and, and it occurred to us that these 12 numbers hung together pretty well as an album. We just had to sequence it, master it, dig into our photo archives, and put a cover together.
Mike wrote some poignant notes, I think, and we put it out there, hoping people would dig it. The reaction has been overwhelming. People really are enjoying this record, and we’re doing some of the songs live. It’s just a joy that our new old album has connected with so many people–and, I might add that we are gearing up to do a new album of new material later this year, so that’s in the cards, as well as more archive projects, too. There’s so much to dig through. It’s just needed a little time and discipline.
The release of that Covers album in 2018 reminded me of something I had totally forgotten about, which was your cover of “Time Won’t Let Me” for Timecop, which then also led me down a rabbit hole to discover that there is a music video for that. I had no idea that the Smithereens had a music video with Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Pretty funny, right? And we actually interact –and you might wanna put the “act” in quotes–with him, which was fun. I remember he flew in, I think from Australia, that very day. He might have been jetlagged, but he didn’t show in his performance. It was really fun to do. We worked really hard on that video all day, and then we took a red-eye to Chicago.
Digging through albums and discovering how the Smithereens popped up on the soundtracks for so many different movies over the years, including appearing in Class of Nuke ‘Em High, is always an absolute blast. The ability of the band to pop up in all of these different places seems to really speak to the music you all make. It’s timeless, as demonstrated by the fact that you have this album that sat in the vault for 30 years and still sounds very fresh.
We were happy to be involved with all those films. Class of Nuke ‘Em High was our entree to that end of showbiz but really, what was fortuitous for us was our alignment with the movie Dangerously Close. That really helped break us in a very kind of happy accident/fluky way.
We had signed with Enigma. We recorded the album, Especially for You. It was sitting in the can, wasn’t even released yet and Enigma–a very forward-thinking, independent label in early spring of ’86–was doing soundtrack LPs for Cannon Films. We did not intend for that tune, “Blood and Roses,” to be a single. We were hoping that “Strangers When We Meet” would be the first cut that got attention. We thought it was the most accessible and sounded like an AM kind of hit to us.
But, somebody connected with the film had an advanced cassette of Especially for You, which didn’t come out ’til July. This is probably March or April, maybe. The cassette was in the car of this person connected with Cannon. That guy’s wife gets in the car one day, finds the cassette, pops it in, and hears Blood and Roses,” and suggests to her husband, “Hey, this song fits the mood of that teenage vigilante movie you’re working on,” which was Dangerously Close.
Enigma said, “Let’s do a video.” They flew us out and that was our first time in Los Angeles as a band. We shot what our scenes for that video, and they edited in scenes from Dangerously Close, interspersed with our performance. That ran on MTV, and the movie came out and died pretty quickly. I dunno if you’ve ever seen the film?
Albert Pyun’s filmography is interesting to say the least.
Teah. He directed the video too, by the way. The song caught on, though, with MTV and album rock radio. We were so pleased that we gained some momentum months before the album came out. They re-edited the video and took out the scenes from the movie, and we were on our way, having a radio hit even before vinyl was in the stores. I guess FM radio and the climate at that time were just poised for whatever it was that we were offering.
I can safely say, Especially for You and most of–if not all of–our recordings were us just being us. We succeeded on our own terms. We never had very much interference, so to speak, from A&R at any label, because they felt that, “Well, these guys seem to be succeeding doing what they do. Let’s leave ’em alone.”
The Smithereens with Marshall Crenshaw play Kunckleheads on Friday, March 24, with openers the Popskull Rebels. Details on that show here.