The Knack hit the ground running in 1979, with the megahit single “My Sharona” off their debut album Get The Knack. Partly because of their meteoric success and the resultant media hype (not the band’s fault), the actual music the band made, in its initial 3-album incarnation, is lost in a haze of sour grapes and rock-purist gripes. The truth, upon reexamination three decades later, is that The Knack was a talented pop band with a, yes, knack for MTV-ready hooks and melodies. They were also a tight unit in live performance, as is evident on their Live at the House of Blues LP, to be released this year on Record Store Day (April 23). Valerie Simadis spoke with Knack bassist Prescott Niles about those days and his life before and after The Knack.
Prescott Niles, the bassist who played the iconic opening riff on The Knack’s 1979 megahit “My Sharona,” was already a part of the New York music scene long before then. In the late 1960s, he was playing bass in various groups, such as MD and the Interns and The Boys Next Door.
“I was drawn to the bass because it was the foundation of many great groups that I loved, especially Motown groups, which were really prevalent at the time,” Niles recently recalled.
A chance encounter with Jimi Hendrix’s lone guitar understudy, Velvert Turner, sealed Niles’ fate. He would go on to play in the Velvert Turner Group, and appeared on the band’s self-titled debut album, which was released in 1972.
The following year, Niles moved to England to record with Jeffrey Mitchell’s Hollywood. While the group eventually disbanded, Jeffrey Mitchell was adamant that the band audition for a new drummer. “One of the drummers who we auditioned was Bruce Gary, and we also flew to New York and auditioned Mark Bell, who ended up in The Ramones later on,” said Prescott. “During that time, Bruce Gary ended up going back to England to play with Jack Bruce, and later on, Mick Taylor’s band.” That year, Bruce called Prescott and told him that he was playing in a band with Doug Fieger and Berton Averre. Bruce was convinced that Prescott would be perfect for the group, and three weeks later The Knack debuted at the Whisky a Go Go.
Within the next few months, The Knack were playing at popular clubs on the Sunset Strip like The Troubadour and the Starwood, and celebrated musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Ray Manzarek were joining them on stage for jam sessions. Before long, a string of A&R executives were clamoring for The Knack to sign with their record label, but The Knack were not about to succumb to the highest bidder.
“We decided to go with Capitol because the company was committed and there was a mystique about them,” Niles recalled. “Doug did have a fascination with The Beatles, and that was mainly why he picked that label.”
In early 1979, the band began working on their first album with producer Mike Chapman, and in June of that year, The Knack’s debut album Get the Knack was released. Get the Knack held the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for five consecutive weeks. The hit single, “My Sharona” was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, and was Capitol Records’ fastest gold status debut single since the release of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964.
In 1980, The Knack released a follow-up album entitled “…But the Little Girls Understand.” While the album did go gold in the United States and Japan (and platinum in Canada), it didn’t garner the same commercial success as Get the Knack. The lead single off the album, “Baby Talks Dirty,” was controversial, and according to Niles, the band members were labeled as ‘misogynists’ because of the lyrics. After a brief hiatus, the band recorded their third album Round Trip in 1981, and the following year, the Knack had disbanded.
The band (sans Bruce Gary) would return a decade later with Serious Fun, a Don Was production that reached number 93 on the Billboard 200. Through this cyclical fashion of disbanding and reuniting, the band would go on to release Zoom in 1998, and Normal as the Next Guy in 2001. The band continued to tour throughout the 2000s, but by 2006, Doug Fieger had begun a long battle with brain and lung cancer. Fieger passed away in 2010, signaling the end of The Knack.
I sat down with Prescott Niles to discuss his early days in Brooklyn, auditioning for The Knack, and The Knack’s Live at the House of Blues LP, which will be released on Record Store Day (April 23).
PKM: When did you start playing bass, and what was the first group that you joined?
Prescott Niles: As a kid, I was a gifted baseball player, and I had thought that might be the direction to go in. Well, that completely changed when I started to get into music and going to concerts at the Fillmore when I was 15. I saw one of my first concerts at RKO theatre in Brooklyn where The Ronettes played, along with Little Stevie Wonder and The Dovells.
In 1965 and 1966, I drove cross-country to California with my family and when I came back to New York, I knew that I wanted to be a musician, and I started playing bass. The first group I played in was a popular band in Brooklyn called MD and the Interns. Doctor shows like Doctor Kildare and Ben Casey were very popular then, so we all wore fake doctor shirts. I replaced the bass player for a little while, until he threatened to break my legs and then I left. He was a friend, but he was like “Don’t take my job!” Then I played in another group called The Boys Next Door.
I was drawn to the bass because it was the foundation of many great groups that I loved, especially Motown groups, which were really prevalent at the time. I knew it would take too long to be a great lead guitarist and rhythm guitar didn’t interest me, so I figured the quickest way to get into bands was to play bass.
PKM: As a young teen, what were some of your musical influences?
Prescott Niles: The Who, The Beatles, The Kinks…I loved American artists like Phil Spector, and I admired The Beach Boys, especially after the release of Pet Sounds. During that time, I started hanging in Greenwich Village, and that changed everything for me. At the age of 16, I started going to the Fillmore East and that was when I really began my musical education. I loved the scene in the Village, and I knew that staying in Brooklyn wouldn’t have done anything for me.
PKM: Stylistically, which bass players were you influenced by?
Prescott Niles: Believe it or not, Jack Casady from Jefferson Airplane. I didn’t like the ‘San Francisco Sound’ much, but Jack Casady stood out – his sound, everything about him. To this day, I give him great credit. In 1968, I worked in Upstate New York and got a job as a lifeguard at a hotel pool. In a five-week period, I saw Vanilla Fudge play (they had a great bass player at the time, Tim Bogert.) I also saw groups like The Who and The Four Tops, so that was like a crash course in ‘Okay, I want to be more than just a bass player’. These cats were my heroes at that time. When I came back to New York, there was a whole other vista for me that opened up.
During this time, Velvert Turner auditioned for a blues group that I was in. When he came down to the audition, he kind of looked like Jimi Hendrix, only he was about 6’2! He auditioned as a singer and afterwards I started talking to him. I was like “Man, where did you get your clothes from? They look like Jimi’s,” and he said, “Well, Jimi gave me this shirt.” He said he had met Jimi Hendrix and knew him, and he played “Foxy Lady” on guitar. During this time, nobody in Brooklyn knew “Foxy Lady”, so it was a big deal. I started playing with Velvert and we eventually put a band together.
In November of 1968, Velvert called me and said he was going to see Jimi Hendrix perform at the Philharmonic Hall, and afterwards we would go to Jimi’s 25th birthday party. Being from Brooklyn, I thought “Yeah, sure. Are you kidding?” We went to the concert and here I was, standing 15 feet away from Jimi at the Cheetah club in Manhattan. Because of Velvert, we were able to go backstage after shows, and attend parties that I never would have been allowed to go to. It really opened up my world. Velvert passed away a few years ago, and it was a privilege to play with him.
PKM: Tell me about the first bass you owned.
Prescott Niles: I had a Hagström bass, which was kind of cool. Then I went to a pawn shop on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and saw this beat-up Fender Precision bass. I got it for $100 in 1968, and I still have it. If I want to sound like I’m playing Motown, that’s my go-to bass. I’ve got a lot of other basses, but the Fender Precision has a great sound, and It also reminds me of my beginnings.
PKM: You lived in London in the Seventies. What groups did you work with during that time?
Prescott Niles: I did, and it was hard to hitchhike there too! Velvert and I recorded an album and the group broke up shortly after. During that time, I made a TV appearance with Arthur Lee of Love which was terrific to do, and I also played with Randy California from Spirit. I got an offer to go to Boston, and I remember when I was growing up, a musician told me “Go anywhere in the world somebody takes you, but make sure you get a round-trip ticket.” [laughs] and that was great advice because I’d never have gotten home half the time. I played with a cover band in Boston, and eventually an American guitar player who I had worked with called me and said that Jeffrey Mitchell wanted me to play bass with him. I got a ticket to go to London because we had a backer. Once in London, I started living in the city for a while and then we moved to a house in the country. The band that I joined was called Jeffrey Mitchell’s Hollywood. We went through several drummers and recorded an album, but it didn’t work out with management. The group ended up disbanding, and I came back to L.A. in 1975.
Living in London for those two years (from 1973 to 1975), I was lucky enough to befriend Rose Taylor who was married to Mick Taylor. During that time I saw The Stones play and even went to Mick Jagger’s house and listened to some of the Goat’s Head Soup album before it came out. During that time period, I met George Harrison. I actually danced with George Harrison before I played on his album. At the time I was dating a girl who knew Derek Taylor, so that was how I met George.
When I flew back to L.A. with Jeffrey Mitchell and the band, our drummer at the time had some drug problems, so we began to audition drummers. One of the drummers who we auditioned was Bruce Gary, and we also flew to New York and auditioned Mark Bell, who ended up in The Ramones later on. During that time, Bruce Gary ended up going back to England to play with Jack Bruce, and later on, Mick Taylor’s band. In 1978, I went back to college and studied classical music, which was a good period for me. That year, Bruce called me and told me that he was in a group called 20/20. He said “I’m playing with these guys, Doug Fieger and Berton Averre. Doug played bass, but he wanted to play rhythm guitar, so he said, “You’ll be perfect for the group because you play like John Entwistle and look like Paul McCartney.” I went down, we played together, and it was magic. Three weeks later we debuted at the Whisky a Go Go on June 1, 1978. That was the start of The Knack.
PKM: The Knack played at various venues on the Sunset Strip. What was a typical show like?
Prescott Niles: Back in the day we had to play two sets. You had to if you were going to be paid anything. We started playing in L.A. The Troubadour was more folk-oriented, but a lot of rock bands began to play there. We played at the Starwood, which was a popular venue as well, and then we started playing in clubs outside of Los Angeles. In San Francisco we did some cool shows opening for Greg Kihn. We played at Berkeley which was really a trip because there were demonstrations going on. Later on, there were stories that Capitol found us, fashioned us, promoted us, and we became their Beatles. That was a bunch of crap.
During this time, Bruce Gary knew a lot of musicians, and they would jam with us onstage. Musicians like Eddie Money, Tom Petty, Ray Manzarek and Bruce Springsteen would jam with us and that got us a lot of press. Stephen Stills got up and played with us, and he actually wanted to produce us! At the time, record companies were coming down, and Capitol was one of the first. We were offered deals from Polygram and other companies, but we decided to go with Capitol because the company was committed and there was a mystique about them. Doug did have a fascination with The Beatles, and that was mainly why he picked that label. When Capitol signed us, we were trying to decide who we wanted as our producer. Mike Chapman had great credibility. He came to see us play and he said “I want to do a record just like you play live. Just go in, set up, and play.”
PKM: What was it like working with Mike Chapman in the studio?
Prescott Niles: Mike Chapman was wonderful. As a producer you have two choices – you can produce and make songs happen, or you can be smart enough to know how to let songs happen. When we started recording with Mike, he was actually producing Blondie at the same time. So, Blondie was in Studio A and we were in Studio D. We recorded the album in four days. When people started referring to us as ‘one-hit wonders’, I would always say “No, we were one-take wonders.”
When we recorded “My Sharona”, on the second day of recording, producers usually say “Let’s do a run-through”, but Mike wanted to capture the excitement of the band. At that point, Mike predicted that “My Sharona” would be number one, but nobody else did. Mike said, “Let’s run it through, guys…okay. We’re done!” And we were like “What do you mean we’re done?” What Mike wanted was spontaneity. Sometimes you can record a song five times to make it ‘perfect’ and you lose something. Mike said, “I got it! I got the excitement.” There were no overdubs. Berton may have fixed a rhythm part and Doug may have fixed a couple of notes, but that was it. I give Mike credit for not overproducing the album.
PKM: What are three of your favorite tracks from the album?
Prescott Niles: I must say “My Sharona”, “Frustrated”, and “(She’s So) Selfish”. When Capitol released the album, they didn’t have a single. Most record companies would probably put out one song first to get people’s interest and then follow it up with the big hit. With us, it was completely different. Radio stations got the album and “My Sharona” became the most requested song in America in one day. Capitol had to rush-release the single. I think it was a blessing because people got to hear the album first, rather than the single. We were lucky in that respect. Just a side note, even though we were one-hit wonders (allegedly), “Good Girls Don’t” became a top ten single.
PKM: What is the story behind “My Sharona”?
Prescott Niles: Doug was with his girlfriend Judy at the time, and Sharona and her friends Leslie and Nicole started going to our shows together. It was cool because they started our first fan club. Sharona had a boyfriend and Doug had a crush on her early on but didn’t make a move, because obviously he was still with Judy.
When Doug and Berton were working on the lyrics at Doug’s house, they were singing about Sharona. Judy was in the other room and they didn’t know it! I always make a joke about it and say, ‘They were singing about Sharona, but it was Judy’s turn to cry.’ – remember the Lesley Gore song? Anyway, I think it was a bit obvious that he had a crush on Sharona.
We kept playing and Doug didn’t make a move! Articles make it sound like she was underage, but that’s not true. We played, we toured, and our last show was in Hawaii. During that time, Sharona had broken up with her boyfriend and she came over, and that’s when Sharona and Doug cemented their relationship. So, that’s the true story, and at least there was some fidelity involved.
PKM: I read that your manager didn’t want the band to give interviews. Is there a grain of truth in that?
Prescott Niles: Get The Knack was number one, but the cardinal sin was that we didn’t do any American TV. We were besieged by so many offers! We were offered to be on the Mork & Mindy show, Fridays, which eventually became Saturday Night Live, and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. We appeared on television shows in Europe like Top of The Pops, and Countdown in Australia. We were invited to play on American Bandstand and Dick Clark actually wanted to make a movie with us and he sent us a script! Our manager was so busy and overwhelmed – he was not a veteran manager. That year, we were nominated for two Grammys. One for ‘Best Song of the Year’ and ‘Best New Artist’. Instead of going to the Grammys and playing “My Sharona”, we ended up doing a second tour of Japan. All of our contemporaries were at those shows, so we blew our chance to meet our American fans. Not only was doing the second tour of Japan wrong, we recorded a second album that nobody wanted us to do. Capitol was against it, but Doug was adamant about recording that second album. The album was rush-released while we were in Japan, and we didn’t even promote it in America.
PKM: By mid-1982, The Knack had parted ways. What were some of the factors?
Prescott Niles: I’ll give a quote “We were successful because of Doug and in spite of Doug.” Meaning, his attitude turned people off. There was animosity between Bruce and Doug and Berton was getting fed up because Berton did a lot of the writing while Doug was doing all of the interviews. Our manager didn’t like Doug doing interviews by himself because it alienated people, and when our second album was released, critics were ready to eat us. Doug did go to AA which I think was great. I was happy that Doug was getting help because he said he was feeling suicidal. When he visited Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, I got worried. So, those were the factors. We were fed up because we had such great success and it was being taken away from us.
Doug wanted us (me and Berton) to continue with him. He wanted to get two drummers to replace Bruce, but Bruce was the most experienced musician in terms of the sessions he played. When John Lennon passed away, I called Doug and said, “Look man, we should get together and talk. Why break up?” I went to see him on New Years, and instead of forming a new band, we fired the manager and reunited the band.
Capitol was still with us and because of the Lennon connection, we asked Jack Douglas if he would produce us. Jack agreed to do it, and he came to L.A. and we recorded Round Trip which to me is our best album in terms of sound, diversity, material, and showcasing our musicianship.
PKM: A few years later-
rescott Niles: We broke up again! I did other things, by the way. I played with Josie Cotton and I’m in that great movie Valley Girl. Berton, Bruce and I put together a group called The Front with an actor Steven Bauer (with Steven as the lead singer). We played a couple of shows and we had a deal with Virgin but our manager got arrested, so that fell apart.
Somehow, we ended up getting back with Doug, and we recorded a demo tape for Val Garay but it didn’t work out. We played a benefit in Los Angeles for a promoter named Michele Myers and then we started playing again. After that, we got back together and played with a drummer named Pat Torpey. We ended up getting a deal with Charisma and we recorded an album called Serious Fun with Don Was as our producer.
In 1994, because “My Sharona” was included on the Reality Bites soundtrack, the song entered the charts again, and we ended up doing a U.S. tour, which was terrific. Then we broke up again, we reunited with Bruce Gary and did a showcase in L.A. Bruce quit, and we got Terry Bozzio and we recorded an album called Zoom. One of the songs on that album, “Harder on You”, I had written for the movie That Thing You Do! but it was submitted too late. Bill Hudson sang the song as a demo, and I rewrote it and had Berton write the bridge. That song is the digital single that will be released on Record Store Day.
PKM: How did you end up working with George Harrison on the track ‘“Someplace Else”?
Prescott Niles: The good thing about working with George was, I wasn’t nervous because I had danced with him before. I got a call one day around 1986, and a producer called me and said, “I want you to play bass at a session but I can’t tell you who it’s for.” I went down to Sound City, and the producer told me that the session was for George Harrison. George mentioned that he liked our album, and he made me feel like one of his contemporaries. The drummer was Jim Keltner, and I was nervous about playing with him, because he was a completely different drummer (compared to what I was used to). Instead of pushing, I had to lean back and play behind the beat. Laurence Juber who had played guitar in Wings, was also there.
We recorded the song “Someplace Else” which I read from a music chart that the producer wrote for me. It had a lot of interesting harmonic changes. I’m reading the chart, playing with Keltner thinking, “Don’t get ahead of the beat, don’t get behind the beat” all the while looking at George and thinking “Okay, focus man, will you?” It went really well and I worked two days in the studio with George. The producer was going to travel to England to produce the album, and I was looking forward to recording the album, possibly. Then George re-recorded the song with Jeff Lynne. My version of “Someplace Else” was included in the trailer for Shanghai Surprise.
PKM: Tell me about the live album “Live at the House of Blues” which will be released on Record Store Day. Who produced it?
Prescott Niles: There was no producer, which is good and bad. We didn’t even know that there was a recording of the show! One day I got a call from Tony Valenziano from Smile Records who had found the tape that the engineer had, and he wanted to release a live album. The recording itself is off the board, and even though it doesn’t have a lot of ambiance like crowd noise, I think it really captured the excitement of the evening.
PKM: What bass did you use when you recorded “My Sharona” and what is your go-to bass these days?
Prescott Niles: On Get the Knack I played a Guild bass. I had played this club in Watts in 1975 and the club owner showed me this red Guild bass. I asked him how much he wanted for it and he said $100, so I gave him the money, which was what I had made that night. At the time, I had my Precision bass which I used for certain songs, the Guild, and a Rickenbacker. When we started rehearsing, the Guild bass just fit the sound of the music. It had the attack! So that red Guild bass is what I used in a lot of the early Knack videos, like our show at Carnegie Hall.
I don’t use it as much these days, but I play my Fender a lot. I’ve got a bass that was made by a company called Fodera from Brooklyn, a Vox bass, a Höfner, and an eight-string bass by Ibanez. I also have a bass made by a Canadian company called Dingwall. They make a very interesting fret system that nobody has ever used before.
PKM: What projects are you currently working on?
Prescott Niles: I’m playing with Gary Myrick who was from Gary Myrick & The Figures. I do other projects too. I’m working with a musician named Rocky Kramer who is a brilliant guitar player from Finland, and I’ll be doing a movie with him. He’s a brilliant guitar player and I enjoy his music. I’ll be playing on his next album as well.
*As part of this year’s Record Store Day festivities (April 23), The Knack will be unveiling a previously-unreleased 2001 concert, Live at the House of Blues. Recorded in Hollywood, this 18-track set will appear as a 2-LP gatefold set pressed on “baby blue” vinyl. There will be 2,500 copies available worldwide. The CD and digital release of Live at the House of Blues will follow May 6.
Live at the House of Blues is available for preorder here: