Friday, October 25, 2013

The Knack--Greatest Band Ever?

The Knack--one of the least appreciated bands of all time.

Anyone reading my latest posts knows that lately I’ve been in a nostalgic mood and in particular have been revisiting the earliest days of my infatuation with punk and new wave music.  In the course of my re-explorations I’ve actually unearthed a somewhat startling revelation:  the Knack was one of the greatest bands of all time.  Like everyone, I was quickly swept up in Knackmania at the time back in 1980, and in particular I loved “My Sharona”—hell, EVERYONE did.  That huge beat followed by the even-more-memorable, sinuous bass line that start it, the crisp guitar counterpoint, the edgy, misogynistic lyrics—it remains one of the catchiest songs of all time, no doubt.  I’ve also commented previously on how I consider the second, longer guitar solo to be one of the greatest guitar solos of all time, or at least one of the most enjoyable (I know all the Eddie and Yngwie fans out there are screaming in rage but those kinds of technical solos, while impressive, just aren’t as fun to listen to). 

I also loved their follow-up single, “Good Girls Don’t”, another lyrically incorrect but sonically very catchy powerpop-infused gem.  The noodling guitar, the catchy chorus, again the Knack just totally nail it on this song.

But for me, at the time at least, this was as far as I got with the Knack.  Unlike pretty much everyone else I knew, I never bought or received Get the Knack as a gift.  My aunt owned this album on 8-track, and so I would listen to it when I visited her and my grandparents in upstate New York in the summers, but I would only ever listen to these two songs.

What a tragic waste, because it kept me from appreciating the brilliance of the Knack for almost 20 years.  In the late 90’s when Napster was going strong I “acquired” “Your Number or Your Name”, which has in time become one of my all-time favorite songs by them, surpassed only by “Sharona”.  This song leaves a little of the sexual crudity and single entendres of their previous singles behind but instead is propelled forward by Bruce Gary's as-always magnificent drumming and Berton Averre’s sweet, jangly guitar.  Every time this song comes up on my “Favorites” playlist it never fails to put a smile on my face.

More recently I’ve been going back and trying to mine both Get the Knack as well as their subsequent albums and perhaps not surprisingly I’ve found a veritable gold mine of great songs.  “She’s So Selfish” slows the tempo down a little but like “Sharona” it rides forward on Prescott Niles’ slinky bass line and Bruce Gary's efficiently counter-pointing drumming.  While not as immediately catchy as “Good Girls Don’t” or “My Sharona”, it nevertheless surges and fades in a way that is memorable and fun.  It just sounds so much like all the great new wave of that period—twitchy, and yet strangely compelling.

“That’s What the Little Girls Do” is more jangle-pop in sound, similar to “Your Number Or Your Name”, a short but sweet confection, but you can hear the future echoes of stuff like LA’s Paisley Underground and the jangly alternative music of R.E.M. in it.

“Frustrated” is more of a “Sharona” clone, mimicking the surging bass line and stop-and-go rhythm of that hit but not quite capturing the immediacy and catchiness of their huge hit. Still, it's a fun song.

“Let Me Out” is another barn burner, a wild, fast rave-up that highlights the incredible musicianship of the band, while their cover of Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat” still manages to capture some of the innocence of the original.

If there are any missteps on their debut, its when the Knack slow things down too much, such as on ballads like “Lucinda” or “Maybe Tonight”.  The musicianship is still top-notch, but there’s just nothing that makes these songs jump out of the speakers like their up-tempo numbers.

By the time their second album, 1980’s  . . . But the Little Girls Understand, the Knack’s moment in the pop culture sun was over.  Thanks mostly to a tremendous backlash based in part on Capitol’s attempts to position the Knack as the second coming of the Beatles, the Knack’s sophomore effort, while not a complete and utter failure (it did after all reach #15 on the Billboard charts), was a tremendous step down from the bewildering success of their debut.  This is a shame, because again the Knack deliver an album filled with catchy and memorable songs.  In some senses one of the least compelling songs on this album was the single, “Baby Talks Dirty”, which seeks a little too effortfully to recapture the same magic of “My Sharona”, including the lurching, syncopated rhythm and bass line-driven tempo. While not a terrible song, it is a little too derivative and doesn’t seem to be their best first pitch.

The song I love the most instead from this album is the exceedingly odd “Tell Me You’re Mine”, with its clacking, clog dancing beginning, which leads into a typically catchy bass and guitar sequence.  The oddest thing about this song is Doug Fieger’s strangely affected vocal, which seems to be his attempt to mimic the sneery Southern drawl of Elvis Presley.  It would be distracting if it wasn’t for the fact that the music is so fantastic—the ridiculously tight rhythm, the crisp riffing of Niles’ guitar work, all of it is fantastic.

Similarly terrific is “I Want Ya”—it seriously seems like the Knack could just write catchy songs so effortlessly and this song is no exception.  Again it might be tainted a bit by its familiarity with their other, bigger hits from the album, but this is another song that fits well into the Knack wheelhouse, with all three musical instruments competing to see which one is tightest, basss, drums or guitar.  Kind of a three-way-tie for first and this song is another winner.

“It’s You” is a fast-paced, almost frantic (it almost reminds me of similar wild rides by Oingo Boingo), and their cover of “The Hard Way” by the Kinks shows a similar energy.  But too often the Knack seem to be trying to prove their rock chops on this album, and many of the wilder rockers like “Hold On Tight and Don’t Let Go”,   “End of the Game”, and (Havin’ A) Rave-Up” sound both too familiar to one another and not distinctive from the bar band ravings of any band playing the local joint on a Friday night. 

By their third album, 1981’s Round Trip, the Knack had been permanently passed up in the great rush to find the Next Big Thing, and this album sold much more poorly compared to its predecessors.  Again, this is a pity, because the Knack definitely had some great gems here.  For better or worse, they expanded beyond the simple formula of new wave/mod/powerpop that fueled their early hits, though some of the most effective moments on this album still hearken to their early sonic formula.  “Just Wait and See” is another jangly blast of pop fun, while “Boys Go Crazy” is a dizzy fun whirlwind of energy like “Good Girls Don’t” (which it lyrically resembles as well).   Most in-the-know critics consider “Another Lousy Day in Paradise” to be one of the Knack’s best songs, and it certainly warrants consideration for being in their top three; again, this song is just so effortlessly catchy and fun it seems like the Knack are barely trying, nor do they have to.  Clearly writing and playing sweet catchy rock-based pop is something these guys were born to do, and this song is a magnificent reminder of that.

After the failure of Round Trip, the Knack broke up for several years, but reunited at the start of the next decade to record 1991’s Serious Fun.  While too slickly produced to be as raw and innocent as their earlier work, this album showed the Knack to still be fine fettle.  In some senses this album seems to be a very belated answer to the pop metal movement of the later 80’s in that the Knack combine big arena style riffs with slick harmonies in a way that evokes (but greatly exceeds) similar work by bands like Poison or Warrant.  Songs like “Shine”, “Let’s Get Lost” and “River of Sighs” have the big riffs and bump-and-grind tempo of “Cherry Pie” or “She’s Only 17”.  The song I like best here is the ham-fisted “Rocket o’ Love” (which has more cowbell than anything outside a SNL skit), which nevertheless still manages to prove that the Knack could still write circles around younger, less talented metal bands.

The Knack would reunite occasionally throughout the mid-90’s and in 1998 released Zoom, with Terry Bozzio replacing Bruce Gary on drums.  This album returned to the jangly new wave rock of their early work and had several memorable songs, including the manic “Pop Is Dead”, the mellower jangle of “Can I Borrow a Kiss”, and the utterly brilliant “Smilin’”, which highlights all of the greatest strengths of the Knack—magnificently tight instrumentation, propulsive rhythm, catchy harmony-laden choruses.  “Ambition”, while not quite as catchy, is another classic Knack song and another highlight.  “Everything I Do” is a little too Beatlesque for my tastes, but “Love Is All There Is” is another sweet catchy blast of melodic energy.  “Terry and Julie Step Out” is fast and furious, while “Harder On You” is slower but its heavy, thudding bass anchors it firmly in the traditional Knack canon. 

In 2000 Knack frontman Doug Fieger released a solo album, First Things First, which contains a couple of real gems.  Foremost among these is the leadoff track, “Nothing’s Easy”, which sounds uncannily familiar to me.  It is an acoustic song with a mid-tempo but you can hear the ghost of what this song would sound like electrified and performed at a faster tempo and I think it would be phenomenal.  ‘Without You” is a devastatingly sad song countered by Fieger’s unbelievably sweet vocals.  Unfortunately Fieger too often goes to extremes on this album, either by making ballads that are too slow and cloying or by rocking far too hard, and rarely hits that sweet middle spot the Knack so often hit.

In 2001 the Knack released Normal As the Next Guy (with David Henderson on drums) and again there are flashes of their original brilliance.  The guitarwork by Berton Averre is fantastic as always throughout and the slower tempos and more introspective lyrics suggest a Knack who have finally grown up.  “Disillusion Town”, another scathing look at the Hollywood celebrity machine similar in theme to “Another Lousy Day in Paradise” showcases this greater maturity.    “It’s Not Me”, with its pulsing bass and driving guitar line is a fine Knack classic, as is “Seven Days of Heaven”. But the big highlight, a song that belongs near the very top of the list of greatest Knack songs of all time, is “A World of My Own”, which despite occasionally dragging during the verse sections, builds both vocally and musically to one of the most magnificent, catchy, exquisite choruses of all time.  This song right now is one of my very favorites by the Knack and showed that they never lost their chops or their ability to craft sweet but crunchy music that could move and inspire their fans.  If there’s one song I wish that the “Knuke the Knack” assholes of the early 80’s could hear and that I think might change their minds, this is it.  The Knack may have moved off the pop culture radar after the monumental success of “My Sharona” but they never truly went away; they continued to write and record terrific, catchy music for people who knew where to look for it.  And for all of the disparaging comparisons to the Beatles hurled at them by their detractors, this song shows that they were nearly the equal of the Fab Four when it came to writing great songs.

Sadly, Knack frontman Doug Fieger died tragically young at age 57 in 2010, forever silencing one of the first, and best, voices of the new wave era.  But since his passing a couple of rarities have surfaced on iTunes.  In the late 60’s, a lifetime before his “overnight” success with the Knack, Fieger was a member of the Midwest band Sky.  Their sound leaned strongly toward the heavy blues rock of bands like Traffic and Free, as evidenced by the bump-and-grind raunch of song s like “Goodie Two Shoes” and “How’s That Treatin’ Your Mouth, Babe?”, off their 1970 self-titled debut.  “Take Off and Fly” is a mellow ballad but Doug’s voice is in fine form and you can see why many thought this band would be a huge success (including the Stones’ producer Jimmy Miller).  “Rockin’ Me Yet” has that olde tyme feel-good boogie woogie piano vibe of the best of ELO, as well as some honking sax.  “Make It In Time” is a delicate, feel-good confection more similar in spirit to songs like “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin or “That Would Be Something” by Paul McCartney.  Doug’s sweet voice evokes the very best of Freddy Mercury on “You Are The One”.  “One Love” is another rocker and it is probably the song that comes the closest to the catchy, propulsive powerpop Fieger would eventually craft with the Knack and is a major highlight of Sky’s catalogue—it still has elements of 60’s psychedelia, sounding at times like something Vanilla Fudge or Iron Butterfly might have crafted, but it still has a great, anchoring riff and a big singalong chorus strung together by some nifty bass playing. 

Sky’s second album, 1971’s Sailor’s Delight, continued on in the same vein.  “Make It Tight” is another lurching, grinding rocker that evokes “Honky Tonk Women” by the Stones, as is “Bring It On Back”, while “Let It Lie Low” boogies along with some terrific guitar work. “Come Back” sounds like an outtake from Let It Be by the Beatles again with an almost eerie similarity to the falsetto of Queen’s front man.  Thankfully Sky’s two albums are available on iTunes and people can hear some of his early brilliance for themselves.

Several phenomenal documents of the post-Sky, pre-Sharona era have also surfaced in recent years.  In 2012 Zen Records released Rock and Roll Is Good For You: the Fieger/Averre Demos, a set of demo recordings by the future Knack frontman and guitarist recorded between 1973 and 1975 or a good five years before the Knack hit it big, utterly belying the popular notion that the Knack achieved instant, overnight success.  Some of their future classics are already on display, a fun acoustic version of “Good Girls Don’t” which nevertheless manages to achieve the catchiness of the fleshed out version from their first LP.  “That’s What The Little Girls Do” from their second album is also here, even more sunny and perky in acoustic form.  “Flower My Fate” hearkens back to Doug’s Sky material, especially with its acidulous guitar work.  But other songs like “Little Lies”, “Corporate Shuffle”, and “(Here On This) Lonely Night” capture some of the future magic of the Knack’s work; “Little Lies” in particular has a fun, breezy feel that mirrors the direction their career would soon take. 

Also in 2012 Omnivore Records released the live recording, Havin’ a Rave-Up, of a Knack performance at LA’s Troubadour club from 1978 which illustrates their power and chops as a live act—rumor had it that everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Tom Petty caught them live and/or jammed with them during their ascent to superstardom during this period.  The version of “My Sharona” amply demonstrates how visceral and potent this song was in a live setting.  Another great song is their cover of Jay & The Americans’ “Come A Little Bit Closer”, which is one of the ultimate bar band songs, as is their fiery version of “It’s Alright" by Adam Faith.   Two unreleased songs, “Evil Lies” and “Here On This Lonely Night” sounds like capable additions to the Knack canon, it’s puzzling why they were never released.  It’s a pity the sound is so muddy and dull, which takes a bit of the sheen off these cuts, but to even have them at all is a blessing.