It was the No. 1 song in the country for six weeks in 1979, and it certainly left an impression. "My Sharona" by The Knack was an ode to a raven-haired teenager with a wonderfully unique name, Sharona Alperin, and a great, catchy pop tune fueled by a lot of angst and longing. It also was a song that developed an incredible life of its own, living on for decades after The Knack fell apart in the early ’80s.
“It’s a truism in rock music that you run out of girls’ names,” says Knack guitarist Berton Averre, who co-wrote the song and came up with its trademark guitar riff. “Whether it’s Sherry, or Gloria, all the names seemed to be used up. Sharona was a name that hadn’t been used before, and it was distinctive to the ear.”
One of the great tragedies of The Knack’s rise and fall is they will always be remembered for one song, and to this day they’re an underrated group. The band’s founder, Doug Fieger, was a talented songwriter, and he had a crack band of strong musicians backing him up (along with Averre, bassist Prescott Niles and Bruce Gary, who also played drums as a sideman for Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Sheryl Crow, among others).
“It’s kind of automatic that when you have a song that big, it will overshadow other things about the band,” Averre notes. “Most careers in rock music are supernovas. Somebody like Paul Simon, who is still around decade after decade, is the exception. But I’m extremely grateful for the success we had; I would never take that for granted.”
Fieger, a native of Detroit, had already been around the block as a musician by the time he made his way to Los Angeles in 1978 with longtime girlfriend Judy Halpert. His previous band, Sky, had a record deal with RCA, but they ultimately went nowhere, and he formed The Knack in May of ’78, hoping for a new start. (The band were named after the English comedy The Knack ... and How to Get It, and always had a strong British influence.)
Halpert was friends with Sharona Alperin, telling her, “You oughta meet my boyfriend. He’s a musician.” Alperin, then 17, was working in a clothing store on West Third Street in Beverly Grove when Halpert brought Fieger in, and the moment he saw her, he was clearly dumbstruck by her beauty.
Fieger invited Alperin to see The Knack play a showcase gig at SIR Studios in Hollywood. “I went to check ’em out, I brought some girlfriends,” recalls Alperin, who is now a successful L.A. real estate agent. “I ended up bringing more and more friends, and it ended up creating this crazy scene.” (The girls who followed the band eventually were dubbed “The Knackettes.”)
It wasn’t long before Fieger told Alperin he had to see her, and professed his love.
“Listen, I need to … I’m madly in love you.”
“Are you kidding me? I’m madly in love with my boyfriend.”
“No, someday we’re gonna be together.”
“No, of course not. I’m so happy.”
Fieger refused to take no for an answer.
Like innumerable rock songs, "My Sharona" began with a riff. Averre recalls, “I was listening to a lot of Elvis Costello’s second album, This Year’s Model, and songs like 'Pump It Up' and 'No Action' were really getting me going. As I recall, I came up with that riff as a response to that kind of feeling I was getting from that album, that jungle beat, slam-your-head-against-the-wall kind of intensity.”
Fieger liked what he heard, and they went back to his apartment to finish the song, which came together in about 45 minutes. But when Fieger started scat-singing lyrics about Sharona over the music, Averre quietly tried to remind him that his girlfriend was in the other room. “I don’t care about that kind of stuff,” Fieger said.
“And God bless him for not caring,” Averre says today.
Sometimes during her lunch breaks, Alperin would head over to SIR to watch the band rehearse. At one rehearsal, Averre and Fieger conferred before playing their new song for her.
“Should we do it?”
“Well, if you want to. Are you sure you want to do it now?”
”Yeah, let’s just play it, let’s do it.”
The band then launched into "My Sharona." It wasn’t until Alperin was driving back to work that it finally dawned on her: “Oh my God, did I just hear a song with my name in it? No way!”
Many would have a tough time putting their hearts on the line in public like that, but as Averre says, “Lead singers are different animals than the rest of us. They really have cojones. Where the rest of us would feel self-conscious, be afraid of failure, worry about looking like a jackass, lead singers are quite at home making themselves look like jackasses! The only thing I can think of that’s similar is somebody proposing to a girl at a baseball game, and it’s up there on the screen. Doug had an incredible self-confidence in everything. He said, ‘I will win out,’ and he did.”
After nine years together, Fieger finally broke up with Halpert and pursued Alperin for more than a year. “He made it very clear he was in love with me,” Alperin says. “It wasn’t like my boyfriend and the world didn’t know. I always say that he was my groupie, I wasn’t his!”
Fieger would write several other songs about his longing for Sharona, including "Frustrated" and "She’s So Selfish." “He’d be singing these songs live, and most of the people in the club would be looking at me,” Alperin says. Eventually it got too painful for Fieger to see her, and for a while she was banned from Knack concerts. “One time I had to sneak in the back of a gig,” she notes.
Although Fieger wasn’t making progress with Alperin personally, the band were moving up fast. The Knack made their live debut at the Whisky on June 1, 1978, a month after they’d formed, and soon they were playing three nights a week, selling out gigs with lines around the block. By November ’78, The Knack were caught up in a bidding war with 13 labels hot to sign them before they finally inked a deal with Capitol.
The band’s debut album, Get the Knack, was recorded in 11 days in April 1979, with Mike Chapman producing. (Chapman also produced several of Blondie's biggest albums and co-wrote the Toni Basil smash "Mickey.") Because The Knack were so tight from playing live, most of the songs were laid down in one or two takes, and the album cost only $17,000 to make.
Although it was obvious to everyone that "My Sharona" was the single, Capitol had its doubts. This was the era of disco, and according to Averre, the label told the band, “Well, you know, Top 40 doesn’t play harder rock music these days.”
“That horrified us,” Averre says, “because that’s what was wrong with the Top 40 in those days! We grew up in the ’60s, and it was unthinkable to think of Top 40 without rock & roll.”
But "My Sharona" would prove too strong a song not to be a hit. As Fieger recalled in the documentary About My Sharona, “They didn’t release the single until two weeks after the album had been released, but the day the album was released to radio, 'My Sharona' became the most added record, as an album cut, in the world. It went from nobody ever having heard it to heavy rotation in one day.”
Get the Knack went gold (500,000 copies) in 13 days, a record that stood for many years. The album hit No. 1 seven weeks after its release, and two weeks later, "My Sharona" hit No. 1 on Aug. 25. It would stay at the top of the charts for six weeks.
The song also finally achieved Fieger’s ultimate goal of winning the love of his muse. Alperin finally gave in, breaking up with her longtime boyfriend, and she was with Fieger for four years. “By the time the American tour came, I was gone,” she says. “There was too much not to go for. This man was so in love with me, beyond in love, and I just went for it.”
The Knack’s second album, … But the Little Girls Understand, featuring Alperin on the cover, hit the stores on Feb. 15, 1980, less than eight months after the release of Get the Knack. Right after the album’s release, The Knack headlined a sold-out show at the Forum on March 30, another pinnacle in the band’s career.
Then the backlash kicked in. Although their second album sold 2.5 million copies worldwide, it was considered a failure in comparison with their debut record, which sold 6 million, and lacked a "My Sharona"–level single. (The album's biggest hit, "Baby Talks Dirty," barely cracked the Top 40.)
The Knack were never critics' darlings, and the band refused to do interviews, which made the press hate them even more. It wasn’t long before people had gotten so sick of the band that an artist up in San Francisco even started printing up "Knuke The Knack" T-shirts.
In late 1981, the band recorded one more album, Round Trip, and tried to hit the road again. But the usual poisons that destroy bands — drugs, ego, infighting — had finally taken their toll. Three weeks into the Round Trip tour, The Knack broke up on New Year’s Day, 1982. They reunited several times in later years and released another three studio albums but could never approach the success of their best-known hit.
By the time Alperin turned 21, her relationship with Fieger was over. “I broke up with Doug because I had to," she says. "My line was, it was time for me to become my Sharona. There probably isn’t more of a possessive or obsessive word in the English language than 'my.' It wasn’t that the phenomenon of the song was something I had to escape from; our relationship was something that I had to escape from. He was overwhelming.”
Many years after The Knack became a punch line, "My Sharona" had a comeback in 1994 in the movie Reality Bites. Quentin Tarantino also wanted the song to be used for the infamous "gimp" segment in Pulp Fiction. The band were offered both movies on the same day. As Averre recalled on the band’s official website, “One was this hip comedy starring Winona Ryder, and the other was for the homosexual rape scene in Pulp Fiction. Hmmm, that’s a tough choice.”
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Averre also was pleased to learn that Kurt Cobain was a genuine fan of the band. In the biography Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross reports that Cobain would have friends over and tell them, “There’s this great record I’ve discovered that you have to hear.” He’d then put on Get the Knack, and Cobain’s friends thought he was joking but he’d tell them, “No, you’ve got to listen to this — it’s an awesome pop album. All the great songs on that record were the ones people hadn’t heard of.’”
Doug Fieger died on Valentine’s Day 2010 after battling brain cancer for six years. He was 57. The month before he passed away, he said, “I’ve had 10 great lives. And I expect to have some more. I don’t feel cheated in any way, shape or form.”
“When he said things like that, it was coming from the heart,” Averre says. “When he knew he was going to pass away, it was a testament to a man’s courage like I’ve never seen before. One time I was visiting him at the hospital, he gave me this sweet little smile and he said, ‘Bertie, we did something great.’”
Alperin also knows that having a hit song written about her was a special, once-in-a-lifetime thing. “Michelle, Yoko, Roxanne — there’s maybe 40 or 50 [great] songs named after women in the history of a billion songs written. I feel incredibly fortunate that I’ve had this experience. It’s a really exciting adventure that never leaves me.”