(The Knack 2001: Doug Fieger, Berton Averre and Prescott Niles)
JUST BECAUSE IT SOUNDS LIKE A MYTH doesn’t mean it isn’t true. If anyone can prove that it’s The Knack.
Yes, the band with THAT hit back in the last stretch of the 1970s. Yes, the band who while supposedly a one-hit wonder had an on/off career that stretched across four decades, seven studio albums, six drummers, one documentary, and four live albums.
Make that five live albums, with the arrival of the rather self-explanatory Live At The House Of Blues, a hitherto unheard, raucous and hugely entertaining capturing of the band in Los Angeles on September 25, 2001. Yes, exactly two weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
One of the three original members on stage that night – alongside the principal songwriters, singer/guitarist, Doug Fieger, who died in 2010, and guitarist/vocalist, Berton Averre, who spoke to me two years ago – was bass player and occasional songwriter, Prescott Niles.
Today, Niles – raised in Brooklyn, living in Los Angeles and, as we’ll discover, a citizen of the world – immediately on discovering that I am in Sydney, cracks open a can of “are you serious?” before the words house or of or blues passes anyone’s lips.
“When I was in Sydney, I met I believe Miss Australia or Miss Sydney. Her name was Kerry Dunderdale. I think that was her name,” he says. “She and I dated for a minute or two and she was wonderful. This was in 1979 probably, right? Or ’78. I forget. She showed me around Sydney, and that was wonderful.”
As unlikely as all of this sounds, I can confirm that Miss Australia in 1979, competing in the Miss Universe pageant that was held in Perth, was indeed Kerry Dunderdale, and her “reign” would have coincided with The Knack’s one and only tour here in 1979. Truth!
Exactly what her connection to The Knack’s bass player was, or indeed if there are any 40something curly haired types called Prescott or Niles around today, is something we probably should draw a discreet veil across.
No need to be discreet about Niles’ already-known three children, (two boys and a girl) all of whom play in a band called Gateway Drugs, whose biggest supporter and public booster – to the point that he makes sure interviewers know about it, and have access to the videos before they meet him – is, not surprisingly, Dad.
“They’ve made my life real real, if you know what I mean,” the happy father says. “They gave me real joy, but I’m being objective [about their music]. If they weren’t good or they weren’t good people I wouldn’t. But it comes up because there are clips of us doing [My] Sharona together. And Gabriel on drums, he’s great and fills in on Missing Persons gigs sometimes.”
That’s no small stool to fill, with Missing Persons (who had an Australian top 10 hit in 1982 with Words), with whom Niles has played for a couple of decades now, having as their founding drummer the legendary Terry Bozzio. Apart from being an alumni of Frank Zappa’s bands, in the circular nature of musical life in LA, Bozzio briefly filled in with The Knack back in the ‘90s after the departure of original drummer Bruce Gary.
(Though if you are keeping up at home, the drummer on this new/old Knack record is the tub-thumping Dave Henderson, who features in the next filmclip. Did I mention The Knack had a few drummers?)
While we never get around to talking about him seeing Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore East in 1968, or jamming with George Harrison 18 years later, and only briefly touch on his time with Randy California, whose estate recently lost a plagiarism case against Led Zeppelin (in their time together had California ever talked about Page and Plant’s supposed lifting of a riff from a California song for Stairway To Heaven? “No, no, he never.”) Niles does get a chance to wax lyrical about favourite bassplayers, from Ronnie Wood in Jeff Beck’s band and that bloke McCartney in The Beatles, to Larry Graham and Max Kerr of Sly and the Family Stone.
It's possible those last two were not mentioned much out loud during his time with The Knack though, what with legend (and an argument on a notorious rehearsal tape that may or may not still exist) having it that Fieger vehemently resisted the idea of funk in the power pop songs.
Though even here, myth and truth co-exist, at least in one of the band’s best moments.
“On the third [Knack] album, Round Trip, in the song Africa, you might think [Motown’s bass king] James Jameson or Verdine White, who I love from Earth Wind & Fire, was playing,” Niles says of the bass part.
“Doug may have been adamant at the beginning, but that track is pretty funky. Another thing, that album shows not just that we were not just a one-hit wonder, but it shows the versatility and musicianship of the band.”
Not that versatility or quality helped them when the media tide turned against The Knack in the early ‘80s, when later reformations produced albums like Serious Fun and Zoom that had hooks and melodies galore but never the radio-approved sound, or when gigs like the Live At The House Of Blues one, showed there was plenty of kick left in that outfit.
Thank goodness for the movies then. The reformation which produced Serious Fun had been spurred by the appearance of My Sharona in the film Reality Bites, Winona Ryder and friends channelling the song for a fresh-faced audience.
Though, as Niles reveals, The Knack could have gone either way, pop culturally speaking, in the ‘90s.
“We had a choice at the time by the way: Tarantino wanted to use My Sharona in his movie, Pulp Fiction. He got in touch with us before Reality Bites,” the bassplayer says. “Nobody knew what it would be but the scene he wanted it used in was the hillbilly scene when somebody’s being raped. I was like, I don’t think it’s a good idea, no no no: people would have that in their minds.
“So we passed on that and then [Reality Bites director] Ben Stiller got in touch with us and wanted to use it for Reality Bites, God bless him. I’ve got a platinum cassette on my wall, somewhere over there, my first platinum cassette.”
Well, boosted by “bring out The Gimp” or not, that song isn’t going away any time soon.
“I hear it when I go shopping sometimes, and sometimes it really catches me off guard and I just go, wow, thank you.”
And of course there was the whole early Covid period where highly variable versions of “My Corona” were being uploaded willy nilly, until Niles and Averre put one up themselves just to cut down on some of the rubbish. Naturally, there was a bit of history in this as well.
“Before that, on that crazy Alex Jones show, somebody did a version called My Ebola, and I thought, parody’s good but does it have to be disease songs?”
Missed the rape scene, got snagged by the plague. Hey, it could be worse. Anyway, our time is up and I’m saying goodbye to Prescott Niles when he hits me with a little going away present.
“You know who Sally Boyden is?,” he asks.
Of course, I answer: the benefit of being old enough to have been around for Young Talent Time and her first solo album, The Littlest Australian, which saw her become the youngest Australian artist to earn a gold record. The benefit too of being enough of a Stephen Duffy fan to have her doing backing vocals on The Devils, Duffy’s one-off project in 2014 with Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes.
“We did, what was that show, Countdown was it? With the host, what’s his name again, Morley? Anyway, she was on this show as a young pop artist, and I had no idea she’s been in all these movies,” Niles says. “I met her a few years ago, she lives in England now, and we’re friends and we’ve written songs together. She such a joy. I just wanted to share that with you.”
This has been some trip, from Miss Australia to The Littlest Australian – skipping Morley or Marley or Molly. Don’t let anyone ever tell you visiting American musicians can’t tap into the very core of our culture.
The Knack – Live At The House Of Blues is out now on Liberation Hall.