A Knack For Survival

Never mind that the music was so right-on, that it sounded like the soundtrack to the sad documentary that was (and is) every frustrated freshman boy's life. (Even now, when Fieger stands on stage and sings, "It's a teenaged sadness everyone has got to face/An in-between-aged madness that you know you can't erase 'til she's sitting on your face -- and it hurts!" you can still hear the echoes of horny giggles.)

Back then the Knack also was accused of trying to con America into believing it was the Beatles reincarnated, no thanks to Capitol Records' sleazy marketing campaign that included an album cover invoking Meet the Beatles. With time "Knuke the Knack" T-shirts became all the rage among West Coast punks. To them, Fieger and his gang of idiots represented everything they despised; to them, the Knack sold out before it ever had anything to peddle.

Fieger is well aware that the Knack stood in direct opposition to punk, which managed to make stars out of the desperate and talentless. As far as Fieger and his bandmates were concerned, they were a throwback to '50s pop 'n' roll, to a time when Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers wrote songs about young boys' sexual awakenings. Get the Knack would even feature one of Holly's old standards, the Norman Petty cowritten "Heartbeat," and it's a heartfelt homage. Indeed, the whole of Get the Knack wears well after all this time; it's hardly the sound of four antichrists counting their paychecks.

"We were a loud Buddy Holly and the Crickets, except it was a band more than a front guy and his side guys," Fieger says. "I always thought of us as that. I got on a Stratocaster because of Buddy Holly. But people have picked up on the fact it was an album about teenage love. If we had announced that back then, people would have said, 'That's such a pretentious statement, who the hell do these guys think they are?' But it really was. It was a loose concept, a set piece Berton and I wrote from the point of view of our 14-year-old remembered selves. And since he was only 24 and I was only 25 at the time, it wasn't like we were stretching way back in our memories. But then again some people wrote that I had to be in my late thirties at that time, too, so there was a lot of really weird hysterical writing about the band."

In retrospect the members of the Knack were hardly careerists. At a time when punk and disco were duking it out, how could anyone have known that a power-pop album like Get the Knack would be so massively successful? By all rights Fieger and his lot should have just disappeared into oblivion, like so many other like-minded bands of the time (20/20, the Shoes, the Records). But critics attacked the Knack and revered a band like the Plimsouls, which peddled deep, old-school soul instead of a little innocent sleaze. The Knack would, in time, be destroyed by such hatred.

"I understand the idea in the Western world that you build up your heroes in order to tear them down," Fieger says of the media backhand that has greeted the band ever since 1979. "But I was a little surprised at the vehemence with which we were attacked. It seems to me it was all out of proportion to what it was that we were and what we attempted to do, which was to play well-crafted, well-written, well-performed, fun pop music for an audience that might like it. The people who accused us of having some Machiavellian plan to make a lot of money were way off base, because it wasn't the truth. Certainly we want to be working artists and make money so we don't have to get other jobs. But I think it came in proportion to the success we had.

"Also, it was the postpunk era, and, if you have success, suddenly you aren't cool any more. I remember [current Reprise Records president] Howie Klein had a radio show in San Francisco, and he had us on his show before we were signed. We played some club up in San Francisco, and there was a big buzz about us, and Howie came down to see us and came backstage and said, 'You guys are great,' and invited us on his show. We picked records to play, and in one of the breaks, he turns to Berton and says, 'When you guys get really successful, I won't be able to play your records.' And that told me a lot about the circles of hipdom, and it was a bit surprising, but at least he was upfront about it. You take what life gives you."

What life gave Fieger and his band was one hit record, and then no more. In December 1979, the band released ...but the little girls understand, which Fieger says was meant to be the other half of Get the Knack; the band wanted to release the debut as a double album, but Capitol refused. Fieger says the record wasn't a failure at all, that it sold more than two million copies worldwide. Likewise he says the 1981 follow-up Round Trip -- an exercise in psychedelic pop, no more failed than anything Jellyfish ever did -- sold every single one of the 350,000 copies Capitol printed up. He insists the label stopped manufacturing the album because the band broke up three weeks after its release.

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