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Smithereens pay Beatles back in unusual way

The Smithereens recently released a complete remake of the “Meet the Beatles” album, not because it was the best or most memorable album in rock history, but because  it was the most influential, simply because of what it set in motion.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pat DiNizio was brushing his teeth, preparing for another day in the third grade. On his transistor radio, a WABC disc jockey mocked the name of the band whose new record he was about to play.

After hearing the first few chords of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” a stunned DiNizio dropped his toothbrush into the sink.

“I felt as if I was hearing some strange new music from the moon,” he said. After school that day, he made his father drive through a snowstorm to find that record.

Hearing the Beatles for the first time changed his life, as it did for countless others. Now 51 and lead singer of the Smithereens, a rock band that owes an obvious debt to the Beatles, DiNizio is paying that back in an unusual way.

The Smithereens recently released a complete remake of the “Meet the Beatles” album starting, of course, with “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The original may not be the best or most memorable album in rock history, but DiNizio contends that it was the most influential, simply because of what it set in motion.

The veteran New Jersey band, which has turned out hits like “Blood and Roses” and “A Girl Like You” in a 25-year career, titles its version “Meet the Smithereens.”

A few years ago, his band was asked to play an all-Beatles set at a Beatles convention in Louisville, Ky., DiNizio said. It wasn’t hard to rehearse for, since the Smithereens already had a lengthy list of Beatles songs in its repertoire to play during encores.

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Many of the hard-core Beatles fans in the audience called out for Smithereens songs, making DiNizio recognize the connection between fans of the two bands. When he returned home, some of those fans sent e-mails suggesting the Smithereens make an all-Beatles album.

He asked fans through the band’s Web site which songs they would like to see covered.

“It was everything from ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ to ‘I Am the Walrus’ to ‘Let it Be’ to ‘Misery,”’ he said. “I realized that to attempt to record songs from every phase of the Beatles’ career and have any sense of continuity would be almost impossible.”

Around that time he also read an article in American Heritage magazine about how 1964 — the year “Meet the Beatles” was released — changed so many things in the world.

DiNizio thought back to all the things that changed in his world then. Within weeks of first hearing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and seeing the Beatles perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” kids all around him were buying guitars, growing their hair long, starting bands. He was, too.

So the Smithereens decided to remake the album that started it all.

“Meet the Beatles” wasn’t a collection of hits. Besides “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the best-known songs were “I Saw Her Standing There” and “All My Loving.” It was filled with moody, minor-key songs written by men barely beyond their teen-age years.

“People tend to look at ‘Meet the Beatles’ as a teeny-bopper album because they’re only looking at it in terms of Beatlemania,” he said. “But it’s a much different world from that. It’s not a bubblegum album at all. It’s really a great collection of songs. It’s an album. It’s meant to be listened to as an album.”

The Smithereens went into a studio one afternoon and at 3 p.m., began with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and performed the entire album in order. Finishing up “Not a Second Time,” DiNizio glanced at the clock on the studio wall. It said 12:15 a.m. Except for a few later overdubs, the project was done.

Even though DiNizio grew up learning how to sing to that album, he called it the most difficult vocal assignment of his career.

“The songs, while seeming simple, are amazingly complex,” he said. “The melody lines are very sophisticated. The chord changes are difficult to master. I had to dig deep because I wanted to give the Beatles the proper reverential respect that they deserve, but at the same time give the Smithereens the respect that they deserve, being true to our vision of what we do musically.”

It’s a difficult line to walk. Lean too much toward one side and the music is no better than what you’d hear from a cover band, the ones who wear Sgt. Pepper suits and are obsessed with making everything sound exactly like the record. Go the other way and it would be like that “Rubber Soul” tribute album from a few years back, where participating bands were so anxious to put their own stamp on songs that the project lost all sense of coherence.

The goal was to be like Van Cliburn covering a classical composer. Nobody confuses the song, but they know instantly it’s Van Cliburn at the piano, he said.

“This is our way of remembering or keeping alive a time or a life that we all knew and no longer exists,” DiNizio said. “Those things are gone. The e-mails that I’ve gotten from people who have bought the album already talk about crying, feeling like they are 6 or 7 years old again.

“It’s that emotional connection that is lacking from the ‘Love’ album, which is technically brilliant, but doesn’t have a lot of soul,” he said. “The soul was in the original recordings.”

Then there was the one-word e-mail that DiNizio received from an anonymous correspondent: “BLASPHEMY!”

You can’t please everyone.

DiNizio said if the project allows some listeners to drift back in time and recapture a memory from childhood, then it was worth it. As for himself, DiNizio can close his eyes and he’s back in the car with his dad one January afternoon, long long ago.