Reviving the Beatles

Beatles fan Mark Bowden chats with Pat Dinizio about his band's new Beatles tribute album, "Meet the Smithereens"

I was 12-years-old when I first heard the Beatles. There was suddenly this melodic, infectious, completely new sound on the radio, these four witty British musicians with shaggy haircuts showed up at Kennedy airport, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and, after that, everywhere. For me and for millions of Americans, there was pop culture before the Beatles, and pop culture afterwards.

It is hard for those born later to grasp how dramatic this shift was. I had never seen an audio or video recorder, and there were no FM radio, MTV, or Internet. The Beatles' music was addictive, and there were only two ways to hear it. One was to carry a transistor radio with you at all times tuned to a top 40 station. The other was to buy the new Beatles album, Meet the Beatles, an unthinkably expensive item for a 12 year-old, even one with a paper route.

I am no neuroscientist, but a lifetime of listening to music has taught me that when you hear a new song that grabs you, it cuts a new pathway through the pleasure centers of your brain, setting off sparks. The pleasure grows and then peaks around the 15th time you hear it, when you have learned by heart its rhythms, chord changes, choruses, vocals, instrumental breaks, and harmonies, so you can, in effect, lean into the small rushes of pleasure as it swoops to a familiar and satisfying final note. But in those days, unless you owned the record, sometimes songs would appear and disappear before exhausting that process. So I remember vividly when Meet the Beatles first showed up in our living room in Port Washington, Long Island, in early 1964. I don’t even remember how it came. It might be that my older sister got it as a birthday present. I just remember lying on the rug in our living room listening to it over and over again, until my parents made me turn it off (commercially available earphones were still about a decade away). “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “It Won’t Be Long,” “This Boy” … every song was a thrill, every song a hit. “Meet the Beatles” was the first album I learned by heart, as it was for millions of boys and girls my age. It was the first record in our house that was not “grown-up” music: Frank Sinatra, Broadway or movie show tunes, Mitch Miller sing-alongs or Lawrence Welk. I was too young to have been swept up in the phenomenon of Elvis. I caught him in his chubby, clean-cut movie star phase. For me and for millions of other kids my age, it was first and foremost, the Beatles.

One of us was Pat Dinizio, who was growing up not too far away in a suburb of New Jersey. Dinizio wasn’t just a listener; he had a guitar.

“My parents had signed me up for lessons, and all of a sudden, every kid in America with an instrument had to be in a band,” he says. Then, reflecting further, “Ultimately, what we all wanted was not just to be in a band like the Beatles, but to be the Beatles. What could possibly be cooler?”

Dinizio learned the strange, startlingly original minor chords of Beatles songs in his first guitar lessons—“‘Hold Me Tight’ has one of the weirdest bridges of all time,” he says—and then started writing his own songs and eventually formed his own band, The Smithereens, which enjoyed a respectable level of coolness and success during the 1980s and has managed to stick around. They are polished, clever New Jersey rockers with a strong early British Invasion flavor, and they have earned through talent and hard work a loyal following all over the country. The group never enjoyed anything like the tsunamical success of the lads from Liverpool—no one else ever has—but Dinizio and his band mates have had a taste.

“I’ve never managed to actually feel like a Beatle,” he says, chuckling, now a round middle-aged man from Scotch Plains with thick fingers and a graying goatee, “but  I do recall one specific moment, playing at the Palladium in Hollywood, where we had sold out for every show. They had built a runway that ran out into the audience, so I could walk out, oh, about 25 rows, and in the middle of our show I had kids reaching up trying to tear my clothes off. Literally, they were trying to pull my pants off! And it occurred to me, in that moment, that this was as close to Beatlemania as I was ever going to get.”

The biggest dreams are always just out of reach. It isn’t possible for four middle-aged men from New Jersey to actually become The Beatles, but Dinizio and buddies found a way to come close, as musicians. Over five days in a basement studio in New Brunswick last year they recorded their own version of the entire 12-song Capitol Records Meet the Beatles album, lovingly reproducing it song by song, chord by chord, like an orchestra reproducing a Beethoven symphony from sheet music, or Andy Warhol painting a Campbell’s soup label, or Roy Lichtenstein reproducing a panel from a comic book. They made no effort to imitate the Beatles voices as professional “tribute” bands do, nor did they reinterpret the songs, inventing their own versions, as, for example, the band Phish has done. Instead they produced a loving homage, exactingly faithful to the Beatles melodies, rhythms, harmonies, tempo, and keys, making a recording that sounds almost exactly like the original but … not.

Dinizio lives today in an old suburban house in Scotch Plains not far from where he grew up. His family has operated a trash disposal business for generations, and for the longest time despite his best efforts his life seemed headed in that direction, too. Until he was 30-years-old, he says, he was never very far from a garbage truck. He has the thick features and big hands of a laborer, and remembers his father sitting him down about six years or so after forming his band to suggest that perhaps he had given this music thing enough of a try and it was time to rejoin the family business and make a real living. Dinizio refused. Both men wept. It would be a few more years before his band had a hit song—Dinizio’s “A Girl Like You”—and achieved a measure of celebrity status. (His father loved to see them perform before a big crowd at Madison Square Garden.) They have released eight albums, and have evolved into a solid mid-list, hard-working road band, touring the country to play small concerts for devoted fans. Dinizio and his band mates—Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken, and Mike Mesaros—have always been considered throwbacks. One British critic dubbed them “four pop professors from New Jersey.”

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.