The retro obsession is mostly Dinizio’s. His house in Scotch Plains is like a museum of 60s-era pop memorabilia. There’s a 1964 Beatles calendar over the kitchen table, an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” on the TV, “Archie” comic book glasses (the kind that Welch’s grape jelly used to come in), an old 45 RPM turntable on the counter, and countless other like artifacts. “I like to keep things the way they were,” he says. “It was a simpler, happier time.” He writes most of the band’s music, and his creative roots are John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
So it’s no surprise that Beatles songs have long been part of The Smithereens repertory. From their earliest performances they resurrected obscure Lennon/McCartney tunes from the B-sides of old records and from old BBC recordings which had then not been heard in the Unites States. Fans liked the cover tunes so much that The Smithereens began considering a Beatles tribute album. The only thing Dinizio didn’t like about the idea, at least as he first imagined it, was that it would sound like a potpourri.
“There were three years between Meet the Beatles and Sgt. Pepper,” he says. “They were a completely different band. Every time they put out an album, it’s like they completely reinvented themselves. They were together as a band for only 10 years, but they changed so much conceptually that it was like a forty-year career condensed. The thought of choosing songs from all those different eras made no sense. And on a personal level, my feeling was that anyone can do Beatles hits, but where’s the fun in it? You can’t improve on what the Beatles did.”
He changed his mind over an issue of American Heritage magazine that identified 1964 as “The Year That Changed Everything.” It reminded him of how revolutionary the Beatles music had been. For those of us whose first impressions of the larger world—brought to us in dramatic images on television and in LIFE magazine—were the Cuban Missile Crisis, when civilization itself teetered on the brink of destruction, and then the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and his killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Beatles arrived as an affirmation of joy, youth, pleasure, creativity, and the future.
“They had such a wonderful, happy sound,” says Dinizio. “I think they lifted the spirits of the entire world. And the more I thought about it I was convinced, this is it! That album, Meet the Beatles, is arguably the most historic rock ‘n roll album ever made. In a sense, everything that came after it was influenced by it. Some people grumble that the music is bubble gum or teenie-bop, but it isn’t. That’s the farthest thing from the truth. These songs are amazing and strikingly original. A song like ‘Hold Me Tight’ had one of the weirdest bridges of all time. ‘It Won’t Be Long’ is comprised of so many musical segments, it was a highly unusual song. They use peculiar minor chords, and when you really listen to them, they are actually surprisingly moody compositions, all the more surprising when you consider they were written and performed by guys who were barely in their 20s!”
When they ran the idea by their producer, Koch Records, it was not immediately embraced. There were no copyright problems, even with the vaunted Beatles empire, which is notorious for policing the marketplace, because in the United States no music company can stop artists from recording their own versions of any published song. Artists cannot package themselves in a deceptive way, for example by making their work appear to be that of the original artist, but Koch quickly saw that what Dinizio and his group wanted to do would pose no legal problems. The label was more concerned with how the work might be received by diehard Beatles fans, of which there are many.
“We were fearful at first,” said Bill Crowley, vice president of digital and special projects for Koch. “We figured, our motives will be questioned. For some fans, the Beatles are like holy scripture. We could imagine the outcry: ‘How can you presume to improve on a classic?’ So there was some fear that those voices would drown the album out. But everyone got it. Smithereens fans all got it instantly, and they are the ones who began to tell the rest of the world.”
The group had never performed any of the songs before, but decided to play the notes as written, “like a classical musician would open up a score,” Dinizio says. “As we worked on it, we just grew more and more impressed with how masterful the song writing was. We worked on the harmonies for hours and hours. It was the most difficult vocal assignment of my career. To attempt the bridge on ‘This Boy’ was just audacious for me, but I managed to find my way eventually.”
What they created was a strong and honest hybrid. It’s the Beatles with a slightly more seasoned swing to the beat. The voices are more gruff and more American. The guitar solos and drum tracks are close to the originals but not identical, and certain songs like “When I Saw Her Standing There,” “It Won’t Be Long,” and “I Want to Be Your Man” sound more like a gritty bar band than the finely honed studio Beatles version. If it’s true that music we love cuts a groove through the pleasure centers of our brain, and that the groove eventually becomes so worn and predictable that no matter how much time lapses between listens the song can no longer produce the same sparks, then perhaps the way to recover that fresh ear is to hear the same music slightly off center. Meet the Smithereens is like hearing that revolutionary original Beatles album for the first time, again.