For the past four decades and counting, there has sat a monolith of gigantic proportions behind, if not immovably atop, each and every group of musicians who dare call themselves a rock ‘n’ roll band. And despite fervent if well-meaning cries of “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust,” the ubiquitous aura of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, alongside most everything they ever said or sung, remains. Why, “Not liking The Beatles is like not liking the sun,” Rolling Stone hath decreed.
Leave it to New Jersey’s one and only Smithereens to cut and drag Beatlemania, phony and otherwise, straight back down to hard, solid earth.
They did so brilliantly once already with last year’s Meet The Smithereens, a track-by-track re-creation of Capitol’s first U.S. Beatles album. Now they return to the scene of the sublime with B-Sides The Beatles (Koch), a 12-track, 28-minute rip across the flipsides of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Twist and Shout” and so many other gems from your elders’ 45 collections.
But let’s not forget — the Smithereens certainly haven’t — that the Lennon/McCartney creations seemingly thrown away on the backs of their initial chart-toppers were far from second-rate.
For example, “There’s a Place,” John Lennon’s agoraphobic mirror to Brian Wilson’s “In My Room,” not to mention “I’ll Get You,” which Squeeze leaders Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook have built entire careers around.
Then there are “Ask Me Why” and “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You,” a pair of the most joyously buoyant pot-boilers never to escape the Brill Building, that mournfully uplifting slice of Mersey and Western “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” and even the long-thought-lost Hamburg instrumental “Cry for a Shadow” — still too cool for words.
“I think that I speak for the band when I say that this body of work is as valid and important as any from other chapters of the Beatles’ recording history,” says Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken. “We also chucked in ‘Some Other Guy.’ It’s a great number that was important in the early days of the Beatles and tends to get overlooked.”
Similarly ignored, if that word can really be applied to anything Beatle, is McCartney’s charmful “P.S. I Love You.” Issued alongside “Love Me Do” way back in ’62, it is especially notable for the fact that it featured not Starr but studio musician Andy White on the drums.
White today lives, and continues to play, in New Jersey, and he was actually employed on B-Sides The Beatles to re-create his original part, rim shot-for-expert-rim shot.
“He couldn’t have been nicer and into the concept of what we were doing,” Diken reveals. “It was a gas for me to shake maracas/tambourine as he played the drum kit on the songs.”
P.P.S.: A major part of all Beatle/Smithereen recordings has been Jersey’s own House of Vibes studio, and engineer (whilst moonlighting from The Grip Weeds) Kurt Reil in particular. Without once letting anything too digital get in his way, Reil has succeeded in capturing that early George Martin essence of boys at play.
“An important aspect of the early Beatles’ music is that it was recorded quickly, on the run, in between tours and movies,” Reil says. “The Smithereens wanted to capture that urgency in their own way, and so the sessions for B-Sides were scheduled at the same time we were recording their Live In Concert album at The Court Tavern in New Brunswick, N.J.
“We would record the basic tracks for B-Sides during the afternoon, knocking each song out in a few takes, then I’d pack up my computer and head off down the street to The Court,” Reil recalls. “I’d hook up there and record the evening’s show. We did this for four days, bouncing back and forth between the studio and club, and by Sunday we had all the basics for the album and four live shows to be reviewed.
“Overall, it was a joyous process. I mean, how much better does it really get to be recording Beatles tunes with The Smithereens and getting paid for it?”
— Musician/writer Gary Pig Gold is the co-founder of the To M’Lou Music label.