GPG: Have you always been, I guess you could say, musically predisposed?
DD: Well, my mom told me I was banging around in my crib!
Then I picked up my Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys and began using them as drum sticks when I was about three or four. I used a toy rubber-headed tom-tom and later moved on to coffee cans with plastic lids. My mom routinely asked neighbors and aunts to save those lids for me, as I’d break them regularly.
Initially, I was hooked by music and sounds I heard on TV in the late 50’s/early 60’s. American Bandstand, Little Rascals, Abbott and Costello, variety shows as well as themes and background music from cartoons and films on the Million Dollar Movie. All this stuff was very haunting; “acid for the children,” in a sense. I got the bug at a very early age.
But was there any particular sound, song, or moment that made you say, “Now that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life”?
Well, I can tell you that I began my lifelong love affair with records when my Aunt Gerry and Uncle Charley gave me my first rock ’n’ roll 45’s – replete with carrying case – for Christmas of 1962. The singles were “Return To Sender” by Elvis Presley and “Wiggle Wobble” by Les Cooper and the Soul Rockers.
I think I knew that I wanted to play drums once I heard “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by The Four Seasons in 1963. The rhythm tracks of the Seasons’ discs and other hits of the era, like “It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore and “Shut Down” by The Beach Boys, really got to me.
There were so, so many cuts from ’62-’63 that kicked my butt. “Telstar” and “Be My Baby.” “Remember Then” by The Earls is another. It was the totality and sheer vitality of that music that got under my skin. The great songs, production, playing and singing hooked me; I couldn’t get enough of my transistor radio or my little phonograph.
What an incredible time to be a kid and to be into music! I’m so grateful that I had that beautiful noise in my consciousness when I was five and six years old.
And of course, seeing Ringo on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964 was a crystallizing moment.
So when did you first make that transition from private “fan” to public maker of music?
My first real gig didn’t happen until the summer of 1971. I was hoping to join a band in grammar school, but it was difficult finding like-minded musicians. Then one day our newsboy knocked on our cellar door in Carteret, New Jersey. He heard me playing my kit and asked me to join his combo. So I did.
We played all kinds of songs, including “25 Or 6 To 4,” “Indian Reservation,” “Jean” by Oliver, “Draggin’ The Line,” as well as “Pennsylvania Polka” and “Yellow Bird.” We played mostly yard parties, but that first paying gig was at a Democratic fund raising picnic on the grounds of a prime old neighborhood pizza joint in town. I didn’t stay with them beyond that summer.
How did playing for Democratic pizza lead to what was to become The Smithereens?
I’ve told the story many times of how Jimmy Babjak and I became friends on our first day of attending Carteret High School:
I was eager to meet new kids in the large student body, and was fervently hoping to find a guitarist who could play “I Can’t Explain.” I figured if a guy could play that, then he “got it.” So, in early September of 1971, there he sat. Day one, period one, row one, seat one. He opened up his loose-leaf and lo and behold, I saw familiar color photos of my beloved Who from Hit Parader magazine.
On the way out of class I said hello and asked him if he liked The Who and, if just maybe, he played guitar. Jimmy and I started playing together that first week of freshman year.
We remained in search of a bass player and lead singer for several years. We even played as a drum and guitar duo on occasion – including Senior Class Day, in which Jimmy, Mike Mesaros and I wrote and performed a “rock opera” called It’s Only A Game, based on the ’74-’75 football season! It wasn’t until after graduating in 1975 that Mike picked up the bass and the nucleus of The Smithereens took shape.
I did some garage recordings with Jimmy, and later Mike, around that time. They were both attending college (I dropped out of Seton Hall University after one glorious semester) while I operated my own silk screening business, which Jimmy and I originally started together. We had been hand-drawing our own tees, sometimes doing custom orders for a few bucks here and there. We got the idea to mass-produce our designs after seeing the shirts for sale at Kinks, Who and ELO concerts.
It was around this time that you first came in contact with Pete DiBella, alongside whom you later formed Bell Sound, correct?
In 1976 I saw an ad in The Aquarian, a Garden State music paper, for songwriters seeking a singing drummer who was into The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. I dutifully reported to suburban Piscataway, NJ and met Pete and George Smith.
The songs they played me blew me away. There were dozens of ‘em, and a few of them might have stretched all the way to three minutes! It was pop the way I liked it, rife with good melodies and lush harmonies. DiBella had been knocking these out for a few years, some co-written with George, a fantastic bassist and cool musical spirit. George became a dear friend and we shared an oddball sense of humor, rooted in our abiding love of the Abbott and Costello TV show. We remained good friends until his untimely death in 1986.
It was with Pete that I got my first taste of multi-track recording, on a Tascam 4-track in his bedroom. I brought my red sparkle Ludwig drum set (replete with chrome Gretsch snare, purchased at The Sound Of Music at the Menlo Park Mall in 1968) and beat hell out of them on numerous tracks. DiBella’s dad would visibly wince at my frequent appearances on his doorstep. He knew full well that the peace of the household would soon be disturbed by my thrashing and bashing.
But I really learned the basics of putting a song and a recording together at those early homegrown sessions. Pete was a gifted, self-taught musician, who had learned the Beatles’ catalog inside and out and then moved onto a Mahavishnu phase, which thankfully was disrupted by his discovery of The Beach Boys and modern harmony …though I must say that I turned Pete onto The Four Freshmen. I ain’t kidding, this guy could dissect a tune and zone in on where the magic lay. He was a wizard on the guitar and on the tape deck. Bouncing tracks and making the most of a minimal recording setup were second nature to him. Plus he was a really good guitarist. Great ideas; great talent.
We stayed in touch and gigged together sporadically through the 70’s and early 80’s. My first visit to a “real” studio was with Pete in the summer of 1977 when we cut some tracks at Bob Speiden’s Quality Sound studio in Plainfield, NJ – later the site of the first Smithereens session in 1980.
Over three decades, and over a dozen original albums, what very, very special moments can you recall from life with The Smithereens?
Working with and becoming friends with Del Shannon. He sang on The Smithereens’ Green Thoughts album then Jimmy Babjak and I got to return the favor on a demo session with Del in ’88. One of those tracks saw light of day on a reissue of his Rock On! album in Europe recently.
Backing up Ray and Dave Davies. Meeting Paul McCartney. Meeting Zal Yanovsky, and enjoying a sumptuous meal at his restaurant Chez Piggy in Kingston, Ontario – Zal’s treat! Working with Otis Blackwell. Becoming good friends with Hal Blaine.
Becoming friends with Bobby Graham, legendary UK drummer (early Kinks, Dave Clark Five, Petula Clark, Pretty Things, etc.; sadly, he just passed away) and having him tell me that he’d “never seen another drummer play as much like him as me” after attending a show I played in England.
Meeting Buddy Saltzman, New York City session drummer on all those Four Seasons and Lesley Gore records from my youth – to name a few. Visiting Les Paul’s home in Mahwah, New Jersey. Meeting and working with “lost Beach Boy” David Marks. Sitting in with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.
There are myriad experiences; too many to recall. But we’ve traveled to so many places and met so many wonderful people and established lasting friendships. We’ve been from Australia to Iceland, where we had the Number One album in 1987 with Especially For You.
And nearly thirty years later, there are still highlights. In late August ‘09 we played Infinity Hall in Norfolk, CT, a small theater that’s been around since the 1880’s (Mark Twain appeared there!). We were never treated better, by management of a venue or by fans. It ranks highly among the memorable shows of our career.
Would I be correct in assuming you have also always been one of those “closet” songwriter/producers, constructing and re-constructing little home studios in the basement and secretly working on your own songs?
Well, I received my first tape recorder – a Concord – for my 10th birthday in February of 1967, and started putting ideas down at that time. I didn’t think I was “writing songs” so I erased most of them. I figured I was just horsing around.
Jimmy Babjak had a sound-on-sound reel-to-reel machine in the 70’s and we toyed around with that a little bit in his garage on Coolidge Avenue in Carteret.
Can you pin-point the beginning of what eventually would become the Bell Sound project?
I came up with song ideas in 1991 when The Smithereens were recording Blow Up in L.A. Once my drum, percussion and vocal parts were done for the album, I had a fair amount of down time and I began writing lyrics in my apartment in Hollywood and later sketched some of them out, vocally, on a 4-track cassette at home in ’92.
After the touring that year wound down I reconnected with Pete. In ’93 we cut the original demo for “Let Your Loved One Sleep” – that was technically the first move toward making this a full-on “project.” We continued writing and recording whenever time would permit.
Explain fully Pete DiBella’s contributions to the songwriting for Late Music.
In some cases I would come up with the germ of a tune and sing it into a microcassette machine on the spot, as was the case with “Standing In That Line” and “Fall Into Your Arms.” In some cases, an entire tune was formed out – verse, chorus, bridge and sometimes a B or C section – all in one shot. “Lost Bird” and “Long Lonely Ride” are examples.
I’d present the rough demo to Pete and he would help me expand on it, chording it out on acoustic guitar or keyboard and suggesting additional sections and ideas. We’d fly ideas back and forth until we had the makings of something we were both pleased with. It’s a magnificent collaboration. So much fun; so exhilarating. These writing and recording sessions stand among the best moments in my creative life. I learned a lot from writing with Pete.
I feel that every song is a different world, if you will, on Late Music. DiBella is versed in so many different genres of music, and it was this musical depth that informed the variety of styles and vibes on this record. If I asked him to try a Dan Hicks feel on one part, he went for it immediately. If we wanted an early Four Seasons voicing on the group vocals, he could deliver the arrangement. We channeled Gershwin, Copeland, Procol Harum, Bert Kaempfert or even Lawrence Welk! Not to mention The Beach Boys.
In the case of “I’ve Been Away,” we took a song Pete had written in the early 70’s called “Wanna Touch Someone Tonight” and retooled it with a new melody, bridge and lyrics. The lyrics on Late Music are mostly my contribution, though some of them were most likely the product of us working together.
Pete is a fantastic guitarist and an intuitive, inventive bassist. His concepts for bass lines many times helped build the perfect foundation and lifted the songs into a very special place. His gifts for vocal arranging and harmonic structure are truly nonpareil. I can’t say enough about his contribution to Late Music. It’s really not a “solo” album per se, but putting my name out front is probably the best way to get attention to the record.
And Pete was essential to the recording process as well, correct?
DiBella’s well-honed skills on the 4-track taught him the art of bouncing, punching and making the most of a limited recording setup as good as anyone. The best example is “Standing In That Line,” which was recorded entirely on a Tascam 4-track cassette here in my record room in Wood-Ridge! It may be hard to believe it, but it’s true. The track speaks for itself.
Most of our recordings started out as demos, but the vibe on the tracks were so satisfying that we decided to keep working on them til they morphed into virtual masters. I really learned a lot about recording from working with Pete; probably more than watching the process in a “real” studio, owing to this experience being so hands-on and “seat of our pants.”
Similarly, describe Dave Amels’ place within the Bell Sound overall. As a renowned musical director in his own right, it seems he functioned as much more than a traditional “producer” for this project.
Indeed, Dave helped turn this project into a record. Dave really made it all happen. He constructed a big spreadsheet with all the tasks at hand, and we systematically went down the list and finished it up.
He’s a very good engineer as well as keyboard player. He put in untold hours reconstructing piano parts that weren’t working sonically (from the original tapes) and worked closely with me and the other players to get the best end results. And he helped greatly in figuring out the notes of the harmonies we cut during the L.A. sessions. I always rely on Dave to suss out a good vocal performance from me.
There were so many levels to Dave’s contributions to Late Music. Above all, he believed in the music and wanted to see the record come to fruition. And to top it all off, he issued it on his newly-relaunched Cryptovision label.
His mantra for years regarding the album had been, “it had to be done!” And Dave is a man who lives by his word!
Now if the last thirty seconds of the “Bad Merry-Go-Round” track alone are any indication whatsoever, the Late Music sessions sound like a lot of fun.
The making of Late Music was a very special time for us. I can safely say that there was nary a bad moment in the entire process. Writing and recording sessions and the hanging out at fave restaurants or watering holes were all part and parcel of one big blast.
Recount some particular recording dates and places, and the very special guests who appeared there.
“The Sun’s Gonna Shine In The Morning,” “Standing In That Line” and “Fall Into Your Arms” were mostly recorded at Pete’s shack in rural Andover, NJ in the middle of a forest clearing. We would work late at night, and I felt we channeled the moonlit aura of the great outdoors on “Sun” and “Fall,” in particular. These are two tracks – there are a few others – on the album that bear a certain spiritual quality. And although some people have suggested that “Sun” is a “top-down” cruising cut, I always think of the night sessions when we were working amidst the pines, heading for the wee hours.
The mix for “Standing In That Line” was very involved, being that there was so much info crammed onto the 4-track cassette. We had both pairs of hands on deck, moving the little faders on the fly. There are a lot of little mysteries to this track, including a squeaky chair and mouth and hand percussion. Darian Sahanaja from The Wondermints put this song on the pre-show mix tape for Brian Wilson’s concert tours in recent years.
And speaking of Surf City, quite a lot of the Late Music sessions took place at the recently-closed Bomb Factory studio outside of Los Angeles.
I initially thought we would have finished this album on the east coast, probably all in New Jersey, but it was not to be. Interestingly, we didn’t do any work in New York City; it was all NJ and California. Out of necessity and circumstance, we found ourselves calling on talented friends in L.A.
We could not have completed this project without the musical and moral support of Dan Markell. By the way, if you haven’t heard his album Big Ideas (released in 1999 and produced by Dave Amels and yours truly), you have a large treat in store. Do check it out. Dan’s a great songwriter and musician and his contributions to Late Music are very important to the spirit of the record. Plus he let me crash at his pad more times than a human should. A great talent and a dear friend.
And there were other quite extraordinary left-coast contributors as well.
Yes! Andy Paley I first met in London at the Columbia Hotel on the first Smithereens tour of Europe in January of 1987. He really dug the music we were working on and became a major contributor to the west coast sessions.
“No One’s Listening” was one of the tunes we cut from scratch at the Bomb Factory. Andy became so passionate about this song that he literally dreamed some phrases for the arrangement. He rang us one morning all excited, wanting to dash in to put the haunting piano parts down on the track. I’ll always be grateful to Andy for his friendship, support and stellar work on Late Music.
I met Jason Falkner when he played in The Grays on their opening slot on one of The Smithereens’ 90’s tours. It was a no-brainer to have him on board in L.A.
I love his recreation on “I’ve Been Away” of DiBella’s original lead guitar part from the demo. As I recall, Jason didn’t have a pick with him when he arrived and we couldn’t find one at the studio. So he used a dime to play the part. Indeed, he was “on the money”!
Probyn Gregory from Brian Wilson’s band played a French horn part on “So Hard To Say Goodbye.” Although it’s almost subliminal, it adds a nice ambience, as does Dave’s keyboard work. And I really dig Dan Markell’s searing, minimalist guitar solo on this one. Ditto Paley’s great piano part that glued the rhythm together nicely.
By the way, Stevie Wonder was in the building when we mixed this song, attending an editing session in the room next to our control room. We caught a glimpse of him snoozing for a spell.
Nicky “Wonder” Walusko, also from Brian’s band, was eager to play his electric sitar and “Let Your Loved One Sleep” was the perfect candidate. It also showcases Dave’s keyboard prowess on five different instruments. Nice job from Andrew Sandoval on piano as well.
Besides Beach Boys, there’s a certain Beatle connection of sorts to Late Music, am I right?
Dave Amels was fixing the EMI console, the one used at Abbey Road in the 60’s owned by Lenny Kravitz in the late 90’s. It was at his basement here in Wood-Ridge, NJ and he was about to return it to Lenny. It occurred to us that we should record something on it before he gave it back.
So I brought the 8-track machine over, we put the “Lost Bird” rhythm box down, and Pete cut the guitars and bass through the same desk used by The Beatles and other EMI artists! So, this one might have some extra mojo, who knows? We surely got some good sounds from it, in any case. And the reverb on the electric guitar comes courtesy of Dave’s tiled bathroom.
And you mentioned “The Bad Merry-Go-Round.” This one presented some challenges. We let this one follow its own muse and it took us to some interesting places! Andy Paley played a kind of glass xylophone called a Zellophone. The drum break is my idea of a demented, stilted “Take Five”!
Yeah, a pretty involved one. We worked hard on the modern harmonies, with thanks to Andy, Ben Jaffe and Nelson Bragg. Brian Kehew (who filled in for Rabbit on a recent Who tour) helped out on acoustic guitar and percussion, also with Andrew and Nelson. And the mellotron tapes at the end are the same ones as heard on “I’m Only Dreaming” by The Small Faces and a Kinks record; I think “Berkeley Mews.”
“Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” is our tribute to Del Shannon. I came up with this when I was suffering with a fever and insomnia and I hope the haunted feel comes through. Again, great bass from Dan and cool guitars from Andy and Nicky. I have fond memories of Dave adding the keyboard to the quieter sections late at night at the Bomb Factory when he and I were the only souls in the big ol’ building. “Good evening…”
And on top of this all, none other than Sixties L.A. session vocalists – and recording stars in their own right of course – The Honeys, guested on “Tell All The Fools”!
I knew The Honeys since 1989, when we asked them to sing on two tracks on Smithereens 11. I stayed in touch with Marilyn, Diane and Ginger through the years, and they still love to get the opportunity to sing. And sing they did on this Motown-inspired cut!
What a pleasure to work and hang with them. They really work hard in the studio and dig every minute of it! Ginger steps out on the word “hell” nicely.
Are there any leftover songs or even tracks which will hopefully lead to additional Bell Sound releases? Also, when are you planning on presenting this great, great music live?
We have at least another album’s worth – maybe two albums? – of songs in various stages of completion. There will be more. Hopefully some live shows this fall.
Finally, I bet you’re still a big fan – and collector – of recordings of the primarily seven-inch, vinyl kind. What remain some of the most special early morning wake-up, late-night headphone, and/or weekend backyard-BBQ records you always find yourself returning to, time after time, throughout this life spent in music?
Indeed these are off the top of my head. There are many, many more!
“Sinking Ships” Bee Gees
“First Of May” Bee Gees
“Huggin’ My Pillow” Four Seasons
“Don’t Let The Rain Fall Down On Me” Critters
“My Best Girl” Cascades
“Crying In The Rain” Everly Brothers
“Betrayed” Four Seasons
“It’s All Right” Kinks
“Roll Over Beethoven” Beatles
“Blue Velvet” Bobby Vinton
“Pie In The Sky” Idle Race
“Butchie’s Tune” Lovin’ Spoonful
“Why Do Fools Fall In Love” Beach Boys
“Most Of All” Moonglows
“My Mind’s Eye” Small Faces
“Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring” Four Freshmen
“Intermission Riff” Stan Kenton
“End Of The World” Skeeter Davis
“I Never Dreamed” Cookies
“24 Hours From Tulsa” Gene Pitney
“Just One Smile” Gene Pitney
“Dandelion” Rolling Stones
“Citadel” Rolling Stones
“It Won’t Be Long” Beatles
“Devil In Her Heart” Beatles
“Don’t Throw Your Love Away” Searchers
“Love Power” Sand Pebbles
“I Wanna Testify” Parliaments
“I Was Made To Love Her” Stevie Wonder
“Aren’t You Glad” Beach Boys
“Shut Down” Beach Boys
“25 Miles” Edwin Starr
“I Saw Her Again” Mamas & Papas
“Go Where You Wanna Go” Mamas & Papas
“Just Once In My Life” Righteous Bros.
“Remember Then” Earls
“Surf City” Jan & Dean
“Theme From A Summer Place” Percy Faith
“Move Over Darling” Doris Day
“It Hurts To Be In Love” Gene Pitney
“Everybody Knows” Dave Clark 5
“I Know A Place” Petula Clark
“You Know What I Mean” Turtles
“She’s My Girl” Turtles
“Honest I Do” Jimmy Reed
“When You’re Young and In Love” Ruby and the Romantics
”Such A Small Love” Scott Walker
“In The Parking Lot” Beach Boys
"After the Lights Go Out" Walker Bros.
“The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” Walker Bros.
“(Just Like) Romeo & Juliet” Refelections
“Funny How Love Can Be” Ivy League
“That’s Why I’m Crying” Ivy League
“It’s Over” Roy Orbison
“Come On Up” Rascals
“Carry Me Back” Rascals
“Last Night I Made A Little Girl Cry” Steve Lawrence
“Blackberry Way” Move
“Don’t Worry Baby” Beach Boys
“Only When You’re Lonely” Grass Roots
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