The Knack is back. Like some weird, foggy memory from a long-forgotten dream, like a living reincarnation of simpler and more naive times, it has returned.
The original, meteoric rise and fall of the prototype “power pop” group was unusually extreme, even by today’s fickle, rock ‘n’ roll flavor-of-the-month standards. But the fact that the sunny, goofy Knack, of all groups, is once more a hot item during the heyday of such dark musical statements as grunge and gangsta rap proves that fate and public taste are curious and unpredictable things, indeed.
Almost anyone between the ages of 18 and 47 will feel a twinge of nostalgia when they turn on the radio today and hear the Knack’s “My Sharona” pumping from the speakers. When the song was released in the summer of 1979 as the first single from the group’s “Get the Knack” debut album, it sold 2 million units in less than a month and held the top position on the charts for six weeks, helping usher in the new wave era.
The pounding, simple-but-eminently-memorable guitar hook of the song, coupled with the “m-m-m-my-my-WOOOO!” vocal refrain was classic rock ‘n’ roll in all its blissful ridiculousness, a successor to the rave-up traditions of “Louie, Louie,” “Wild Thing,” and “Twist and Shout.” Seemingly overnight, “My Sharona” propelled the Los Angeles quartet to the front lines of the international rock scene.
But those who got the Knack in 1979 had apparently had enough of them by 1980; a critical and popular backlash against the group set in as quickly as had the fame. A follow-up album, coyly titled “But the Little Girls Understand,” performed poorly, and in 1981, the Knack called it a night.
A brief and abortive reunion 10 years later seemed the final, belated nail in the coffin--until the release of the film “Reality Bites” earlier this year. Included in the movie (and the hit soundtrack album) is “My Sharona,” which has, curiously, found another niche on radio and on VH1. A hopeful Knack has once again reformed and is in the midst of a national tour, which brings the band to the Coach House tonight.
“For us, what this says is that the music has value, and we always knew it did,” said Knack front man Doug Fieger in a recent phone interview. “It’s just a nice reminder. We didn’t have any plans on touring until this happened, and it happened completely organically. We got a call from a rather big agent, saying, ‘We’re getting a lot of response from this. Do you guys want to do something with it?’ ”
The newfound demand for the group came at a propitious time for Fieger, now 41. The singer-guitarist recently put the finishing touches on a solo album, which includes such guest musicians as Don Was, Nicky Hopkins, Jim Keltner, Billy Preston, Ray Manzarek and Benmont Tench. A renewed interest in the Knack can do nothing but help Fieger’s prospects for landing a sweeter solo album deal and tour support.
“The album will come out eventually; it’s just that it’s probably better to wait a little while because of what’s happening with the Knack,” Fieger said. “I’d love to go out and tour with a band for the solo album, but I also understand the reality of piquing people’s interest. The way the system’s set up these days, there’s no proving grounds anymore. In order to be able to tour, there’s got to be public interest, people have to know who you are.
“The fact that I’m in the Knack can’t help but introduce me and what I’ll be doing other than the Knack. But at the same time, I’m really enjoying playing these songs that I haven’t played in years.”
Successfully going back in time must be a sweet measure of revenge for Fieger. After the original success of “My Sharona,” the Knack was knocked by the press for being a vacuous, cynical product of hype, a group that vaingloriously attempted to retrace the steps of the Beatles.
Whatever one’s opinion of the Knack’s musical merit, this rap against the band seems particularly vicious and unfair in retrospect.
The band’s music bore more resemblance to other British hit-makers such as the Kinks and the Who than it did the Beatles, and virtually dozens of other new wave acts took nods of their own to British beat groups without any criticism at all. And while the back cover of “Get the Knack” was a play on the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” album, this was obviously done more as a good-natured wink than any serious attempt to compare themselves with the fabled mop tops.
“The criticism leveled at the Knack was specious from the get-go,” Fieger said. “The reality is that if we had sold 50,000 albums instead of 5 1/2 million, everybody, especially the critics, would have gotten that (Beatles) joke and loved it. The backlash was about our success, not what we were doing. Once you sell a lot of records, you’re no longer cool. They said we were a bunch of hype, but I think Capitol Records spent a total of $50,000 promoting the first album, which is nothing. The perception of us, because it happened so fast, was that it couldn’t be real. But it was.
“I also think L.A. critics have a tendency not to root for their local bands. If something comes from England or Seattle or Athens or wherever, they’re more likely to jump on the bandwagon. There’s not a real feeling of community or camaraderie here.”
In 1994, the Knack--at least for the time being--is functioning as an oldies act, performing material from nearly decade-and-a-half-old albums on the road. But Fieger is the first to realize and admit that the fans come out mostly just to hear the one song he’ll forever be identified with, and he seems comfortable enough with that legacy.
“In some ways it’s frustrating because you want people to listen past ‘My Sharona,’ ” he said. “But I love ‘My Sharona.’ I think it’s a very interesting record and a very well-constructed rock ‘n’ roll song. I don’t think it’s the best song I’ve ever written, but I guess it will probably be the most successful song I’ll ever have.”
* The Knack plays tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano , San Juan Capistrano. The Muffs open at 8. $17.50. (714) 496-8930.