Remembering Doug Fieger, the power-pop maestro who had the Knack
Of all the rock critics working, I think my former Chicago Tribune colleague Greg Kot best defined the struggle of the music critic: to walk that fine line between being a judge and a fan. Music is an art, so you can’t get too clinical about it; a critic has to find herself emotionally invested at some level, or why write? Yet a critic can’t be too much the fan, or else risk going too far in the direction of cheerleader.
I try to walk that balance. But in a few cases, the musical heroes of my childhood cause me to break that rule. When I do, it’s because they so changed the course of my life that I admit, straight out, that my vision remains skewed. And with the Knack’s Doug Fieger (second from left on the album cover), I stand accused of bias. Willfully, joyfully and unabashedly accused.
This past summer, thanks to Sharona Alperin (yes, of “My Sharona” fame), Fieger and I were introduced and he sat for me for an extensive interview, even though the brain cancer that claimed him on Feb. 14 was giving him one hell of a tough day. Still, he seemed ever optimistic, and Strat-through-a-Vox sharp, quoting Shakespeare at one point, and mounting a well-reasoned argument against the music critics of old who misunderstood the Knack. It may be the last extensive interview he gave. I don’t know.
In 1979, when “Get the Knack” stormed to the top of the music charts, the Knack were accused of being Beatles rip-off artists, of making prefabricated pop. What the critics didn’t know, and what Fieger strove to make clear to me, was how the band worked ceaselessly, playing close to 200 shows of the material that would become “Get the Knack” before a note was ever committed to tape.
Singing and playing the whole album in the studio—yes, live—The Knack recorded their debut in a few short weeks. “My Sharona” was mixed in 15 minutes. Yes, 15 minutes. Certain producers today spend 15 hours trying to get the perfect kick drum sound. Compare today’s Pro Tooled, airbrushed pop to the Knack’s first effort, made by four musicians rehearsed to the point of airtight precision. I’d argue in that respect, the recording technique behind “Get the Knack” had more in common with any early Ramones album than, say, something prefab.
Yes, the Knack sang about adolescent crushes and sticky-sweet stuff. But as Fieger also explained to me, the songs came from an almost singular source: his deep infatuation with Alperin. Sharona, a teenager at the time, became his muse, and thus inspired almost every song on the record. Fieger was in his 20s at the time, and fell in love hard and fast. He described their love-lust as burning like a bright flame, one he sensed could not last. Lucky for us it still left a luminous vapor trail in the rock and roll firmament.
When the follow-up album “But the Little Girls Understand” was released, you could well have titled it “But the Critics Don’t Understand.” Rock’s intelligentsia pounced again, saying the Knack had now copied themselves. But how could that be? It was recorded at the same time as “Get the Knack,” with the band intending to release a double-album debut, which would’ve been a first for a pop-rock band. Capitol vetoed the idea, and Fieger’s clever stab at history bit the dust.
After doing the interview, I emailed with Doug, prayed for him and tried as best as I could to cheer him up. I let him know in no uncertain terms what a difference he made during my adolescent years, when songs from his first two albums routinely peppered the set list of my high school band. When we talked he seemed tired, but unbowed; he’d made it much longer with the cancer than others in his condition. He even confided to me about coming back and touring again in 2010. And like a dork, I asked him how much he’d charge me to record in his home studio.
Now he’s gone, fled to the music of the spheres. I feel the loss, but also the joy of knowing that “Get the Knack” is there for me to cue up anytime I need to hear it. If you don’t have the disc, go buy it. It’s a power-pop masterpiece, every song a winner. And because it was recorded live—with Fieger singing all his lead vocals in the studio as he slammed down his rhythm guitar tracks—it sounds as fresh in 2010 as it did in 1979.
In my next blog, I will run interview material with Fieger, some of which I promised to keep confidential until the appropriate time. As for being a Knack fan, I make no apologies. It’s one of the perks of being a musician-blogger-freestyle writer in the 21st Century. You can wear your heart on your sleeve from time to time, and not worry about some editor’s errant red pen crushing a hole through it.