Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Late, Great Doug Fieger of The Knack

On 14 February, 2010 Doug Fieger, leader and founding member of The Knack, passed at the age of 57. The cause was lung cancer. The Knack were best known for their 1979 mega-hit, "My Sharona."

Doug Fieger was born on 20 August, 1952 in Detroit, Michigan. He was raised in nearby Oak Park, Michigan. His father was a civil rights lawyer, while his mother was a teacher. His older brother is the famous lawyer Geoffrey Fieger. They have a younger sister, Beth.

Mr. Fieger took an interest in music from a very young age, becoming swept up by Beatlemania  in 1964. He was not even a teenager when he formed his first band, The Royal Jammers, drawing upon the British Invasion bands for inspiration.  He was still attending Oak Park High School when he joined the band Sky as their bassist. John Loury, and Rick Stawinski formed the band Sky. Playing an early form of American power pop, Sky played gigs with MC5, The Stooges, Bob Seger, and The Who. It was Doug Fieger, then only 17 who wrote producer Jimmy Miller (perhaps best known for his work with The Rolling Stones) in London. Miller went to Detroit to listen to the band. They were signed to RCA and put out two albums,  Don't Hold Back in 1970 and Sailor's Delight in 1971. Power pop being somewhat out of fashion at the time, neither album met with success. Sky broke up in 1971.

After the break up of Sky, Doug Fieger moved to Los Angeles. It was there that he became part of the Sunset Strip proto-punk scene. He became bassist of The Sunset Bombers, a group which included Brandon Matheson (later of  The Rubber City Rebels) on drums, Rick Armand on guitar,and Nick Armand on vocals. The Sunset Bombers were signed to Ariola Records America and put out one, self titled album in 1978.

It was in 1978 that Doug Fieger, guitarist Berton Averre, bassist Prescott Niles, and drummer Bruce Gary formed The Knack in Los Angeles, taking their name from the 1964 Richard Lester film The Knack...and How to Get It. The Knack soon became a huge draw in the Los Angeles club scene, playing clubs throughout California even before they were signed. Rolling Stone began following the band even before they had received a recording contract. By November 1978, no less than thirteen different record companies  were competing to sign The Knack. Eventually The Knack was signed to Capitol Records. Mike Chapman, who had produced both Sweet and Blondie, was signed to produce the first album.

The first album, Get The Knack, was recorded in only eleven days for $17,000. It was also recorded with an absolute minimum of post-production. Capitol Records gave Get The Knack an amount of promotion nearly equal to the British Invasion bands of the Sixties. The album was certified gold in only thirteen days. It was certified platinum in less than seven weeks. As to the most famous song from that album, "My Sharona" entered the Billboard Hot 100 on June 23, 1979. By August 25, 1979 it was number one, a position it held for six weeks. At the time only "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by The Beatles had stayed at number one longer. Since then only "I Kissed a Girl" by Katy Perry has stayed longer at number one than "My Sharona."

Sadly for The Knack, success brought a backlash against the band from the nation's critics. Fixating on the band's British Invasion image (complete with black suits and skinny ties), critics accused the band of aping The Beatles. Many critics even claimed that The Knack's music was derivative of The Beatles, even though the band sounded much more like the early Kinks. Not a few critics focused on what they saw as misogyny in The Knack's lyrics, even though they were less worse than that found in many Rolling Stones lyrics. Despite the backlash, The Knack pressed on. They recorded their second album, ...But the Little Girls Understand, which was released a mere eight months after Get The Knack. ...But the Little Girls Understand would not be nearly as successful as the first album, only reaching #15 on the Billboard chart. It would not go platinum.

The Knack took a break for a year before they recorded their third album, Round Trip, during which time Doug Fieger produced The Rubber City Rebels' debut album. Released in 1981 when the critics still viewed The Knack as anathema, Round Trip only went to #93 on the albums chart. It became the first Knack album to produce no hit singles, "Pay the Devil" reaching only #67 on the Billboard chart. It was only two weeks into the tour supporting Round Trip that The Knack broke up.

Following the breakup of The Knack, Doug Fieger worked with Detroit based funk rock band Was Not Was, The Manhattan Transfer (for whom he wrote the Grammy wining song "Soul Food to Go"), and The A.G.'s. The Knack reunited for a tour that lasted from 1986 into 1987. Although the tour was a success, a new Knack album was not forthcoming. It would not be until 1991 that The Knack would release a new album, Serious Fun. The album produced an FM radio hit in the form of the song "Rocket of Love."

In the meantime, Doug Fieger appeared in the semi-regular role of Nick on the TV show Roseanne. He also appeared on Roy Orbison's final studio album, King of Hearts and Ringo Starr's album Time Takes Time, both in 1992. The band regrouped again in 1997 to provide their rendition of "No Matter What" to Come And Get It: A Tribute To Badfinger. In 1998 the band released the album Zoom. In 1999 Doug Fieger released a solo album, First Things First. In 2001 The Knack released their final album, Normal as the Next Guy. Mr. Fieger's last work would be vocals on one song on Bruce Kublick's solo album B3K.

With the exception of The Monkees, perhaps no other rock band was as hated by critics as The Knack. And like The Monkees before them, The Knack did not deserve such hatred at all. It is true that their songs did not have the complexity of such contemporaries as Elvis Costello or The Talking Heads, but then they did not have to. What such critics failed to see is that there something to be said for clean, pure power pop. It was the genre of music performed by The Beatles, The Who, and The Kinks in their early days, and by Cheap Trick to this day. And The Knack performed power pop with an energy and zeal that few bands ever had before or since. True, The Knack's lyrics could be perceived by some as sexist, but then the same could be said for artists ranging from The Rolling Stones to The Beatles themselves. The Knack was no better, nor any worse than other bands of their time, nor any before them or since them either. Whether the critics wish to admit it or not, the "crime" for which they were vilified by rock reviewers was simply patterning themselves after the British Invasion bands of old and being successful at it, which is really no crime at all.

While the other members of The Knack made their contributions, there can be no doubt that it was Doug Fieger who was the band's heart and soul. It was Doug Fieger's song writing talent that propelled Get The Knack to the top of the charts and his showmanship that made the band a hit in clubs and later on tour. And it was his talent as both a song writer and showman that gave The Knack a legion of fans, even after their albums and singles no longer topped the charts. The conventional wisdom is that The Knack produced one good album, and afterwards several mediocre ones. This is the judgement of those who have never listened to The Knack's entire discography. While none of those albums could match the quality of Get The Knack, all of them are good albums. And that is largely due to Doug Fieger, one of the most talented front men in rock music of all time. It is perhaps time for critics to stop gnashing their teeth at the retro, British Invasion inspired image and sound of The Knack and start recognising the obvious quality of their music. And in doing so, perhaps they will finally recognise the power pop genius that was Doug Fieger.

1 comment:

JohnnyRock said...

Very sorry to hear of Doug Feiger's passing. I have been a long time fan. I was given the 1st Sky album as a gift in 1970 when I was 9 years old and loved it right away. It is one of those records I never tire of and have probably played it as often as almost any other record I have ever owned.