With the death a couple of weeks ago of the Knack's Doug Fieger, "My Sharona" was once again all over the airwaves (or the webwaves, at least). No doubt it's an infectious tune. Though like most infections, it can cause waves of nausea.
Based on this song, people who weren't alive or sentient in the summer of 1979 may justifiably write off the Knack as one-hit wonders akin to A-Ha or that guy who also died recently who sang the "How Bizarre" song. But I would argue that the Knack represented so much more, culturally and even musically, than that one little confection of power pop would suggest.
As America limped toward the end of the decade that was the '70s, popular music was marked by bloat, excess, overindulgence and over-earnestness. In that climate, the Knack stood out to the extent that many people (insanely) hailed them as the second coming of the Beatles, which they quickly proved not to be.
But they did seem like the antidote to much of what was wrong with popular music in general and rock-and-roll specifically. To wit:
- Musically, in a time of endless guitar, drum and, yes, FLUTE solos (I'm looking at you, Kansas!), the Knack, stripped down to the classic lineup of two guitars, bass and drums, offered short, radio-friendly songs in the tradition of early rock-and-roll.
- Lyrically, while Rush was constructing mythology-based epics and Dennis DeYoung whined that life was "a grand illusion," the Knack sang almost exclusively about sex, one of the historical pillars of rock.
- In terms of production, while Tom Scholz was just then embarking on the first of SIX years spent creating Boston's third album, the Knack's debut was recorded in two weeks on an $18,000 budget.
- And in appearance, while the dudes from Heart and Styx and a bunch of other bands were dressing up in puffy shirts, lace-up pants and pirate boots, the Knack got haircuts and decked themselves out in austere black and white, Hard Day's Night style.
Of course, they were not the Beatles. But they were also not Leo Sayer or REO Speedwagon or Rupert Holmes (other denizens of the 1979 Billboard charts), either. Most importantly, they weren't the BeeGees. It should be noted that 1979 also gave us disco-infused tunes by Rod Stewart ("Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?") and, of all things, KISS ("I Was Made for Lovin' You").
Simply put, the Knack brought rock-and-roll back to its roots. They made music fun and exciting again. And they didn't take themselves too seriously. By way of contrast, I give you Mr. Peter Frampton, post-"Frampton Comes Alive" (his followup album was actually named "I'm in You" and, sadly, he wasn't talking about sex):
They were on the crest of the New Wave, and while others were maybe doing what they did better, the Knack, along with groups like Blondie and the Cars and the B-52s, were making alternative music safe for the masses, bringing it into the living rooms of Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public (in order for groups like the Clash and the Ramones to sneak in the back door and steal your beer).
That's the cultural impact. In terms of their music ... they weren't that bad! They were better than "My Sharona." "Good Girls Don't" was another popular, though far less known, song off that album. And here is my personal favorite:
No, they were definitely not the Beatles. But I submit that this song would fit right in with the Monkees' oeuvre.
And just listen to that drumwork! The real secret weapon behind the Knack was the drummer, Bruce Gary, who also met an untimely death just a few years ago. I only learned this recently (thank you, wikipedia), but he was a highly respected session musician who played for everyone from Bob Dylan to George Harrison to John Lee Hooker.
For "My Sharona" he employed a technique called a "flam," in which, according to wiki, "one drumstick strikes the drum just before the other does, registering as a single beat, but with a particularly full sound."
For a better view of his masterful skills, let's go back to "Your Number Or Your Name." Check out this "drum cover" (something I never knew existed!) of the song:
Sadly, the Knack never replicated the success of their first album. But that's rock-and-roll, as they say. They did, however, mark an important turning point in popular music, helping drag the country, kicking and screaming, into the '80s.
So thank you, Bruce, thank you, Doug, thank you ... other two guys ... for delivering a much-needed and long-overdue spanking to American popular music and helping pave the way for everyone from the Go-Gos to Green Day to the Strokes.