By Jeb Wright
The Knack took the music scene by way storm back in 1979. Then The Knack went away!
In the interview below Classic Rock Revistied.com caught up with The Knack’s Berton Averre to discuss the band’s reissue campaign with Omnivore Recordings. Read all about that and buy the albums here:
We discuss, in-depth, in the interview below damn near everything, including mononucleosis, jamming with Bruce Springsteen, the reissued CDs, and the band breaking up and, of course, that girl named Sharona.
Read on to get more about The Knack than you ever knew!
Jeb: Before I start our discussion, I want to share a little tale with you. I'm 49 years of age at this moment, so back in '79, I was the ripe old age of 13 years. At this juncture, I had broken up with my girlfriend because I'd come down with mononucleosis… she just couldn’t stop kissing me, so she had to go. Rest and adequate fluids are key to recovery, and that doesn’t include her fluids… Anyway, my parents felt bad because I'm allergic to penicillin, so I didn't get the quick-fix and just get a shot and be done. I had to agonize through 3 months of the symptoms. On my birthday in July of '79, my parents purchased a Sears stereo for me. My sister is three years older than I, and she went with the ‘rents to acquire some vinyl for my new stereophonic set-up. Amongst the albums I received were ELO Discovery, Lynyrd Skynyrd Gold and Platinum and the number one album at the time… which happened to be: Get the Knack.
Your talents were on one of the first records that I ever owned. You were… *ahem*… instrumental in starting me down this horrid trip of music, and writing about it, and I can't thank you enough.
Berton: That's pretty much the target age. They say that the music that means the most to you when you're into your early teens is the stuff that sticks in your gut for the rest of your life.
I actually have my own personal mononucleosis story. I'm older than you, and when I was 10 years old our family was going to have a very big summer trip. This was going to be my first time flying in an airplane for me. We would be flying to New York City where we'd meet cousins, go to the New York World's Fair, and to Washington, D.C. It was just like this unbelievably exciting trip that was coming up. The weekend before we were supposed to fly-off, our doctor told my family that I have mononucleosis. Not only that, it meant nobody else could go either. Now, I don't know what your mono was like, but I didn't even feel bad. I mean, I wasn't sick.
Jeb: Oh, I didn't feel bad at first. No. The docs say your spleen could get enlarged and could rupture, so beware... I felt tired a little bit, but that was it.
Berton: I really didn't even feel bad and it was brutal. It's a happy ending because they ended up saying, “Well he seems fine. He can go.” I was the youngest of three and I'm the guy who is ruining the biggest trip we ever had. That's my mononucleosis story.
Jeb: With a happy ending… The Knack started out as this huge band and then the brand started to fade away. I thought it was awesome to see these Knack albums coming back at this time. I'm wondering… how did the resurgence even happen?
Berton: It happened because when Doug passed, the family business, as it were, which is Knack, Inc. was bequeathed to his sister, Beth, who happens to be a good friend of mine. Beth has just been this absolute stud at doing any and everything she can to contribute to her brother's legacy.
Jeb: That's cool.
Berton: She is a much better business person than Doug and I were, combined. She would say, “Is there material that's worth putting out?” For instance, I don't know if you're aware of it, but there's this Live at the Troubadour album…
Jeb: Oh, yeah. I got it.
Berton: Well, for me that's the historical find, because we were a club band. We were playing every week at the Troubadour trying to get a record deal. I don't know if she was approached by Omnivore or she approached them, but they're a very artist friendly label. They really made a pretty generous offer for us to go to them. They were very interested in putting out any product that we could give them that was of any quality.
Jeb: Were guys like Springsteen coming to see you play?
Berton: Springsteen jammed with us. Yes.
Jeb: That was before you were signed?
Berton: Before we were signed. Yes.
Jeb: That's pretty amazing.
Berton: What happened was, we were this, well, I wouldn't want to use the word sensation, but we were a story. The word of mouth on our band was terrific. Every week when we came to play the Troubadour there'd be people lined up outside to come in. It was great.
Somebody... I think it was Bruce, our drummer, knew Ray Manzarek of the Doors. Ray Manzarek got up once and played a couple of Doors song with us. We did "Love Me Two Times," "Soul Kitchen", and "Whiskey Bar". What was funny about that is that "Whiskey Bar" has some weird changes. It happens to be a Kurt Weill song, which may or may not mean anything to anyone, but it's got some kind of dark minor sixth kind of things going on. I, actually, as this young unknown musician, had this surreal experience of not just meeting Ray Manzarek, but showing him the chords.
It was really strange. We played with Ray, and after that it just became kind of the hip thing to do for people to get up and jam with us. Stephen Stills got up and jammed with us. Eddie Money got up and jammed with us. Tom Petty got up and jammed with us… and then one night, Bruce Springsteen got up and jammed with us.
Jeb: Was this all at the Troubadour.
Berton: Eddie Money jammed with us at the Starwood. There were more Quaaludes at the Starwood.
Jeb: I have often heard that the hair bands era “didn't have shit on partying” compared to the era of the Knack.
Berton: Well, I wouldn't know what to say to that. I had my share of fun, but I wasn't really a heavy partier in that sense. There were a lot of bands in town that were damn good bands. The club scene was really happening. Van Halen was one of those bands. Motley Crue probably went back almost as far as we did. Maybe they went back as far. There were a lot of great bands, and, for lack of a better term, New Wave, Power Pop, whatever you want to call it, type bands. We were just one of them, and we happened to catch fire.
Jeb: What makes the Troubadour album special?
Berton: I think what would probably be one of the things that has the most historical interest is my solo in "My Sharona." That solo is pretty well known. I am lucky enough to get some compliments on that throughout my life. You'll hear a different solo on "My Sharona" on that album. That was before I had really totally formulated. It was one of the very few things on the first album that we didn't have ready-to-go. We were a very well-rehearsed band. We weren't like a jam band. We got up and we knew what the parts were, and we executed them.
Jeb: Obviously, you guys had something special. That's the one thing that if you're not a Knack fan, I think out of all these CD re-issues, that any rock fan should check out.
Berton: Get the Knack, you mean?
Jeb: No, I mean the Live at the Troubadour release of these reissues.
Berton: Yeah, absolutely. I would think so. It's an historical document and also it’s pretty interesting because when Mike Chapman came and said he wanted to produce us, he said, "My idea of recording you guys is to get you in the studio and turn on the tape and you just play like you're playing in the clubs." Because he could tell we were a really good self-contained band. Get the Knack is basically us playing a concert. They're very few overdubs, other than the vocals. Like, "Let me Out", I actually played the solo on the basic track.
Jeb: That's cool.
Berton: I would think to hear some of those songs that one would know so well from our first album, and hear them in a somewhat rawer form, is interesting. You're going to hear it, and you're going to go, “ahh…. same amp, same song.” Again, once we developed the parts… there's a certain kind of energy. When I listen to that stuff on the Troubadour… it sounded like we were on speed and we weren't. We just played like that.
Jeb: If you mix in energy of youth, live crowd, raw talent, and like you said, it was a movement going on…
Berton: If you play a song that's been recorded and you get up on stage and play it at the same amount of clicks it feels a little slow. What feels like a peppy tempo when you put it down on a record, you kind of got to goose it when you get on stage. It's just automatic almost.
Jeb: Zoom was one of the better albums in your catalog, just in my opinion.
Berton: I totally agree with you. For me, Get the Knack is on top, just because first of all, it's a really good album… and second of all, it really was the album everybody knows from us and it had the one mega hit and it had "Good Girls Don’t" and it was the document, Who is the Knack? This is the Knack. My second favorite album would be Round Trip.
Jeb: Oh, really?
Berton: Oh, yeah. There's a versatility on Round Trip that we basically always had in our pocket and, because Get the Knack was such a success we figured for the second album, they're going to want to hear more of the same.
We don't want to confuse them. Round Trip has songs like "Sweet Dreams", which is possibly my favorite Doug Fieger song. It has "Africa", which has some playing that nobody would expect we were going to pull out of our ass. Yeah, I really like Round Trip. Zoom would definitely be my third. There's a lot of really great pop, really good playing. Yeah, I'm proud of it.
Jeb: The reason maybe it didn't happen for that album is the name of the first frickin' song, “Pop is Dead.”
Berton: That's a very creative interpretation, but that's not the case. The case is nobody knew about it. After the first album and then the second album didn't do so well, and we became this kind of joke in the business, it was pretty much over for us.
When we recorded Round Trip, I thought two things… I thought this is really some of our best work and I thought that we don't have a chance. It was a gut feeling that the tide had turned and nothing was going to turn it back in the other direction. Frankly, in terms of visibility and sales with anything we did from that point on, that turned out to be the case.
When we recorded Zoom, we were just happy to have the band back. Doug had ambition for days. I don't know what his expectations were, but I didn't have any expectations.
It just seemed that's the way it's going to be for us. An old friend of ours, Harold Bronson, from Rhino, wanted to sign us and record us. We said, fine. It wasn't like we weren't hoping. It wasn't like we weren't trying, certainly. The trying is in the music we made. In terms of getting people to hear it and getting a visibility and trying to get on the radio, that's kind of out of our hands. It always was.
Jeb: I wondered if there was any sense of urgency like this… It sounds to me like maybe you were just thinking, “We're just going in and gunna do the best we can… and whatever happens, happens.”
Berton: That's certainly how I felt. I really can't speak for the others, but that's absolutely what I felt. I felt, oh great, it's an opportunity to record some of our music. Doug and I are writing some good stuff. This will be fun and I think we're going to come up with some really good music because, as you grow older, you learn more. You gain a certain wisdom that's a default of the experience of having been on the Earth so many years.
I think what you hear on Zoom is Doug and I and Prescott [Niles], of course, and Terry [Bozzio], both applying our craft with the same youthful love and passion for pop music and rock 'n' roll, and just with some more smarts. That we were more discriminant and would write those songs; it was like it had been years since we'd done the stuff and then years since Doug and I had actually sat down and written a bunch of songs together.
Jeb: What was Terry like to work with, man? He's one of my favorite guys going clear back to the Zappa stuff.
Berton: Terry was a really nice guy. Really nice. Very smart. Soft-spoken. Cerebral. He was fine, I mean as a guy… and of course, as a musician, he's off the charts. He may not have been the best fit for us. We were in a place that our original idea was to do it with the original four of us. We were set to do that and Bruce [Gary] just self-destructed. He seemed to go out of his way to make himself a problem with the band. Prescott and I had been defending him all along to keep him in the band. Doug has really been biting his tongue to keep him in the band. It was not going to work. At which point, we were faced with, “well, how many other drummers are out there who can do what Bruce did in the band?” Bruce had unbelievable chops and power. One of the guys we thought of was Terry Bozzio. We thought, “what the hell. We'll ask him. Who knows?” And damn if he didn't go, “yeah, that's the spirit.” We went with it. The guy’s a player.
Jeb: Yeah, he's pretty damn good.
Berton: Oh, God yeah.
Jeb: You listen to the solo shows that he does, he's got like 500 drums...
Berton: That was an issue because he does have 500 drums and he wants them all. It wasn't a matter of getting him to play appropriately for the song. It wasn't like one of these guys who has jazz chops and has to show them off. That wasn't the problem at all, and it wasn't his attitude. If anything, it was just with that array of instrumentation. There would be some sounds that he was in love with that were not necessarily the sounds that we would go with, and we ended up going with them.
Jeb: There's another release… Let's jump to the other live album, The Fun House.
Berton: The Fun House was Image Entertainment, who put out Normal as the Next Guy. They were looking for any kind of product to just to try to sell us. One of the things they did was DVDs. They said, "What if we did a DVD of a performance of you guys?" And we said, fine. You know, fine, because we're a live band and we'd love to do that. That's how that came about.
Jeb: Okay. Now, I will say the one -and I probably need to spend more time with it because I don't mean this in a critical way- the one album that was never my favorite at all would have been Normal as the Next Guy.
Berton: How can I put this? I accept that.
Jeb: It isn't a case where you just listen to it and go like, “This sucks.” If anything, the word I would say, it's just not as ‘alive’ as the other records. It just doesn't feel right.
Berton: Well, Doug wanted to make another album and he wanted to do a lot more than us other guys did. At that time, he had the ability as a personality to try to take things over.
At the point in which he wasn't getting any push back from the rest of us because we really weren't as committed as he was. He just kind of took over the process. Instead of Doug and me sitting down and writing a new album's worth of tunes, he just gathered as many tunes lying around that we hadn't used, or that he hadn't used, that he could. That album… the material has always sound rather cobbled together to me.
Jeb: That's a good way to put it.
Berton: Yeah, and I didn't mind, frankly, because I had written "Man on the Beach" and I really wanted to hear what it would sound like recorded. This was an opportunity for me to record "Man on the Beach".
It was kind of fun to do that because "Dance of Romance" was originally entitled "The Midnight Misogynist" and it was based on this unbelievably foul character from an underground comic. Doug and I had written and recorded a demo of it way back in 1975, or maybe '76. I always liked the music of it, and so I didn't mind digging that one up and trying to do it up right.
There were a lot of songs in that album that I didn't have a whole lot of interest in. Frankly, I wasn't really being asked for my input all that much, anyway. I think those would be my explanations that if you were to tell me as a real fan of our band, which you obviously are, that one title doesn't quite do it for me… those are my explanations.
Jeb: Makes sense. The one thing that I wanted to pick your brain about before we talk about that one famous album, was this process of generating an album. The steps had to be interesting, as you were saying... it was Doug's sister that set things in motion?
Berton: Before I let you go any further, to be perfectly honest, she has done all of the work. She gets all the credit. She is very conscientious and principled and, like I said we're old friends, anyway. Anything that she would get happening, she would first call me to make sure I was on-board with it. Honest to God, that was the amount of my participation. This is all Beth's doing. I'm mean, that's quite possible.
Jeb: You at least were involved with the project. You wrote some of the notes in the tracks, and you had to have listened to the music.
Jeb: Oh, no…
Berton: I was acting on memory. I was asked by the label, “Could you write something?” and I said, "It's the least I can do." I mean Omnivore's working their ass off and Beth was working her ass off, and so I did… But to be perfectly honest, I'm... I don't know if there's probably a lot of other people like me. I very, very rarely put our stuff on and listen to it.
Jeb: Did even that little bit of the process kind of make you... I don't know? Not homesick, but did it take you back a little bit?
Berton: I know, I seem to keep bursting your bubble here every chance I get. The last several years before Doug got too sick, we would go out and do gigs. I was the least enthusiastic member doing it. I loved playing gigs and I realized that, at this time in my life, that I still had the opportunity to get up on stage and play my guitar in a band that I loved and I was always a member of and I was recognized for, that that was a great gift and I couldn't snub it. Also, the other guys wanted to do it, and I'd never been able to say, “I don't care if you want to do it.” I would just go along. Really, honest to God, for many, many years, well maybe not that many. Let's say, for at least five years while we were doing that, I would have been perfectly happy to do maybe three gigs per summer.
I really didn't have that need to play that so many musicians have. Maybe one of the reasons is what I've been doing creatively over the past several decades, really, is I compose musical theatre. It's extremely fulfilling artistically because there's a ton of work and that's something I happen to be very good at because my tastes are not limited. I love many, many, many different styles of music, and so I'm able to draw upon them as required when we're writing our shows. I'm pretty good at drama and humor, too. It's a great field for me and so, I still have an outlet for my music but it's not the specific picking up a guitar and getting on stage and playing.
It actually had been several years since I had done that. An old friend is this singer/songwriter, Jack Tempchin, and whenever he has a reason to play, because he just had a new record come out, the label wanted us to play… ironically, at the Troubadour. I said, okay Jack. Sure, that's easy enough because it's in town and all that. I was, for the first time in my life, I picked up a guitar and I thought, “I am out of shape.” It was really daunting. I got back into shape pretty quickly by playing the regular rehearsals. That just gives you an idea of how little performing music has been a part of my life for the last several years and how it's so much more about the writing and the composing.
Jeb: It sounds to me that I kind of hear you saying that you're very proud of the Knack. You're happy that you did it, but that was a place and time in your life and it's not your place and time in your life now. Is that fair?
Berton: That's more than fair. That's an excellent point and that is very much central to what I'm talking about. I didn't even think to put it in those words, but that's absolutely true.
To be perfectly honest, after we did Serious Fun, which didn't do anything business-wise either, I said to myself, “I don't want to be one of those guys who gets older and older and older and all he knows how to do is this rock thing that people remember him for from decades past.” That's when I started to develop my musical theatre chops. I'm really very grateful that I'm not just that guy that was in the Knack.
Jeb: That's pretty cool.
Berton: Yeah, because that would suck.
Jeb: You're not like one of those guys that starts working with someone though, and then it's like when they find out about the Knack, you're like, “Oh, fuck. They found out I'm the My Sharona guy.”
Berton: I couldn't possibly escape it. The thing is that naturally enough in any walk of show business, having a credit that people can recognize and be able to sing. We just had a reading of our show in Chicago and all the people involved say, "You were the guy who wrote "My Sharona"?" I always say, "Co-wrote."
Jeb: There you go. Well, it's true.
Berton: Well, I'd be very uncomfortable just saying yeah, I'm the guy who wrote "My Sharona". What I'm saying is I couldn't possibly escape it. My writing partner is Rob Muerer and he actually is from a rock background, too. He was Christopher Cross's writing partner for many years. I'm the composer and he's the lyricist. We had a show that was called Jungle Man that was in Wichita about 10 years ago. The woman who was the Artistic Director there, everybody she introduced me to, the first words out of her mouth were “This is Berton. He co-wrote ‘My Sharona’". After about 10 of them, somebody would say, Really? And I said, "Yeah, I was thinking of having it tattooed on my forehead but I guess that's overkill."
Jeb: That's awesome.
Berton: I certainly don't shy away from it. Also, one of the things that tickles me to no end is people sometimes preface what they say with, "You're probably tired of hearing this, but that’s one of my favorite guitar solos” or, “I loved your band.”
Jeb: That's cool.
Berton: How could you possibly feel tired of hearing somebody say ‘I thought you were really good at something?’
Jeb: No kidding. It's so funny that you mentioned that, because I was talking to a buddy who was definitely not a fan of pop Knack, or pop rock, that whole era. He's always asking me, "Hey, who you interviewing?" I said, “I got a cool guitar player from the Knack.” He was like, "Oh, My Sharona." He's like ugh. It's so funny that you mentioned your guitar solo those couple of times. I said to my buddy, "Fuck you, man. You need to get the album out. There's a killer fucking guitar solo in that song." Yes, it still follows you, man.
Berton: Oh it does. It does. Our band has been fortunate over the years of having some pretty neat people say some nice things about us. I heard this clip on the Internet. It was BBC radio interviewing a person. I'm going to give you the name afterwards, so you'll understand why I'm so tickled pink about this one. The person who was being asked what 5 albums would he take to a deserted island. One of the songs he made a point of mentioning was "My Sharona." It was Ray Davies.
Jeb: Oh, wow.
Berton: As you can imagine. I was pretty damn excited for that. The other one I discovered just recently was a YouTube clip with these heavy rocker types, like the Slash. It was Slash, Trent Reznor and Alice Cooper. They were asked kind of a lame “What is your guilty pleasure?” One of them said Justin Timberlake or something like that. Alice Cooper, who’s praised us before said, “I don't know about guilty pleasure, but ‘My Sharona’ by the Knack. He then sang the main riff and said, "It’s possibly the greatest hook ever." For a guitarist who came up with that riff, for somebody as big and as a great as Alice Cooper was, for him to say of all the hooks, it might be the best. I mean… I guess I did something right.
Jeb: "Sharona", which some people know now, especially if they watched VH1, was a real person. The musical end of the question... It's not the toughest piece of music you ever played. Man, are you ever shocked that, “I’ll be damned, why is this little simple riff the one?”
Berton: No, it doesn't shock me at all because playing ability is great for us fellow guitarists to listen to, but the most memorable music is about the feel and not about the chops. You know... If you asked me who my favorite guitarists are, one of the first one I'll mention is Mark Knopfler.
Jeb: I love him.
Berton: He's got great chops, but it's about the fact that he plays such interesting parts with such an interesting tone because he's finger-picking. He can play different line, different line, different line. He can play... You know the song, "Telegraph Road"?
Jeb: I know all their stuff. Hell, yeah. "Telegraph Road" is ...
Berton: That's like at least five minutes of soloing.
Jeb: When you heard Doug's part on “Sharona,” do you remember thinking like, "Oh, my God. He's writing a song about her?"
Berton: I brought the riff into a very early rehearsal of the Knack. I was playing the riff and Prescott starting playing with me and we were just blasting away on it and Doug went, “That's great. Let's go write a song with it.” He and I went back at the end of the rehearsal to his apartment.
At the time, he was living with this girl named Judy, who was the girl he came out from Detroit with several years before and she was home in this apartment. It was a pretty small apartment. He started singing, you know Ma-ma-ma-my Sharona. He got the stutter thing from my rendition I do. I literally said to him, "Doug, Judy's in the next room." This young girl he's got the hots for. Typical lead singer fashion, "I don't care. I don't care." Well, hell, then I don't care either.
Jeb: Yeah, J-J-J-Judy wouldn't work.
Berton: Actually there is an old J-J-J-Judy I think.
Jeb: I think you're right.
Berton: Well, that was a classic insider song where we bounced off of each other. In those days, we were just sitting in a room together throwing ideas back, like chord changes, back and forth. I was more of the chord change guy and he was more of a strummer. He'd say, "Go somewhere different." I'd say, "Like this?" He'd go, "Yeah, that's great." We'd bounce lyrics back... The ironic thing is that people would assume naturally enough that he was coming up with all the lyrics. It's kind of neat in a way because there are simple lyrics in a couple of our songs that are actually, for whatever reason, the dirtier lyrics and they're ones that I came up with. I actually can kind of escape, you know. People just assume that was Doug being foul-mouthed because he was the lead singer.
Jeb: The lead guitarist is the one with the dirty mouth.
Berton: Yeah, but it wasn't that dirty. Our attitude towards the whole idea of dirty lyrics or dirty ideas, is ‘oh, give me a break.’ Rock 'n' Roll is about 17-year-old guys wanting to have sex with 17-year-old girls. 17-year-old guys did not edit their speech.
Jeb: Good point.
Berton: You know what I mean? If we felt that we were using words or talking about things that even a small minority of the kids listening didn't only know and use as part of their own vernacular, we might have felt self-conscious about it. We knew that wasn't the case. We weren't really offending anybody that cared anything at all for that kind of music.
Jeb: You guys kind of went in, recorded, and left. How did you guys get Mike Chapman to produce?
Berton: It's a funny story in a way. We had a lot of attention on us. It goes back to Springsteen jamming with us. Up to then, you know, our manager was courting the record companies, of course. Nobody was really committing. The night that Springsteen played with us at the Troubadour, the next morning all the labels were calling in and saying ‘we want them.’
It was a similar thing with the producers, because a lot of major name producers were interested in producing us. We were rehearsing in this make-shift rehearsal room that was some kind of shed building that was on the parking lot of Bekins Storage. It wasn't like SIR. It was just this kind of funky room that we found and that's where we were rehearsing. Roy Thomas Baker would come and see us. When he was leaving, there was another guy who was coming. Mike Chapman told us that he had read an article on us in the L.A. Times and there was a list of producers we said that we were interested in, and he was offended because his name wasn't on it. That's what made him want to record us.
Jeb: Did you guys get freaked out a little bit because, I mean, everyone was calling you the next Beatles? Was that actually a curse?
Berton: No, because nobody was calling us the next Beatles, least of all us. That was something that the press picked up and ran with but nobody was calling us that, certainly not to my knowledge. We were roughly very much like the Beatles. We loved the Beatles. Obviously, the Beatles were the gold standard. We adored them, but if you had to compare us musically to a 60s band, we were a lot more like the Who, or maybe the Kinks.
Jeb: The Kinks for sure.
Berton: Yeah, because we slammed really hard, but we had a sensibility about the melody and about the lyrics, which is my definition of pop music, or power pop, you know.
Jeb: To be in the studio as you would, these things must have all been ready to go.
Berton: Yeah, again, Mike said, "I'm going to turn the tapes on. Play like you're playing it live." We recorded Get the Knack in two weeks. The legend is true. The entire recording budget was $17,000 and, I'm not making this up, at least a couple of thousands of that was Mike's wine budget.
Jeb: One of the things I've always kind of thought in my music nerd personality, is that "My Sharona" may have been too big a hit, and kept 2 or 3 other songs from being hits.
Berton: I think that if wiser heads prevailed, we would have ridden that album and its success longer and allowed a couple of more songs to come off that album to be radio hits. I'm pretty sure that would have happened. There was a push to get that second album out real quick. It, ultimately, wasn't a very good idea.
I agree with you, but more importantly, as the years went on, “Sharona” was such a bit hit that anything you end up doing gets compared to it. It's an unfortunate position to be in. You're not going to pull another one of those out of your ass. We had a manager in the mid '80s, one of the times we were trying to get the band back together and back on its feet. He said to us, and he wasn't tongue in cheek, he said, "Hey, man, you know... Why don't you just write another ‘Sharona?’" I said, "Why hadn't we thought of that? God, it's so simple."
Jeb: One of the songs I thought should have been a hit is "She's so Selfish".
Berton: Yeah, well "She's so Selfish" was...
Jeb: It was a hit, but it wasn't a “Sharona.”
Berton: No, basically, "She's so Selfish", there was actually a cleaned up version of it recorded that we weren't very happy with and they actually were prepared to go to AM radio with that song. "She's so Selfish" was, I would say it's a hit on AOR.
Jeb: Without a doubt.
Berton: I heard it on the radio a lot when the album came out. We had a strange career. I mean, basically, every stop of our career, something odd happened. When the album first came out in June of '79, we were in Europe. I mean, imagine… what was it like when you were at home with friends and family?
Jeb: Of course.
Berton: The stuff starts to go. I have no idea what the hell it was like. We were in Paris and Germany. We would hear from friends on the phone. They'd say, "Man, it's like it's all over the place. You turn on the radio, you're hearing the Knack." It wasn't just “Sharona.” I remember distinctly when I came home and being driven back from LAX, on the radio, the first thing I heard was “Sharona.” When I went out, like any good Valley boy does, when I would go out to the beach at Santa Monica and people were listening to the radio on their boom box, the first song I heard of ours playing on a boom box on the beach was "Frustrated".
Jeb: That was the other song I was going to say should have been a hit.
Berton: Well, when we would play live, the last songs in the set were "Frustrated", "Selfish", "Sharona".
Jeb: There you go.
Berton: You know, at that point, it's just like the momentum was great. It just basically kicked big, bigger, biggest and that was always the way you want to end the set.
Jeb: Who was the Buddy Holly fan?
Jeb: Okay, that fits, just from the little bit I know… yeah.
Berton: I mean, I really appreciate Buddy Holly, but Doug was the big fan.
Jeb: Is there a song on that first album, though, that you kind of feel should have been pushed... Is there one that you think, you know, “I can see that one being released...”
Berton: Actually, frankly, I think "Let Me Out".
Jeb: Oh, you're right.
Berton: I think "Let Me Out" had a real radio-friendly sound to it and it was driving and, then again…
Jeb: That song to me is a ‘Kink's’, when you were talking about a Kink's influence.
Berton: Yeah, except that it really pounds. I think of that song, it's a perfect example of how much we were just a working band because when we started playing the clubs, Doug and I started writing like crazy and it was just to have more songs to play in the clubs, so that we'd have a set. I distinctly remember that we needed an opening song. We need a song that just says, "Here we are. This is the start of the set." I really liked "Surrender" by Cheap Trick.
Jeb: I love that song.
Berton: I'm not the only one. I love the sound of that, so I use that chord as a set for the major chord change in the verse. Doug came up with "Let Me Out" as in this work here. Let me out. I've got to get out in the club and just start going crazy.
Jeb: I’ll use the same thing you said as a question, and you've probably heard this one a million times... Did you have any inkling that this album was going to change your life the way it did?
Berton: Well, I was not an ‘expectations’ guy. I really wasn't. I didn't get ahead of myself. I was just kind of in the moment as much as I could. It's like the way it goes. It goes in stages. When you're playing in the clubs, you say, "Boy, if we could just get a record deal, that would just be amazing." Then we got a record deal and the album comes out and you go, "Boy, if we're like regularly played on the radio, that would just be amazing." Here we are all over the radio. "Boy, if we could be like a top 20 album." Then you're a top 20. "Wow, if we're like a top 10 ..." and of course, every stage, every possible stage of the wows happened. It was, I won't say bewildering, because that makes it sound like I was upset, but it really is… you can't wrap your mind around it. At the same time, I will tell you honestly, that from the very first time we played “Sharona” in the Troubadour, we knew that was the song.
Jeb: I'll be damned.
Berton: It was undeniable. From the very beginning, everybody, everybody responded to that song. I'll tell you a story. I was doing a phone interview with an AOR deejay. We just called them FM in those days. An FM deejay from Cleveland said the first time he played “Sharona” the song had been playing for maybe 15 seconds and his phone board was lit up. What is that? What is that? When are you going to play it again? Who is that? He said that the only song in his memory that had that kind of reaction was "More than a Feeling" by Boston.
Jeb: That makes sense.
Berton: Yeah, so basically, even I knew that we had the goods. It was just a matter of whether we were lucky enough to get our shot.
Jeb: How did you handle the fact that you went from being the thing and being so cool, to not being so cool in a pretty damn quick way?
Berton: I probably handled it better than some. I was very lucky that our success happened in my home town. Every stage of the way, I had my old friends around me and my family around me and what people would call a support system. It wasn't too hard to just say, "Yeah, but there's so many cool things in my life." I mean, I lived out by the beach and that's because of The Knack. I don't have to work a straight job and that's because of the Knack. Basically, I guess what I'm trying to say is every kick in the gut we had, I can at least remind myself: Count your blessings. Look what you have.
Jeb: You really didn't get like all swept-up in the stardom part of it?
Berton: I don't think I did. I think on a certain fundamental level I understood that the stardom thing was not necessarily permanent, but it was a transient thing. I was the same person I was before it happened, and I was going to be the same person that I had been when things went on, you know. In other words, sure, it was unbelievably exciting that we were playing literally Carnegie Hall and it was unbelievably exciting that when we played my home town, the Forum, that we sold it out. There I am on a stage where I had seen Jimi Hendrix. We'd go into the solo of "My Sharona" and they’d hit the white lights on the crowd, 18,000 of them, all had their arms up in the air, like it was choreographed. Few people get to experience that kind of peek experience, so of course it was exciting, but I kind of took it all in stride. I don't know why. I think it's my temperament really.
Jeb: That's probably why you're able to do what you do now and not be that guy that you were talking about.
Berton: Well, that's true. It kind of makes it a lot easier to make the decision to just let it go and move on.
Jeb: This has been such a cool interview, but I have to bring it up. The one kick in the gut you couldn't get over was, I mean, losing Doug.
Berton: Yeah, it was bad. He made it easier and that sounds kind of crazy, but he was just really, really, really brave throughout…. and all he wanted to do was just get through the chemo and feel relatively okay so we could still go out and play because that is what he did. He was a ham, you know. It's awful to lose somebody that's important to you. I guess, you know, without trying to sound cold-blooded, I guess the fact that I wasn't losing the Knack at the same time because I had already, in my brain, had kind of moved on. You see what I mean? It wasn't like, oh, my God what am I going to do now? It was, this is a sorrow and that was it. It wasn't a sorrow and a fear or a sorrow and a desperation. It was just a sorrow, and sorrow is kind of a cleansing emotion.
Jeb: I mean, at that point, Doug was your... it wasn't so much your band that you lost, as it was your friend.
Berton: We were friends of course. I was talking about it with… actually one of my writing partners in our musicals, and he was saying that anybody who's not a writer will not get or understand or have a chance of understanding the relationship of co-writers. When you have a writing partner, there is this push and pull and this shared sensibility that is going to constantly be strained and about your most vulnerable things. It's really hard to explain. It is a volatile relationship and there's always just so much shit that goes on. So much emotional stuff, so much history... Of course, we were friends, but to describe him as my friend, it's almost not germane because the writing relationship; it kind of dictates everything else.
Jeb: Wow. That's insightful as hell.
Berton: It might be different with different people. There might be writing partners who are the best of friends and bosom buddies and they get along great and all that, but ...
Jeb: I get you. Last one for you and I'm going to let you have your day back. I saved "Good Girls Don't" for the end. Love the harmonica on it. I always wondered if that was always in the song, or if that was an afterthought…
Berton: No, that was always in the song. That song pre-dated The Knack. Doug had that song when he and I were a writing partnership, he had already written that song. I think he wrote in like '73 or something. He always played it with harmonica on him in the harmonica holder.
Jeb: Other than “Sharona,” I think that is probably the song that history has held onto the most.
Berton: Absolutely. Absolutely with no close second. That is the other song that people know by us.
Jeb: How different is what you do now, working in musical theater, compared to what you did then? As far as like rock band to trying to sell shows and trying to write music for shows?
Berton: It's extremely different because the stuff you're writing for is for other people to perform, which means when you're writing parts, you have to consider writing for a tenor and I'm a baritone. You have to be well-versed enough to know what a comfortable range is for a tenor.
When you write for shows, if you're doing it correctly, you write specific to the character in that scene, the situation of that scene. The whole reason that musical theatre works for the relative few of us who love musical theatre is that the story and the music are organically intertwined and you can't separate them. Songs are about what's going on with that character in that scene and they should develop like a scene develops, and they should progress like a scene progresses. All of that is very much different than rock music. When you write a song for rock music, it can be anything the fuck you want.
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