Meet the Beatles again… sort of

Although a small label had unsuccessfully released some singles in 1963, most American rock and roll fans were introduced to a new band from England via Capitol Records’ 1964 album, “Meet the Beatles.”

That album, and the subsequent visits by the mop-topped Liverpudlians to the U.S., sparked by appearances on TV including historic performances on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” re-set an entire generation’s emotional gyroscope. Beatlemania brought with it a different kind of music, pop that popped with surging harmonies and was driven by hard, clangy rhythms, shot through with the soul and R&B of rock’s roots but also energized with a new kind of electricity.

The Beatles were the prototype for power pop, a genre that generations of bands, fans and rock critics have been seduced by ever since “Meet the Beatles.”

The list of power-pop artists that have been critically heralded is long even though few have hit the charts and become rich and famous: the Byrds (as much power pop as folk-rock and later, country); Alex Chilton and Big Star, Marshall Crenshaw, Windbreakers, Bram Tchaikovsky, the Records, Flamin’ Groovies, Let’s Active, Bangles, Nick Lowe, Matthew Sweet, Rubinoos, the Shoes… the list goes on and on.

One power pop band that actually has hit songs to its credit, the Smithereens, has gone full circle with its latest recording, “Meet the Smithereens.” It’s a song-by-song replica of “Meet the Beatles,” only done as the Smithereens.

Which means the recordings are very accurate and true to the original arrangements – the songs even fade out at exactly the same moment as the Fab Four’s original versions, for crissakes.

What’s fascinating, though, is that the band doesn’t sound like one of those Beatles impersonator bands that go around the country acting as if they are the Beatles. They sound like… well, like the Smithereens.

Which means the guitars are set a little heavier on the distortion than George Harrison and John Lennon may have played them back in ’63 in the studio, and that the harmonies, while letter-perfect, don’t have the unearthly sparkle of the originals. Also, lead singer/head Smithereen Pat Dinizo’s vocals, while they hit the right notes can’t help but sounding like DiNizio – there’s an unmistakable, minor-key sadness to every word he sings, even when the songs are major-key raveups like the album’s well-known one-two punch openers, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There.”

The difference is both cool and disconcerting at the same time, if you’re a Smithereens fan (which means you’re a Beatles fan). On the third song, DiNizio’s voice fits the material like a glove – it’s the minor-key lament, “This Boy,” which made for one of the best scenes in the Beatles’ “Hard Days Night” movie just a few months after “Meet the Beatles” came out.

The album thus sets expectations with familiar, nostalgia-laced songs but confounds them – or upends them, since the shock is pleasant, not unpleasant.

The Smithereens are joking around there, of course, or trying to be coy. According to DiNizio, who is captured in a fine interview by Brian Ibbotson on his indispensable Web site/podcast, “Coverville,” the project came about from a request by fans. (The “Coverville” interview also includes some of the Smithereens’ other cover songs – they’ve recorded a lot of the music of their youth during the course of their career.)

The Smithereens hadn’t released a new studio album in almost a decade, but they’ve continued touring constantly, including, not surprisingly given their genre, Beatles fan conventions. At one, they were asked by organizers to play only Beatles songs, and they did, drawing from the Beatles’ entire career. Afterwards, fans clamored or more, and DiNizio decided to pick one album to record beginning to end.

He solicited suggestions from fans on the band’s Web site, and ultimately decided to recreate “Meet the Beatles” for the album’s historical significance, not only to pop music but to his own musical development. When “Meet the Beatles” came out, DiNizio was one of the millions of boys who started combing their hair down in imitation of the hairstyles on the album cover, which showed their faces in mysterious, chiaroscuro-lit blue tones.

American Beatles fans had no idea at the time that the album known as “Meet the Beatles” was a fragment of the LPs that had already come out in England, where Beatlemania hit a year before. The UK albums had more songs and completely different titles. It wasn’t until the landmark LP, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” that Capitol records began releasing the same albums as the Beatles’ UK label, Parlophone (the covers and album titles synced up starting with “Rubber Soul” but the songs were still different.

So, “Meet the Smithereens” won’t have the same emotional and nostalgic impact to British fans as it would to baby-boomer Americans. But as a baby-boomer American who bought “Meet the Beatles” a few years later, the Smithereens’ version is a welcome hoot, and given me a renewed appreciation for the band as well as a renewed interest in the original record.

The Smithereens first came to prominence out of the New Brunswick, NJ bar scene playing their muscular power pop, which was well-captured on their debut Capitol album (yes, they were signed by the Beatles’ label in the ‘80s). That debut, “Especially for You,” which included a radio hit, “Blood and Roses,” and other kick-ass tracks such as “Strangers When We Meet,” “Groovy Tuesday” and “Behind a Wall of Sleep,” a lost-love ode by DiNizio to a Boston-based punk band’s bass player, who, he moped, “looked like Jeanie Shrimpton back in 1966” – Shrimpton was a popular model and sister to Paul McCartney’s girlfriend, Jane Asher, during the hip mod heyday of swinging London.

So that’s why the Beatles connection brings the Smithereens full circle – the Beatles’ early power pop has been banging around inside DiNizio’s head since he picked up his first guitar and sang his first note. The sound’s always been part of the Smithereens’ power pop, so this tribute is a loving salute to its roots.

Welcome back, Pat, and nice to meet you all again, Smithereens.

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