A Conversation With...

Serious Fun: A Conversation With The Knack’s Berton Averre

knack

I must confess, the very first single I bought was “My Sharona.” I bought it at Ben Franklin’s, and i bought it with money I’d gotten for my birthday. I loved the song, and I loved its groove, and I loved how just so different it sounded. I was six years old, and I fell hard for that song. So, too, did the rest of the world; The Knack, led by the talented frontman Doug Fieger and guitarist Berton Averre, would set the charts on fire in 1979 with their debut single, and their debut album, Get The Knack. Follow-up single, “Good Girls Don’t,” was another rousing success, and it seemed that these Beatles-loving Power Poppers were set to become superstars. Unfortunately, “My Sharona” was too successful, and the band would be unfairly labeled as “one-hit wonders,” even as they continued to record and release albums and singles that were just as good–if not better–than that opening salvo.

This summer, Omnivore Recordings–who had previously released a live album and demos collection from a pre-fame Knack–released the band’s final three offerings; 1998’s Zoom, 2001’s Normal As The Next Guy, and the soundtrack to the band’s fun concert film, Live From The Rock And Roll Fun House. We sat down with Averre to discuss this final stage of the band’s career, the trappings of being pegged as a one-hit wonder, and what it all means to him now.

(Thanks to Cary Baker at Conqueroo for getting this set up!)

The story of this second half of The Knack’s existence is owed greatly to the song that started it all. 

Reality Bites, we didn’t see it coming. Getting that song on a soundtrack, it really wasn’t that big of a deal. “My Sharona” had already appeared all over the place, on hundreds of compilations around the world, so it appearing on a soundtrack generally wasn’t something we would given much thought to. So when the film was a success—and then the label releasing the soundtrack released it as a single—we realized we had a golden opportunity here. I would hesitate to call it an attempted comeback, but with renewed interest in the song, and it getting a bit more airplay because of the film’s popularity we realized we could use it to our benefit. So we got back together, played some shows, and soon felt the spark to work again in the studio. Doug and I, we were always writing—it was as much a part of our daily routine as practicing our guitars. He was writing some really great stuff—I’m a fan of “Pop Is Dead,” and when I heard it,  I knew that we just had to release it.

It’s a pretty strong statement of intent to start an album with!

Yeah, it is. But it’s a sentiment we believed. Of course, there’s a danger with a song like that—for a moment, we thought, “Are we going to come across as cranky middle-aged men, raging against the music industry machine?” To us, the “pop” of our youth was stuff like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Who—hardly what you’d call “pop” at the time we wrote the song, but it was definitely the popular sound in our youth. I suppose every generation of musician and music fan will reach that point where what they liked doesn’t jibe with what’s popular. So we said screw it, and just did it, and guess what? People dug it! We felt like we tapped into something real, and the audience loving that song only proved that we had. Though it might not have ever come close to the charts, the audience loved it, with them it was a “hit,” which is all that mattered, and it became our concert opener.

To me, what I like about Zoom is it has a very raw, garage-rock sort of feel.

Zoom came together rather quickly, and yeah, there was a vibe about what we were doing. Our previous album, Serious Fun, was one we had put a lot of work into, and it was generally well-received—much better than our third album, Round Trip, which absolutely nobody heard. But we also spent a great deal of time trying to make Serious Fun sound like a hit record, and we just overdid it. Zoom, it was us recapturing that youthful vibe of writing a song and then getting it on tape. In a way, it sort of felt like the same kind of era that we documented in Rock And Roll Is Good For You. Normal As The Next Guy, it was just the process of us doing whatever it is we wanted to do musically. A much more free and open experience. 

It also felt like you were no longer trying to chase “the hit.”  So many bands get caught up with having to recreate that one song that gave them success—either from external forces, or from a songwriter’s desire to repeat the experience of having a hit song.

Doug called it “The Golden Albatross,” and I think that’s about the most perfect description for it that you could find. Yes, we were tagged with it from the get-go, but that song treated us well, and so we were always grateful for it, even though, like so many other bands in similar situations, it did occasionally provide us with some frustrations and headaches. Our woes were hardly unique; the list of complaints, typical. You’d play a show and could tell that a good portion of the crowd was only going to enjoy themselves once you did the hit. You’d have a new album or single to promote, and you’d go on the radio or on TV, and guess what they wanted to hear? You’d go to the label, and that’s all they’d talk about, too, “We need another ‘My Sharona,’ stat!” (Sigh) It got frustrating, and it only seemed to get worse.

I have a friend who was drummer for the band Semisonic–another great band pegged as a “one-hit wonder”– and he wrote a wonderful book about the experience. In it he describes the humiliation of having to mingle at an industry function, and some clueless radio guy comes up and says, “You should have followed up ‘Closing Time’ with a hit,” and he’s sitting there, going, “Gee, now why didn’t I think of that!?”

(Laughs heartily) I know the feeling—I think i might have talked to the same radio doofus! There’s this expectation that if you are lucky enough to have a major hit the first time out, then everything you write afterwards is going to be as good—if not better—than that initial number. In some cases, like The Beatles and The Beach Boys, that happens. But that’s so rare, and people lose sight of just how rare that is.

I think what makes these final three albums so enjoyable is that you’ve reached a point where you’ve got nothing to prove.


What do you mean?

Well, with Zoom, it’s eighteen years since “My Sharona,” and it doesn’t feel like you’ve made Get The Knack, part two, or whatever. It’s the sound of guys making a record simply to make a record, to get together, and have fun, and not be too worried about what happens with it.

That’s a very interesting way to look at it, and I think I mostly agree with you on that. Where we were at back then, we’d come to realize that as well. Serious Fun had been more of an attempted comeback, and while it was okay, it wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience, and we soon went our separate ways again. After all, it’d only been a decade since “My Sharona” so we weren’t at a nostalgia point about our music. Ten years for a band isn’t really a very long time, if you think about it. Even though we might have been pigeonholed unfairly, we were still operating as a contemporary band and trying to be as successful as we could. We learned the hard way that once you define yourself in such a concrete manner, it’s going to be impossible to break that mindset. From our history, let’s take our third album,  Round Trip. Have you heard it? (No—I didn’t even know it existed until researching for this interview.) Yep, I didn’t think so. Nobody heard it. It’s so weird, but at the time I had this inkling that it was going to come out and nobody would hear it, even though we felt it was our best record to date. It’s a shame, too, because some of the things on the record, I really love “Africa” and “Sweet Dreams” is one of his best, and we wrote that well before the Knack was formed. We broke up over it, mainly out of a sense of frustration that we could make our best music, but nobody wanted to hear it, and the label didn’t want to promote it. Life got ugly, sadly.

But to come back to your point, I sort of see what you’re driving at. We did get together after the Reality Bites thing, and thought to ourselves, why don’t we do it just for fun, just get together and play—after all, suddenly we have a song on the radio again. So we did, and it came together for us rather quickly, and moreover, it was a lot more enjoyable for us. It’s liberating when you realize you can do whatever you want to do and not worry about things such as chart positions and radio airplay and promotions. If we did something, it was because we knew it was viable to do them, like touring, for instance. Had it not been for the resurgent popularity of “My Sharona,” we probably wouldn’t have bothered to go out on the road and play shows, simply because it wouldn’t have made sense.

Was making Zoom a way to define The Knack as a viable band, to not get caught up in or becoming defined as a nostalgia act?

We kinda didn’t care, truthfully. Yeah, we would get offers for package things, but like I was saying before, we would only do things that would justify our getting out to do them, and though Doug loved playing live, I was ambivalent about touring.  Yet it’s kind of misleading to think about nostalgia for a twenty-year old band, because by that time, the people who are coming out to see you play, they’re usually a mix of the hardcore fan who loved you the first time around and the curious youngsters who missed you in your heyday and wanna check you out, and younger listeners tend to be much more open-minded about what they see live. And sure, there will be people who come out just to hear that one song, and we always gave our best with it, because they deserved it, too.

Thomas Dolby had a great quote about being a so-called “one hit wonder.” He said that when people come up and make a point of saying, “Oh, well you only had one hit,” he tells ‘em, “yeah, well I bet that’s one more than you have!” (Laughs) But, really, I don’t mind. You can’t plan these things. Sure, we made a record, and the first single we released was an international smash that gets named one of the songs of the year and then one of the songs of the decade and then one of the songs of the century, and sure, nothing afterwards lived up to that commercially, but who knew all of this in 1979? Who knew that this little song would take me all over the world, provide a paycheck for the rest of my life, take care of me, allow me to make music, and would allow me to have a phone call thirty-five years later with a guy who tells me it was the first record he bought when he was six years old, and that it played an important role in his life? (Laughs) So in the world’s opinion, we didn’t have that second hit? Some experiences, money can’t buy, and ultimately, it’s those wonderful things that I’m lucky that my only hit allowed me to have.

Not too long ago, I was at a friend of mine’s house. He’s a rather successful musician in his own right, and so we’ll get together, hang out, play around with our instruments, or work on equipment together. So one day I’m over there, and his eleven year old daughter comes around after I leave, and she’s doing the typical eleven year old thing, being curious yet somewhat disinterested, and she asks her dad who I was. He says, oh, that’s my friend Berton, he used to be in a band, they had a really big hit when I was younger that I loved, his band was called The Knack,” and she starts flipping out! (Laughs) She’s like, “Why didn’t you tell me! All my friends love “My Sharona,” and she starts texting out that the guy who played one of her favorite songs was just in her house! And her dad, he’s kind of famous in his own way, so this kid who’s been around famous people, just starts to freak out and got excited over me and my little song that was a hit thirty five years ago. There’s something kind of awesome about that! (Laughs) 

Live At The Rock And Roll Fun House, to me, is an interesting curtain closer to the band’s career. Did Doug’s health problems fuel a desire to make a testimony to The Knack’s legacy?

We wanted to capture ourselves live, to sort of do our own little TAMI show or what have you. Was Doug sick yet? No, he wasn’t, this was before all that. Wait, I do believe there was a really early lung cancer scare, where they found this tiny little growth. So maybe deep down there was a sense of mortality at play, but if it was, I certainly don’t recall him mentioning it. But at the time there was no real concern over what they found; it was caught super-early, and it wasn’t until 2005 or 2006 when suddenly they discovered Doug had developed a brain tumor. That’s one of the unfortunate realities of lung cancer; because of its role in the blood stream, cancerous nodes can develop and seed out to the rest of the body, and not be caught until a few years later, and that’s what happened with Doug, sadly. It was a long, long battle for him, one with lots of ups and downs. But I gotta say, he fought the good fight, and when we played our last live shows—2007 or 2008, around that time—he wasn’t in great health, but he had a blast, and so did the rest of us. They certainly weren’t intended to be our final shows, but that’s what happens in life, and those shows were an inspiration for Doug, because he was a showman.

Looking back on these final records, how do you feel about it all?

What makes our final two albums nice is that I think we had finally come to an understanding with our past. We knew that we weren’t going to have a shot at the top again. It can be confining, your past. More importantly, Doug and I didn’t feel any need to try to do anything but make the music we wanted to make, and we were okay with all that. It was special, “My Sharona,” and will always be that way, but it was just as special to get together with one of my closest friends in the world and make music that we liked. It’s all I wanted to do when I was a fifteen year old kid, and it’s all I want to do until the day I die.

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