By Val Tapia, BADS Contributing Writer
Updated 10/14/2022 23:00 – Full text of the interview is now posted.
If you were a teenager born and raised in the Phoenix area and listened to rock radio in the 1980s (specifically KUPD, although I’d contend shorter-lived station KSTM before it), chances are you heard a plethora of songs from veteran New Jersey quartet The Smithereens. I can only sum them up like this: their music is unabashedly pop that literally rocks. Simple as that, and their loyal audience probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
From songs like Blood and Roses and Behind The Wall Of Sleep (from their 1986 full-length debut album Especially For You) to Only A Memory, Drown In My Own Tears, and House We Used To Live In (from 1988’s Green Thoughts, arguably the band’s finest album— and an unheralded touchstone of ’80s American popular music), their music remains just as viable and relevant as perhaps their most prominent contemporary at the time— a band called R.E.M. There, I said it.
To that point, if future music historians continue discussing the significance and influence of R.E.M. (as they should) and college radio, that same conversation better include The Smithereens as well.
I suppose I could put it another way too:
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame… are you kidding me?
In retrospect, I don’t think it’s off-base to say that The Smithereens were probably played more on radio than on MTV, even at the band’s commercial peak with 1989’s 11, which featured the biggest hit single of their career, A Girl Like You.
I spoke with founding guitarist Jim Babjak in a recent phone chat about something new (see what I did there?) the band just released “from the vaults” last month: a nearly 30-year old album called, appropiately, The Lost Album.
In a nutshell, the album lies somewhere between Green Thoughts and 11, at least to my ears. Songs like Out Of This World, Face The World With Pride, and A World Apart put a grin on my face upon first listen. Which begs the question: what took so long to release this Mr. Babjak?
“Well, this album was by and large demo recordings”, Babjak said.”We were in between labels at the time. Long and short of it, Capitol Records dropped us after the Blow Up album (1991), then we were picked up by RCA prior to recording A Date With The Smithereens (1994). In point of fact, we had already recorded (what is now) The Lost Album but discarded it, if you will, for Date…” he added.
It’s been well documented that the influences of The Smithereens range from early ’60s British Invasion pop to Motown. To that end, I asked Babjak about artists he was lucky enough to see as a young music fan growing up in New Jersey.
“Oh yeah, I went to concerts constantly when I was young. The first show I saw was The Beach Boys in 1972 on the Surf’s Up tour. In short, it was incredible”, Babjak said.
“As time went on, I remember seeing The Who several times as well as Peter Frampton solo. I was lucky to have attended so many shows during the 70s.”
The original lineup of The Smithereens formed in 1980 and consisted of guitarist Jim Babjak, bassist Mike Mesaros, drummer Dennis Diken, and vocalist and chief songwriter Pat DiNizio, who sadly passed away in Dec. 2017.
In 2018, surviving members Babjak, Mesaros, and Diken decided to continue as The Smithereens with not one, but two “guest vocalists”– singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw at select gigs, while others feature Robin Wilson, lead vocalist for Tempe’s own Gin Blossoms.
Needless to say, I would’ve been remiss not to have asked Babjak how Wilson came to join the band.
“I actually met Robin years ago when the (Gin) Blossoms were starting out. He was working at Zia Records in Tempe and came to several of our shows in Phoenix during the 80s and 90s”, Babjak recalled.
“Fast forward to January 2018, shortly after Pat’s passing we staged a benefit concert in New Jersey where artists like Steven Van Zant, Robin Wilson, Marshall Crenshaw, and Southside Johnny, among others, paid their respects.”
Babjak continued. “That night, both Marshall and Robin approached us and said “Look, if you guys decide to continue, we’re here for you”. It wasn’t about money at all. They were just offering to sing our songs that they’ve loved for years.”
Speaking of songs, I then asked Babjak what fans can expect in the setlist for the Tempe show.
“Putting a set list together can be a challenge for sure. However, both Marshall and Robin have their own personal favorites that weren’t hits, so it’s been fun rehearsing those deep cuts as well.”
“As an example, Marshall said he would never sing a song called Cigarette from our first album. He’s very much against smoking, and just said “No” to singing it. That was pretty much that”, Babjak laughed.
“Funny thing is– I said “Marshall, the song isn’t about smoking. The title is just a metaphor that Pat came up with when he wrote the lyrics. Robin on the other hand loves it, so he’s perfectly fine with singing it. Either way, it’s cool with me.”
“I have to say though I never get tired of playing our hits. Reporters sometimes ask me how that’s possible. I remember doing shows where Pat would suggest opening with A Girl Like You so we could “get that fuckin’ song” over with”, he said with a chuckle. “But I still love playing it”.
By the way, yes, Wilson will be behind the mic for the band’s Tempe show on Fri. Oct. 21 at Marquee Theatre. It’ll be the first time this incarnation of The Smithereens plays the Valley— and hopefully not the last.
Babjak also confirmed that Wilson is writing new material with the band for an album that will hopefully be released in the not-too-distant future.
For those wondering if the band will be playing songs from Crenshaw or Gin Blossoms, I’ll let Babjak answer that for you in conclusion.
“Honestly, I asked both Marshall and Robin if they wanted to do a song or two of theirs, and their said was… “Absolutely not. We’re in The Smithereens now! We wanna sing those songs.”
IF YOU GO:
The Smithereens w/special guest vocalist Robin Wilson.
Opening Acts: Fat Gray Cat, Carol Pacey & The Honeyshakers, Koza, and The Sintrics
Fri. Oct. 21, 2022 at Marquee Theatre, Tempe
Doors open at 6:00 p.m. Showtime 7:00 p.m.
TICKETS: $25.00 in advance, available at luckymanonline.com and the Marquee Theatre box office