Gary James' Interview With Doug Fieger of
If you were listening to the radio in the Summer of 1979, there was just no way you could avoid hearing "My Sharona". That song was so "hot"...and still is for that matter.
The group that recorded the song was called The Knack. Their debut album "Get The Knack" was one of the fastest albums to first go Gold (13 days) and later platinum (7 weeks). It sold six million records worldwide. "My Sharona" entered the Hot 100 on June 23rd, 1979 and reached number one nine weeks later on August 25th, 1979, where it remained for six weeks.
Billboard named "My Sharona" as the number one single of 1979. Today, it still ranks as one of the biggest selling singles of the Rock era. We talked with Doug Fieger, lead vocalist / guitarist for The Knack.
Q - I understand The Knack has just returned from a tour of Japan. How were you received there?
A - Oh, we've always been received really, really well there. Extremely well.
Q - So, this is not the first time you've been over there.
A - Oh, no. It's the first time we've been over there in a long time. We were very successful in Japan. It was one of our most successful markets.
Q - Do you have a record deal these days?
A - No. We release records, but we just make distribution deals. We have our own label. Everything online. The worldwide web has changed most everything.
Q - Why do you think The Knack continue to enjoy widespread popularity?
A - Well, I don't know how widespread the popularity is. We enjoy popularity because the music is good and because it has stood the test of time. Twenty seven years later, you're still wanting to talk to me.
Q - But you know, there are some bands that were around about the same time as you were, like Sweet, and nobody talks about them anymore.
A - I don't know the reason for that particular band's fortune or lack of it. But, in our case, I think it's the music that we make and made is timeless. It may remind you of the time you heard it. All great music does that. It doesn't sound like it came from a particular time. It's not dated. It's classic in the sense of its style. It could've been made thirty years ago or forty-five years ago actually, or it could've been made last week. And, I think the level of our craft was such that we're appreciated, at leased by fans if not critics. Critics have never appreciated our band.
Q - That's right.
A - We're appreciated by fans because of the level of our craft. The songs speak to them in a personal way. And they do it in an artful (way) and honest way. That's why. But, I think that's true of anything that stands the test of time as our music has. And it also proves that the critics are wrong. In a great sense, it proves how short sighted and how prejudice critics generally are, or their taste rather than for what the quality of the music really is.
Q - The critics were probably upset with the way The Knack were posed on the back of your first album. It was reminiscent of The Beatles.
A - It was meant to. It was a joke. It was a tongue and cheek joke. If we had sold 50,000 copies, which is what Capitol expected to sell on our first album, which is why they wouldn't let us do a double album, which is what we wanted to do. The first and second albums were meant to be one album. They wouldn't let us do that. They made us split them into two albums basically. If we had only sold 50,000 copies instead of the two and a half million in America and the more than two and a half million outside of America, almost six million copies we sold at the time; if you sell six million copies, people aren't gonna look at you in the same way as if sell 50,000 copies. There're not gonna cut you the same slack. And also, I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we came from Los Angeles. We didn't come from one of the "hipper" centers...New York or London or Akron.
Q - I thought Los Angeles was "hip".
A - Not to the music cognoscent at the time. L.A was laid back. It continues to this day, the local newspapers here in L.A. rarely give good reviews to local bands...ever. And makes a point of it. But, anything out of New York or Cleveland or Seattle or Akron or London or wherever it may come from...because it's not L.A. That was a big thing at the time. And also, we didn't have a press relationship. The press didn't make us. We happened on our own basically through the music and through radio. They didn't like that.
Q - Since your first album was released in 1979 and John Lennon was still alive at that time, did John or any of The Beatles ever contact you?
A - They never contacted us. Paul gave an interview that I actually have on vinyl, when vinyl used to still be around. They would re-produce interviews for radio play on vinyl and distribute them. I have an interview that McCartney did where he talks about us and calls us "a good little band", which was nice. By the way, he called The Beatles "a good little band." (laughs) When we made our third album, which was produced by Jack Douglas, who produced Lennon's last album, "Double Fantasy", he told us that John was well aware of us and a big fan of the album...the first album.
Q - What a great feeling that must be!
A - Absolutely. It was wonderful. Subsequently, I've become really good friends with Ringo and he also has expressed admiration for the first album and the drumming on the first album. I remember back in the day, Bruce our drummer met him and he asked for Knack buttons for his kids. So, it was pretty cool.
Q - You recorded your first album in eleven days for seventeen thousand dollars. That's the way rock 'n roll is supposed to happen, isn't it? There was a time in Rock history when bands spent months in the studio.
A - Well, it just depended. "Sgt. Pepper" took four months, but it was worth it. (laughs) It was pretty good.
Q - That may well be the exception.
A - For us, we were a "live" band making music that was basically "live" music. There was no need for us to do it longer. We were ready to make a record. And we play and sing at the same time. We didn't do a lot of overdubs. Berton played his lead guitar part. We can play, that's the other thing. The band is actually fairly competent on their instruments.
Q - Something you don't find today.
A - Well, it's probably true, but I don't know what to say about that. I can only speak for us. We were well rehearsed. We'd done 180 shows in that first year and we were ready to make a record.
Q - You honed your craft in the L.A. club scene in 1978 - 1979. Does that mean you had to "pay to play" in some of the clubs?
A - We never paid to play, but we never got paid either, except for the very last set of gigs we did at The Starwood. We finally got paid. It was a Christmas weekend. We got paid fairly well I remember. The place was packed, but that was the only time we made a dime.
Q - Were you playing covers, originals or a mix?
A - Our first and second albums, that was our set.
Q - You actually were in Detroit first?
A - I grew up in Detroit, yeah. I had a band called Sky, which I have a funny story about. I wrote a letter to the producer of The Rolling Stones and Traffic and Blind Faith, a guy named Jimmy Miller, when I was in high school. I said if you're ever in Detroit, come and hear my band. He answered the letter and came to my house and signed us. A week after I graduated from high school, he took us to London and we recorded our first album. About six months later, he took us back and we recorded our second album and it was pretty great. That's how I got into show business. I was seventeen years old. That band broke up unfortunately and it took me a number of years before I put The Knack together.
Q - That story sounds like a dream come true and probably something that wouldn't happen today.
A - It happened to me. So, I can't speak about that. It's possible that it wouldn't happen today. I don't know. There aren't very many producers around today of the caliber of Jimmy Miller, I'll tell you that. But, I don't know.
Q - At one point, you had Bruce Springsteen sit in with you?
A - Well, he came down to see us as a number of people did. There was a two week period where a bunch of stars came down to see us and asked to get onstage with us. So, we let 'em. First Ray Manzarek from The Doors. Then Eddie Money. Eddie came down and brought Tom Petty and so it was the two of them. Then Stephen Stills. Then the last of the group from this two week period was Bruce Springsteen. He got up onstage with us and jammed. That's all. We jammed on a couple of Bo Diddley songs.
Q - What club was that?
A - The Troubadour.
Q - You signed with Capitol Records because they were The Beatles' label or because they gave you the best deal...or both?
A - Neither. We signed with them because we believed they could do the best job for us. We set a price for what we needed and what we wanted to sign. We had done sort of a budget on what we would need for a two year run if we didn't sell an album. What we would need to function as a band with salaries and recording. We set a price. We had fifteen record companies interested in signing us. If they couldn't meet that price, then we weren't interested in them. We wouldn't take more than that price 'cause we didn't want to get in debt to a record company to a point. We didn't know if we would sell any records. We believed we would, which is why Capitol wouldn't let us do a double album. The first and second album were meant to be on one album and they said "no, you can't do a double album because we don't know if this is gonna sell. A double album is really expensive and we're not gonna do it." So, we set a price. Secondly, the people from Capitol came down to see the band a number of times. One guy came down to twenty shows of ours, the guy who signed us who is still one of my best friends. He's not in the record business anymore, but he was an A&R man at Capitol. He just loved the band. Then he brought all the people, including the President. Everybody from the President on down to the secretaries came. They just happened to have been The Beatles' label and The Beach Boys' and Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Nat King Cole's label and Andy Griffith's label for cryin' out loud. The Human Beinz were on Capitol. There were a lot of acts that were on Capitol. The Beatles were one of them.
Q - And don't forget Glen Campbell.
A - Yeah. And Bob Seger, who I knew from Detroit. And The Steve Miller Band was on Capitol. So, it wasn't just The Beatles. The Beatles are their most famous band obviously. People got fixated about The Beatles because of that back album cover. That's all I can say.
Q - I understood what was going on and didn't take it all that seriously.
A - Yeah. It was a tongue in cheek joke. The band was really much more influenced musically by The Who and The Kinks than we ever were by The Beatles. "Maybe Tonight" and "That's What The Little Girls Do" on the first album, are vaguely Beatlesque. But, nothing else on the first album is remotely Beatlesque. "My Sharona", "Good Girls Don't", "She's So Selfish"...none of those are Beatlesque. And the second album is the same. There's one song on the second album that's Beatlesque. We were tarred with that brush and we've had to answer these questions for twenty-seven years. (laughs)
Q - For that first album, the group didn't give interviews?
A - We gave interviews to radio. We did not give press interviews, or very few.
Q - Was that to create some type of mystique about the band?
A - Well, that was our manager's idea. He was very inexperienced and it was a mistake. It created a lot of bad will. But then again, the press was not disposed to liking us anyway, so...
Q - No wonder I couldn't get an interview with you guys back in 1979!
A - Yeah, well Capitol also, at least in California didn't have a real press department. So, that was another problem. (laughs)
Q - After The Knack broke up in 1981, what did you do for a living?
A - Well, I made a lot of money, so, it wasn't like I had to do anything for a living. I basically spent my time recovering from the experience that I'd had. (laughs) We didn't necessarily break up. That was the story, but we took a break. It turned out to be a four year break. Basically what happened is, I just didn't want to play with the drummer anymore. I'd had it pretty much with dealing with him. The other guys didn't feel that way and so we parted company. Three and half years later we did a benefit for a friend of ours who was dying of cancer. We all got together for that purpose 'cause she asked us to. We weren't going to deny her. We put aside our egos and our problems. But, our problems still existed. I told the other guys, "look it, if you want to continue doing this, we gotta get another drummer." They said "no, no, no, please...Bruce will be fine. He'll be OK. He's changed." But, of course he hadn't. Finally they came to me and said "we want to continue doing this, but we understand why we can't keep doing it with Bruce." So, we got a new drummer and then we've pretty much been a band ever since. Bruce has not been involved since that time, which I believe is 1986.
Q - Would it be wrong to ask what the problem with Bruce was?
A - I find him to be...he's got certain psychological issues that are difficult for me to deal with. God bless him. He should live and be well. But, he doesn't want to change and nothing I can do can change him. Since basically I write the songs, I sing the songs, drummers are more replaceable, as has been proven with our band. We've had six different drummers and it's always been "The Knack". I believe our best album was recorded with Terry Bozzio, an album called "Zoom", which we've re-released. The reason is we had to buy it back from the record company 'cause they did nothing with it. And now we have our first replacement drummer back with the band, a guy named Pat Torpry who Billy Sheehan, the bass player saw playing with us, stole him and they started Mr. Big. They had a lot of success, especially in the Far East.
Q - How long did it take you to write "My Sharona"?
A - "My Sharona" was written in about fifteen minutes.
Q - That's pretty fast.
A - From my remembrance, it took a number of years before...Berton had the lick, but that's all he had. He didn't have anything else. All he had was that first lick. He would show it to me every once in a while and say "let's write song around this." I just didn't feel it was ready in me. That process, from my remembrance, took a couple of years. Berton's remembrance, it was about eight months. But, I seem to remember it as being two years. But, even so, it took a circumstance for it to come together. It was the right circumstance once it was written. But, when it was written, it was written very quickly. Now,there's a song on "Zoom" that took twenty-five years to write. I started it and I'd go back to it and I would go back to it and change it. Finally, twenty-five years later, I finished it.
Q - So, you're writing the music and lyrics.
A - Yeah, it depends. Sometimes I write the music and lyrics with Berton. Sometimes I write the music and lyrics alone. Sometimes Berton writes the music and I write the lyrics. Sometimes I write the music and Berton will write a little bit of the music and a little bit of the lyrics. It just depends. Like "She's So Selfish", I wrote the song. I just needed a bridge. I called Berton up and said "I can't think of a bridge." I played him basically the song. He said "I'll go in and write." In the meantime, I wrote a bridge for it. Then he called me back and said "I have a bridge for it." I said "I already have one." He played my his and I liked both of them. So, we put both bridges in. It's got both bridges. It's all different. Every song is different and every song has its own life and it's own truth.
Q - This woman Sharona...she's still around today?
A - Yes she is. She's a real estate agent. One of the most successful real estate agents in Southern California actually.
Q - Do people come up to her and start singing "My Sharona"?
A - Everyday.
Q - I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not.
A - For her, it's been very good. She's very proud of it. It's been very good for her. She never complained.
Q - How long do you see yourself playing in The Knack?
A - As long as it's still fun. It's been fun for me. If it ain't fun, don't do it. I don't have to do it. I've made an incredible living. I feel very lucky and blessed to have been as successful and to continue being successful. Twenty-seven years later, people are still wanting to talk to us, still wanting to see and hear us. I think the band is better than we've ever been and not a lot of bands who are twenty-seven years old can say that, but it's true of us. Any fans who come to see the show who you might ask would say the same thing. If they saw us in the old days, they would say we're a better band today. As long as that's the truth, we'll keep doing it. As soon as the fun or the quality isn't what I believe it should be, then we won't do it anymore.
Q - Could something like The Knack happen again?
A - It didn't, so I don't know. But, the truth is that the record business is so different nowadays. When kids come up to me and say "give me some advice." I say "get out of the business." (laughs)
Q - You're not the first to say that. Seems I've been hearing more and more of that sentiment.
A - Well, that's what I say. I say get out of the business. I mean, do it because you love doing it. There's nothing wrong with doing it because you love doing it. But, if you're doing it because you want to make a lot of money or because you see it as a road to fame and riches, I would dissuade that. That wasn't the reason we did it, but there was a lot less of a corporate mentality, even when we were doing it and it was still very corporate when we were doing it. I think our time was the last gasp of creating in the record business, the late 70s, early 80s.
(Doug Fieger died February 14th, 2010, after a six-year battle with cancer. He was 57.)