A Knack For Survival
Before the interview is to begin with Knack frontman Doug Fieger, the man would first like to ask his own question. "I was wondering, why do you want to do an interview with me?" he says, his voice full of anger and confusion. Because, I tell him, I love the Knack -- or at least I did 18 years ago, when I was 12 years old and didn't know any better. OK, so I don't tell Fieger the last part of that sentence, but he doesn't buy it anyway. "I find that hard to believe," he says, his voice full of hatred and bitterness.
Fieger then proceeds to recount several things I have written about the Knack over the course of the past several years. If anything, I am less astonished that he read -- and recalls -- what I penned about his band and more bothered by the fact that I have indeed written about the Knack on more than one occasion. Fieger mentions one instance when I allegedly compared him to L.A. rock-scene skeleton Kim Fowley, the former Runaways producer who always shows up at South by Southwest and tries to convince the local yokels he still is somebody. Fieger showed up in Austin, Texas, a couple of years ago -- during one of Fowley's rare absences -- and I recall wondering in print if there was an L.A. has-been quota at the music-bizzers convention.
"I've read some things you've written about me specifically that were really snide, unfun, unfair, unnice, and I've never even met you," Fieger says, fairly choking with rage and scorn. "I've gotten calls from friends of mine saying, 'What does this guy have against you?' When I got the call from my manager saying, 'Robert Wilonsky wants to talk to you,' I wanted to talk to you and ask you why you would write stuff about someone you don't know. I really want to know."
The conversation continues like this for a while -- Fieger demanding to know why I would write such nasty things about the Knack (well, duh), and me trying to defend myself against one of the most reviled lead singers in all of rock 'n' roll history. The fight is fixed.
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But it is one in which Fieger has been engaged for most of his professional life; he simply has not been afforded the opportunity to attack his attackers, to lash back at those who have derided the Knack ever since the release of Get the Knack in 1979, when the band sold more than 500,000 albums in two weeks on its way to becoming one of the most successful debut acts of all time. If not me, then Fieger's bound to let loose on some other schlub who touted the party line for years. Fieger, who refused to talk to the media during his moment of fame and then couldn't find a microphone after the spotlight burned out, has nearly 20 years of resentment stored up inside him. Who can blame him for exploding? Just stand clear of the mess.
But no one can accuse Fieger of being a quitter. Like Nixon turning up on the talk shows in his later years, Fieger keeps re-forming the Knack as though each new attempt means a chance to rewrite the history books, to earn a reprieve from dishonor.
History would lead us to believe that the Knack was loathed almost the moment the band formed in 1978. In his 1996 L.A. music history Waiting For the Sun, Barney Hoskyns refers to the band -- singer-guitarist Fieger, guitarist Berton Averre, bassist Prescott Niles, and drummer Bruce Gary -- as four "aging musos riding the retro-pop bandwagon" who sat atop the pop charts for six weeks and then slid into the ocean of scorn and obscurity. Hoskyns portrays the band as a one-and-a-half-hit wonder that scored with its "nauseating" single "My Sharona."
Yet there did not always exist such hatred. During the late '70s, the Knack and Los Angeles were like young lovers flush from a new romance. The band played the Troubadour and other near-dead discotheques; it shared stages with Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty and Ray Manzarek; its members were beloved power-pop heroes in a punk-rock town. Rolling Stone even profiled the band before it signed to Capitol.
But somewhere between anonymity and instant stardom, the Knack became a detested enemy of the state of rock 'n' roll. Get the Knack was released in early 1979, and, within a matter of days, it was certified gold; weeks later it was dipped in platinum. On August 25, 1979, "My Sharona" became the No. 1 song in America, and for six weeks it sat atop the Billboard charts. And for its success, the Knack was rewarded with some of the most vicious criticism ever leveled at a band. Its members were labeled lecherous old men writing songs about wanting to screw teenage girls; critics pointed to songs such as "Good Girls Don't," "(She's So) Selfish" and "Frustrated" -- teen-beat anthems about doin' it with your girlfriend while Mom and Dad are out of the house -- and condemned them as "nasty" and "mean-spirited."
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.
After 1981 it seemed as though America was through with the Knack; the band had been properly disposed of. Prescott Niles got a gig with Josie Cotton; Berton Averre went on the road with Bette Midler; Bruce Gary got a gig backing Jack Bruce (and Bob Dylan!); while Fieger turned up every now and then on Roseanne. Fieger spent most of the '80s trying to detox from the drugs and booze he vacuumed during his brief moment as a superstar; the man didn't waste a second of his fame.
"I had a long recovery period," he says. "Since I was a little kid, I was very involved in chemical enhancement, and, at the end of 1983, I had to take a look at my life and think, 'Am I going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?' That took years. It's still going on, but in the meantime I can make music. There was a point there where I couldn't even pick up a guitar. It's not something I would wish on anyone -- not even a critic. But it was something I needed to go through."
The band would reunite briefly in 1986 for a short tour, but it was a road to nowhere. We got the Knack again in 1991, when they recruited new drummer Billy Ward and unleashed Serious Fun -- an album so good it might as well have been blank (though Fieger would tend to disagree). But you know the rest of the story: In 1994, Reality Bites not only gave Lisa Loeb a career for a few months, but also made "My Sharona" a hit one more time.
"By any stretch of the imagination, the Knack has been a huge success," Fieger says, pointing to the popularity of the "My Sharona" rerelease. "Just because 15 or 20 writers don't like us, what the fuck does that mean?"
The band reunited once more and hit the road on a 32-city summer tour that found them opening their shows with lesser-known songs so dreadful they cleared out every club they played. By the time they rolled around to "My Sharona," which they inevitably played twice, the audience -- don't even think of calling it a crowd -- was just relieved they made it through to The Song.
But the moment of resurrection came last April at Johnny Depp's Viper Room in Los Angeles, when the original lineup took the stage in front of a crowd that included Clash 401(k) recipient Paul Simonon, severed Talking Head Jerry Harrison, and Robbie Rist (The Brady Bunch's Cousin Oliver and frontman for the Knack-like Wonderboy) -- not exactly the coolest crowd ever to step in the Viper Room, but still. And damn it all if it wasn't a pretty brilliant show. The old songs didn't sound so old, the new songs thankfully didn't sound so new, and everyone who attended stayed 'til the very last song, astonished that such a fragile moment constructed out of kitsch and nostalgia would hold up so well. Harold Bronson, cofounder of Rhino Records, thought enough of the band to sign it to a deal -- which makes the Knack one of the few functioning bands on the reissue-heavy label. Irony is apparently spelled K-N-A-C-K.
Oh, yes. Perhaps this would be a good time to mention the Knack is touring in support of a new album. The does-its-job Zoom sounds like more of the same old same old, beginning with a song called "Pop Is Dead" (oh, those kidders!) and featuring one Fieger-Averre composition called "Good Enough" that sounds like all of Get the Knack rolled into one song (which makes it the highlight by default). Rhino, never one to miss a tie-in, has also released a "best of" titled Proof; and no, it's not just a reissue of Get the Knack.
Fieger insists that Zoom is the best album the Knack ever made. He says it was "more fun" to make than Get the Knack, that new (ex-Missing Persons) drummer Terry Bozzio is "more fun" than fired original Bruce Gary; he asserts that 20 years later, he and Averre and Niles write better songs. I will take his word for it, because I can't tell the difference.
"Guys like Jim Morrison and others have waxed poetic about the power of rock," Fieger offers. "But rock was really about the audience and the band having fun, and that's what I boil it down to. I am concerned people place such importance on a pop band, a rock band. I would say we were a rock 'n' roll band, but that's just another label. We're a pop band in that Little Richard was pop and so was Little Anthony and the Imperials, just as Metallica and ABBA were pop artists. People place so much importance on these things.
"I think of being an entertainer as a high calling. For that 15 minutes that your record's on or that hour and a half you're on stage, you are taking someone out of their daily life and moving them in some way and giving them enjoyment, and that's a high calling. But it's no higher calling than a plumber when you have a leaky faucet and need your faucet fixed. You don't want a pop star. You want a plumber. Society just places more importance on pop stars, and the people who do that take on these mantles are absolutely ridiculous. I am suspect of anyone who would want to treat me that way -- good or bad. If you don't like our music, don't listen to it. It's pretty simple.
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