Revisiting Marshall Crenshaw and the Smithereens


Marshall Crenshaw cracked the Billboard Top 40 only once. The Smithereens reached Casey Kasem’s airspace twice. Neither artist ever scored anything like a monster hit.

But every amateur guitarist of a certain age seems to know how to play “Blood and Roses” and “Behind a Wall of Sleep” from the first Smithereens album, and “Someday, Someway” and “Cynical Girl” from Marshall Crenshaw’s debut. These are canonical songs, as essential to fin-de-siècle American guy rock as Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream” or Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.” Call out any of those titles at a weekend jam session and, more likely than not, everyone will know what to do.

Marshall Crenshaw came out of Detroit and made his name playing John Lennon in the Beatlemania musical. Blessed with a jukebox-friendly tenor, Crenshaw revealed a prodigious gift for writing his own songs. Marshall Crenshaw, released in 1982, was one of those debut LPs that played like a greatest-hits album. On the retro-pop gems “Someday, Someway” and “Cynical Girl,” he channeled Buddy Holly like no one since Lindsey Buckingham. The irresistible “Mary Anne” and “The Usual Thing” sounded like three-chord chestnuts — until you tried to play them, and found yourself scrambling for chord charts.

The Smithereens formed in New Jersey around the same time Marshall Crenshaw quit Beatlemania, but their first long-player didn’t hit until 1986. Where Crenshaw channeled Buddy Holly, the Smithereens invoked the early Beatles, Byrds and Who. “I Don’t Want to Lose You,” a propulsive track from Especially for You, starts out like early Beatles and ends up like early Byrds. But the Smithereens were no mere revivalists. Pat DiNizio’s power-pop anthems “Blood and Roses” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep” sounded like no one else. His cocktail-jazz classic “In a Lonely Place” invoked Humphrey Bogart and Elvis Costello in equal measure. “Alone at Midnight,” the closer, thundered like prototypical grunge: Kurt Cobain would cite DiNizio as an influence. As with Marshall Crenshaw, the Smithereens debut played like a career-capping compilation.

Both artists went on to write and record dozens of extraordinary songs. By my count, at least six of their albums qualify as essential listening for any fan of old-school, melodic rock ‘n roll. Yet, over time, both acts suffered diminishing returns: gradually in the case of DiNizio and the Smithereens, more swiftly for Crenshaw. The Smithereens made the Hot 100 chart periodically until the early ’90s and performed regularly until DiNizio’s untimely death in 2017. Crenshaw never scraped the American charts after “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” a perfect pop song that anchored his second album. Since DiNizio’s death, Crenshaw has periodically fronted the Smithereens. I caught them together in a recent performance at the Birchmere in Northern Virginia: a great show with a well-chosen setlist. The only awkward moment came when someone shouted out a request for “Cynical Girl,” a Crenshaw song. Crenshaw sang no Marshall Crenshaw songs that night, an experience somewhat akin to watching Neil Finn, the great New Zealand songsmith, sing an entire set of Fleetwood Mac songs.

Four decades on, both bands are known mostly for their sensational debuts. “The songs of mine that I hear when I’m out and about, like at the airport, CVS, etc., are from my first album,” Crenshaw told AllMusic. “But there’s also ‘Whenever You’re on My Mind,’ from my second album — that one is still having an afterlife.”

Here are four more great albums from Marshall Crenshaw and the Smithereens, skipping the debuts and starting with Crenshaw’s marvelous second LP.

Field DayField Day, Marshall Crenshaw, 1983

Crenshaw considers his second album one of his definitive works, and it’s hard to disagree. The aforementioned opener, “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” is a beautifully constructed song, deeply pleasing on an intellectual and aesthetic level. “Our Town,” “One More Reason” and “For Her Love” all start out as deceptively simple 1960-ish rock ‘n roll but blossom into sophisticated works of melody and chording. The impossibly catchy “All I Know Right Now” jangles like Gene Clark before flying off into Steely Dan jazz land on the bridge. A wonderful album, marred by tinny production: I have yet to find a vinyl copy that doesn’t crackle at the high end.

DowntownDowntown, Marshall Crenshaw, 1985

By this date, relations between Crenshaw and Warner Bros. Records had strained: The label wanted another hit, and Crenshaw couldn’t deliver one. He harbors understandably mixed feelings about this record. But Downtown is a spectacular album, boasting a brace of wonderful songs and a great roots-rock sound from producer T Bone Burnett. “Little Wild One,” the opener, plays Crenshaw’s late-night-diner voice off a rich guitar hook, building into a multi-layered chorus of melody and harmony. “Blues Is King,” a song evidently inspired by the great B.B. King live set, illustrates how easily Crenshaw could incorporate vertiginous key changes and improbable chord sequences into a pop song without losing the beauty of the melody. It sounds simple but isn’t: try and play it sometime. “The Distance Between,” built on another memorable melody and a Becker-Fagen master class of a bridge, should’ve been a hit but wasn’t. A well-chosen Ben Vaughn cover, “I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee),” marks the other standout on an album without a weak track.

Green ThoughtsGreen Thoughts, The Smithereens, 1988

The sophomore Smithereens album lacks the consistency of the debut, but the strongest tracks show Pat DiNizio could write pop gems more or less on demand (and especially at sound checks). The opener, “Only a Memory,” became the first Smithereens song to hit the Hot 100. It’s built on a guitar riff that sounds inspired by mid-career Beatles. The song progresses through an unremarkable verse to a gorgeous chorus, beautifully harmonized, a high point in the Smithereens canon. “Drown in My Own Tears,” the other masterpiece from Green Thoughts, sounds like a variation on “Only a Memory.” Both songs wallow in sorrow and loss. Both build from simple, repetitive verses to heart-stopping choruses. Both, apparently, started as guitar riffs DiNizio conjured up during sound checks out on tour. “Especially for You,” a lovely piano ballad, recalls the mood (and the title) of the debut LP. The title song of this LP, “Green Thoughts,” weds sweet pop hooks to dire lyrics – “Dear God, please stop me thinking these green thoughts” – that suggested the Smithereens front man dwelt in a dark place.

1111, The Smithereens, 1989

The last great Smithereens LP reportedly took its name from the film Oceans 11, but I prefer to think of it as an homage to Spinal Tap, the fictional band whose amplifiers went to eleven. Criminally underappreciated, 11 boasts superb songwriting from top to bottom. “A Girl Like You” and “Blues Before and After,” a pair of singles that earned well-deserved radio play, continued DiNizio’s winning formula of building thunder-pop anthems around muscular riffs. The record only gets better from there. “Blue Period,” a chamber-pop masterpiece, channels the Left Banke. “Baby Be Good” employs one of DiNizio’s better melodies in a dramatic ode to romantic paranoia. “Room Without a View” sets a memorable melody against another powerful riff. “Cut Flowers,” a jangle-pop classic, may be the best song on the album. “William Wilson,” “Maria Elena” and “Kiss Your Tears Away” all sound like lost classics from some Nuggets album you forgot to buy.

Bonus tracks:

Crenshaw and DiNizio sprinkled gorgeous songs across more than a dozen albums. For more of DiNizio’s best work, check out “Beauty and Sadness,” a shimmering Beatles homage from the early days; “Top of the Pops” (and Jim Babjak’s marvelous “Now and Then”) from Blow Up, “War for My Mind” and “Miles from Nowhere” from A Date with the Smithereens, and “She’s Got a Way” from God Save the Smithereens. Marshall Crenshaw said he’s particularly fond of “She’s Got a Way,” penned by the full band: “The song is coming from a beautiful place.”

Crenshaw’s fourth album, Mary Jean & 9 Others, doesn’t fall far short of the first three, especially on side one. Crenshaw himself favors two later records for the indie Razor & Tie label, Miracle of Science and #447. To my ears, much of Miracle of Science approaches Crenshaw’s great early work, especially the transcendent “What Do You Dream Of?” and “Starless Summer Sky.” And give another listen to “Til I Hear it From You,” the lovely Gin Blossoms hit from the mid-’90s. You probably know it. You may not know that Marshall Crenshaw co-wrote it.

Daniel de Visé is an AllMusic contributor and author of King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King.

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