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"We view it as arguably and historically the most important rock 'n' roll album ever released," says Smithereens frontman Pat DiNizio . "It" in this case refers to "Meet he Beatles!," the album that introduced the Beatles to the American public in the early days of 1964. Fueled in part by the Beatles-only set they played at 2005's Abbey Road on the River convention, the veteran guitar-pop band has made "Meet the Smithereens!" (Koch), a track-by-track cover of the album DiNizio calls "the holy grail of all Beatles records." It arrives in stores today.

MARC HIRSH

Q This is your first album since "God Save the Smithereens" in 1999 . Why did you pick a project like this to end that hiatus?

A The response to the show was tremendously gratifying, and in fact the audience was calling out for Smithereens songs during the course of the set. So we realized that there was perhaps a crossover element there between die hard Beatles fans and Smithereens fans, although we always sort of knew that. In any event, in the wake of that successful show, I began to receive a lot of e-mails from some nice folks who had attended the concert suggesting to us that perhaps we should consider the idea of doing a Smithereens Beatles tribute album.

Q Did you have to learn any of the songs on the record from scratch?

A Well, yes, pretty much, but the songs were in fact a part of the collective DNA of the band. Obviously we had been enamored of that record our entire lives, pre-Smithereens and post-Smithereens. I knew the vocal lines backward and forward , but it was my most difficult vocal assignment of my career, in that I had to be faithful to the original performance yet make it my own. And I think I was able to do that. I don't know how, but I was very careful about how I approached it. The Beatles tribute bands, I think their stock in trade is to try to impersonate the voices of Lennon and McCartney and Ringo and George, and we weren't interested in doing that at all. We were interested in making a Smithereens album.

Q In a way, you halfway did approach it that way. You've got [guitarist] Jim [Babjak] singing George Harrison's song, and you've got [drummer] Dennis [Diken] singing Ringo's song.

A Yeah, but that's the fun of it. There was no other way to really do it. If you were to do it, you would've done the same thing. Had there been another lead vocalist in the band, we might have split the duties between John's vocals and Paul's, but I wound up doing both, obviously. It's meant in a certain spirit. It's not irreverent, there's a fun spirit to the record.

Q You can almost listen to the entire album as a commentary on the continued importance of the album in the post-iTunes era.

A I love the fact that it's almost like the Phil Spector era again, where you had "Be My Baby " by the Ronettes, then you had "Baby I Love You" -- you had a bunch of things released as singles and then they came out as an album. But yes, it is a very definite commentary, in the form of a brand new CD, of the importance of albums and the whole album-listening experience, of listening to a collection of songs from one artist and that album seeming to have a life of its own. So yes . . . it may have been in the back of our minds without realizing it. But it wasn't intentional. But if you have ears to hear, you'll get it, because it's important that those songs exist together.

Miss New Jersey USA steps down
Another Miss USA tiara is changing heads. Ashley Harder, Miss New Jersey USA, has resigned because she is pregnant, The Philadelphia Daily News reported yesterday. Harder, 20, told the newspaper she voluntarily stepped down because it's against pageant rules to compete while pregnant. She could not be reached for comment by the Associated Press. Both the pageant and the runner-up for 2007 Miss New Jersey USA confirmed the news. Erin Abrahamson, 23, said pageant officials called her Friday to let her know about the change.

Prince Harry may be headed to Iraq
Prince Harry, 22, is a step closer to a possible deployment in Iraq, People magazine reported on its website yesterday. The prince and members of his Blues and Royals cavalry regiment are taking a short course that troops usually undergo before heading to the war zone. The session is likely to include cultural and language classes and an overview of the situation on the ground, a Ministry of Defense source says. Harry would be the first senior British royal to serve on the frontline since his uncle Prince Andrew served in the Falklands.

Scorsese accepts 'Departed' honor
"The Departed" won the best picture and Martin Scorsese won the best director award for the Boston-set film at the Broadcast Film Critics Association's 12th Critics Choice Awards Friday in Santa Monica, Calif. The best picture prize was accepted by Graham King and Scorsese. Scorsese received a standing ovation when presenter Steven Spielberg read out his name. "I started out trying to make a traditional cop-gangster movie, in the tradition of Warner Brothers movies like 'White Heat.' Then something else came out of it," Scorsese said.

Hollywood eyes ex-KGB agent's story
Hollywood is moving at lightning speed to tell the story of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who died of radiation poisoning in London in November under mysterious circumstances, Columbia Pictures said that Michael Mann is slated to direct its version of the story and that Warner Bros. Pictures is eyeing the story as a potential starring vehicle for Johnny Depp. Columbia has snapped up rights to "Death of a Dissident," a forthcoming book about the murder by Alexander Goldfarb, and has acquired widow Marina Litvinenko's life rights. Warner Bros. has grabbed film rights to the unpublished book "Sasha's Story: The Life and Death of a Russian Spy," to be authored by New York Times London bureau chief Alan Cowell.

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