Photos courtesy of Prescott Niles
Her journey has been portrayed as both a Cinderella tale and one of music’s most epic failures.
Still, there’s no denying that by the fall of 1979, LA-based quartet The Knack—singer and rhythm guitarist Doug Fieger, lead guitarist Berton Averre, bassist Prescott Niles, and drummer Bruce Gary—had a steady following (at least). The bait was a hook-loaded single full of pent-up sexual energy. The song, of course, was the Fieger-penned “My Sharona,” which shot to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for six straight weeks.
The track became the biggest hit of 1979 (during the heyday of disco, no less!) and propelled their debut album from Capitol Records. Get the crack, to double platinum status. The song would eventually put a young artist named Alfred Yankovic on the map around the same time with his own unique accordion-heavy recording (“My Bologna”).
Enter the 1980s, however, and this musical Sisyphus sees his wings melt after perhaps getting too close to the commercial sun. There is a critical backlash; a “Knuke the Knack” campaign; a second album that sells a quarter of what their debut sells; and a legitimately good band branded as outdated.
But there are other accomplishments of the band to consider that are rarely, if ever, brought into this conversation. What about the fact that there’s another Top 20 hit by Knack (“Good Girls Don’t”), or how the band at their peak easily sold out venues like Carnegie Hall and the Forum in Los Angeles? What about her two Grammy nominations in 1980, including one for Best New Artist? How about being dubbed “the easiest band” by songwriter/producer Mike Chapman he’s ever worked with? How about being talented enough to get superstar producers like Jack Douglas and Don Was willingly producing their later albums?
As Knack bassist Prescott Niles recently told me, “We’re great. We did great interviews. People liked us. We weren’t assholes on any level.”
So what exactly happened? How can a band like this soar so high and then seem to plummet just as quickly?
In speaking with Niles, I found that while there is an answer to this question, there are also some misconceptions about The Knack that should be addressed. Let’s start by saying her band’s path to success is simple.
“The overnight success was a year of playing before (Get the crack). The band’s first show was June 1, 1978. After that show, we decided there was real chemistry between us, ‘OK, let’s make this thing real,'” Niles said. “We’ve been playing in LA for quite a while – all the clubs. Many people assumed The Knack was hyped by Capitol. We just did the work; played all over LA; went to San Francisco – did whatever it takes to break a band. Nobody had any idea that the album we made was going to be what it was going to be. It was really magical.”
Then there’s the idea that the band was shaped in the shape – and looks – of the Beatles. Per Niles: “A lot of people assumed Capitol created us as the next Beatles, which was the furthest thing from the truth. If you really look at the band’s sound and musical level, we were more like The Who and the Kinks.”
What about the group superstar success of “My Sharona” just as a single? nope The album came first. It wasn’t until the radio started playing “My Sharona” while the band toured Europe that it really took off.
“Usually you have a single that paves the way for the album; This worked in reverse, which was fantastic for me because the album was being promoted, which meant more people were listening to the album instead of just hearing a song,” Niles said.
Then there’s the misconception that Capitol forced the band to release their second album, …But the little girls understandjust months after it first capitalized on the success of My Sharona.
“The biggest problem we had – and the biggest problem Capitol had to solve – was releasing another album. Capitol didn’t ask us to do a second album; it was backwards,” Niles told me. “The biggest mistake we and Capitol made was not to underestimate the fact that Sharona became what it was. For a second album to be followed by a second single, it has to be better or at least on par with “Sharona.”
Regardless, by the time 1980 rolls around, The Knack’s sophomore album is hitting shelves and hitting the Top 20, with a rocking new single (“Baby Talks Dirty”) in tow. While “Baby Talks Dirty” would supposedly sound very similar to “My Sharona,” Niles points out that they’re quite different.
“It might have been in the same key of G and had a riff, but it actually had a chorus. The format was different number one,” he said. “The drums didn’t have a signature beat. If you listen to the bridge, it was really more like Led Zeppelin in terms of structure in the way it played out.”
Compared to “My Sharona,” “Baby Talks Dirty” would barely make the top 40. The song’s more salacious lyrics (“You know my baby, she’s like, ‘Hurt me, hurt me!'”) would prove off-putting to many.
“‘Baby Talks Dirty’ had its good points, but I don’t think the song itself was that strong,” Niles said. “If Steven Tyler had done it… it would have been more acceptable, because that’s what he was, lewd and sexual, so to speak. But for the crack to do it didn’t seem quite right.”
But overall …But the little girls understand is a worthy addition to the band’s debut. On this release, The Knack still knows how to pursue the musical hunt, avoid production clutter, and embody the West Coast’s answer to Cheap Trick. Essentially, they follow the exact same formula as their debut, which took just three weeks and $15,000 to create. They even had previously unrecorded songs in their arsenal ready for this album. But due to the massive success of Get the crack, this album is unfortunately often neglected. Chalk it up to everything from Capitol’s picks for singles, to the overall band/producer dynamic the second time around, to his album cover art, per Niles.
“It’s the same band. I think the performances were great,” says Niles. “‘I Want Ya’ could have been a good single in my opinion. It’s a really great pop single. Bruce’s drumming is amazing on it. “Rave Up” was a great rocker that we used to play live. I thought that was a great song. “Tell Me You’re Mine” – I think that was a great live song. I quite like the songwriting on this album.
“We didn’t do any advertising to promote the album. The path of the band itself got sidetracked by things we should have done but didn’t,” adds Niles. “It was one of those perfect storms of failure.”
Three other key factors seemingly spurred The Knack to suffer the second curse, according to Niles: not performing at the 1980 Grammys despite being nominated for two awards; a lack of general presence on American television; and critics await en masse to pounce on the band and their poppy, low-fi sound. I’ll let Niles address each one individually:
“Not going to the Grammys is a sin, quote me on that. I mean, it’s one thing to go and not be there, it’s one thing to be nominated. If we had done “Sharona” live on TV we would have sold eight million albums overnight because the thing about the band was that we were really good and didn’t have to pretend to sound like the record; We were the record.
“Not doing American TV was the biggest problem for me. Nobody knew who we were. We should have done American TV just because we had to let America know who we are.
“Because of our great success, I think critics have been waiting to attack us. And I think we gave them the ammunition to say, ‘Yeah, well, they’re a one-hit wonder because the second album didn’t have a hit.’ I think they sadly overlooked the band and focused on failure. It was too early and everything was compared to ‘Sharona.’
But it’s not all about what-ifs when it comes to The Knack. …But the little girls understand has a solid sound crammed with garage rock, 50’s rock and surf rock undertones. Certain songs are shorter, like “Hold On Tight” and “Don’t Let Go”. However, given that punk was still viable at the time, that’s not a bad thing. Many songs also found their way into the group’s reunion sets over the years.
And for anyone who thinks these songs are disposable, remember that “My Sharona” was recorded in one take at the urging of Mike Chapman. And how successful was this track?
“I think Mike was responsible for allowing the band to be the band and not having to worry about the production. Mike really wanted to capture who we are,” Niles said. “Mike was the only one who said ‘Sharona’ was number one. When he first heard it he said, ‘That’s number one.’ I wrote that in my diary, by the way. Mike’s words were true gospel to me.”
“I hear (…But the little girls understand), and I play it. The musicianship was great and Doug’s vocals were great and I really like most of the songs,” adds Niles. “It’s not like it’s a bad album – it’s not. I just think you shouldn’t compare albums anyway.”
The Knack would make it through another 1981 album tour (produced by Jack Douglas) before going on a 10-year hiatus.
For Record Store Day 2022, a previously unreleased concert from 2001 is titled The Knack Live in the House of Blues has appeared. Recorded in Hollywood, the 18-track set is a limited edition of just 2,500 copies, available as a 2LP gatefold set on “baby blue” vinyl. CD and digital releases will follow in May 2022. It will surely remind listeners of The Knack’s stamina and talent, especially given the untimely deaths of Gary in 2006 and Fieger in 2010.
“The album itself captures a different crack, but a really exciting crack,” says Niles.
And as with their previous releases, it’s important to remember that The Knack were always exciting, even if they didn’t fit the spheres of critical cool or brilliant rocker. …But the little girls understand ultimately proves that there’s a reason we all once cared about what this band had to say and play.
“We didn’t fail musically or qualitatively,” says Niles. “I like the second album and a lot of people like it. If this was our first album, it would have been very well received.”
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