For about eight months in 1979, the Knack was a pop sensation. Its debut album, Get the Knack, sold 5 million copies, while “My Sharona” blared on car radios throughout the summer. The band’s brash sound and Fab Four affectations seemed to incite Knackmania overnight.
Then, suddenly, it was all over. The records stopped selling, and the girls stopped screaming. The Knack’s strict no-interview and no-TV policy backfired; critics dismissed the band’s Beatlesque packaging as shallow hype and attacked singer-guitarist Doug Fieger for the sexist arrogance of his lyrics. By November 1980 the Knack had fallen apart. Although the band reunited to cut Round Trip, the Knack gave its final performance at an Acapulco nightclub in December 1981.
To this day, Fieger, who just turned thirty-four, defends the Knack as “a legitimate rock & roll band from the streets of Hollywood. We came up through the club scene and had legitimate songs, real musicianship.” The fatal flaw, he says, was the poisonous, ultimately self-destructive cynicism evident in promotional gambits like the group’s blatant Beatles-on-Ed Sullivan pose in the photograph on Get the Knack‘s back cover. “I have to take responsibility for that,” he adds contritely.
Fieger traces the beginning of the end to as far back as the Knack’s first big hometown show in 1979, following the release of Get the Knack. “It was bedlam, girls jumping onstage. It was the first time we realized we were a successful group. But afterwards, I didn’t really want to enjoy the moment. I wanted to take drugs. We realized we were happening, but my self-destructive nature was also right there.”
“Doug created a massive cancer that was slowly eating the band up,” says drummer Bruce Gary. During one tour of Italy, Gary, bassist Prescott Niles and lead guitarist Berton Averre threatened to punch Fieger out because “he was being a real schmuck,” says Gary. “We pinned him against the wall and told him to shape up or we’d beat him up.” For Gary, Niles and Averre, the ignoble fall of the Knack was a shock from which they slowly but stoically recovered. They briefly played together as the Game before turning to more lucrative studio work and road gigs. Gary, a seasoned session pro, toured with Jack Bruce and Bob Dylan and, with Averre, backed up Bette Midler on her No Frills LP. Niles, who gives music lessons to supplement his income, played with punkette Josie Cotton and recently did some work with George Harrison for the soundtrack of Shanghai Surprise. Last year, the three musicians reunited to form a band called the Front, with actor Steven Bauer (Thief of Hearts) on vocals. For Fieger, the Knack’s fall from grace was nothing compared to his own. “I hit bottom right after the Knack broke up and then did a China syndrome. I went right through the bottom.”
Marriage and divorce followed in quick succession, but his appetite for self-destruction remained constant. “I was a kind of sewer for drugs and alcohol. Some nights, if I wanted to be Hank Williams, I was into bourbon. If I wanted to be Jim Morrison, it would be vodka and cocaine.” Half of the $3 million he made from the Knack went to taxes, then he lost a bundle on a house in the Hollywood Hills that flooded before he got it insured.
Fieger still lives in L.A, in a rented house paid for by songwriting royalties. He describes himself as “a recovering drug addict and alcoholic.” He’s also stopped smoking and has taken up weight training (he says he can bench-press 240 pounds) and going to Lakers games.
Last year, Fieger made amends with the other band members, and the Knack got together for a friendly jam session several months ago, ripping through a few of the old hits. A reunion, though, seems unlikely. The Front has stirred up interest from record companies, and Fieger is writing songs for a solo project and collaborating with Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe. He also hopes to do more work with his Detroit pals Was (Not Was). “I’m trying to look at what I want out of a career,” Fieger concludes. “A slow build is definitely preferable to what happened the last time.”