Dollar Records: Doug Fieger, 1952-2010

Sad news in the Dollar Records world last Sunday, as Knack frontman/songwriter/guitarist Doug Fieger passed away after courageous bouts with brain and lung cancer. Reviled by rock critics and self-proclaimed people-with-taste everywhere, The Knack had a huge hit in 1979 with their classic studio-punk, raging-horno stomper “My Sharona” and followed it up with the similarly sexist “Good Girl Don’t.” While the critics decried the mysogomy and L.A. musician’s band take on punk rock, the little girls screamed, and their excellent debut, Get The Knack hit #1 for six weeks.

Get The Knack has aged well, in part due to its raw, sponaneous presentation (thanks to producer Mike Chapman, responsible for the bubblegum side of proto-hair-band Sweet) . This is a hot club band playing live, fast, catchy pop music, and it’s not just the reprised Capitol rainbow inprint and Meet The Beatles homage on the cover that makes this feel like early Fab Four. It’s pop-for-pop’s sake, a fun album full unhinged performances and killer pop songs.

Fieger has two speeds. For the girls: the sweet, shy, crestfallen boy. For the guys: horny confindant who wants to help you get some from the girls who won’t give you any. Considering Fieger was 26 when Get The Knack came out, this should be disgusting…but Berton Averre’s guitar playing is sooooo sweet! His solos are caffienated explosions of genius, but it’s not all bombast. On Fieger’s absolutely stunning slow-one, “Maybe Tonight,” Averre rips the perfect little George Harrison lead. Were I a 14-year-old girl, I’d tear my hair out. Then I’d probably learn the solo.

If good playing makes for bad punk, I guess we’re supposed to hate the Attractions and The Rumour, too? I love this band. Bassist Prescott Niles bassically becomes Paul for the record. Notable session drummer Bruce Gary (who we also recently lost) seems much more at-home playing a cross between Ringo and Keith Moon than ruining postumous Hendrix records.

What’s not to love about Get The Knack? The songs are great, the band is hot, the recording is raw, Side Two is appropriately different (“Siamese Twins” shows the band is already progressing beyond its chosen idiom) and it’s one of the greatest power pop albums ever.

Of course, a massive backlash followed. Some claim that the success of The Knack ended the career of every power-pop band in L.A., as the genre had previously been considered an off-shoot of punk rock. Indeed, punk itself took a polarized, Stalinist turn in the eighties. As for The Knack, their New Beatles schtick began to backfire. When asked to be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, they declined unless they could also be the guest hosts. SNL was not convinced, and the band–an incredible live act–never appeared.

1981’s Round Trip (this record is a TRIP…and it’s round, like a record is round…get it?) is another story. If the Knack appeared at first preoccupied with the libidos of 14-year-olds, Round Trip fast-forwards to age 16 and cuts deeper. To borrow the title of their 1991 comeback album, this is Serious Fun.

A fusion streak emerges (and rather suits these L.A. hotshots) on “Lil’ Cal’s Big Mistake” and “Africa.” Meanwhile, back in the study hall, “She Likes The Beat” moves a heavy, upside-down reggae with my favorite lyric on the record (“She don’t like bullshit/She likes the beat!”). The sleeper is a bittersweet Averre ballad dating back to the band’s Whiskey days, “Pay The Devil (Ooo Baby Ooo)”, complete with a loping harp line and Sneaky Pete on pedal steel. It’s beautiful, perhaps my favorite Knack song.

Beatles worship obviously moves up a few albums. “We Are Waiting,” an eastern-tinged groove number, might sound like the Rutles in less capable hands. The Knack make it their own. The complicated closer, “Art War,” contains the lyric: No, I don’t give a shit about Warhol/And Oldenburg’s really gone soft in the brain/Now Dali just wants to be cornholed/With one of those crutches he sold to Man Ray. Weather or not The Knack hates modern art (or knows what it is) is open to interpretation. I’m tickled that this made it on a released record. Totally rocks.

A few tracks attempt to capture the caffeinated powerpop of album one. Some succeed (the music industry kiss-off “Another Lousy Day In Paradise” is a perfect maturation of the old sound). But it’s the music-nerd rock and ’67-Beatles-borrowing that most entertains. A decade and a half before Sloan’s One Chord To Another, The Knack had David Fricke pointing out to potential listeners which song was just “I’m Only Sleeping” backwards, and which was “Love To You.” (Or was that “Tomorrow Never Knows?” David??)

Like nearly all critical grenades lobbed at the Knack, accusations of unoriginality fail to acknowledge the Beatles themselves stole liberally from everything around them. For that matter, Lennon and McCartney were just as pedophilic on their American debut (Paul’s “I Saw Her Standing There;” John’s “Little Child,” etc.) and continued to write for primarily teenage or pre-teen audiences for at least three albums. And they were–like Fieger and Averre–grown fucking men. Big deal.

Two weeks after the release of Round Trip, The Knack disbanded as Fieger grappled with heroin addiction. The band would reunite (sans drummer Gary) for tours and albums in the ’90s and ’00s (I have both Zoom and Serious Fun on CD, but have yet to connect with either…), even touring with my upstate New York heroes, The Figgs.  If their home video, Live at The Rock-n-Roll Funhouse, is any indication, The Knack remained a smoking live act with a sense of humor more advanced than that of their detractors.

Beyond a flawless debut, a giant hit, a giant backlash, and an engaging third album, what’s Doug Fieger’s legacy? Years before hair metal, Fieger’s Knack combined punk’s velocity/economy, Zeppelin’s musicality, The Beatles’ melodicism, and America’s (the  nation, not the band) chauvinism to create cleverly offensive pop music that rocked hard and stuck to your brain. As with Sweet and Cheap Trick, The Knack hold up a helluva lot better than most of the crap they influenced.

The people who work for a living

Don’t need to ask questions from cradle to grave

They don’t need Di Carlo to tell them

What’s good and what’s bad and what’s really insane

–“Art War” by Doug Fieger and Berton Averre

RIP

(In honor of this weeks Dollar Records and the Knack being awesome, this button was purchased at the Great Escape today on a Dollar Records excursion. Neat!)

  • AD

    Thanks for highlighting Doug Fieger. I read about his passing in the Detroit Free Press, and getting this additional, detailed retrospective is nice.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Brett,

    Great tribute. It is missing one thing …..But The Little Girls Understand. Check out the DVD “Getting The Knack”. Did you know that they wanted the 1st record to be a double record? All of the 2nd record was written at the same time as the 1st. Capitol said no can do. Also, the last record, “Normal As The Next Guy” had some good stuff on it. I love Round Trip but you already know that.
    VAN GOGH DOES A FLIP IN HIS CASKET!!!!

    Gent

  • Brett

    Yeah, I wrote something about the second album, but NashvilleForFree edited it out for some reason. Not totally a believer in that record, but it does have a few good songs on it. (“I Want Ya” and “Can’t Put a Price On Love.”) Recording approach kinda leaves me cold, though.

    I’ll dig up Zoom for ya and I’ll check out Normal As The Next Guy.

    Brett

  • Emily

    Brett, I didn’t edit anything out, I put stuff behind the cut, though.