Graham Reid | | 3 min read
Okay, this is how I remember The Knack and its lead singer Doug Feiger, but it was a long time ago so the memory may be dodgy. It was August 13, 1979 to be exact and the ads boasted "biggest band in the world in NZ at their peak". They were playing at Mainstreet in Auckland.
That claim was true, oddly enough: at the very time The Knack from California were playing in Auckland they had the fastest selling album in rock history at the time, and, if I remember correctly, the number one single in the States.
They'd been booked to come to New Zealand -- concerts in Wellington and Auckland -- before their hits broke, so here they were at the far end of the world when they should have been playing concert halls and doing television in America.
The Knack were an interesting band -- right at the peak of New Wave they came along as alarmingly Old Wave, they were aiming to be the new Beatles in fact, an image they milked in their narrow ties and suits, and on their debut album Get the Knack. It borrowed its title and cover image from the 1964 Beatles album With the Beatles (or Meet the Beatles, as it was in America).
The album title also adopted the name of a 60s British film of the same name, and on the back cover the band posed in what looked like a mock-up of a television studio stage in A Hard Day's Night.
All this would have been pretty easy to dismiss if it hadn't been for the music on the album: it sparked with enthusiasm and pop hooks, and had an infectious sexual energy.
It also sprung the hit My Sharona, the one that raced up the charts all over the world.
They were fronted by Doug Fieger, a man who had been around rock for a long time but who -- with a cheeky smile and knowing look -- quite justifiably felt his time had come at last.
The album picked up terrific reviews from otherwise cynical local media: Terence Hogan in Rip It Up said it was "about sex and drugs and rock&roll, and you oughta try it" -- although Gordon Campbell in the Listener sniffed a rat (and got sniffy) and said if this was the future of rock'n'roll then you could cancel his ticket to the Resurrection.
Frankly Campbell missed the point: Fieger wasn't promising the future -- indeed the album rang with echoes of not only the Beatles but Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran -- but little more than an adrenalin rush. No bad thing, and pop was so damned po-faced at the time it needed a shot of mischief and humour.
On the night of the Auckland show a few of us in the media -- I was writing record reviews for the North Shore Times Advertiser, for nothing and to get free records -- gathered at a bar just around the corner and had quite a few drinks.
Then we went to the gig.
Gotta say it was terrific and with no intro at all Fieger just called"1-2-3-4" and they were into it.
Again if memory serves, I think they played the first part of their set in the same order as the album. My Sharona came last and they did a one-song encore of I've Had Enough and were called back again. They closed with Buddy Holly's Rave On and something else.
I don't recall the last one because I had been hauled to the side of the stage by some promo guy who pushed me into the backstage area where he produced a huge joint. I was standing there smoking it when the band said their final good night and came running in.
Not much was ever really heard of the Knack after that brief period in the spotlight. They never did record the song that Springsteen wrote for them as far as I know, the presciently entitled Don't Look Back. *
They went home to the States and played to capitalise on their success, but then they were hustled back into the studio and away from the public eye to knock off a second album.
It came out about 18 months later -- it was called And The Little Girls Understand -- and all but disappeared. There were no hits taken off it, and it didn't trouble the charts for long.
I reviewed it and noted that it even more blatantly ripped off others' styles and how wrongheaded producer Mike Chapman's liner notes were: he foolishly said they were the future of rock'n'roll. I also noted they bore an uncanny similarity to the liner notes of another album, one from the mid 60s, I had which read, "this is a deeper, more meaningful and even groovier group. This is Every Mother's Son." They too were never heard of again.
The Knack soldiered on though and their third album Round Trip in 81 or 82, I forget which, wasn't half bad.
But by this time no one was listening and the Knack had been relegated to a footnote.
My Sharona soldiered on without them and became quite a stayer in people's memories, in soundtracks and on classic hits radio.
What is burned in my memory though was seeing Doug Fieger come through that door covered in sweat and with a grin a mile wide.
As I handed him the joint I thought that at that very moment he must have been thinking, 'So this is what it was once like for the Beatles, just before Beatlemania broke'.
It was all there before him. He looked like he had never been happier, his dreams fulfilled.
I wonder if he was every that happy again?
* I have been reliably informed that the Knack's version of Don't Look Back appeared on an Uncut compilation tribute to Springsteen, and is on A Knack Retrospective.
Doug Feiger died of cancer in February 2010. He was 57.