Doug Fieger, the main songwriter and lead singer of power-pop band the Knack has died. Their 1979 album Get the Knack has been a favorite of mine since I had the 8-track as an elementary school kid.
“My Sharona” is what most people will remember, of course, and maybe the subsequent “Good Girls Don’t”—the most inappropriate cover song on the “Chipmunk Punk” kids’ album. (The lyrics of the middle-eight: And it’s a teenage sadness everyone has got to taste. An in-between age madness that you know you can’t erase ‘til she’s sitting on your face.”) But there’s no filler on the record; every song is pretty tightly crafted—probably a testimony to producer Mike Chapman, who seemed at the top of his game. (The album is a clinic in how to build hooks into every nook and cranny of a song.) My favorite song is “That’s What the Little Girls Do,” which is a template for what a power-pop song should be—arpeggios, harmonies, bridge all tactfully deployed, a well-orchestrated campaign to conquer that part of the brain that melodies get stuck in.
The Knack doesn’t seem to get the credit they deserve for virtuosity within the limited form they chose to work. The drum fills on “Your Number or Your Name” sound like a Deerhoof song or something; guitarist Berton Averre’s solos are well-wrought miniatures, an economical mix of chops, inventiveness and efficiency. The extended solo on “My Sharona” is one of the few I can think of in a massive No. 1 hit; it earns every bar and still seems a perfect pop catharsis even after you have heard it hundreds of times. It’s like “Marquee Moon,” only they were playing it on the radio every five minutes in 1979.
The Knack were victims of their immediate success, kicking off a backlash against their contrived image, a take off on the Beatles, as well as the misogyny and hostility in some of Fieger’s lyrics. Unlike Eric Carmen of the Raspberries, who wrote sweet-sounding pop songs about first-date teen sex as a grand expression of love (“Please, go all the way…), Fieger was a sort of pop-rock Neil LaBute; he had a tendency to calculated juvenile outrageousness, and even his love songs seem to have a subterranean layer of sarcasm to them. “Frustrated” is probably his most characteristic song, lyrically. Almost all the songs on Get the Knack are about teenage frustration with sexuality; sometimes that spills into the classic teenage-boy reaction of blaming girls for his own hormonal overcharge.
I think Fieger’s snarling take on Buddy Holly’s simpering “Heartbeat” gives a pretty good sense of what he was up to. Beatlesque pop by the time the Knack’s album came out had turned in to little kids’ stuff—it had been the basis for most bubblegum music, and had literally become the soundtrack of Saturday morning shows like the Hudson Brothers. Fieger’s method wasn’t entirely sound, but he seems to have been trying to return some toughness to power pop as a genre, save it from its destiny of being nostalgia music for the soft and slightly nerdy kids who never wanted to have to listen to anything confrontational. The Knack wanted to make Buddy Holly songs sound aggressive and edgy, on the brink of unfettered release. I imagine they probably thought of it as making power pop that’s not just for girls (and wimpy guys like me).
Power pop didn’t last long as chart-topping genre. In the popular consciousness, it was wrapped in with New Wave (with which it had little in common), and soon it receded into its current niche, suited to a certain sort of pop formalist fan. The Knack’s rushed follow-up But the Little Girls Understand couldn’t live up to the expectations and hype, and the band seemed to wander in the wilderness for the rest of their career. But to my mind, Get the Knack is one of the best rock albums there is, and ought to be remembered as long as people are listening to rock music.
// Notes from the Road
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