Friday, November 7, 2008

Sharona Gets The Knack To #1 - The Explosion

A lot of people regard The Knack as being a one hit wonder, and in terms of their chart activity in Australia, strictly speaking that view is correct. In the U.S. however, The Knack followed up their first big hit with a handful of further charting singles. But given that one big hit, ‘My Sharona’, was such a monumental global smash, anything that followed was pretty much destined to get lost in the shadows of ‘My Sharona’s almost iconic pop legacy.

The Knack exploded into the public consciousness in mid ‘79 with the release of ‘My Sharona’, but the apparent ‘overnight sensation’ had been playing on the Los Angeles pop-rock scene for over a year Contrary to the efforts of The Knack’s publicity machine to present The Knack as a bunch of musical ‘clean skins’, the group’s two main songwriters, Doug Fieger and Berton Averre had actually been active on the music scene for a decade. Singer/guitarist Doug Fieger, who penned ‘My Sharona’, grew up on a diet of The Beatles and other British invasion guitar pop. Fieger recalled in an interview with ‘Goldmine’ magazine the night the ‘Fab Four’ appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and the impression that had on him (he and thousands of other budding musicians). Fieger was fronting a Detroit based trio called Sky, when the band relocated to California during 1971. Sky had actually recorded two very low key albums with RCA that didn’t get off the ground. Following the fall of Sky, Fieger struck up a song writing partnership with guitarist Averre. They both earned a crust by doing session and touring work with other artists, as did the other future members of The Knack, Prescott Niles and Bruce Gary. Far from being fresh faced novices, these guys were actually hardened professionals.

Fieger worked overseas for a period, but on his return to the U.S. he joined Berton Averre (lead guitar), Prescott Niles (bass) and Bruce Gary (drums) to form The Knack in May 1978, and they played their first show at the famed Whisky-A-Go-Go club on June 1st 1978. The quartet didn’t immediately set out to become the new Beatles, but they were conscious of creating a contemporary version of the iconic guitar bands of the 60s (The Kinks/The Who) - good old fashioned melodic pop-rock. All of the members of The Knack had come from a solid grounding in various Los Angeles garage bands, and their high intensity performance energy surged through the music (not dissimilar to the grounding The Beatles received in Hamburg before they shot to fame ‘out of nowhere’). In fact ever since The Beatles, record company talent scouts had been scanning the music landscape for the next in line to the throne the ‘Fab Four’ had vacated in 1970. Like several before them, The Knack were lauded as ‘the next Beatles’. Aiding the cause were the fact their music was so rooted in the style of the original British invasion, and represented such a stark contrast to the predominant music styles of the late 70s, disco and punk. There were elements of the emerging new wave/guitar rock movements, but The Knack deliberately constructed a straighter edged image, without the frills.

Within six months The Knack had built up a strong following on the Southern California club scene, and by November 1978 they had no fewer than 13 record companies bidding for their services. The Capitol label won out and during the first half of 1979, plans were put in place to launch The Knack on the world. The band and their management/publicity machine did nothing to contradict, in fact everything to enhance, the whole ‘Fab Four’ reborn analogy. The back cover of their debut album featured the four band members in various outtake style poses, in a direct salute to, or facsimile of, The Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. But it was what was contained within that cover that would propel The Knack to the very pinnacle of the pop-rock scene during the second half of 1979.

Actually it was really only one song on the album that provided the fuel that rocketed The Knack to rock superstardom. Lead guitarist Berton Averre had come up with a guitar lick some time before that had not evolved to the point of being a song. Singer Doug Fieger found the inspiration to complete that evolution in his unrequited love for a girl called Sharona. Fieger invested his pent up sexual frustration into the stutter beat that accompanied Averre’s guitar hook, and hey presto a rock and roll classic was born. Legend has it ‘My Sharona’ took one afternoon to write (most of the great songs do gestate in a short period of time), and whilst The Knack knew they had sculptured a great song, they couldn’t have dreamt of the magnitude of ‘My Sharona’s impact, especially in an era completed dominated in the U.S. by disco. The song debuted at #86 on the Billboard Hot 100 on June 23, 1979. It took nine weeks to reach #1 but by the time it arrived at the summit it had already been certified a gold record. ‘My Sharona’ spent six weeks atop the U.S. charts and was the biggest selling single Stateside for 1979. The song’s ascent to the top of the Australian charts was considerably more swift. It debuted in early August, the same week The Knack made their surprise, and memorable, appearance on the ABC’s Countdown (see Roger Voudouris post). In its fourth week on the charts ‘My Sharona’ hit #1 in Australia, and held off the competition for five weeks (surprisingly it only ranked #11 on the biggest selling singles in Australia for 1979). The U.K. didn’t make it a treble of #1 results for ‘My Sharona’, but did push the song to #6 during the same period. Power pop had officially been revived - actually it had been swirling around the fringes of the mainstream charts for some time - but ‘My Sharona’ and The Knack had raised its profile to astronomical levels that would prove unsustainable.

The Knack’s debut album ‘Get The Knack’ also made a lot of artists (and record companies) rethink their approach to recording albums. Whilst Fleetwood Mac spent months and hundreds of thousands of dollars labouring over their latest effort ‘Tusk’, The Knack spent just eleven days and $17,000 to complete ‘Get The Knack’, from first take to final mix - it was a return to the raw energy recording habits of the very same British invasion bands that had originally inspired The Knack. Produced by Mike Chapman (producer for Blondie/Sweet), ‘Get The Knack’ was certified gold in 13 days, platinum inside seven weeks, spent six weeks atop the U.S. album chart, and went on to rack up sales in excess of six million. The album also reigned supreme on the Australian charts for four weeks, but surprisingly sold relatively poorly in Britain (#65).

The Knack had mushroomed into pop behemoths from the kernel of just one song, but the fallout from such an explosion was just around the corner.

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