Think of the Smithereens as time travelers. They played their first official gig as the Smithereens in March of 1980—over 37 years ago—and now they’re landing at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead on June 24, bringing their signature ’80s-style power pop. Listen to their songs like “A Girl Like You,” with its combination of heavy riffs and killer pop hooks, or “Only a Memory,” with its Beatle-esque jangly opening married to a mournful–yet–catchy melody, and you understand the Smithereens’ enduring appeal.
According to the band’s drummer (and defacto historian) Dennis Diken, the band’s pop sensibility can be traced back to their common experience growing up in northern New Jersey in the ’70s, listening to the great New York rock stations of the era. “I remember listening the day that WABC-FM became WPLJ, sometime in 1971,” says Diken. “Those progressive radio stations were a shared experience for all of us in the band.” These “totally freeform stations”—WPLJ and WNEW were the powerhouses of the genre—played a startling variety of music. Amidst this richness Diken remembers hearing songs by Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson, along with album cuts from the Doors and music by power pop pioneers like Stackridge. “[WNEW’s] Scott Muni had a great show called ‘Things From England’ where he would play all of the newest releases from England,” Diken recalls—this would have been an invaluable resource in a time when British music wasn’t always available in the States.
Starting in the mid-80s, the Smithereens began to make their own mark on the airwaves after their single “Blood and Roses,” off their first album Especially For You, was featured in the film Dangerously Close, which prompted MTV to run their video for the song in moderate rotation. But it was with “A Girl Like You,” off of their 1989 album titled 11, that the Smithereens found their greatest success. The song, originally written by the band’s singer Pat DiNizio for the John Cusack film Say Anything (although it was not used in the film), peaked at number 38 on the Billboard chart. It remains the band’s best-known tune.
In the years since, the Smithereens have kept busy, touring frequently and continuing to record. Their reverence for tightly constructed pop songs and solidly crafted albums has been expressed in two separate tribute recordings. 2007’s Meet The Smithereens! features the band playing the Beatles’ 1964 U.S. debut album Meet The Beatles from start to finish, while 2009’s The Smithereens Play Tommy is covers of many of the songs from the Who’s classic 1969 album Tommy.
“Tommy was a seminal record for Jimmy and me,” says Diken, referring to the band’s guitarist Jim Babjak, with whom Diken started jamming in 1973. “It blew all of our minds when it came out—so much musical adventure, along with some really well-crafted pop songs, and so well rendered.” When Diken and Babjak first started playing together as freshmen in high school, they were playing songs from Tommy.
Even with all of their reverence for rock’s glorious past, the band continues to work for the future. Diken notes that, while rock may not dominate the airwaves like it did during the band’s early years, there’s still a lot of interest in the sound. “I listen to WFMU (the Jersey City-based freeform radio station) and I hear a lot of good music being made that’s not on the mainstream radio.” The bands he hears, though in some ways “underground” in the sense that they don’t appear on the pop charts, are nonetheless getting heard. “Tame Impala (an Australian neo-psychedelic band) sold out Madison Square Garden!”
In that spirit, the Smithereens plan to head back into the studio this year—they are currently working on material for a new album. Until that comes out, you can hear them at the nearby Suffolk Theater.
The Smithereens play Suffolk Theater at 8 p.m. (doors, bar and restaurant open at 6:30 p.m.) on Saturday, June 24. 118 East Main Street, Riverhead, suffolktheater.com, 631-727-4343. Tickets $49.