"The Knack are back and they're beautiful."
So trumpeted the trade ads for the power-pop group's second release, . . . But the Little Girls Understand, way back in 1980. Although that album went on to sell two million copies, it was widely viewed as a failure because it yielded no big hit on the order of "My Sharona," the biggest-selling single of 1979, from the monster debut LP Get the Knack. The band was still in the grips of a negative backlash when internal squabbles, inexperienced management and drugs overtook what success the group had had. Within two years of its initial triumph, the Knack would become the next big thing relegated to the Where-Are-They-Now files. Fast forward to 1994. Sharona--the Lolita who provided the inspiration for that lusty pop gem and who posed on the single's picture sleeve--is now a successful real estate agent. And Doug Fieger, the singer-songwriter-Knack leader who panted after her, is in the incredulous position of seeing his 15-year-old paean to a 15-year-old girl reenter the Hot 100. Aggressively remixed by producer Dave Jerdens (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction, Alice in Chains) for the Reality Bites soundtrack, "My Sharona" still packs a wallop alongside the album's recent contributions by the Posies, Dinosaur Jr. and the Indians.
"Sharona" was personally chosen by the film's director, Ben Stiller, as one of the cultural reference points--along with Shaun Cassidy, Jimmie "J.J." Walker, "Disco Inferno" and Planet of the Apes--that were part of his growing-up experience. The question is, does this help or hurt the newly reunited Knack?
"Doesn't hurt," laughs Fieger, who is about to embark on the Knack's first U.S. tour in 13 years. "I don't consider myself as a cultural reference point, so I don't know how to answer that. The reality is that this band didn't exist before this movie came out. Now we do again and people are responding to our music again and taking a critical reappraisal of what we did without the political atmosphere that was going on when we originally came out. All of this has been really good."
There's certainly enough really good material in the band's catalogue--including 1991's overlooked reunion album Serious Fun--to merit a cursory look back, but some people might feel sheepish about taking that trip down memory lane.
Not since the Monkees has there been a pop group so reviled and thoroughly stigmatized by the elitist rock press as the Knack. Even now, rock historians would rather forget the Knack than forgive them. Before The Trouser Press Record Guide eliminated the Knack altogether from its pages, it called the group "New Wave's most confounding footnote."
And the Knack scored two songs in The Worst Rock n' Roll Records of All Time book. There you'll find "Good Girls Don't" and "Baby Talks Dirty" sharing the shame alongside other least-loved favorites like "In the Year 2525," "Hip to Be Square" and "My Ding-a-Ling."
Yet you don't hear much about the Knack's major contribution to rock: bringing back to disco-saturated Top 40 radio the garage-band aesthetics that punk promised but couldn't deliver commercially.
Although Blondie was the first New Wave group ever to reach No. 1 on the singles chart, the vehicle the band chose to get there--Heart of Glass"--owed more to Donna Summer than the Kingsmen. "My Sharona" stayed perched at the top of the charts for six weeks. It was hard enough, dumb enough and, doggone it, people liked it!
"My Sharona' went from not being on the radio to being the No. 1-requested record and -played record on every radio station in America overnight," adds Fieger. "It became a real phenomenon, without any promotion. People think that Capitol Records spent all this money promoting our band. The whole promotion budget for the first album was $50,000, which is peanuts."
Amazingly, Get the Knack went gold a mere 13 days after its release, achieving platinum status a month later. Its front cover was actually the first photo ever taken of the band, and had been used on all its concert posters. Many felt that given the quartet's rep for smutty, schoolboy lyrics, Fieger's sneering mug captured the essence of his group's sexist persona. But Doug wasn't thinking about pubescent trollops when it came time to say "cheese." "Bruce [Gary] had grabbed my butt at that moment and I had hit him in the ribs with my elbow," says Fieger. "It wasn't posed. The only pose was stand together, you know?"
Taking the album's title to heart, many critics made it their mission in life to do just that. Fieger, whose brother is the attorney now representing Dr. Kevorkian, leaps to his own defense about the death sentence the press tried to impose on his band. "If you want to talk about sexism in rock music, I've never written a song anywhere near as sexist as 'Under My Thumb' or 'Stupid Girl,' which both occurred on the same album. If they're going to pillory us in 1979, two years after the Rolling Stones did Some Girls, c'mon! Gimme a fuckin' break!"
It does seem a double standard. The Knack never tied up and bruised a woman black and blue to promote an album like the Stones did in 1976, yet Fieger took far more abuse, and all he did was sing about a girl sitting on his face. When you compare the Stones' battered spokesmodel to the "adolescent dream" in "Good Girls Don't," at least the Knack heroine got the upper hand, er, cheek.
Besides, if the press was really adamant about ridding rock of sexism, why didn't it go after Prince, whose 1980 album Dirty Mind offered the incest-glorifying song "Sister"? Not to mention the randy, dwarfish Minnesotan's movie Purple Rain, in which women don't exist unless they're dcollet and displaying the intellect of showroom mannequins.
Fieger doesn't deny that some of the Knack's more famous songs are perverted. But in truth, most of the albums contain no more perversion than an average installment of Love Connection. Still, one wonders if Fieger has the slightest twinge of regret for lines like "call Chicken Delight, cause there's flesh on the bone and she ain't giving you a bite." Or how about "Mr. Handleman," a song about a guy essentially pimping his wife?
"I regret nothing. Absolutely nothing," the singer emphatically states. "The lyrics that I wrote, at least for that first album, were based on my remembered adolescence, and the way I remembered 14-year-old boys desiring girls. And that's all it was. It was not a political comment or statement. And in the grand tradition of rock n' roll, it certainly was about lust.
"Look, I'm an artist. I stand or fall with my work. I believe you do the work and you stand back and let the work speak for itself."
Unfortunately, another instance where the group's work appeared to speak another language was that first album's back cover, Act One of the band's phony Beatlemania pageant. There, the boys were posed as if they were performing on The Ed Sullivan Show. Album two's inner sleeve continued the progression, revealing little girls throwing themselves on the band's limousine like A Hard Day's Night extras while the L.A. lads sat safely inside, grinning like sleazy gynecologists.
Fieger has always insisted that the Beatle posturing was "a tongue-in-cheek statement by a bunch of cocky punks." According to Ron Fair--who was at the original recording sessions for "My Sharona" and produced the Reality Bites soundtrack--The band was kind of jerky about it [the Beatle allegories], because they achieved their fame rather quickly. But I don't think it's any different from what a lot of the rappers do today, in terms of manufacturing images of their importance."
Fieger sees it less dramatically. "In 1978, when we started, the big question was, 'What's the next big thing gonna be?'" he recalls. "Punk didn't happen and disco was bullshit. And our comment was, 'Who fucking cares what the next big thing is? It's bullshit. How about if the next big thing looked just like the last big thing?' That was the comment. And if we had sold 50,000, even the critics would have gotten that. They would have gone, 'Oh, that's a wonderful, cynical take on the commercialism of the record industry looking for the next big thing.' Where we ran into problems was we got too successful."
It didn't help matters when the band's management issued a no-interview verdict at the outset, leaving the press with little to write about but those darned Knuke the Knack kits.
Fieger sighs with tired resignation. "That was somebody trying to make money off of us and we thought it was funny. Until he started making personal attacks on people and then we informed him that he could no longer continue to make money off of us. And again, the press made more out of that guy than was real. As if it was some movement. Just nonsense! It was a guy who used to go to these swap meets who'd set up this card table and sell tee shirts. And buttons. He might have sold a hundred of them."
Perhaps the most vocal critic of the band is its former producer, Mike Chapman. Within the industry, much was made about the fact that Chapman recorded Get the Knack for the low, low price of $18,000. The cost of the Knack's second album was reportedly less than $10,000, but according to Chapman, "it cost me my reputation."
In the book Off the Record, Chapman maintains that he and the band made the second album under the heady impression that they could do no wrong. As for Fieger, Chapman called him "a convincing con man. A nut case. He started to think like he was Jim Morrison or Buddy Holly, that there was nothing he could do that wouldn't work. Doug blamed me when the first song from the album, 'Baby Talks Dirty,' bombed."
There's no love lost from Fieger's side, either. "I've never said this publicly, but since you bring it up, Mike Chapman is one of the bigger assholes that you'll ever meet on the planet. Nuff said. Unfortunately, Mike Chapman was not in any psychological or physical shape to produce that second album when we really needed a producer."
The band actually split up in 1981, but Capitol Records convinced the members to record another album, Round Trip. It turned into a one-way ticket to nowhere.
Fieger recalls the sessions as "really, really awful. It wasn't any fun." Fieger could no longer work with drummer Bruce Gary, and the other guys refused to fire him, resulting in the band's breakup, just as the record hit the cutout bins. "The other thing that was happening during the third album was that I'd always gotten high, but as our success increased, the amount of chemicals I was putting into my body also increased. . . ."
Say no more. Fieger took a number of years off to clear his head and live life. He wrote occasional songs, one of which won a Grammy for the Manhattan Transfer (Baby Scats Dirty"?) and guested on a Was (Not Was) album. Astute couch potatoes may also have spotted Fieger playing cards with Dan Connor on Roseanne. "I've done three Roseannes," says Fieger. "Tom and Roseanne are good friends of mine and wonderful people. And they love to have their friends on the show. See, I'm a cigar smoker, so they said I could come smoke cigars and play cards. I jumped at the chance. I was an actor before I was a musician. I studied with Lee Strasberg and was a Shakespearean actor when I was a kid."
Fieger just finished a solo album with Don Was producing, to be or not to be released after he sees the reunited Knack thing through. He's certainly not averse to the band recording together again, but as yet there are no set plans.
The interest certainly seems to be there, unlike 1991, when the band first returned to active duty. L.A.'s legendary deejay Rodney Bingenheimer, whose radio station KROQ played "My Sharona" to death when it first came out, is thrilled that the Knack are back in the Top 20 in Los Angeles.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"There's a whole Eighties thing happening in nightclubs right now," says Bingenheimer, "where they will only play Blondie, Duran Duran and Knack songs. There's a renewed appreciation." Peter Case, onetime member of the Plimsouls, another Los Angeles New Wave group that signed a record deal in the wake of the Knack's meteoric rise, confirms that people are after him to reunite with his old band. With a new album of his own out, he doesn't much feel like second-guessing what the Knack's return to the music world means. "It's not good to despise anyone's work. Work is holy," Case says. "You could do misguided work for years and then turn around and do something brilliant. Maybe they're gonna rock the house down, who knows?" So what does it all mean? A day of reckoning? A resurgence in popularity for the Knack?
"Nah!" says Ron Fair, also the VP of A&R at RCA. "I think there's a handful of people out there who'll enjoy the nostalgia of it. The single's doing really good . . . but it's not something that's going to catapult the Knack to the forefront of pop culture." RCA's not putting any money into pushing "My Sharona," but Fair hopes "things go well for them, because they're really nice guys."
Will RCA's A&R department consider re-signing the Knack if "My Sharona" becomes a runaway hit?
"We're not planning on re-signing them," Fair says.
Fieger, for his part, has no illusions of what the Knack's place is in the grand spectrum of pop, or what rock's place is in this ever-changing world. "We're a live band, and, if I do say so myself, a damned good one. A really fun rock n' roll experience. I'm not going to say coming to see the Knack or putting on a Knack album is necessarily going to change your life, but I'm not sure any rock experience is going to do that anymore."
Maybe not. But the rock experience the Knack provides is simply a damned good time. And that should be enough.