Practice for our forthcoming “Ivan Denisovich” rock opera continues.
"Miles, everyone down in Athens is dying to know what the next PMs record is gonna sound like."
"Imagine ten ‘Shiny Happy People’s on one album, Peter. It’s gonna be amazing!"
In November, the Prime Ministers opened for the Smithereens in front of one of their biggest crowds to date. Todd shares his recollections:
This is a dream show for us, a pretty perfect match of “local opener” and “national headliner,” musically speaking. “Only A Memory,” “A Girl Like You,” “Top Of The Pops,” “Too Much Passion” and others were in heavy radio rotation during our formative years, so our friends and people who come to our shows (I guess you’d call them “fans”) are all impressed when we tell them about it. Plus, the show is at a relatively nice venue in Ferndale, the Magic Bag, where our suburbanite brethren will not fear to tread.
After getting confirmation we are indeed on the bill, I immediately go to YouTube to see what kind of shape the Smithereens are in circa 2013. Their singer has put on an alarming amount of weight (due to health problems, I later read), and their original bass player is gone. However, they still sound good, and the songs are just as great as I remember. I promptly download their 1989 album 11 (which I once owned on cassette) and get really excited. Everybody in the band does.
Months pass, as we rehearse our 45-minute set each week and dutifully promote the show. Ordinarily, getting people to shell out upwards of $20 to see us open for a national act is a tough sell, when they’re used to paying a $5 cover. But not this time — all of our friends love the Smithereens, and a fair number of them buy advance tickets.
The night arrives, and things get a little weird right off the bat as we walk through the alley entrance into the venue — right into a contentious Smithereens soundcheck. The singer, Pat DiNizio, rests on a chair between songs, seemingly annoyed with the lead guitarist as he and the soundman try to eliminate some stubborn feedback. We stand awkwardly off to the side, not wanting to roll our amps and equipment in during the tense silence. A small group of contest winners from WCSX sit down front and watch their heroes make snippy comments at one another. That said, it is fairly exciting watching them rumble through a massive-sounding “Blood and Roses” once the sound problems are solved.
Soundcheck over, we start loading in. A man (the Smithereens road manager, perhaps), asks tersely, “Where’s Pat? He needs to sign some autographs for the contest winners.” He eventually finds Pat out in the alley, who apologizes: “Sorry, I just had to get away from the drummer for a while.” I wonder if I am experiencing a vision of our band after 33 years together.
Per usual, we have to set up in front of the headliner’s equipment — meaning our drums are practically at the lip of the stage, our amps are blasting us point-blank and we are forced to maneuver around their guitars and pedals onstage. This is standard headliner practice, and completely expected. We give the Smithereens their space and are warned not to tread into the backstage area. However, Pat turns out to be a gracious fellow, introducing himself to each of us and telling us about some of their early bad reviews before heading off to dinner. Our guitar player Brandon is scheduled to sing on several songs during our set but is battling a cold and sore throat. He sounds okay during soundcheck, so we leave the setlist as is and kill a few hours until showtime.
By 9 p.m, the place is packed. SOLD OUT. We later discover that several of our friends rolled up to buy tickets at the door and were turned away — a first. It seems strange to us that everyone has arrived so early in the evening, but it turns out: the Smithereens’ aging fanbase is the ideal rock crowd. They pay attention to the openers. They buy merch, even though they haven’t heard a note of our music yet. They also pay us many compliments afterward. They are true music lovers. They also possess an average age of 50-55.
None of us are overly nervous, just excited as we walk onstage. Because we’re used to playing to darkened, mostly empty rooms with clusters of people along the back and sides, it is unnerving to see well-lit rows of faces lined up at foot level along the elevated stage. I am extra-aware of my own spit and saliva, caught in the lights as I sing, landing on the heads of actual people. Apologies to any Smithereens fans in the “splash zone” who may read this.
It is hard to tell how well we play. The crowd seems enthusiastic between songs, and clap a lot. We tell a few jokes that go over well. Brandon struggles a bit vocally, and our AC/DC cover doesn’t go over as riotously as I’ve hoped. We also choose to end our set with a fairly midtempo song, during which my guitar cuts out completely. It is not an especially triumphant ending…made even stranger when, immediately after our set, I run backstage to grab my coat and bump into Pat from the Smithereens, who offers: “That sounded pretty…pretty ROUGH!” It is possible this is intended as collegial ribbing, but I don’t think so.
Soaked in sweat from the hot stage, we grab as much of our gear as we can carry and plunge instantly into the cold night, our fresh sweat freezing on our foreheads. We throw our equipment in our cars, do a quick risk assessment of leaving everything in the parking lot (it’s Ferndale, it’s probably safe), then hurry back inside to see the headline act.
I’m catching up with some friends back by the bar when the Smithereens go on and instantly, they sound twice as loud as we did minutes before. They sound HUGE. Our photographer/video guy Dave walks up and grimaces. “What was up with your sound? Everything sounded weird.” I just smile and shrug. Was it some evil plot of the Smithereens or the Magic Bag to intentionally make us sound comparatively quiet/off, and the headliners appear all that more majestic? In retrospect, it’s just as likely our disappointing sound was entirely self-generated.
Ned and Jimmy, our rhythm section, plus keyboardist Dana, go into the crowd to view the Smithereens’ set up close. The band does not disappoint, rolling through all their hits (except no “Too Much Passion”) and an impressive medley of Who covers at the end. Brandon and I lurk by the bar, ready to man the merch table during the exodus of fans after the show, expecting a windfall in sales receipts. Suddenly Magic Bag management approaches with our payment ($150) and a demand: We need to clear out our merch to make room for a Smithereens autograph session after the show.
Worst. We obediently box up our CDs and t-shirts, leaving the Smithereens ample room to sign their CDs, posters and postcards. Their pricing sheet taped to the merch table is refreshingly simple: EVERYTHING $20. We gape as the show ends and their fans line up to have their $20 postcards autographed.
Most of the PMs have wives/girlfriends with them or need to rush back and relieve their babysitters, so there is no celebratory meal following the show. I drop my stuff at our practice space and hit the Primo’s Pizza on 9 Mile, only to find a single slice remaining for sale. No problem — there’s another Primo’s on the way home. Two stops, two slices, and the night is a wrap. Brandon brings me a copy of “The Best of the Smithereens” at our next practice, and I listen to it for weeks to follow. I also perform an A/B comparison with our own CDs — thankfully, they seem to be roughly the same volume.
Radio active, just like the Firm song.
Richard Marx would approve.Brandon, on the PMs’ latest Lite FM opus
Got some nice sax parts planned for the new PMs record, but flying this guy in from Australia will suck up our entire recording budget. WHAT TO DO?
In 2013, we worked hard and paid some more dues. Our plans for 2014? MONEY FOR NOTHIN’ AND CHICKS FOR FREE.