In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
If Doug Fieger hadn’t died of cancer in February 2010, today would be his 61st birthday. By most standards, Fieger had a successful musical career. He was the lead singer for the Knack, whose debut album Get the Knack sold more than two million copies and was the number 1 album on the Billboard album chart for five weeks. The first single, the ubiquitous “My Sharona,” was the biggest song of 1979; the second, “Good Girls Don’t,” hit #11 in the US. The follow-up album went gold and spawned another Top 40 single. Thereafter, the band continued to record and tour until breaking up in 1982, then re-formed in the late 1980s, recording and touring through the early 2000s. Fieger also worked as a guest vocalist for Was (Not Was) (a band co-led by his childhood friend Don Was) and released a solo album. Most musicians — and many wannabes — would take that career in a minute.
But the Knack, and by extension Fieger, somehow became hated, reduced to a punchline. It’s hard to understand how the backlash against the Knack became so deeply ingrained. Certainly they were not the first band promoted as successors to the Beatles. They were far from the first band whose songs were a little smarmy and borderline misogynistic (listened to “Under My Thumb” lately?). Nor were they the first band to refuse to give interviews, although this surely didn’t help their standing with the music press, whose role as tastemakers was greater in the pre-Internet era.
Maybe if they had released an album under a different name, the way Green Day did with Foxboro Hot Tubs, the critics would have listened to their infectious power-pop without the hate, their later albums would have been given a chance, and their reputation would have been restored. But then again, maybe not – we’ll never know. Here’s a good analysis of Knack hate by the sometimes perceptive and often infuriating critic and humorist Joe Queenan.
Fieger and the Knack deserved better. Yes, they were derivative of the Beatles, but if that is a black mark, it would be hard to find a band that isn’t similarly tarred. Yes, they wanted to be popular, but who sets out to release music without hope of reaching an audience? The Knack released a bunch of very good music, and some truly excellent work. They achieved success, and as time goes on, they may one day get the respect they deserve.
But this is Cover Me, so we need to focus now on cover songs, and not meditations on success, right? And the Knack’s covers were much like their originals – competent, interesting, lightweight, but overwhelmingly fun.
Veruca Salt – My Sharona (The Knack cover)
“My Sharona” was written years before it was recorded by the 25-year-old Fieger about the 17-year-old Sharona Alperin. For Fieger, it was love at first sight, and not only did she inspire many of his songs, she became his girlfriend for four years. The whiff of taboo underage love helped the song get noticed, but it also fed the Knack backlash (as did the near-constant radio airplay). For what it’s worth, Alperin seems to revel in the attention – she’s the model on the risqué single cover, and if you go to the website for her high-end real estate agency, mysharona.com, you are greeted by the song.
This version is by the band Veruca Salt; in an interesting twist, it is sung by a woman, and is moodier than the original. Veruca Salt, who grafted elements of grunge onto more conventional pop, achieved quick success and were then critically attacked for their perceived careerism. One can imagine them seeing the Knack as kindred spirits.
The Knack – Heartbeat (Buddy Holly cover)
The Knack released a handful of covers, all of which show excellent taste and make obvious their influences. Despite the clear Beatles iconography on Get the Knack, the one cover song on the original release was Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat,” one of his lesser-known songs. Of course, the Beatles themselves were influenced greatly by Holly, so it isn’t surprising that the Knack also had a soft spot for him. In their hands, the sped-up “Heartbeat” turns into a real rocker.
The Knack – Don’t Look Back (Bruce Springsteen cover)
When Get the Knack was released on CD, some versions included various demos and bonus tracks, including a couple of covers that were omitted from the original release. This cover of “Don’t Look Back,” one of approximately 1352 songs that Bruce Springsteen (who had jammed onstage with the Knack before they were signed) recorded for Darkness on the Edge of Town and then discarded, demonstrates an appreciation for Boss obscurities, but lacks the emotional heft of the original.
The Knack – I Knew The Bride (Nick Lowe/Dave Edmunds cover)
This rehearsal version of “I Knew the Bride” was also included in the Get the Knack reissue, and is a close cover of the rockabilly-style version recorded with Nick Lowe (the song’s author) by Dave Edmunds, back when contractual issues prevented the two of them from recording as Rockpile. It is a song that Lowe has released numerous times, in varying styles, but never better than the raw version from the Stiffs Live collection. Fieger and the band do a creditable job with this song, which Lowe always maintained should have been a bigger hit, and it makes the listener curious as to what a finished Knack version would have sounded like.
The Knack – No Matter What (Badfinger cover)
Badfinger was signed to the Beatles’ Apple label, and both benefitted and suffered from this relationship. Their early power-pop sound resulted in four top-10 singles, including “No Matter What,” which is now considered one of the greatest of the first wave of power-pop songs. In 1996, the original Knack lineup reunited to record this cover for a Badfinger tribute album. It is faithful to the original, and quite good.
The Knack – Girls Talk (Elvis Costello/Dave Edmunds cover)
Here’s another cover of a song best known from a Dave Edmunds cover. Edmunds’ version of “Girls Talk” was released before Elvis Costello’s, and not surprisingly has more of a rockabilly feel than Elvis’s more foreboding original. The Knack’s arrangement owes more to Edmunds’, but without the twang. In 1998, the band (now featuring superb drummer Terry Bozzio, who had played with Zappa, U.K., and Missing Persons) released an album called Zoom, which received generally good reviews from the press and little attention from the music-buying public. It was released a few years later as Re-Zoom with three bonus tracks, including “Girls Talk” and “No Matter What.”
Kurt Baker – Let Me Out (The Knack cover)
We end our reminiscence of Doug Fieger’s music where we began, with another Get the Knack track. “Let Me Out,” the album opener, also served as the B-side to “My Sharona.” This is a seriously rocking tune that frankly deserved more of the spotlight. The remarkably faithful cover, by Portland, Maine’s Kurt Baker, formerly of the Leftovers, is from his debut EP of power-pop covers.
Learn more about Doug Fieger and the Knack at his website.