As a disclaimer, this album isn’t actually ‘mine’ – or at least I didn’t buy it. My brother grabbed it back in 1979 and it got heavy play from him that I honestly have a hard time separating which songs were actually popular on radio. When my parents were getting ready to move out of the first house they had bought when were just little kids and move south, they packed up all of my large record collection and I grabbed it in boxes and bags and moved it into a closet in our house.
Recently I’ve been pulling out records for my ‘Vinyl Re-Visions’ series, and while doing so came across a few that weren’t mine, including Steely Dan’s Aja and this record. Aja is one that I have digitally already and listen to on occasion, but I hadn’t really heard The Knack much in more than three decades. Let’s take a walk through the record!
‘Get The Knack’ is such a slice of late 70′s pop music that I can’t imagine listening to it any other way than on vinyl. It is clearly post-disco but without being reactionary; it is also completely separate from the arena rock, prog rock, funk, punk and fusion trends that had dominated much of the decade.
The album features six songs per side with a pace that simply never lets up! There were two major hits – My Sharona and Good Girls Don’t – but the Buddy Holly cover ‘Heartbeat’, ‘Frustrated’, and a butchered edit of ‘(She’s So) Selfish’ got considerable radio play. Here is a quick look at each of the songs:
Let Me Out – They always say to start your album with a strong hook, and this definitely works here. I don’t really know what the lyrics mean, but there is clear sexual innuendo all over the place. It sets the pace – high energy music with a mid-60s tone but late 70s sexuality and aggressive feel to the lyrics. Put further into 1979 context, it has a raw punk feel but with actual musicianship, but also without the over-produced feel of disco and arena-rockers like Styx, etc.
Your Number or Your Name – Quite simply: stalker song. He sees her through a window and is now obsessed, but can’t call her because he has no idea who she is. Then he sees her in a variety of places and tries to make contact, but ends up hanging back and staring. Decent mid-tempo rocker, but not one of the more memorable songs … nor one of the worst. It is a catchy song that you will never quite forget – I couldn’t have named it, but once I read the back cover of the album the tune was running through my head!
Oh Tara – Starting with a song that implies wanting to ‘step out’ on a girlfriend who isn’t ‘putting out’, and going into a stalker song … the Knack took some knocks for being ever so slightly misogynistic. But this is a pure love song of adoration and admiration. The tune is once again catchy and bouncy – and both Berton Averre on lead guitar and Prescott Niles on bass have stand-out moments that illustrate the solid musicianship that the group could deliver. In the post-Yes/Rush/Van Halen era, impressing musically was difficult, but compared to punk rockers these guys were brilliant.
(She’s So) Selfish – A basic rocker, but one of the best songs on the album. This is also where the roots coming not from the Beatles but more from the Kinks and The Who are very clear! This song is nasty enough that it still made my kids eyes go wide in a couple of places! Total teen sexual frustration anthem – using all of three chords! It lets the groove build for nearly a minute, then launches right in with the lament “baby gonna shut you down. she got a funny little face – but her body don’t quit” … and so on. One funny thing is that after a couple of plays on vinyl I ended up digitizing the album (my wife called me a ‘quitter’ … but was also tired of me replaying it again and again) to iTunes. My direct rip went to my first-gen iPod Touch in the car, but I did a good enough job with the MP3 info that it got ‘matched’. What I noticed was that in the first verse my iPad played the ‘radio edit’ which altered the line to ‘she don’t give a ____ about anybody else but herself’. The reason I find it amusing is that neither one sounds ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ because I know the album well but also heard the song a ton on the radio back then.
Maybe Tonight – This song wants to be a gorgeous Paul McCartney ballad, and looking at the harmonic structure it certainly has the potential – yet it ends up as a soporific snoozer. I can only guess that the song simply tries too hard to sound like 1967 Beatles rather than 1979 Knack. I found myself drifting off when it was playing and thinking about how someone could easily transform it into a ‘Great American Songbook’ style arrangement that would be excellent – though I think the lyrics would have to go. Maybe as an instrumental … whatever COULD be done now, back in 1979 I always thought this was the worst song – and I still believe that now. The only two reasons I left it on were that you had to manually lift the needle, and well … the next song!
Good Girls Don’t – Yet another song that had to be heavily altered for radio, but I can’t remember all of the replacement lyrics particularly for ‘get inside her pants’ (think it was ‘take her to the dance’?) and ’till she’s sitting on your face’. This is another one that rendered my kids silent, as the sweet harmonies told you that ‘Good Girls Don’t … but I DO! This is another bright uptempo rocker that echoes the best of the mid-60s, which again was very refreshing in a time of 70s fatigue. Great song then, still rocks now!
My Sharona – For me, most Weird Al songs eclipse the original – even songs like American Pie that I heard millions of times in the 70s and 80s is now forever linked to Star Wars. Complicated is now Constipated, and so on. But My Sharona remains intact, impervious to the vagaries of time and parody. It isn’t my favorite song on the album (you’ll find THAT out later) but it is an excellent, hard-hitting song that has an infectious beat, great melody and just flows.
The other interesting thing my kids noted was how on a record you have two ‘leads’ – the first song on each side. It seems obvious to me, but they were remarking on how the 7th song on a CD is sort of ‘buried’, but on the album you have two chances to either impress or lose your audience. So by leading with ‘Let me out’ and ‘My Sharona’ you get two amazingly strong hooks that are radio-friendly and ensure you won’t take off the record.
Heartbeat – If you want a great example of WHY this album was such a hit, listen to this song. It is a Buddy Holly classic, but played with a stronger edge and harder hitting feel that really puts the lyrics into a modern context without altering any of the phrasing. It is a sort of post-modern take on a classic that retains the classic feel but never feels dated.
Siamese Twins (The Monkey and Me) – I generally assume this is about drugs – y’know, ‘monkey on the back’ or what not … but at this point I have no clue. At the end there is a load of laughing in the studio and the song itself comes off more like nonsense lyrics. But the hook is amazingly catchy, the song structure has you moving … so who cares that at the end my kids asked ‘what WAS that song about’? It has a unique mid-tempo feel and is distinct from anything else on the record.
Lucinda – Given the dominant themes of rejection and unrequited love on the album, this song about getting cut down and hurt is no surprise. But you really have to put it into the context of the late 70′s – the image was that EVERYONE was having non-stop casual sex, which would make a teen who was having a lonely weekend feel even WORSE! Here is the opening line ‘she hides behind a smile … she lies’. But the ringing chords, the ‘Every Little Thing’-style kettle drum part, and the modal harmonic structure makes this a favorite for the whole family.
That’s What the Little Girls Do – Ooh, look – another super-catchy song about a girl who will tease you but never put out! Seriously, this song is amazingly well written and produced but is too much like the theme from the Tom Hanks mockumentary feature ‘That Thing You Do’ for me to appreciate it much. It was never one of my favorites – even in 1979 it felt too ‘retro’ and not edgy enough. Gorgeous song, wonderfully played and sung, but always left me flat.
Frustrated – And what better way to close an album full of teen sexual angst than with an anthem to sexual frustration! This illustrates the Who/Kinks extremely well, with a tight and powerful guitar-rock feel that drops into a gorgeously controlled pop chorus. It has lyrics that … well, they go along with the rest of the record quite well. A girl who teases a guy and makes him think she is going to give him sex, then “you know she’ll turn it off just as you’re turning down the light”. Brilliant close to the record!
Choice Track (and why): “(She’s So) Selfish” – late 70′s power-pop that is everything great (or awful) about rock music. It is uncompromisingly misogynistic and nasty with strutting singers and well-done harmonies. This song, more than the bigger hits ‘My Sharona’ or ‘Good Girls Don’t’ represent The Knack to me. They WERE a pop group, a rock group, retro, edgy, and a break from 70s excess all at once.
You Might Love This If: If you like pop or rock music in any way you owe it to yourself to check this out.
I remember not really getting the whole Beatles comparison back in 1979, and my kids echoed that sentiment by saying they hear much more of a Who influence. Apparently Doug Fieger was a huge fan and had sent Pete Townshend some demos and Townshend got back to him around the time the Knack released their record. But putting things into context you also have to realize that part of the 70s fatigue included all of the prog rock and arena rock stuff, and The Who were huge at that time, with Keith Moon just dying and the group really representing much of the 70s rock’n'roll excess. The Kinks were having a resurgence of their own with songs like ‘Low Budget’ and ‘Rock & Roll Fantasy’, so it was clear that they were in a different place.
So the Beatles tie-in was pure genius – while the music was already a bit of a throwback but modernized with 70′s sensibilities, putting a visual image of The Beatles from the pre-Sgt. Pepper era took away so many of the Vietnam/Watergate/gas crisis/malaise memories that had dominated the country for so long. It is hard to put someone into the mindset of the era, but The Kinks were needed at the time … for exactly ONE album. And it was a brilliant album.
Where to Buy:
Here is a YouTube video of The Knack playing ‘My Sharona’ live from Carnegie Hall in 1979: