At the center of every “song that kills” is a tragedy. How could it not be? There are few in the music business that actively want their creations to fail, do not want to be famous, and do not want the spoils of their success. Most never have to worry about good fortune knocking on their door, because it won’t. Some get the fame and are able to modulate it over time and not burn out. Some, however, get everything they want, and that solitary act of “winning” sets off a backlash from which they can never fully escape.
The Knack had it not once, but twice, and both were at the mercy of “My Sharona.”
The first time success came around, it was the late 1970s into the early 1980s, and the power pop ethic was in full bloom. Capitol Records was riding high on this group called The Knack and their debut album, Get The Knack, was going gangbusters. The music was tight, punchy, and horny. The choruses were big, the chords were fat, the vocal harmonies could slice a tin can and could still cut paper-thin tomato slices. The record spawned three singles, two being national and one finding regional favor (“Frustrated”, the b-side to “Good Girls Don’t”). The album stands as one of the highest selling debuts of all time, and it got there in meteoric time.
The biggest driver of that success was the stuttering, stomping “My Sharona,” a paean to teenage lust from a record that was a collection of paeans to teenage lust. The primary writers of the record were frontman Doug Fieger and lead guitarist Berton Averre. The band was rounded out by Prescott Niles on bass and Bruce Gary on drums. It is Gary that winds up figuring into the start of the group’s many non-controversies. He was a known session drummer and some would say he was a ringer, which is strange. I don’t doubt that he was as claimed, but one listen to the band’s first few albums and the answer is clear. The guy was an incredible drummer. If you hear someone like that drumming, you hire him for your band, or you walk away with a dunce cap on for the rest of your life.
The punks didn’t like The Knack. They were taking a punky attitude with their sugar-sweet vocals and nasty lyrics, turning in something like the bastard child of the Archies and The Buzzcocks, so they were not amused. No problem really, as at this juncture, you’d be hard pressed to find something the punks did like. They were probably still smarting over the loss of Blondie from their ranks. Not coincidentally, both Blondie’s breakout album Parallel Lines (1978) and Get The Knack (1979) were produced by pop-rock polisher Mike Chapman.
Womens groups didn’t like The Knack because the lyrics often took a jaded look at love and sex, and the assumed protagonists were obsessed with “getting inside her pants” and when she’s “sitting on your face.” A telling lyric references Chicken Delight with the double entendre of “The flesh is on the bone and she ain’t giving you a bite.” They actually have a point with this aspect, and the guys do wallow in their hormone stew a bit, but the term “rock and roll” itself is a euphemism for sex. The two, like it or not, are inextricably tied. Critics of The Knack would have been gob-smacked if they knew how far lyrics would go in only a few more years. Get The Knack is positively tame next to Prince’s (then) upcoming efforts.
Pop purists didn’t like The Knack because they felt Capitol Records was trying to make them into The New Beatles. “Look! A black and white cover with the band in mid-sixties suits! The album’s title sounds a lot like Meet The Beatles! The album’s back cover is a clear rip from The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show! Who do they think they are?” After a while, it seemed like the least controversial thing to do was to profess a hate-on for The Knack. Sales for the album soldiered on bravely.
Their next album, on the other hand, fell with a thud. …But The Little Girls Understand expanded on the debut’s strengths, and even if it is not the front-to-back pop sensation that Get The Knack is, it still resounds with power-pop goodness. The third album, Round Trip, did worse even though the band was clearly trying to break away from the tainted goods section they had been relegated to.
Through it all, there was “My Sharona” which would come to define and constrict whatever it was people thought The Knack was. It was the only song in the jukeboxes. It was the only song on the “oldies” stations. It had somehow swallowed up everything else the group did, making it all disappear untraceably. All that was left was “My Sharona.”
Gary left the band shortly after Round Trip was recorded. In 1991, he was replaced by Pat Torpey on the drums. Fieger called up childhood friend Don Was to record their comeback album Serious Fun for the new label Charisma Records U.S. (Charisma has a long and storied history in the U.K.). Charisma was also the home of Jellyfish who owed much of their DNA to the legacy of The Knack. No one was interested in Serious Fun and after a single attempt with “Rocket ‘O Love” the record fell to ignominy. “My Sharona” persisted.
In 1994 Ben Stiller’s movie Reality Bites bows, it features “My Sharona” in a memorable scene, and it is once again thrust into the public consciousness. Hit Part Two. The band reunites in 1997, this time with Missing Persons founder Terry Bozzio on drums, with the CD Zoom. It fails to. Later on, in 2005, the band is called upon to be on the “old bands reunited” show Hit Me Baby One More Time. They knock it out of the park with a cover of Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” and…”My Sharona.” You see where this is going.
Bruce Gary died in 2006. Doug Fieger died in 2010. I wrote about Fieger’s illness for Popdose and offered a fan’s support, at least as much as a disconnected web-writer could. I also eulogized his death. I couldn’t help but feel there was so much more left to hear, were it not for the deaths. Also, were it not for the petty snipes from the various dissenters that undercut The Knack in the first place, they might have had stronger, more prolonged success. We cannot divine what might have been from what was and what, thanks to existential division, cannot ever be again.
I don’t necessarily blame “My Sharona.” Most bands, if in fact bands actually exist anymore, would kill for a single with as much longevity and as much public interest, long after its creators have been apparently shoved to the side. Still, it has to be frustratingly crazy-making to see this beacon out there telegraphing a life you once had and, if the various factions of the world stopped to consider how good it was, could still have had. That must drive a person nuts. How could you have that brass ring so firmly in your hands, and still it gets so thoroughly batted away?
Every “song that kills” is a tragedy. This might be one of the worst.