Friday, May 31, 2013

Get the Knack

Get the Knack came out in the summer of ’79, but I never owned a copy of it until the CD era.  No matter … it was one of those albums, like Bat Out of Hell, that everyone you knew had.  That had songs on the radio constantly, be it FM rock or AM Top 40 stations.  In every car.  On every shitty eight-track player.  You knew most of the album by heart.

I was a teenager at the time, albeit not yet able to drive.  That album should have been a perfect fit with  me.  Then again, I was also the perfect age to absorb KISS and Star Wars, and neither has ever made any sense to me.  But The Knack, while I liked them, weren’t one of my favorite bands, nor Get the Knack one of my favorite albums.

It may sound strange, but even as a typical American teenage male circa late 70s, I found myself mildly offended by the band.  In ways that I find pedestrian now, but were a bit of a shock at the time.  The main offender was the song “Good Girls Don’t,” which featured these lines:

“And she makes you want to scream/wishing you could get inside her pants” and

“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.”

This was nearly a Top 10 single!  Granted, there was a clean version for AM radio that substituted “wishing she was giving you a chance” and “when she puts you in your place” for the offending lines, but the FM rock stations, even in Pennsylvania, took perverse delight in playing the “dirty” album version.  Much like we constantly heard the line “who the fuck are you” in “Who Are You” by The Who.

It wasn’t any sort of anti-authoritarian thrill to hear these lines, although I surely dug The Who getting away with the “the F Word” cartel of naughtiness.  The Knack just seemed cheesy.  Cheesy in an Animal House sort of way.  Frat-boyish.  Obvious.

But you know something?  These days, I look back on The Knack’s improbably massive success in the late 70s, “Good Girls Don’t” in particular, and think they really nailed something in American culture at the time.  Their popularity was improbable because power-pop bands just never made it on that level in the later 70s.  I’m not sure if the term “power pop” even existed at that time.  There were Beatlesque pop bands earlier in the decade, like Badfinger or The Raspberries, who did have some level of success.  And you had The Cars who started out very pop, but always had a “new wave” edge to their sound and image.  And Cheap Trick who, aside from one massive Beatlesque hit single (“I Want You to Want Me”), veered towards a more hard rock sound.  British bands like Squeeze and Rockpile did put out perfect pop songs routinely, but again, were perceived more as "new wave" than pure pop bands.  And plenty of one-hit wonders.  (Let’s discount Big Star.  They were nowhere near as popular as their legend implies.  I didn’t know who they were at the time, and older kids who were teenagers in the early 70s didn’t either.)

At that time, it wasn’t unusual for Beatlesque pop bands to have one hit, then never quite get there again.  Think “Starry Eyes” by The Records or “Girl of My Dreams” by BramTchaikovsky.  The Knack breaking through on the level of a massive hit album with multiple hit singles, while it didn’t seem unusual at the time, was unusual.  The order of the day was disco (which admittedly was wearing itself out by 1979), the usual adult contemporary balladry of the 70s and AOR rock bands like Journey and REO Speedwagon.  (Many of which I grew to dislike at the time, but have since come around and recognized they were simply good rock bands with a knack for hit singles.  Eddie Money knew what he was doing, and he was good at it!)

It seemed like a bland time for music, but, boy, it wasn’t.  I even miss that sort of adult contemporary market created by songs like “What a Fool Believes” by The Doobie Brothers.  (It gets called Yacht Rock now, which is an apt description.)  Look at the Top 40 now.  Is there anything remotely like this?  Everything now that is popular on the singles chart is aimed squarely at kids, whereas a perusal of the Top 40 back then would leave you with quite a few artists getting into their 30s, making music that both kids and adults bought.  Cross-generational appeal is something I’ve learned to appreciate with good to great pop music … and it no longer exists on that level.

(I should also note that sales have been so depleted by the “music is free” revolution of the early 00’s that older rock artists will tend to have a “massive” hit album the week of release, selling a minor fraction of what they once did, followed by weeks of tailspin as every ageing fan of the artist rushed out and bought a copy on  release date.  Then again, if you look at the Billboard top albums, it’s over-run with country acts … which are essentially pop albums for older white fans who can stomach the stuff.)

That first Knack album was a one-off hit on that level, because their follow-up, ... But the Little Girls Understand, felt like a minor commercial and creative let-down.  The songs really weren’t that far off, but there wasn’t a breakout single like “My Sharona” and no follow-up singles like “Good Girls Don’t.”  It was a bit shocking how quickly they fell from that level as everything after that, while interesting and really not bad, just never got anywhere near the level of that first album.

I don’t think a pop song where the lead singer mentions a girl sitting on his face has ever been done, before or after.  (There is the notorious punk song, “Sit on My Face, Stevie Nicks,” but that was far from a hit.)  There was a brutal honesty about that first Knack album … this is how teenage guys were in the late 70s.  Horny.  Raised in a decade where getting laid was made to seem expected, and you were abnormal if you weren’t caught up in all this, even as a teenager.  I can recall the endless stream of mediocre soft-core porn movies that pre-dated the Porkies series, these odd movies about guys in high school trying to get laid or just get a girlfriend.  I can’t even remember most of the titles, but they always seemed to be on TV, either on HBO or floating around one of the New York or Philly stations on a weekend afternoon, albeit heavily edited  Lots of horizontally-striped polo shirts, shag hair cuts, wire-frame glasses and fat best friends with a big sense of humor.  (One thing I've learned about life that these movies try desperately to negate: the world doesn't spin around nerds.  They're not the profound voice of reason we should all listen to ... they're nerds.)

The Knack’s lead singer, Doug Fieger, caught quite a bit of shit from critics at the time for operating on this level of the supposedly leering pervert.  Which was probably true, but he was also channeling what it felt like to be a teenager and simply doing what pop rock songwriters had been doing for decades before him: giving the kids what they wanted, even if he was old enough to know better.  And they went nuts over songs about a frustrated guy dying to get laid … probably because the theme hit much closer to home than critics or other more tasteful adults knew or expected.

The band also caught hell for their marketing campaign, the album which looked suspiciously like it could have been a mid-60’s Beatles album cover.  But, again, this was a pure pop band.  These were their influences.  They were simply paying homage and trying to push things forward into that time of the 1970’s.  And they surely did!

I would wager anymore that “My Sharona” comes on a rock/oldies station, people think, this is so obvious, man, I was tired of hearing this song by 1979.  But I don’t think the song or band really was that obvious.  It’s a shame that bands like NRBQ who came along slightly earlier and were a pure-pop band without that teen appeal couldn’t have made it just as big.  “Ridin’ in My Car” or “I Want You Bad” were pop songs that should have been massive hits, but I guess because the band looked odd, were a little older and didn’t seem interested in playing the game the way The Knack were willing to, they never quite got their due despite being masters of their craft.  Not to knock The Knack.  They deserve a lot more credit than they’ve received over the years but will surely never get it, much like the protagonist of "Good Girls Don't" who is probably still waiting for someone to sit on his face.

1 comment:

big bad wolf said...


I read this one back to back with your piece on prog rock. doing so made me think how important place can be. i grew up in brockton, ma, a small city south of boston. we had all the yes albums and the ELP albums and the floyd albums, but it is also really true that we genuinely welcomed punk. the interest that yes and elp held for us waned as they got more and more self-serious. this was particularly so for my group because in boston, on the college stations, you could also hear miles. and compared to miles, yes and the rest sounded like they thought they were better than they really were. to have the clash and elvis and graham come along and blow that to pieces and to have right after that nick lowe and squeeze show us pop could be perfect and playful made us particularly disdainful of the progs (or maybe it was just a cheap way out of pretending that we liked king crimson).

what interests me is that we, and wbcn, by which we lived, loved the knack. why was that? i think for the exact reasons you give. and i think i was lucky to live in a place where i got to hear all this stuff on one station (bcn loved girl of my dreams and greg kihn too).

i have found, as i got older that either tastes set early or i just can't do prog. i love the early yes albums, and floyd eventually transcended prog as you say. the rest is a struggle for me, as it was when repeated on radiohead's the bends or beck's (and i normally love beck) seachange.

i don't know quite want it means. i recognize the musicanship on those prog albums but they don't reach me, and some, like kansas make me want to laugh and cry in despair alternately. but, as always your thoughts were compelling and fun to read