'My Sharona' co-writer shares on his rock star riches
Thanks to Sharona, WalletPop landed an interview with Doug Fieger, the founder of The Knack and co-writer of that song. Among other things, we wanted to know how a timeless hit changes a musician's bottom line. To find out, and learn what Doug has been up to since his power-pop masterpiece "Get The Knack" ruled the Summer of 1979, read on ... and if you like, imagine that slammin' "Sharona" drumbeat in your head.
WalletPop: Thirty years after it hit No. 1, "Get the Knack" still sounds as fresh as the time you recorded it. It's aged much better than other records of that era. Why do you think so?
Fieger: I believe that our recordings are timeless. They don't have any schmaz that makes them sound dated. "Get the Knack" could've certainly been recorded last year. We recorded "My Sharona" and "Good Girls Don't" [another hit] in one day, in one take, with a live lead vocal. We went from beginning to end of the song, and that was it. [Guitarist] Berton Averre and I put in the background vocals, and it was mixed in about 15 minutes total. The whole album took 11 days to record and two days to mix.
WalletPop: So you could've went back and and re-cut the lead vocals, but you didn't. Everyone else does. How come?
Fieger: I sang the lead vocals live in the studio, and I always have. That's the way I learned how to do it. If you're in a band, you sing and play at the same time.
WalletPop: As a musician, I've always wondered: If you're fortunate enough to write one super-smash hit, how does it change your financial outlook? What has "My Sharona" done for your bankbook?
Fieger: I continue to get very, very sizable royalty checks to this day. I own my house; I own a very nice expensive car, and have owned a series of them. I travel whenever I like, and by anybody's reckoning am very well off -- even though the record came out 30 years ago. And that's pretty wonderful for me. So I'm basically retired. I don't have to work. But I love to make records.
WalletPop: We got a lot of response to the Sharona piece on WalletPop. A lot of Knack fans had no idea she was a real person! She says she inspired many of the songs on "Get the Knack." How so?
Fieger: She's on the cover of the second album, and that was her on the single sleeve of "My Sharona." When I met Sharona, I was hit with a thunderbolt. I got introduced by my girlfriend at the time. And I fell madly and instantly in love with her. I chased her for a year; she already had a boyfriend. I have songs on my 2000 solo album that I had written about her. And there's a song I wrote on the 1999 "Zoom" album called "You Gotta Be There" that I wrote about her. It's on the solo album, too, in a stripped down-form.
WalletPop: And yet the love relationship didn't last. Care to clue us in?
Fieger: We were together for almost four years and it burned really hot. We are still really good friends. But things that burn that hot are bound to cool off. She was very young, and I had a lot of changes to go through on my own -- a lot of living to do. I had to find my own way and even though she inspired my creativity in a very particular way that I needed at that time, other things had not happened for me on a personal level. And I knew that both of us had to move on. We both knew it, we came to it mutually. And it's never been acrimonious. We see each other regularly and talk to each other all the time.
WalletPop: Critics were not kind to The Knack. They accused you of being Beatles imitators, of being prefabricated. Yet before "Get the Knack" came out, you'd played more than 180 dates up and down the West Coast and built your following through hard work. How do you respond to those who didn't take you or the music seriously?
Fieger: That feeling of The Knack not being cool, which emanated from certain quarters, became a real albatross. And yet we had all the earmarks of things that critics love -- except that we weren't failures, and didn't sell100 records.
I am always amazed by the critics championing bands that never had a hit record. That's the whole ridiculousness of it. If five music critics like it, and that's all, it's like, "Oh, we're cool. We know something you don't know. We're the Cool Five." That's so sad. There was a point in time in the late '60s and early '70s with Rolling Stone and Creem and [rock critic] Lester Bangs, where it became politicized. It was almost like, if it was popular -- and makes a lot of money for these people -- then that makes it less valid: "Up the proletariat" and all that. Now, they're the establishment we have to march against.
WalletPop: What have you been up to recently in terms of the music career?
Fieger: The Knack has been playing, spring summer and fall, and I'm planning on doing the same in 2010. My last gig was last October; we haven't played in a year. I was dealing with a lot of stuff this summer. But right now I'm recording an album of Hank Williams songs. He was the guy I first heard when I was four or five years old, and I loved. [Cars lead guitarist] Elliot Easton, [Blondie drummer] Clem Burke and I have been working on a project for years; we only have three songs. It's called Zen Cruisers. And I have a studio in my house; I produce bands when I get a chance.
WalletPop: The music business is going through massive changes, with downloading and the Internet. Many record companies are in their death throes. What do you make of the changes?
Fieger: I don't make anything of it. There is no music business as far as I can tell anymore, and they deserve whatever they got in a negative sense. Those people who ran the music business, good riddance to them. There is a great quote by Hunter S. Thompson: "The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." That's what I think, except that I don't think there is a good part. The guys who ran it got greedy, and it wasn't as if they weren't greedy to start with -- they got even greedier. Every four years, they come up with some new technology and everybody has to replace all their records. If it wasn't for the Beatles and the Beach Boys catalogs, EMI/Capitol wouldn't exist.
WalletPop: From what I understand, there's a fascinating money and music history story behind "Get the Knack" -- how it was supposed to be the first double-album debut in pop music history.
Fieger: The Mothers of Invention "Freak Out" was a double-album debut. That's what I wanted ours to be, and Capitol said, "No no no, people are not going to pay eight bucks," or whatever it was going to be. So we split the record up; [producer] Mike Chapman arbitrarily chose the songs that would be on the first album, and what was left over was put on the follow up album, "...but the Little Girls Understand." It was essentially "Get the Knack, Part II." But Capitol was dead set against it.
WalletPop: At the height of your fame and acclaim, did you make any rich rock star dream purchases?
Fieger: In 1980, Abbey Road Studios was getting rid of all their old equipment. I was dumbfounded. And because we were hot shit at that time, the hottest act on their label [EMI/Capitol owned Abbey Road], they knew what a fan I was. They contacted me and said, "We're selling all this stuff, do you want to buy?" So I bought the original mixboard out of Studio 2. I don't know what I would've done with it, or where I would've put it in my house. But it was the board the Beatles recorded everything on up until "Abbey Road."
I think I paid £18,000 [pounds], which was about $40,000. Then I tried to find someone who would ship it over, and it turned out it would cost $80,000 to ship it over, in 1980 dollars! So I put it in storage, and eventually sold it back.
WalletPop: You don't sound like a person who lives in the past. But do you ever worry about how you, and The Knack, will be remembered?
Fieger: I ignored all of that all my life, and still do. I did what I did and I sold millions of records. I have a song that will live forever. I had a bunch of hits. I made a ton of money. And here we are, 31 years later, and you're interviewing me because of the band. How often does that happen? The Knack's records were well crafted. And I don't have to say much more because the music speaks for itself.