There are always going to bands and performers that are inextricably linked with their eras. For me, The Cure represents one side of the nineteen-eighties and R.E.M. is the flip side. Nirvana’s Nevermind dirges are so embedded in the early nineties that it’s almost a shame that the album wasn’t actually called The Waning Days of Bush I or some such thing. Much of this music is still great, and even has some qualities that could be called timeless, but they also speak so clearly for their musical moment that playing them causes calendar pages to flip back like a visual aid in a time travel movie. Those very specific–and probably pretty obvious picks–but there’s a somewhat more unlikely band that winds up representing the entirety of the era that I was at my college radio station. The band that most sounds like the whole of 1988 to 1993 to me is The Smithereens.
The band’s second full-length album, Green Thoughts came out in the spring of 1988, a few months before I arrived there, but it was still one of the go-to records for DJs by the fall. Their last album within the span, Blow Up, arrived in 1991 and made enough of an impact at our station that “the hits” were still on-air fixtures by the time I graduated a couple years later. Blow Up was also one of the few selections that the CD jukebox of one of our favorite downtown social gathering spaces had in common with the station music library, so plenty of bucks went towards raising its stature locally. It’s the release that came between the two that truly triggers the sense memories for me.
11 arrived in the fall of 1989 and was a smash at our station, boosted by a lead single that was about as good as any band could ever hope for. 11 was that thing that I valued more than anything else at the time: a perfect radio record. All the songs were quick, sharp, to the point. Most of them were under four minutes and a few were under three (always a help when timing up to AP Network News at the top of the hour), and no matter where the needle was dropped on the record, something catchy and cool was bound to emanate from the speakers. And it spoke to my moony little heart that songwriter Pat DiNizio knew his way around a sentimental, even schmaltzy, ballad. When I needed to break up the sound of a set–usually because I’d paraded out a steady row of thrumming guitar rockers–I could always look to the last track on 11, which signals its goopy wonderfulness in its very title: “Kiss Your Tears Away.” Just as there are a number of Morrissey songs with titles that miraculously manage to encompass his whole mopey aesthetic in just a few words, that Smithereens song title is DiNizio’s sweetness-laced-with-cynicism boiled down to a phrase that can be voiced with a single breath.
And, to me anyway, it sounded great on the radio.
(Disclaimer: 11 looks like it’s out of print to me. It is available for digital purchase, but the trick accounting the labels use to deprive artists of funds garnered through online commerce is probably employed with particular aggression towards The Smithereens given that they left Capitol under unkind terms. Regardless, there’s no way to go to a local, independently-owned record store and order this album in a way that provide remuneration to both the artist and the owner of said establishment, and that’s our guideline for a song’s inclusion in this weekly feature. That standard, however, does not mean that the song will be stubbornly kept in place if I’m contacted by someone with due authority to make such a request making such a request. Quite the contrary! I will remove it post-haste, duly chastened.)