THE GREAT CURVE 004

THE GREAT CURVE 004
curated by Todd Berryman

Coming off the holiday season, I think today of gifts received at critical times in my life.

In the mid-80s, curious about particular strains of 70s classic rock, I asked my uncle Kim to dub a copy of the then-out-of-print Uriah Heep Live album, cut after their first five studio albums. I had given him a 90-minute tape, which was about 20 minutes too long, but it made more sense than giving him an hour-long one and missing songs as a result.

To fill the gap, he added a few songs that he thought might be of interest, including four from the debut full-length from a band that had been at it for a few years. This is one of those cases where what he added made more impact than what I’d actually asked for. Within the next year, we had a gift exchange among my high-school friends, and I got the full-length cassette of that album from my friend Kathy, and in the process I heard great music from that band that I hadn’t gotten to hear before.

Which leads us to today’s album in The Great Curve
smithereens-debut

The Smithereens
Especially for You (1986)

Out of the box, this is one of those recordings that is in a rarefied strata, an album whose title track snapped into existence on a later album – the Doors “Waiting for the Sun” surfacing on The Soft Parade and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy ultimately appearing on the two-record set Physical Graffiti. “Especially for You” ended up on the next Smithereens album, Green Thoughts, two years later.

Especially for You would almost be something I would say was out of its time because of the vintage 60s feel to it, except that there were other musicians starting to work the same territory in the 80s, it just took a while for it to get recognized in the charts. Marshall Crenshaw’s work from the era (such as “Someday, Someway”) is a classic example – in fact, he guests on keyboards in this album’s opener, “Strangers When We Meet” (he’s credited as Jerome Jerome). The band has occasionally been acknowledged as adjunct to the movement on the West Coast referred to as the Paisley Underground, without necessarily being a full-on part of it…in part due to their East Coast roots, but also because the psychedelic aspects were not really part of their music, which emphasized the garage rock roots more. (The Smithereens’ representation on the 2005 box set Children of Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the Second Psychedelic Era, 1976–1995 somewhat reaffirms that kissing-cousin relationship, as the Paisley Underground and variant scenes are nicely represented in it.)

For 1986, it was a brilliant rock album, a melodic hit single sensibility with a hard candy shell. The fusion of vintage pop songcraft with a heavier attitude was not lost on Kurt Cobain, either, as he acknowledged Especially for You as a favorite album in his diaries. Almost flipping the formula in reverse, in terms of emphasis, is how one could end up with something like Nevermind.

When my uncle Kim dubbed those few songs, about a third of the album, onto the tape of Uriah Heep Live for me, he heard some commonality in the rock sound of both bands, although I didn’t see them as directly compatible. Heep was much more in the progressive rock side of things, versus the 60s/garage sound, although they might be said to have a mutual affinity for vintage 50s rock and roll. (The Uriah Heep album included an oldies medley, and the Smithereens spent some time as a backing band for “Don’t Be Cruel” songwriter Otis Blackwell.) Interestingly, my uncle’s song choices did not seem random – he didn’t just arbitrarily start recording songs. He opted to throw on the first two songs, as well as the last two from Side 1. It could be argued, I suppose, that he was picking the most accessible stuff, but if that were the case, he’d missed the best-known songs from the album, as “Blood and Roses” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep” hit numbers 14 and 23 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart, respectively.

Album opener “Strangers When We Meet” caught my interest pretty quickly, but it was the next song that made me thirsty for more. “Listen to Me Girl” was just…shiny, an earworm of the best possible type, and the song that I kept rewinding and returning to, over and over. That song clinched the desire to hear more, but I could never quite figure out why. It was one of those songs that made me feel like I could see the overall shape of it, but couldn’t target what made it tick so well.

Although it took a while (well, only a couple of decades or so), I figured out precisely what made that song feel so lush to my ears. The biggest part of it was that I’d heard the whole of Especially for You on speakers, home, in the car, but I never took the plunge with headphones until maybe a couple of years ago, which is when it started to unlock. On speakers, you can hear the strummed guitars starting at the :04 mark, which drives the song’s rhythm probably more than the drums. They come up a bit more forcefully in the mix just before 1:05, a bewitching effect. On headphones, though, you start to realize that it’s not just one or two rhythm guitars being so frantically played, it’s closer to four, possibly more, and they pop so much because it’s a layering of acoustics and electrics into each other, with a nice bit of trebly ear-tickle. The sassiness of that sweet little rhythm riff is amplified by the fact that they’re miking the strings of all those guitars as well, giving it that vintage 1960s jangle. Add in that leapfrogging bassline, and the buzzing, dirtied-up tone on the lead guitar, and especially the perfectly timed and understated solo (also at 1:05), and you’ve got a masterful example of how to arrange a rock song. (With a nod to rock’s past, as the guitars’ actual rhythm tend to remind me of one of Phil Spector’s production tricks, the percussion on “Then He Kissed Me” specifically.)

Take a listen…

So, let’s move up to senior year in high school, and that Christmas exchange. Right after lunch, I had the opportunity to play the tape, as I was helping set up sound in the school gym for the afternoon holiday assembly. What better way to check the cassette player set up for a swing choir backing track, than to play my new gift?

My pal Kathy, the one who got the tape for me, was also helping out, and I remember it was her reaction to the music that stuck with me. When “Listen to Me Girl” was followed by “Groovy Tuesday” on Side 1 – a song I hadn’t heard before then – she said “wow, this is really GOOD.” I took that as high praise, because Kathy was much more into the top 40 stuff than I was, so I didn’t expect her to be into the Smithereens at all.

The result is that when “Groovy Tuesday” comes on now, whether I’m spinning my vinyl copy of Especially for You or it catches me off-guard on the iPod, it all comes back: peppermint bark, the smell of that particular floor polish, the heavily reverbed sound of that gym. I’m back in 1987, hearing that song for the first time again. It’s still just as fresh to me as it ever was.

This is another one that had to reveal itself on headphones, but this one’s a little trickier. From the opening “GO!” (I think it’s standing in for the “four” in a count-off, actually) to the contrapuntal backing vocals on “woke up!” (starting around :31) to the Indian-inspired lead guitar progression (first heard over the :03-:04 mark) and the bubbling melodic motion in that bass part, this is pure sugar.

The tricky part, to my ear, is that Indian progression mentioned above. It’s not something that smacks you in the face, mostly because it sounds like this may be another layered part, two leads being played at once, same notes, one tipped left and the other right, the right-hand one just a touch lower in the mix. (I think it may be two guitars because it sounds like there are stray places where they’re not synced up as precisely.) It’s more reminiscent of something that George Harrison would have done in mid-1960s Beatles albums (or Paul McCartney would play on the solo for “Taxman”), or that Roger McGuinn would use on a Byrds song, a hint of the sound without necessarily going fully into it.

And good heavens, that’s just two of the songs. I could tell you to listen for so much in Especially for You. Like the hidden line in “Alone at Midnight” on glockenspiel, buried in the mix. Or Suzanne Vega’s exquisite duet vocal on “In a Lonely Place” bringing back a torch song past, one of a couple lighter pieces on the album (“Cigarette” being the other one, featuring *gasp* ACCORDION).

I don’t necessarily enjoy every song on this album, all the time…but it captivated me enough that my cousin Mindy and I both found great joy in the followup, Green Thoughts. And it was enough for me to seek out Smithereens 11 (visually and by title referring to the original Ocean’s 11), and Blow Up, with its Saul Bass cover design (he did the titles for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho three decades earlier). The Smithereens were that perfect combination: pop enough for pop kids, rock enough for rockers, and I’ve figured out over the years how hard of a balancing act that actually is.

I’m sure Kurt Cobain can relate.

Further research:

The demo version of “Groovy Tuesday” – it’s interesting to note how much of the stuff in the arrangement for the Especially for You version was already in place, barring the way the background vocals were deployed.

The Beatles have been an acknowledged influence on the Smithereens, enough so that they recorded a song-for-song remake of Meet the Beatles…but they also worked with Julian Lennon on this song. (Julian’s a credited writer, but doesn’t appear on the song itself.)

I love the orchestration on this. Notice the subtle hints towards “Strawberry Fields Forever” in it, especially in the intro.

“Long Way Back Again” catches the Smithereens in great company. Producer Don Dixon, who gave Especially for You and Green Thoughts so much of their sonic texture, returned to the chair to help on A Date with the Smithereens. This song has an added bonus: guitar solo by – surprise! – no less than Lou Reed. (He comes in at 2:14.)

And this one from Especially for You, which closes the album. Headphones a must to hear the glockenspiel in the mix (it’s all through the song, but most evident during the instrumental, the low notes on the guitar solo masking the glockenspiel somewhat, but it’s there, starting around 1:38).

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One comment

  1. […] I mentioned during the essay about Anne Murray’s Love Song that I owned that particular recording in multiple formats…and that led me to start thinking about other albums in my world, about which that is true. There aren’t many of them, but a couple I can say I’ve owned at least three times, not necessarily because they wore out, but because I wanted ease of access, or maybe to hear how it sounded in another mode of presentation. In those instances, it was on cassette, compact disc and vinyl. One of those albums I’ve covered in another earlier essay, the one for the Smithereens’ Especially for You. […]

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