Known for hits she later wrote for Tina Turner (“Better Be Good to Me”), Pat Benatar (“Love is a Battlefield”) and others (including KISS, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick and Ozzy Osbourne), Holly Knight’s roots were planted in the post-punk scene of New York City, her hometown. Spider (the name an homage to David Bowie) was her multiracial, multinational band for whom she played keyboards and was chief songwriter in the late 1970s. Though her music is everywhere today (from Schitt’s Creek to Stranger Things), Chris Epting talked to Holly about the early days, when she was in Spider’s web.
Say the name “Holly Knight” and most music fans are familiar with her and the generation-defining hits she composed throughout the 1980s; anthems that became the soundtrack for millions of people’s lives. “Love is a Battlefield,” “Better Be Good to Me,” “The Warrior,” “The Best” and many others. Working with Rod Stewart, KISS, Pat Benatar, Aerosmith, Heart, Tina Turner, and many other legends, her songs remain as big as ever today thanks to many commercials, movies and hit series like GLOW, Schitt’s Creek and Stranger Things.
But few know Knight’s history before the hits, slugging it out on stages from Max’s to CBGB, as a member of the stalwart late-70s band, Spider. Her gritty, street smart ladder-climbing in the New York City underground belies the glossy 80s excess she’d eventually become the Queen of, and it’s what makes her story so interesting and special.
I spoke recently with Knight about her days with Spider, what it was like playing in New York City back then, and how it all helped shape her into what she became.
PKM: Holly, you’re a native New Yorker who was recognized almost instantly as a keyboard playing prodigy.
Holly Knight: I was classically trained at the piano since I was a little girl. But I also loved rock ‘n’ roll. At thirteen, I would sneak out of our apartment and take the downtown train to the Fillmore East to watch people like Hendrix and Zappa perform. New York in the 1960s was a great place to be if you loved music, like me.
As a teenager I got a job working at Sam Ash on 48th St. which was known as Music Row because of all of the music stores along there. I worked in the back but once my boss heard me play, he was so impressed he moved me up front so I could demo a lot of the keyboards. That would happen to me a lot later on when I started playing with musicians. I’d sit down and start playing and their jaws would drop. At Sam Ash you just never knew who would walk in back then. Maybe Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. The Who. Jeff Beck. Rock Gods left and right. You just never knew. Then my life got a little bit crazy, I ran away from home and traveled cross-country, eventually ending up back in NYC, and once I did, I knew I wanted to be in a band. I was hanging out at all the clubs trying to network and make connections without really knowing what I was doing.
I eventually dated Paul Stanley but Gene I first met at a rehearsal studio. He came over and introduced himself, very flirty as you might expect. But then soon after he did something that really changed my life.
PKM: How does Spider first come together?
Holly Knight: I met a musician named Howie Wyeth in 1978. He had made a name for himself as the drummer in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. He was a really cool guy and was very good at connecting musicians with each other. He was familiar with my keyboard playing. I hadn’t played live anywhere yet so I think he just saw me jamming someplace in a studio or something like that. But he had an idea. He invited me down to the Bitter End in Greenwich Village to meet some friends of his. So I went down there one night and in this dark club I met the guitar player, Keith Lentin, and the drummer, Anton Fig, both good friends from South Africa who were playing that night backing up the headliner. They were like guns for hire but as it turned out, behind the scenes they were trying to put together their own band. We hung out, exchanged numbers and that was it.
The next night Keith called me and said he’d been talking to his wife, Amanda, a singer who was also part of this group they wanted to start. She wanted to meet me so he came and picked me up at about midnight, and brought me down to their loft in Tribeca, they played me a bunch of songs. I liked them, we jammed for a bit, and that was really the birth of the band. Soon, I was living there with them, (Keith and Amanda were married and had a little girl). We needed a bassist and I knew this really funky black player named Jim Lowell, and so he joined too. Originally we were called “Siren.”
PKM: Anton Fig obviously goes on to really big things later in life; playing with so many legends, the David Letterman show…
Holly Knight: I think everybody knew he was special. Back then he was playing with everybody from Robert Gordon to Link Wray to Garland Jeffreys to Joan Armatrading to Ace Frehley, who was busy recording his solo album when KISS did their four solo records back then. Our guitar player Keith had submitted some band demos to Eddie Kramer, who was co-producing Ace’s solo record. Ace didn’t care for the songs but loved the drummer so he hired Anton. Now I had started dating Anton at that point so for me I was privy to a lot of the insanity inside the KISS world because Ace and Anton hung out a lot. When Ace’s limousine would roll up and you would see that single hand pop the door open with the diamond- encrusted rings and bracelets, you knew you were in for a wild night. Ace ended up liking our band. He even designed our first Siren logo which is funny because the “S” kind of looked the same as the “S” he had created for the original KISS logo. But soon after he drew our logo we did a name search and found that there was already another band called Siren. We put our heads together and came up with “Spider.” We were all Bowie-heads and so that was kind of like our homage.
PKM: Once you became Spider, you started attracting some attention in the city, right?
Holly Knight: We definitely create a stir. We were kind of unusual. Three South Africans, two women. A black guy. It was a very diverse band for its day. And the music was cool. Kind of a progressive new wave rock band along the lines of The Cars. I had been hanging out at all of the clubs and now all of a sudden I was up on those very stages at Max’s, CBGB, Great Gildersleeves. I liked Gildersleeves because their stage was large and could accommodate my keyboard. It was big. It was like having another drum set up there. But we worked our asses off. It was the only way to do it back then. Totally DIY. Rent a van, load in and load out, constantly promoting ourselves with posters and flyers…. And we started attracting crowds.
PKM: And you’re unsigned so you’re bankrolling this all yourselves, right?
Holly Knight: We were, but that was in large part thanks to Anton. He was making good money playing all of the sessions that he was and he was gracious enough to front the band what we needed for things like van rentals and road crew and everything else. But we really worked our asses off. Worked like dogs. We were all sharing the loft in Tribeca and it was kind of a zoo. Amanda and Keith actually raising their five-year-old daughter and the band working all hours. There was no heat, no air-conditioning and it was infested with cockroaches.
We would rent a van go play the gig, finish up at like 2:30 in the morning, pack back up and then drive back to our five-flight walk up that had no landing until the fourth floor which was where Twyla Tharp’s dance studio was. I was playing a Hammond B3 organ and so there was no way I could lug that thing up all those stairs, so Amanda and I would carry the guitars while the guys did the heavy lifting. Every night we played it was the same routine. Night after night after night. One night we were so tired when we got to the top of the landing, my [Hammond] B-3 slid all the way down the stairs kind of like when Laurel and Hardy tried moving that piano up the stairs. Except mine smashed to bits when it hit the bottom. We just left it there all night and picked it up piece by piece the next day. There were also a lot of other hardworking bands in New York City at the time, including Blue Angel (Cyndi Lauper’s band), Riff raff, Neon Leon and the Fine Malibus (with Steve Stevens on guitar – I’d eventually introduce him to Billy Idol and of course they played for years together after that).
PKM: Before you get a record label interested, a manager arrives on the scene.
Holly Knight: Because of his association with Ace [Frehley], one night KISS manager Bill Aucoin came to see us at a club called Trax that was located on the Upper West Side. We’d become a regular band there at this point…and we were killing it there. He just loved us and practically signed us on the spot, backstage in that tiny little dressing room while we all were getting changed.
Everywhere I looked, there were men… the band, the producer and engineer, the assistant engineer and a few guys from the management. No women. In fact, the only other woman in the entire building beside me was the receptionist, whom I’d befriended.
PKM: He was busy with other bands too, right?
Holly Knight: Oh yeah. In his stable at that time, he had Billy Squier, New England and eventually a young Billy Idol. But KISS was always the priority. No matter what was going on, if he was at one of our video shoots or sitting in during some interviews and he got a phone call that involved KISS, he was gone. Obviously, they were the priority. But he made an effort with us. After Bill signed us he would constantly have our band over to his apartment, in the infamous Olympic Towers on Fifth Avenue. It had been featured on the cover of Architectural Digest and there was that issue sitting right there on the coffee table, just like the picture on the cover of the magazine. I grew up in New York but I’d never seen a place like his. It was chic, elegant and stylish.
KISS was definitely doing well. Whenever we would go over, he would automatically offer Amanda and I Quaaludes, I think, just to make us fall asleep. But the boys got all the blow. Bill was always looking to get pretty young boys high so that he could possibly have his way with them. It was no secret. It was nothing for Bill to take his limo out and go trolling for young boys down the West Village. But when he had a band that featured some good-looking guys, he was definitely shameless.
Spider – New Romance (1980):
PKM: Did you see much of KISS?
Holly Knight: We’d run into them at Aucoin Management on a fairly regular basis. Their merchandise was all over the place. I eventually dated Paul Stanley but Gene I first met at a rehearsal studio. He came over and introduced himself, very flirty as you might expect. But then soon after he did something that really changed my life. I was hanging out in the lounge at the Record Plant one day waiting for a friend and Gene walked in and looked over at me sitting on the couch, rifling through a Billboard magazine. He said “Hey, Holly – you play keyboards…” I thought he was just making idle conversation as he got some water. Then he said, “Do you wanna come in and play something on one of our tracks? We need some keyboards.”
I couldn’t believe it. I leaped up from the couch not even bothering to conceal my enthusiasm. Gene had just asked me to play on the new KISS record. I didn’t have to be asked twice. Vini Poncia, their producer stood in front of a huge mixing console, Paul Stanley sat on a couch behind him. I knew Vini because he’d been dating a friend of mine named Amy Sexauer who worked at Aucoin Management and we’d all hung out together a few times. Vini smiled at me and pointed towards a keyboard that had been set up in the big studio room. I walked through two thick sets of doors, hearing the whooshing sound close behind me as I put the headphones on, then started to go through sounds until I found one they all liked. Vini played the track back, the name of the song was “Shandi.” Then he said, “So that’s how it goes. Think you can figure something cool out for it?”
I nodded my head and he started to roll the tape again. I was really nervous, I’d never played on a record before and this was a chance I might never get again – “Don’t fuck this up,” I told myself. I played along, learning the changes as I went. Rock bands don’t use charts.
Everywhere I looked, there were men… the band, the producer and engineer, the assistant engineer and a few guys from the management. No women. In fact, the only other woman in the entire building beside me was the receptionist, whom I’d befriended. The song ended and Vini pressed the talkback button. Vini said, “Can you give us a minute?” That sounded foreboding. He walked over to Gene and Paul, they seemed to be deep in conversation. I waited. I waited and watched, trying to read their lips, I saw their heads shaking through the thick double glass window. Gene motioned for me to come back in the control room. Gene asked, “What are you doing the rest of the day? We love what you played – we wanna try something different and put keyboards all over the record.”
So I stayed into the wee hours of the morning, recording on eight songs on “Kiss Unmasked.” I couldn’t wait to get home to our seedy loft where four of the members of Spider cohabited together and tell them, all of them, that I had just played on the new KISS record. After that, Gene always treated me with the utmost respect, musician to musician. I don’t think he realized that he changed my life that day but he really did.
PKM: You were thinking back then about who you wanted to produce Spider, right?
Holly Knight: Right. The band really wanted Eddie Kramer to produce the record. I mean come on, three South Africans who had grown up together and here was Eddie Kramer, a famous South African. They all had their own private language. There was no way I was going to break that barrier. I had an engineer friend named Gray Russell. Really great guy. He told me all about this other producer Mike Chapman who had just produced the Knack, and was in the middle of a new Blondie album after producing Parallel Lines; he had a long pedigree before that too. Gray told me that Mike was not just a great producer, but also a great songwriter, and that having a producer who could write songs meant that he had an extra tool in his tool chest. That made an impression on me. I had never really thought that seriously about songwriting but he was right. If you wanted to make it as a band you had to have hit records. I was done being the outsider when it came to all the South Africans. I wanted Mike Chapman to produce our record but in a pre-Internet age, how the hell was I supposed to get hold of one of the hottest producers in the world?
PKM: But you had a chance encounter with him, right?
Holly Knight: One night there was an after party at Trax in honor of the New Barbarians show at Madison Square Garden earlier in the evening. The New Barbarians, of course, was the supergroup featuring Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Stanley Clarke and some other friends. At the party, I fell into a conversation with a couple of guys from the Knack. Anton was there, too. We were talking and this Australian guy drinking a martini came over and joined the conversation. He reminded me of Crocodile Dundee. After chatting with us for a few minutes, he walked over to the bar and the guys in the Knack told me that he had produced their record. Wait a minute…that was Mike Chapman? That’s the guy I’ve been dying to meet? This was it. This was opportunity knocking.
Anton had one copy of our demo tape on him, a cassette he was holding tightly onto. I plied it away from him, walked over to the bar and tapped Mike on the shoulder. He seemed amused and even slightly interested in my long-winded plug for the band. “Look,” he said, “I’m working over at the Record Plant with Blondie. Just call me and after I listen to your tape I’ll let you know what I think. If I don’t get right back to you just be persistent. Don’t stop trying.”
So I started calling. Every day for about two weeks. I could hear Debbie Harry saying in the background, “Who the fuck is this Holly Knight chick?” Mike finally called me back a few weeks later and said, “Listen, I’m getting on a plane for Los Angeles tonight. So I’m going to be a ‘captive audience ’ for several hours. I promise to listen to your cassette and I’ll call you in a couple of weeks OK?” I was thrilled. We finally had a shot.
PKM: So what happened?
Holly Knight: About eight hours later my phone rang and it was Mike. “I love this,” he told me. “The songs are great and I want to sign you to my label, Dreamland.” And that was it. I was thrilled. The band was excited as well. This was it.
Before we went out to LA to make the record, Aucoin sat us down and encouraged us to put together a deal like KISS had – an equal split amongst the band no matter who did what. Personally, I thought it was total bullshit. In my head, if you wrote a hit song, you were the one that should get paid for it. But despite my attitude, I was outvoted and so Spider entered into this democratic KISS-style deal. I stupidly believed the band would kick me out if I didn’t agree, and what really pissed me off was that even my own boyfriend Anton, was voting against me on this one. So that was it.
We flew to LA for the very first time. It was like an adult Disneyland. The first thing I noticed was the billboards all along Sunset Strip. They were almost at eye level. That’s where I wanted our record to end up. On one of those billboards.
We stayed at Bill’s apartment which was just as chic as you would imagine. One thing that kind of bummed me out right out of the gate was the fact that Mike was not going to produce our record. He was passing us off to his engineer Peter Coleman, who was very talented and had worked on a lot of great records but he wasn’t Mike Chapman. I was so disappointed about that. We recorded the first record out in Glendale and I remember passing Pat Benatar in the hallway one day. Little did I know what our future together one day would be.
Our record came out and did OK. I think it hit 35 on the chart and we toured our asses off. But it was the second album when things really got going. We were working at Ocean Way Studios and this is when my life changed yet again for the better. I wanted to write a song with Mike. I figured if he wrote a song with me that he might feel compelled to actually produce the track too. So I approached him. I was still very much in awe of him but somehow I managed to get out, “Is there any way we can write a song together for the album?”
Incredibly, he was open to it. He said, “Let’s meet at my office tomorrow and give it a go in one of the rooms. So there we sat, with a little Roland drum machine, the same one he had used on the intro to “Heart Of Glass” for Blondie. I had a keyboard he had a guitar. I also had a title; “Better Be Good To Me,” which he liked, so we spent the day working on it. I kind of knew it was something special right at the beginning. When the band recorded it (and yes Mike offered to produce it) we wanted to give it a “Walk On the Wild Side” vibe. It’s not at all like the version Tina Turner would eventually have a smash with. It had a much more street wise, druggie groove. I actually love the version that Spider did.
PKM: It wasn’t really a hit for Spider though, right?
Holly Knight: Not really, but the timing of the release had a lot to do with that. We did shoot a video for the album which never came out, then went on the road opening for Alice Cooper on his Special Forces tour in 1981. It was fun to finally be playing arenas but I was not long for Spider. Things had gotten very tense over time, I knew that Amanda was jealous that the label always chose my songs as the singles (we’d submit them anonymously so they didn’t know who wrote them). And that was causing her to be a bit bitchy. Evidently, she viewed me as a threat instead of an asset and wanted me out so she could gain more control of the band. After a particularly rough night, I felt things weren’t right and decided to take her out for a drink to smooth things over and get back to being friends. So I went to her hotel room and walked in on a “band meeting” she had called – only I hadn’t been invited.
Things got loud fast. Amanda and I actually got into it physically and had to be pulled apart. I knew it was the end. I said I would finish out the tour and then I was quitting the band. Fuck that.
PKM: What was your next move?
Holly Knight: When I called Mike to tell him I was leaving, I thought he would be angry with me. After all, the label had poured a lot of money into us. But instead, he thought it was a great move and talked me into moving to California to start writing with him. Aucoin was nonplussed. He just said, “OK, if that’s what you want to do, fine.” Typical Bill. Spider soon became Shanghai and hired a guy named Beau Hill to replace me. They cut one more record which their label didn’t like because it had no hits. Evidently, they had no idea that the main songwriter had left the band. Oh well. Then they broke up while I started writing full time. I’d start another band, Device, in the mid-80s, which was fun. But in the end, I think all of my days as a player really just set me up for what I was supposed to be in the first place: a songwriter.