“Hanging on a Heart Attack,” the opening song on Device’s album 22B3, is an ’80s rock work of art. The track, much like the rest of the album, exemplifies the era with its addictive melody that twists and turns as smooth guitar solos and synths bleed with high-production pop power.
22B3 is 30 years old this year, having been released in 1986 with Paul Engemann of “Push It to the Limit” fame on vocals, Gene Black on guitar and, most important, Holly Knight, songwriter and leader of Device, on pretty much everything else — including keytar, of course.
I spent a large portion of my mid-20s wishing I was Device-era Holly Knight. My friend and I donned our acid-wash cutoffs and python cowboy boots as we cruised the highways in his white Corvette convertible. We sliced through the godawful summer humidity as we sang every single lyric with gusto from each track on 22B3.
Knight's name might not be one you recognize, but you’ve most likely belted out her songs over light beer and tequila shots at an ’80s karaoke party. Her songwriting credits read like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame roster — in fact, she herself is a 2013 Hall of Fame songwriting inductee. She co-wrote Animotion's new-wave fantasy hit “Obsession” with Michael Des Barres, a slew of songs for Tina Turner (including “Better Be Good to Me”), and has written alongside '80s big shots such as Rod Stewart (“Love Touch”), Aerosmith (“Rag Doll”) and Heart (“Never”).
When she first moved to Los Angeles from New York City — “It was like going from film noir to Fujicolor!” — she paired up with Mike Chapman, a longtime producer of bands such as Blondie. The first time Knight visited Chapman’s studio, Pat Benatar called up, asking if he would write a song for her. His response: “Yeah, we’ll write you a hit!” That hit, “Love Is a Battlefield,” became Knight’s first co-songwriting credit to top the Billboard charts.
It took no time for Knight to wrangle respect from men in the business. Rock star egos never intimidated her; as a songwriter, she was a vital addition to the fabric of a band’s success. “It circumvented the macho male thing. There was a mutual respect with a common goal, which was the music.”
Born and raised in New York City, Knight had been a classically trained pianist since the age of 4 but also gained street smarts by leaving home before the age of 16 — a story that would fit the plot of any ’80s teen movie, with her own music as the soundtrack.
“I never took shit from anybody. That’s part of who I am, so if I didn’t like something, I would basically tell them or walk away,” Knight says. That tough-as-nails attitude is also reflective in her lyrical themes. In songs such as “Love Is a Battlefield” and “The Warrior” (which she wrote for Scandal), there is an ongoing theme of combat and perseverance. “You write what you know — it’s not as much about fighting with someone as fighting for something.”
Battles aside, Knight believes that the decade of the ’80s provided a more positive atmosphere for making music. “I feel blessed I was able to work at a time when [the music industry] was innocent and hadn’t entered the digital world yet. It was smaller and more charming,” she says. “Things are getting worse, actually. I think we have regressed. By now there should have been so many girl bands but there really isn’t. Less and less there’s rock music, and it’s now become the culture of The Voice and American Idol, where it’s all lead singers and all the songs are written by the same person. It sounds homogenized.”
But Knight hasn’t given up on her quest for the return of rock & roll. Recently, she has been offering songwriting classes in her Los Angeles studio for serious musicians who want a bit of guidance and critiquing. With her experience as a working songwriter for nearly four decades, transitioning into teaching was a natural next step in her career.
Asked which of her own songs is her favorite, Knight names her 1985 hit “Invincible” by Pat Benatar without hesitation: “I like the empowering message and the take-no-prisoners attitude.” And if you write what you know, then it’s true: Holly Knight is invincible.
For more on Holly Knight and her master songwriting classes, visit hollyknight.com.