Bruce Gary, Prescott Niles, Doug Fieger, Berton Averre
“We hit New Zealand first [before Australia] and there we are in New Zealand, at this guy’s house somewhere in the burbs, probably a record label guy, and he’s chatting with me and Prescott [Niles, bassplayer] and he said you know this is the first time in history a Yank band is here while they are number one in their home country.
“And he said, ‘what are you doing in New Zealand?’ And Prescott and I, trying to be gracious guests, said we love to play our stuff to new people and it’s exciting to see if we can conquer someone who doesn’t know us. He leaves the room and Prescott turns to me and we say in unison ‘yeah, what ARE we doing in New Zealand?’.
“Here we are, having everybody’s dream, number one in the States, and we quickly fled 4000 miles away. It was typical of our career actually.”
Berton Averre, guitarist, songwriter, member of The Knack – yes, he co-wrote that song – is laughing as he tells this story of The Knack’s first and only tour of the Antipodes in 1979. Even if it worried him at the time, which as you’ll soon see it didn’t, there’s been so much time since that he is very sanguine and often as not amused by the weirdness of those days.
It was, as the helpful New Zealander pointed out, just as Get The Knack, their first album, and their rather successful song, My Sharona, simultaneously were at or approaching the peak of the US charts.
And it might also ring bells with another generation of bands and fans who remember the now famous story of how, 12 years later, Nirvana decided to honour their commitment to playing - second on the bill, mind you – at the first Big Day Out in Australia, even though they were suddenly the biggest band in the USA.
Weirdness. Honour. Respect. And a little break in the sanguinity of Averre who had not heard the Nirvana story before but today connects it with another little nugget: that Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain had been a Knack fan. Yep, the coolest band of the ‘90s had a fan link to a band deemed the uncoolest on the planet within two years of that 1979 tour and a debut album which sold more than two million at home and double that around the world.
“My god the critics hated us,” says Averre. “Some got us but we just would get creamed by them, and I was getting a nice little chuckle [in the early ‘90s] trying to imagine the contortions critics were tying themselves in trying to explain that [fandom of Cobain’s] away.”
Concerns? Yeah, he’s got very few. Today, LA-native Averre, who still lives on the West Coast, doesn’t play much: the last of The Knack’s gigs was back in 2008, two years before singer and writer Doug Fieger died. And you’re more likely to see him at a chamber orchestra performance than a rock club.
But he’s never stopped writing and in the past decade his songwriting principally has gone to a series of stage musicals he’s written with Rob Meurer and Mark Saltzman.
Which doesn’t mean Averre has gone quiet publicly. He’s very active on social media - it’s fair to say the current president does not have a fan here - and deeply immersed in the history of pop music, specifically the garage/punk bands of the 1960s, his “life’s hobby” and something he aims to share wherever possible.
(How immersed? Apart from his encyclopaedic knowledge of US and British bands of the time, he can rattle off a list of little known-to-super obscure Australian bands from the same period and happily proselytises about them. His recommendations are sound, I can attest. A weird corollary to this is later, when talking about a song from Round Trip on which a harmonica part was overlaid by the legendary Tommy Morgan, Averre casually mentions that he had gone into the session wanting it to sound “like the harmonica in Frank Ifield’s I Remember You, that kind of mournful, seen in the distance kind of feel”. Frank Ifield? Quasi-country, family favourite, one hit wonder from Australia? Could you have been more obscure in LA in 1981? Nerd!)
And of course, if you ask, he’ll talk about The Knack with the ease of someone who isn’t too fussed if people don’t know that not only was there a second and third album in the band’s first incarnation (the patchier but still very good … But The Little Girls Understand and the genuinely excellent Round Trip) but three more studio albums between 1991 and 2001 – a revival helped by the use of My Sharona in the film Reality Bites - of which the sparkling Zoom is the most entertaining.
Call them one-hit wonders (which isn’t strictly true either given Good Girls Don’t got to #11 in the USA and #1 in Canada, and their second album was a top 15 gold record in their homeland) and he’ll politely say, yes, and I’m good with that.
“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?,” he said to Joseph Kyle of the magazine The Recoup, five years ago. “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?
“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.”
Today Averre can laugh at the way small things mattered so much. Like the way the radio single version of My Sharona cut well short his guitar solo – the guitar solo a lot of teenage guitarists learnt, often as a matter of pride after mastering Ace Frehley solos from Kiss records – which upset many a fan. But not him.
“To this day I have fans who are just burning mad, just can’t stand the fact that they cut it, and at the time I was fine with that,” he says. “I thought we want to get on top 40 [radio] and we’re not gonna get on top 40 unless they cut the solo, so cut the solo. Most people I knew would get the album anyway.”
There is one qualification to this response. “I wouldn’t have been fine with it if I thought that only a small minority of people would ever hear the full version. But at that time albums were a lot more prominent than singles, and the album was something like hot cakes. People don’t realise that the album got to number one in the States before the single did. And they were both number one for over a month.”
While we’re looking back at the glory years, there is one hangover claim Averre would like to correct from the bottom of his ‘60s purist heart.
“People would often latch onto this idea that we were trying to emulate the Beatles. Not really,” he says. “If you listen to our band, both Doug and I would openly tell you that we sounded a lot more like The Kinks or The Who: slamming it out, with a melody, and some cleverness in the lyrics.”
Their shared fondness for Keith Moon’s madman in a drum factory style was one reason why drummer Bruce Gary, who died in 2006, was perfect for them.
”Doug would get him to come up with parts that would be that manic but controlled more in the pocket of where the song was. That was a real key component of our music,” says Averre. “The idea of a unit being stripped down, that was always one of our values: we really were four guys playing their instruments live for you now. That’s how the album was recorded. Your fellow Aussie, Mike Chapman [who produced the first two Knack albums, as well massive hits for Blondie, Suzi Quatro and The Sweet], that’s how he told us he would record our album.
“And that was one of the things that really appealed to people, that it was obviously not a $400,000/take three months to record/25 overdubs record. We literally did it for $17,500 dollars. And a lot of that was Mike’s wine bill. That’s not a joke by the way.”
Not a bad return on $17,500 you’d have to say. But then value for money seems to be an Averre trait. Having indulged this fan boy with a long explanation of how the guitar parts were recorded for the best song on Round Trip, the fabulous groove Africa – something regular/sane humans can be spared, but if you really want to know, email me – Averre offers almost accidentally a series of escalating bonus prizes.
“I was watching something on YouTube and it was something like heavy metal stars tell you their guilty pleasure, and Alice Cooper, even though he was of an earlier generation, was one of them. And he said ‘I don’t know about guilty but The Knack’s My Sharona’ – and he hummed the riff, which was my riff, and says – ‘maybe the best hook ever’. And I’m thinking goddamn, that, that, is high praise.”
Well you can’t get much better than that.
“Actually, I have a personal one that’s even better, that means more to me. There was an interview with Ray Davies on radio, one of those ‘what albums would you bring if you’re on a desert island?’ shows in the early ‘90s, and the one song he mentioned, the one song he singled out was My Sharona …[and you can hear the pride and shock in his voice, still] Ray Davies.”
Okay, I was wrong, he could top that Alice Cooper story. Nice peak.
But wait, there’s more.
“I hate to do this, but I think I’ve got another topper,” Averre says. “First of all, when I was talking about sitting in my room coming up with the riff for My Sharona, what I didn’t mention was what inspired me. Elvis Costello’s [second album, in 1977] This Year’s Model kicked my ass. The whole idea of this mondo bizarro rock with the Vox organ and this incredible playing band, and his lyrics are genius, slammed me against the wall. It was the drum breakdown in Pump It Up, which is not the same beat as My Sharona but it’s that snare/tom/snare kind of barely contained fury that’s about to explode, and that was the feeling in my gut I was trying to emulate when I came up with that riff.
“Right, flash forward and we are in England for the first time, the song’s just come out and Elvis Costello is on this radio show where they play a celebrity three songs and he says which one is going to be a hit and which one will be a miss. My Sharona is on and when it’s finished, he says ‘well that’s easily the best one I’ve heard tonight. Just from the drums onwards I knew.’ And we were like, my God Elvis said that.
“The next night we were on Top of the Pops, and I think Nick Lowe was on too and Elvis was there, not playing but there to watch him, and we talked to him and he asked where he could get a copy of [My Sharona]. He wanted to get his hands on it straight away, play it again. And we thought, we must be doing something right.”
There’s plenty more than My Sharona you know, so if you want to dig around The Knack’s catalogue here’s a compact 90 minute, career-wide introduction. It begins with Pop Is Dead, and then proves it isn’t. CLICK HERE TO LISTEN.