Monday, 18 May 2015 12:27

A KNACK FOR MUSIC AND SELF-PROMOTION

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On a Monday morning, in June 1979, a limousine pulled in front of Tower Records in West Covina, where I worked at the time. A man and two women exited the vehicle. The trio wore identical black t-shirts with white lettering. As they approached the entrance, I noticed the man carried several albums under his arms.


Having a limo stop at this Tower was unusual; having a limo stop at this Tower on a Monday morning was bizarre.

It was the time of day and week when employees often outnumbered customers. Staff typically used this quiet period to straighten piles of records, sweep the floor, and change the price labels on newly-discounted LPs. The store never looked neater than it did on Monday mornings.

The visitors walked right up to the guy at the front register – me – and asked to play their album on the store’s sound system. I could see their t-shirts read “Get the Knack,” which just happened to be the record’s title as well. I immediately recalled there had been a band with that name in the late 1960s. But I’m weird. How many other people had heard of the Knack? And if the group was obscure, as I suspected, what explained this release and the promo blitz?

I only needed to hear the first song on the album to learn the answer. I had no idea at that time that a rock band could seemingly claim the name of another rock group as its own, just as a few months later I had no idea you could get away with recording a song called “Rapper’s Delight” and poach the guitar riff from Chic’s “Good Times.”

The 1980s had arrived early.

For the next 40 minutes or so, as the album played over Tower’s excellent sound system, the party of three, who had been sent by Capitol Records, the Knack’s label, gave me and other employees t-shirts and albums, plus a black and white button that also read “Get the Knack.” In return, they asked the staff to wear the t-shirts. I complied immediately, adding the button for emphasis. At Tower Records, employees didn’t defy the requests of record label reps.

I recalled this visit from nearly 36 years ago upon learning that Omnivore Records reissued the Knack’s final three albums, starting with “Zoom,” which was first released in 1998.

Aside from the Monkees, the Knack had the swiftest ascent followed by the swiftest descent of any rock acts to ever emerge from the L.A. scene.

Both groups were maligned for seeming contrived and manufactured, especially in their obvious debt to the early Beatles. Still, both groups recorded songs that endured longer than even their critics would admit, by far.

In the entire span of my personal rock history, which began with the arrival of the Monkees in the mid-1960s and continues to this day, I remember maybe five albums that I immediately liked. When I hear an album the first time, I’m like the guy who doesn’t know anyone at the party. The lyrics are unfamiliar, and the riffs are strange. There’s nothing for me to latch on to.

Of course, I didn’t share my real feelings that day with the visitors from Capitol. Asked for an opinion, I told them the album sounded “cool,” the all-purpose compliment among hip people.

That same night, still wearing the Knack t-shirt, I sat down to a fast-food dinner in my apartment and turned on an FM rock station. The very first song featured a thump thump beat, carried forward by a moody, powerful bass line. Within seconds, a jumble of melodic, slashing guitar chords joined in. The lyrics made references to “my little pretty one,” and included typical male pleadings. The singer sounded like a veteran seducer trying to pick up an attractive woman in a club.

I knew I’d heard the song before, but I couldn’t remember when. After a few minutes of intense concentration, I figured it out. It was by the Knack. I looked at the album cover. The singer had been saying something about “My Sharona.”

There it was, on side one.

Over the next several hours, I must have heard “My Sharona,” 10 times, on various stations. Lying awake in bed, the song’s aural excesses slammed my senses, preventing me from falling asleep. A song that I didn’t know existed hours earlier.

The sonic speed that “My Sharona” took over the playlists seemed stunning. Even the Beatles, who also recorded for Capitol, had to wait until the next day to realize the impact of their first appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Fifteen years after that historic event, the record label had topped itself.

Unlike the success of the Beatles, however, the Knack’s swift rise did not spawn imitators. Based in Los Angeles, the group actually was something of an anomaly. At that time, the LA sound was primarily supercharged punk, Van Halen and its musical progeny, and the remaining vestiges of the singer/songwriter movement. The performers either had extremely long hair or none at all.

But a group whose stylish look resembled both the early Beatles and contemporary New Wave with a sound heavily influenced by the Byrds, the Kinks, and the Who didn’t conform to the prevailing trends. The Knack seemed contemporary and fresh while borrowing freely from Anglo-American rock, circa 1964-66.

“My Sharona” went gold in 13 days and sold about five million copies – one of the most successful debut singles ever. But the album was much more than one smash hit: “Your Number or Your Name,” “Good Girls Don’t,” and “Oh Tara” were excellent as well. Another couple of albums with material like that and the Knack might have become superstars.

Alas, it didn’t happen. By the time I left Tower Records, in February 1981, few people in music retail were talking about or listening to the Knack. The group’s second album, “but the little girls understand,” released in early 1980, did well, but feel far short of its predecessor’s phenomenal success. There was no longer any reason to pay special attention to the Knack.

An angry backlash against what was seen as the group’s crass commercialism didn’t help. In certain circles, it was cool to despise the Knack.

The LA punk scene, with its Anglo-influenced class consciousness, railed against the evils of corporatization, especially in the music industry. To this crowd, the Knack represented everything that punk was out to destroy. The Beatles never had to put up with anything like that.

Until the Omnivore reissue, I was unaware that the Knack had recorded anything after the 1980s. My interest in contemporary rock declined significantly in the 1990s, but I listened to Green Day, Oasis, the Stone Roses, and Blur. I wasn’t completely out of it during the Age of Clinton. Still, I missed the release of “Zoom.”

Listening to the album today, I’m reminded the bands that endure added just enough new touches to their original, wildly popular sound to avoid the charge that they were replicating themselves. “Pop is Dead,” the ironically-titled opening number, has the same hard-hitting rhythm section, melodic chord progressions, and understated yet confident vocals of the breakout LP. Still, the song projects an all-knowing vibe that wasn’t present the first time around.

Been there, done that. Now we’re back to do it as well, if not better.

“Can I Borrow A Kiss,” the second track, is a journey through hit single heaven: An easy groove, sparkling chords, and tender lyrics. Taken as a whole, the collection recalls the Beatles sound of the era of Paperback Writer” and “Rain,” British rock from the early 1970s, and ‘90s ballads.

“Zoom” exceeded my modest expectations by far. Having ignored the updated version of the Knack, I’m delighted to now catch up.

It’s sad to realize that Bruce Gary and Doug Fieger, original members of the band who have since passed away, missed this mini-rebirth.

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Tom Waldman

Tom Waldman is the host of “Rock and Roll” Stories, which airs each month in Southern California on television station KLCS. He’s co-author of “Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock and Roll from Southern California”, and author of “We All Want to Change the World: Rock and Politics from Elvis to Eminem”. When Tom was 10, in 1966, his favorite group was the Monkees. He still likes them a lot.

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