Remembering Doug Fieger
The problem, unfortunately, is that I haven’t a clue about when that might’ve been. It’s probably safe to presume that it was sometime in 1979, as it’s a song which quickly became so inescapable upon its release that even the Chipmunks covered it, but in ’79, I was a kid whose interest in and knowledge of music began and ended with whatever was played on top-40 radio, so while I remember hearing and enjoying the band’s follow-up hit, “Good Girls Don’t,” those two songs were the sum total of what I knew or cared about The Knack.
(As such, it would be years before I heard a version of the latter song where Fieger wasn’t singing “when she puts you in your place” rather than “‘til she’s sitting on your face.” Mind you, even if I had heard it when I was nine years old, I think it’s fair to say that my reaction would’ve been, “Yeah, I bet that would hurt!”)
A few years later, however, my next-door neighbor would give me an album that changed my life – The Beatles’ 20 Greatest Hits – and a short while after entering my full-blown Beatles obsession, I soon expanded my musical palate to include many bands who worshiped John, Paul, George, and Ringo at least as much as I did. At last, I could understand why so many people had been snatching up copies of Get The Knack back in the day, even if I couldn’t quite figure out…and still can’t, for that matter…why anyone could possibly have disliked the band enough to start a campaign called “Knuke the Knack.” The foursome of Fieger, guitarist Berton Averre, bassist Prescott Niles, and drummer Bruce Gary were a tight musical outfit, and while it’s a given that what one person may view as a loving homage can be easily seen by someone else as derivative tripe, these guys had – as the stock line goes – more hooks than a tackle box. The only reason I can imagine someone having a grudge against them is because they got tired of the band’s songs getting stuck in their head…but, then, I guess I’m a little biased, because, man, I love that album.
Still, there’s no denying that there was a backlash against the band, and when they released their sophomore effort, …But The Little Girls Understand in 1980, it proved to be a commercial disappointment from which The Knack would never fully recover. Now, I’m not going to play the apologist to the point where I try to claim that they shouldn’t have been surprised at the reaction of those people who heard that album’s first single and asked, “Oh, my God, this could not possibly sound more like they’re trying to give us ‘My Sharona, Part Deux,'” but I will say that there are some great songs on that record, most notably this one:
The same can be said of the group’s third album, 1981’s Round Trip, which – despite featuring stronger songs than its predecessor – proved even less successful, resulting in Fieger and company calling it quits not terribly long after its release. Fortunately for their fans, however, this would not be the last we heard of The Knack, which makes the title of this particular track from Round Trip rather prophetic.
While The Knack was temporarily defunct, Fieger turned up as the vocalist for two tracks on Was (Not Was)’s 1983 album, Born to Laugh at Tornadoes, which may seem like a strange collaboration until you learn that both Fieger and Don Was attended Oak Park High School, in Oak Park, MI. During this same era, Fieger and the brothers Was also contributed to Cristina’s 1984 album, Sleep It Off, and if you can’t hear his touch on “Ticket to the Tropics,” you just aren’t trying. From there, he went off the musical radar for awhile, but in 1991, Fieger and company – minus Bruce Gary, who had since carved out a nice career as a drummer for hire – landed in record stores once more with a new album entitled Serious Fun, which produced by the aforementioned Mr. Was and featured the closest thing they’d had to a hit single in quite some time. “Rocket of Love” may not have had the impact of the band’s seminal late ’70s / early ’80s work, but it earned a top-10 placing on Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock chart and showed everyone that power pop was still alive and well. Shame about Doug’s hair in the video, though…
Sadly, that was pretty much the last commercial gasp of The Knack as far as new material was concerned, but the band got a huge burst of Generation X street cred in 1994 when Janeane Garofalo. Winona Ryder, and Steve Zahn danced with a startling lack of irony to “My Sharona” in “Reality Bites,” resulting in the song finding its way back into the Top 100. Granted, it was the lower reaches (#91), but it proved definitively that the band’s signature song was truly timeless. Unfortunately, so much time had passed by the time the band got around to releasing another studio album (Zoom was released on Rhino Records in 1998) that any momentum they had received from the “Reality Bites” resurgence was long since gone, leaving The Knack to travel the retro circuit for the rest of their days. They managed to release one more record in 2001 (Normal As The Next Guy, released on Smile Records), but that was it. From there, it was strictly a matter of playing to the already-converted…like, say, me. I saw the band perform in Norfolk, VA, in the ’00s, and they ripped the freaking roof off the joint.
When you’re a dedicated power pop aficionado, it’s easy for your perceptions of a band to change so dramatically that you find yourself mystified at why they aren’t more successful, and after spending a few years as a member of the Audities community (otherwise known as the home of “insanely great pop”), I definitely reached that point with The Knack. Okay, so maybe they’d offered up such a fab debut that the subsequent records were always destined to be comparatively disappointing to the masses, but despite their limited commercial success after Meet The Knack, if you play the band’s albums in reverse chronological order, you’ll find that Doug Fieger never lost his ability to write a catchy pop hook…and as proof, I offer you a six-pack of tunes from The Knack’s trio of post-Capitol studio albums:
* “Serious Fun,” Serious Fun (1991)
* “Body Talk,” Serious Fun (1991)
* “Pop Is Dead,” Zoom (1998)
* “All in the (All in All),” Zoom (1998)
* “Disillusion Town,” Normal As The Next Guy (2001)
* “A World of My Own,” Normal As The Next Guy (2001)
This wouldn’t be a proper reminiscence if I didn’t also mention that Fieger released a solo album – First Things First – in 2000. Alas, I’ve never heard it, so I can’t even confirm or deny if it sounds like an extension of his work with The Knack, but I’d hate to think that the man wouldn’t still continue to play to his pop strengths. What I have heard, however, is some of the work by his pre-Knack bands, the Sunset Bombers and Sky, both of which produced highly listenable tunes that served as the musical stepping stones which would lead to his later success. In his time, Fieger produced several artists, including Rubber City Rebels and Mystery Pop, and he can also be heard to varying degrees on albums by Roy Orbison, Ringo Starr, Skip Heller, Jeffrey Foskett, and Frank Lee Sprague, but it appears that history will show his final recorded appearance as a guest vocalist on Bruce Kulick’s 2010 release, BK3. While I know there’s a temptation to sigh and wish that he had just left well enough alone, especially given that the song bears the rather dodgy title of “Dirty Girl,” give it a listen. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I don’t know when it was actually recorded, but given Fieger’s performance, I think it’s fair to say that the man was powered by pop to the very end.
Okay, you’ve heard more than enough from me to know that I loved and respected the music of Doug Fieger well beyond the 4:53 run time of “My Sharona” (I speak of the album version, of course), but I’m just a lowly critic. Better you should also hear from some of the musicians whose lives were touched by his work. Through the wonder of Facebook, I was able to contact some of my friends and acquaintances from the world of pop – including one who, while not a musician, certainly knows his way around a hook as well as anyone – and ask them to offer their thoughts about what Mr. Fieger meant to them.
* “I had the pleasure of being in a band that opened for The Knack back in 1986. Truly one of the highlights of my career. I got to meet Doug again in 2004 after a show in Woodland Hills. He was a true gentleman and great songwriter and performer.” – Nick Kozonis (Pleasure Thieves, The Knickels)
* “‘My Sharona’ was right up there with “Stayin’ Alive” in terms of me hearing the first 2 seconds of a song for the very first time and having it completely captivate me. I promptly learned how to program the ‘My Sharona’ riff on my MERLIN. (I think you had to 11 in 1979 to know what I’m talking about.)” – K.C. Bowman (Preoccupied Pipers)
* “I never had the chance to meet Doug Fieger, but I wish I had. His music literally helped shape my musical life & career. I remember my brother playing Get The Knack on his turntable when we were kids and being inspired beyond belief by the melodies & raw energy contained in those songs. I wouldn’t be the musician I am today without that kind of inspiration.” – Cliff Hillis
* “Every single band in L.A. that signed a record deal in the early 80’s should thank Doug and The Knack’s perfect first LP. If there was a power pop record that resonated worldwide, it’s Get the Knack. (Though Round Trip is my favorite.) Doug produced a session I did at his house in early 2008. He had an amazing sense of production, arrangement, and editing. I’d like to entertain the possibility that Doug and Bruce are putting a band together on Cloud 9 with Randy California right now!” – Morley Bartnoff (Cosmo Topper)
“Doug Fieger’s music was quite an influence on me growing up. ‘My Sharona’ is one of the sassiest beats in recorded history. It’s snotty, dangerous and sexy…just what was needed at the time on the charts that were dominated by stuff that always made me wanna vomit, like Rupert Holmes and Peaches and Herb. I did not know Doug personally, but I would see him out on occasion, as we lived in the same neighborhood. I saw him at a Poquito Mas about three or so years ago, and I wanted to go up and say hello then, but I didn’t want to hassle him.” – Eric Dover (Sextus)
* “I’ve always hated the eye rolling I’d get when I said I was a big fan of The Knack, because Doug and the rest of the band not only wrote great pop songs, but they rocked as hard or harder than anyone I’ve ever seen, and not just in the early days. One of the last times I saw them was at a non-smoking show, but some idiot in the front row was literally blowing cigarette smoke in Doug’s face. And halfway through the first song, Doug abruptly stopped the show, politely informed said idiot to stop blowing smoke in his face and promptly reblasted into ‘Let Me Out.’ If that’s not ROCK, I don’t know what is.” – Seth Gordon (The Mockers)
* “Doug Fieger – what a talent. Clever songwriting that always projected a wink and/or twinkle. Charismatic stage presence, strong voice, and an obvious love of performing. The Knack helped remind people of the power of good ol’ in-your-face pop/rock music during a time when it was being swallowed up by the dreaded disco fad. It’s a shame that Doug may only be remembered for that one tune, and I hope that people may be inspired to now revisit The Knack’s catalog to find the gifts that lay in wait…and there are plenty. I had the chance to encounter Doug online a few times – personal messages and such – and found him kind, friendly and genuine (and a fellow Firesign Theatre fanatic). I wish I’d actually gotten to meet the man, but at least I have his music.” – Brian Curtis (The Oohs)
“I was an impressionable teen obsessed with music in 1979 when ‘My Sharona’ exploded out of my radio. After buying the 45 at a local store, I wanted more. I badgered a ride from my Mom to go to Korvettes, where I bought Get The Knack (for $3.99!!!) and played that album non-stop for the longest time. In the fall of 1979, I found out that The Knack were coming to Philadelphia to play at the venerable Tower Theater in Upper Darby, a few blocks outside the city. An equally-obsessed friend and I managed to score two tickets and then begged his older brother for a ride to the concert. To this day it remains one of the best and most exciting shows I have seen. If you see the video ‘The Knack at Carnegie Hall,’ you will see what I mean. I walked out of the theater wanting so badly to be in a band. I loved The Knack – bought all of the records and followed them as best I could in those pre-internet days. I loved Doug’s songs, the band’s playing, the excitement, everything. I ended up playing in a few little bands, and I now play acoustic pop/rock covers at local bars and restaurants. Last Saturday night, I was playing to a really fun crowd and decided to play a song that I hardly ever play at my shows anymore but still love all the same: ‘Good Girls Don’t.’ The people seemed to like it, singing along, and I was really glad to have played it. The next morning, I heard of Doug’s passing and thought of how I had played that song just the night before. I said a silent prayer for Doug and his family and was thankful for all of the great music that he left us. I then pulled out my original Get the Knack vinyl and played it in its entirety. I just never get tired of the album even 30+ years later. That says something. RIP, Doug, and thanks again.” – Michael Kropp
“Like many folks, I became a fan of The Knack back in 1979 after hearing My Sharona on the radio here in the U.S. I was on tour with my band The Records at the time, and I recall us all being blown away by the song each time we heard it played over the airwaves The impact and effect that it had upon us was dramatic to say the least. Needless to say I bought the album, which I still have in my collection to this day. However, our paths’ never crossed during our heydays. In fact, it was not until the mid-nineties that I finally got to meet the guys and catch them play live. I was invited to attend their reunion show at The Hard Rock Cafe in Washington D.C., where I was living at the time. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect but remember being totally bowled over by their electrifying performance. I couldn’t believe how incredibly tight they were, not to mention exciting! After the show, a bunch of us went back to hang with the band at their hotel, whereupon I engaged in a deep conversation with Doug. During our chat, which morphed from music to Doug’s new-found sobriety, and spirituality, it soon became apparent that Doug was one extremely complex and interesting character. We stayed in touch by phone sporadically after that, meeting up again in a Los Angeles recording studio in late 1998. I was engaged in the process of recording a new CD at the time, and Doug would drop by the studio to hang out and listen to the music. I was impressed by how stylish he was, since each and every time he dropped by he would be wearing a different and really cool outfit. We had great conversations, covering a variety of topics; I was especially struck by his wisdom and genuine warmth. This was in stark contrast to the stories we read about him and the band in the music press back in the day. There was absolutely no hint of hubris or arrogance whatsoever. During one phone conversation with him, I expressed my frustration with the music industry, and I recall telling him that I was seriously considering changing careers and joining Sharona in the real estate business! Either that, or move to L.A. I went on to ask him what I should do. Sensitive to my dilemma, he very kindly informed me that I would make a great Angeleno and would be more than welcome to come live in L.A., but his final advice was Zen-like: he calmly urged me to simply ‘follow my bliss.’ I took his advice and did just that. I moved to Los Angeles, Doug kept his word, welcoming me as he’d said he would, and accordingly I got to see The Knack play many more shows, including the Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun House one. Thank you, Doug, for the music and the friendship. Whilst we miss your presence here on this earth, I somehow feel that you’re still rocking in a parallel universe somewhere. Rock In Peace!” – John Wicks (The Records)
* “I will never forget the ads, shouting ‘Get The Knack’!, which were plastered all over Billboard magazine starting a couple of months before the band’s debut was released. None of us knew exactly what those ads meant, but we had an inkling that it would be something pretty big…and of course, we were right! On several occasions throughout the ’90s and ’00s I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know Doug Fieger. I remember him as a nice man – confident but never cocky, and one who always had kind, supportive words about my music festival, International Pop Overthrow. He and The Knack have given us so many transcendent musical moments, and ‘My Sharona’ in particular is one record which should be buried in a time capsule, so that when whomever or whatever happens to uncover the capsule 500 years from now, they will have an idea of how the pop music world rocked in 1979.” – David Bash, the impresario behind the International Pop Overthrow music festival
Lastly, we come to Barry Holdship, a musician whose work I’ve dug since the first time I heard his song “Twist of Faith.” His comments, I think, serve as the the perfect final word.
Doug was lucky. He was a rock ‘n’ roller born in the ’50s and was the perfect age in 1964 when the Beatles first landed in the U.S. He loved classic Elvis and Buddy Holly, but also immersed himself into the ’60s counter-culture and all the great music that came with it. All these elements contributed to what would form Sky and later lead him to L.A. to start the Knack. Most people look at the Knack as a “pop” band. I thought of them as a rock ‘n’ roll band.
The fact that Doug was from Detroit always gave me a sense of pride: another Detroiter does well. When I moved to LA., I was fortunate enough to meet and talk with him many, many times through our mutual friend Art Fein. We were always part of Art’s annual Elvis Birthday Bash, and Doug was always one the first artists to come up, shake my hand, and see how I was doing. He was without a doubt incredibly gracious, nice, and especially encouraging to me and my music: “You really rock, man!” That meant something, because he knew rock ‘n’ roll. It got to the point where we wouldn’t tell each other what Elvis songs we were doing each year, to surprise one another. On one of his last appearances, he did a fantastic, rockin’ version of “(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame.” (Not an easy song to do, by the way.) Doug was also a regular guest on Art Fein’s “Poker Party” TV show. That’s where I really got to know how much of a rock historian he was.
You see, he didn’t just play and love rock ‘n’ roll. He KNEW rock ‘n’ roll. And that’s what made him a much better singer/songwriter.
A lot of people are going to write what great “pop’ songs he wrote and how he taught them about catchy hooks and melody, which he did. I don’t think there’s a person in the modern world that doesn’t recognize or know the opening hook or lyrics to “My Sharona.” A rocker indeed! It would go on to escalate him and the Knack to superstardom. Their first record is considered a classic to most “popsters.” He even does a great version of one of his early rock ‘n’ roll heroes, Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat,” on it. But for me, I think the one tune that hooks me every time is “Smile,” from the Was (Not Was) album, Born To Laugh At Tornadoes. His vocals are fantastic – you hear real elation there. That tune will remain a favorite of mine and will always make me smile when I think back fondly upon him.
I knew Doug was sick for quite awhile. He fought the good fight and was a man of real courage when it came to his illness. Last year, while I was on Facebook, a message bubble came up. “Hey, man. How you doin’?” It was Doug. He’d missed out on the Elvis Bash because he wasn’t up to it. “I heard you totally rocked the joint again this year. Keep it up. You really know how to rock ‘n’ roll!” I replied that he and I would do something together at next year’s event. “For sure!” But that wasn’t to be.
Doug’s suffering and battle is over. Rest peacefully, Doug. You left your mark, man.