Here is the oral history of the band Smart Alex as told by singer/guitarist/songwriter Mike Nilles & singer/guitarist/songwriter Pat Olberding. I’m so stoked to present this; Smart Alex released in my opinion the very best 45RPM single to ever come from my hometown, St Paul, Minnesota. It is considered by many to be one of the absolute very best examples of do-it-yourself 1970s American power pop. Mike passed on a cassette of demos the band recorded back then, I got goosebumps before I even heard it!
I got to see Smart Alex play once- at Drkula’s Bowling Alley in South St Paul. It must’ve been the summer of 1980.
Photo of Smart Alex at Drkula’s
The band only lasted from 1977-1981, but their shadow still looms long. Mike & Pat still play music in The Badinovs, and they’re finishing up a full-length release right now. Here is The Badinovs MySpace page.
Mike- Dino Johnson, our drummer, went to Harding High School on the east side of St Paul. Let me tell you- what a talent, what a character, what a personality. He was like Keith Moon & Andy Kaufman rolled up into one. So god-dang funny, and he was a great artist, a painter. The song by The Badinovs “The Last Goodbye” was written about him, in 1983. We never did the song with Dino, but it was about him. Pat & I re-did the lyrics after he died. He was a mesmerizing character. Such a natural.
Mike- Pat & I met at St Agnes High School, our freshmen year, we sat right by each other in class. Pat had hair like George Harrison or Neil Young- parted in the middle- I looked like Alfalfa when I tried that. We liked the Beatles, we saw ‘em on Ed Sullivan, I hated music before that. Songs were like the silly ones in grade school, that’s what I thought until I saw The Beatles. I didn’t have any inclination to music before that. After we got into it, we’d ride our bikes downtown Minneapolis to buy records at The Wax Museum. There was also a drive-in called Sugar Dan’s on the northwest corner of Como & Snelling; they had a shack in the back that sold records. I bought The Groundhogs “Split” record there from the hippy that worked there. We went to see The Faces in concert as kids, they were the essence of what Smart Alex were trying to do. It was the last show The Faces ever played, at The Minneapolis Auditorium. We also saw The J. Geils Band, they were here all the time, and they were really fun.
Mike- The band thing started when Pat & I were in this high school band, Holy Smoke. I got the name from Howlin’ Wolf’s London Sessions LP, it was the name if his publishing company, and I thought what a great name.
Pat- Holy Smoke did covers: Beatles, Neil Young, Savoy Brown, Grand Funk Railroad. The band brought in another guy who sang & played guitar and I quit & went back to playing basketball (longtime NBA pro Mark Olberding is Pat’s cousin).
Mike- Then they kicked me out cuz I refused to play heavy metal, then they changed their name to Tobias. I then went to the musical instrument store in Midway called Trafficante’s, there was a card on the bulletin board that said “Looking for a guitar player to play Stones, Beatles, Kinks” I thought this is for me, so I called & went over there, his name was Marty Kearney and he lived on Minnehaha over by 3M. There was a guy named Rob, he was a guitar player. They were in a band called Sovereign with Dino Johnson, who I thought was amazing. He looked like Keith Richards, sang great, so charismatic, we played a bunch of songs together.
Photo by Don Hughes
Mike- Another friend of mine Tommy Mulally and I started Multi-Vision Studios in Park Square Court in downtown St Paul, trying to write music for commercials, We did some songs with Johnny Rey of Johnny Rey & Reaction & Flamingo. I called up Pat & said lets record some songs. We also did some recordings onto cassette in Pat’s basement too, and on a Sound on Sound 4-track.
Pat– We’d just hang out at the studio & record some early songs like “Ilse”& “Sail On”, it was just so much fun just hanging out there.
Mike- Things came together when Dino came down, and we got a tough guy from High School on bass called Mike Wallraff. We all had such chemistry together, it just clicked- it was unbelievable.
Pat- the first song we played together, it seemed like we’d been playing for years. It’s funny- when we were done playing in Smart Alex in the end it sounded like we HADN’T been playing for years!
Pat- A few of our friends lived in a building on Minnehaha & Hamline, so we moved from the studio to practice in the ice cream parlor there.
Photos by Dave Shippey of Smart Alex on the roof of the ice cream parlor
Mike- Mike McKern of Johnny Rey & The Reaction owned Tracks on Fifth downtown St Paul, we recorded our single there. They had 8-tracks, and for soundproofing they used obsolete carpet samples from carpet stores, they were hung up on the wall.
We took the money we made from some spots recorded for the “Drive 55” campaign, and put out the “Chitter Chat” b/w “Tonight” single on a shoestring budget in 1978.
Pat- we did it on one take- guitars and vocals.
Mike- We’d go see Prodigy or Thumbs Up play at The Tempo Bar on Franklin and Minnehaha in Minneapolis, where the Blue Nile is now. Or we’d go to The Blitz bar, across the street and downstairs from The Longhorn. We once saw The Suicide Commandos by accident at tough club on Rice & Front in St Paul- The Pour House. They did some great covers.
Pat- We used to go see Flamingo all the time. We gave the tape of early recordings to Flamingo’s manager David Farrell (Dino called him “Pineapple”), hoping we could open up for them. Our first gig was with them at The Olympia Theater. We ended up working a lot with Flamingo.
Mike- We’d play at The Longhorn or Duffy’s, any place that would have us, Dino would say we’d play a dogfight. The golden ring in those days was to get a weekend headlining slot at The Longhorn, and we did that a few times. We also opened up for Eddie and The Hot Rods and Squeeze at The Longhorn. We used to do two Eddie & The Hot Rods covers: “The Way it Used to Be” and “Do Anything You Wanna Do”, and we still do that song in The Badinovs. We once got paid NOT to play at Duffy’s when Dwight Twilley got rained out at Elko Speedway, and his show was moved to the club instead. At Duffy’s we also played another show with Squeeze. We played some gigs in South Dakota, but we didn’t have connections out of town.
Smart Alex at The Longhorn
Mike- Chip Nadeau came up to us at Duffy’s once, he said “I’m gonna quit my job as a car salesmen & manage you guys for a job”. He got us into First Avenue, Steve McClellan was very cordial and he showed us this back room at the club. It was full of chairs & tables. Steve tells us “see this room here, I’m gonna make this into a little bar”. Of course that was The 7th Street Entry, and we played there a lot. In the Main Room we played a gig with The Romantics. Steve McClellan now books The Badinovs at The Wild Tymes downtown St Paul. We also play at The Hat Trick regularly (also downtown St Paul).
Mike- We got Husker Du their first gig at The Longhorn, opening for us. Greg and Grant worked at Northern Lights record store, they would ask if they could open for us. They were very fast. It’s funny- I lived in Italy for about six years, and when I told people I was from Minnesota, they’d say “Husker Du?”
Pat- In fact, the first time The Replacements played at The Longhorn, they backed us up. We had to sneak Tommy in the back of the club because he was too young, then as soon as they were done we had to get him out.
Mike- Many years later as I was going somewhere late at night, I turned on my car radio, I had REV-105 on, and Mary Lucia had Tommy Stinson on that live weekly radio show from Nye’s, and he played our record. He said it was his favorite local song from back then. It didn’t even occur to me right away that it was us, I heard my guitar part and I thought: “Hey, wait a minute! That’s US!”
Pat- We broke up in 1981 when I got married and had kids. I was at home with my three kids, they were watching TV on Saturday or Sunday morning, and all of a sudden I heard the opening riff to “Tonight”. There was a local band of young kids playing a Smart Alex song on TV! They said “This is a great song from a local band from years ago”. It must have been around the late 80s or early 90s that happened.
Mike- Pat and I kinda feel vindicated, we were somewhat out of the clique of Minneapolis bands back then, and we were probably the only band from St Paul playing original music back then.
Here’s demos of two songs that Mike & Pat proposed for a second Smart Alex single:
Can’t Slow Down
Turn & Run
Six of my favorites from the cassette:
Going Thru the Motions
Take Me Back
Dead in the Street
The St Croix Boom Company, a legendary club in Stillwater, Minnesota, named a SANDWICH after Smart Alex!