One of the new wave’s confounding commercial footnotes, the Knack overtook the American music mart in the late-’70s by putting sleazy lyrics to simple power pop (breaking one of that genre’s traditions by co-opting cock-rock’s macho leer), fooling people into believing the California quartet was either the new Beatles or the acceptable end of punk.
From being a popular LA club act (an outgrowth of the Sunset Bombers, who released one single), the Knack got to the big time with the help of proven producer Mike Chapman, relying on the arguable strengths of Michigan-born singer/guitarist Doug Fieger’s lascivious songs to carry the band. And carry them they did: “My Sharona” and “Good Girls Don’t” both became monster hits. Fieger was no timeless tunesmith, but he had plenty of drive and confidence, and all it took was incredible, perfect timing and savvy marketing to lead listeners to overrate what were, essentially, routine skills. Most of the quartet (guitarist Berton Averre, drummer Bruce Gary and bassist Prescott Niles) had toiled as session musicians for years (Fieger, who died in 2010, was secretive about his age — he later acknowledged being born in 1953, which made him all of 26 at the time), and they knew their way around studios. Get the Knack was recorded live, fast and cheaply with minimal overdubs.
Following Cheap Trick, Blondie and the Cars into the disco-dominated Top 40, the Knack cut a swath through the incumbent chaff of 1979 (Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer, etc.); both “My Sharona” and the album went platinum in a matter of weeks. Get the Knack runs the gamut in quality, from tight guitar pop (“My Sharona,” “Let Me Out,” “Frustrated”) to bottom-of-the-barrel sap (“Maybe Tonight”). In the Knack’s superannuated teen-fantasy microcosm, women are either rich bitches (“She’s So Selfish”), prick-teases (“Frustrated”) or virgin queen as emasculating femme fatale (“That’s What the Little Girls Do”). More to Fieger’s liking, there’s the loyal do-it- anywhere groupie (“My Sharona”) and the eager high-school slut (“Good Girls Don’t”). In retrospect, Fieger’s songs about adolescent lust were a little too salacious and believable for the Beatles comparisons his band was attracting. The album’s second single, “Good Girls Don’t,” didn’t do as well as “My Sharona”; still, getting the phrase “until she’s sitting on your face” onto mainstream radio was an achievement of some sort.
Wildly successful, endlessly arrogant, press-shy and an easy target for hipster belittlement, the Knack immediately attracted a backlash that lasted well beyond its disintegration two years later. Beatles purists objected to the Knack tarnishing the Liverpool lads sacred image (the front and back cover of Get the Knack echoes the look of Meet the Beatles). Women’s rights activists objected to the group for its neanderthal views of romance. An entrepreneurial hippie from San Francisco began a grass- roots campaign against the band, selling T-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons featuring the slogan “Knuke the Knack.”
The Knack attempted to replicate the success of their debut by copying its sound on the follow-up. …but the little girls understand was again recorded and mixed in less than two weeks (as if that were the secret of the band’s success as opposed to a hook for Capitol’s marketing department), but thrifty studio virtuosity couldn’t overcome second-rate material. Most of these songs sound like half-baked discards from the debut. The anemic “Baby Talks Dirty,” which reached the Top 40, was widely derided as an inferior replicant of “My Sharona” (minus the thunderous hook). The band’s bad taste raged unabated, though: “Mr. Handleman” is about a guy who pimps his wife. The album managed to sell two-million copies, yet even Chapman knew gold-plated crud when he had produced it, as evidenced by his preemptively ironic liner notes: “The songs are an assortment of feelings expressed redundantly as only the Knack can. This record is very dear to me and my bank manager.”
The Knack’s moment ended as quickly as it had begun. They parted company with Chapman (who once described the group as “a way of life to me”) and hired Jack Douglas to produce Round Trip, a pretentious mess that richly deserved its lack of public response. Tempos lumber; lyrics drip with syrupy platitudes. Abandoning the stripped-down approach, they employed all the trappings of early-’80s overkill: wah-wah pedals, drum phasing, bad plate reverb, etc. to superficially hint at the pomp-pop of Queen, ELO and late Beatles. The single “Pay the Devil” is mushy, pandering lounge-rock. Fieger’s lyrics are almost penitent. The Knack had become too nice to survive and called it quits.
A decade later, amid reunion tours and the like, the Knack released a fourth studio album, Serious Fun. In 1994, “My Sharona” was used in the movie Reality Bites and became a small hit again. The subsequent Zoom (with ex-Missing Persons drummer Terry Bozzio taking over for Gary) returns the band to the fray with a good, solid effort. It isn’t at all bad as slick, commercial Beatlesque power pop goes, but the Knack is firmly caught in a dead zone between nostalgia, irrelevance and scorn, none of which encourages enthusiasm for new creative effort.