25 Years Ago: Smithereens ‘Blow Up’ But Don’t Explode
The Smithereens were on a hot streak. In the back half of the ’80s, the power poppers had put out three LPs, drawing more media attention – and scoring bigger radio hits – with each release. With a 1990 appearance on Saturday Night Live and a top 40 hit (“A Girl Like You”), the Smithereens were poised to hit the big time with their fourth album, Blow Up, which hit stores on Sept. 10, 1991.
With a title that name-checked the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni movie (which featured the Yardbirds) and an album cover designed by Saul Bass (who did the posters/title sequences for Psycho, West Side Story among other films), the Smithereens appeared firmly planted in ’60s nostalgia. After all, this was the band that referenced Bill Wyman in the lyrics to "Behind the Wall of Sleep" and designed its previous album cover with the original Ocean’s Eleven in mind.
Yet, a listen to the album revealed a slightly slicker sound, perhaps designed to gain more mainstream traction. Lead single “Top of the Pops” (another ’60s reference) kept the familiar wall of guitar crunch, but brought in an almost annoyingly repetitive chorus. “Too Much Passion” added prominent strings to a smooth pop ballad – which resulted in the band’s best-charting hit (No. 37). Frontman Pat DiNizio even co-wrote a song with Diane Warren – yes, of “Blame It on the Rain” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” fame. The pop was there, but the power seemed to be lagging behind.
If there was a time to eschew ragged rock, 1991 wasn’t it. Blow Up was released the same month as Nirvana’s Nevermind and soon radio would have a weakness for killer melodies laced with distorted guitars – you know, the kind of music the Smithereens had been making before this album.
The ironic part of the story is that Nirvana, and specifically Kurt Cobain, were fans of the Smithereens. Enjoying the sound the band achieved on its early records, Nirvana even contacted former Smithereens producer Don Dixon about working on Nevermind (he turned down the trio).
“I got that information from the horse’s mouth, as it were, because we recorded a Christmas single with Butch Vig [who produced Nevermind] while Kurt was still alive,” DiNizio said in a 2010 interview. “Butch told us that they would listen to Smithereens 11 and Green Thoughts and all of our records in the studio while they were making Nevermind, trying to be inspired in a sense, or perhaps borrow some production ideas and get in the mood to make the record.”
In hindsight, that seems like an enormous compliment to the Smithereens. At the time, however, being overrun by one of your followers had to sting. You might say the explosion of Nirvana blew the newly polished band to – wait for it – smithereens.
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