“If bands were getting kids off, those concert halls would be filled.”- Berton Averre
When did you get The Knack? I got The Knack in 1979 when they hit the music scene hard and fast with the phenomenal “My Sharona”. The Knack was Doug Fieger on lead vocals, Berton Averre on lead guitar, Prescott Niles on bass and Bruce Gary on drums. Some consider them one hit wonders, but the honest truth is that they were an energetic live band that beamed with pride and a “happy-go-lucky” attitude. They managed to create and leave us with a catalogue of cleverly and well crafted songs. Rock critics misunderstood them, even mistreated them, but the fans loved them. I was one lucky fan who got to see them play their hearts out for their fans in the summer of 2005.
Berton’s love and appreciation for great songwriting led him to join a writers workshop for musical theater in the early 90s. It turned out to be a very rewarding move for him. To date, Berton and company have written three musical comedies, “The Party’s Over”, “Jungle Man!” and “Robin Hood: The Untold Story” and currently working on a fourth one. In regards to writing for the musical theater stage, Berton says, “It’s an art form, and when you’re doing it right it’s so goddamn thrilling.” Most recently, I had the distinct honor of interviewing the “criminally underrated” lead guitarist who played a huge part in the creation and success of The Knack. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Berton Averre to Ringside Report.
Gonzo: You’ve ventured into and have been very successful with “theatrical musical scoring”. Can you tell us how you began doing that?
As somebody who loves and appreciates songwriting, it became more and more obvious to me whenever I listened to the great old classics, and I’m talking about when they used to do a great Rogers and Hammerstein, that they were the giants of songwriting and that what they achieved with melody and lyrics in a musical theater song was, I just used this analogy recently, the difference between a comic strip and a novel, there‘s just that much more going on. And it was after “Serious Fun” and I was going off on my own and I wanted to find something that I wanted to apply to my creative side for the rest of my life. And friends would say to me, “Bertie, you love musicals, you should do musicals.” I heard of this great writers workshop for musical theater in town and I joined it and as luck would have it this guy named Rob Muerer joined it the same year and Rob was Christopher Cross‘ writing partner and we’re both from the world of rock who discovered as writers how much we loved musical theater.
We just had identical tastes and we started writing together and we learned in this writers workshop the major discipline of what you have to do to create great musical theater and you don’t just slap it out. If you‘re doing right, every note and every syllable is planned and there for a purpose and there are specific purposes in musical theater, to put it most simply, you’re there to advance and support the story. And it’s an art form, when you’re doing it right it’s so goddamn thrilling. It really is. When a Richard Rogers melody soars at just the right moment and Hammerstein writes brilliant lyrics to it, it’s defies description and it’s an emotional connection that, because of the music, because music is such a great natural communicator of emotion, we really don’t know why, we really don’t know how and it registers, and it registers specific emotion.
I mean, I’ll hear a Debussy piece, a piano piece from a hundred and thirty years ago and I just sense that the emotion I feel, whether its kind of like this longing, or this resignation, that that is what he was putting in his piece and this was some guy on the coast of France a hundred and thirty years ago in a completely different world that I’m in and taking this abstract progression of notes on a keyboard and communicating emotion accurately. It‘s magic.
So, anyway, Rob and I got into it and we were writing and we‘ve had some shows produced. I don’t have any shows that anyone would know nationally yet, but the funny thing about it is that it feels so close to what I say about modern popular music is that they don’t know how to do it anymore. I mean, time and time again I’ll see a new show and the lyrics are abysmal and the music is not versatile and its not entertaining, its just basically the lowest common denominator and I do pretty well at it because I have a full range of musical tastes and expressions. There are probably, to speak frankly, there are probably very, very few people in musical theater who can write something like that as legitimately and authentically as I can because it actually is my life, it’s not a style I’m picking up and putting down, it’s something that I do naturally.
It’s unbelievably rewarding. Rob and I wrote a show called, “Jungle Man”, and everything we do is musical comedy by the way, and “Jungle Man” was a kind of tongue in cheek send up of the Tarzan and Jane story. And I’m telling you when six hundred people laugh at your joke, that we wrote, it’s literally a more powerful feeling than I’ve experienced in a rock performance. To put that in perspective, when we played The Forum, which is here in my hometown, in the same room that I would watch Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar play for a sold-out crowd and I went into the solo for “Sharona”, they threw the lights on the house and the entire crowd were standing on their feet with their arms up in the air like it was choreographed, that’s probably the most powerful feeling I’ve ever had in a rock show and having six hundred people laugh at a joke, in a way, blows it out of the water.
That’s how rewarding it is, because that’s how much work goes into it. In rock you can kind of just slam it out. It’s amazing. And the collaboration is crucial. It’s compartmentalized, I’m the composer, Rob’s the lyricist, Mark is the book writer and Mark is kind of like the quarterback and so we’ll get together and every song that gets written for the show comes out of a discussion, comes out of a conversation, comes out of a story-boarding of this is what has to happen in the song, does she first meet him, does he think she’s hot, she doesn’t initially like him, but then he ends up talking about his car and that makes her like him more, it’s basically beat by beat so that at the end of song the story has continued much like the song continued through a guitar solo.
It’s very intricate. Again, if you’re doing it right. I think, I’d like to believe, that quality will rise to the top, but on the other hand, it’s pretty depressing, I’ll go see a show and no kidding the score is fucking awful. I mean, capital “A”, awful and the crowd’s going nuts. They haven’t heard Rogers and Hammerstein, they haven’t heard Leonard Bernstein enough to recognize how far these people are falling the mark.
G: What CD is in your CD player at this very moment?
Well, my answer is not CDs, it’s files that I’ve created off of an internet radio station, it‘s my current passion. There’s an internet radio station that is London sixties music, like the music that was playing on the radio in London because sixties music is probably my number one passion. To hear great songs, in some cases songs from the sixties that we have literally never heard once as opposed to the songs you’ve heard a thousand times. When I discovered this station it was just such a delight. Once a week they’ll do this thing that’s called “The London Sound” and “A Month In The Life” and it features snapshots of songs that were on the radio in a particular month, like let’s just say, October 62 and it’s the songs that were never even hits over there, right? And in some cases you’ll hear a song that was a hit over here and not over there and then you’ll hear a song that was a hit over there and you go, how the hell did this not make it over to the states? And I extract songs and I burn compilation CDs and I give them to a few select friends and make their day.
G: It‘s like coming across something new or discovering treasure.
It really is. It’s a buried treasure. We always want to hear and add something new that we can love and sadly for me personally it just doesn’t happen with modern pop music. It just doesn’t.
G: I knew coming into this interview that you’re a die-hard 60’s music fan. The era of music I’m fond of is from the late 60s/early 70s timeframe.
Well, the 70s were just a hangover from the 60s. You know, certainly when those of us who dwell on the 60s bring up something from the golden era and you go, “Oh, yeah, the 70s. Oh, well, gee, all that had was Zeppelin, 10cc, Elvis Costello, The Sex Pistols, oh gee, I guess the 70s had some decent music too.”
G: What about 60s music appeals to you?
The qualities are fun, exuberant, melody, harmony and basically the overall of it is that The Beatles changed everything forever and when you listen to the music that was being created in their era it was everybody trying to catch up with The Beatles and trying to keep pace, which was impossible, but it still ending up goosing them into doing stuff that was a lot better and a lot more interesting than any of them would have come up with on their own.
And so you end up hearing people trying very, very hard to come up with an interesting melody or a chord change we hadn‘t heard before or bringing in other instruments for the arrangements, orchestral instruments, and then the other thing is the incredible cross-pollination because you had great Motown stuff coming out of Detroit, you had the amazing singer/songwriters from the Folk movement, like Paul Simon and of course it all happened because of Bob Dylan and all these people were listening to each other and instead of having, “This station plays Soul, this station plays college music, this station plays Folk”, you ended up having one Top 40 and the competition was incredibly fierce.
If you listen to a Top 40 from a week in 1966, you will hear a great James Brown song that we still hear everyday today, followed by a great Simon And Garfunkle song, followed by a great Beach Boys song, followed by a great Beatles song, incredibly different genres, but all they had in common was they were all trying to make hits, they were all trying to make a song that everybody would love.
G: The intent and the energy came through in the music. I agree, the music of that period is pretty uplifting.
It’s because it’s a given that music makes us feel better and it makes us feel glad to be alive and it sounds like such an obvious thing, but I guarantee you if you listen to music from say the 90s or more recently, you’ll be surprised how much of the music is depressive. You can just tell from the tone of it, by the structure of it, from the delivery of it, it’s depressive. It‘s not meant to make you feel better. And it’s beyond unfortunate, it’s a crime when I think of kids growing up without joyful music, it breaks my heart. Because look at how much joy you’ve gotten from music. And imagine if you took all that fun, exciting, sexy stuff and replaced it with grays and “I don’t know if I wanna get up today.” Well, fuck, I mean that’s an interesting point of view for an occasional song, but when it becomes your philosophy?
G: Today’s music seems to be very image oriented. Songs take a secondary position because image is everything and the attitude being projected is primary.
Well, that’s exactly right and that’s really one of the major reasons why we have all that dark, depressive music is because the angry young man, alienated stance became the only acceptable stance for somebody who wanted to have credibility in the rock world. It‘s funny, if you want to have a laugh, go through album cover pictures of bands from a certain era and try to find one guy who‘s smiling. Including us, actually no, I take it back, if you look at “Get The Knack”, both Doug and Bruce have big stupid grins on their faces. Because that was one of the things Doug would talk about at the beginning of the band. He would say, “Look, we’re having a great time, let’s not try to pretend we’re not. Let‘s allow our fun to transfer to the audience“, cause we were first and foremost a live pub band. And it’s like when you say, when the image drives it, that‘s what they‘re thinking of, It’s like, oh, God forbid somebody dismisses me as just say a guy with rose colored glasses. God forbid somebody actually dismisses you as somebody who enjoys life.
Cause the rocker isn’t supposed to enjoy life and sing about it. It’s idiotic, it really is. There’s great stuff from the 60s that’s angry. The Stones’ song, “Look At That Stupid Girl”, how downbeat is that? But they actually had a way of delivering it and you could tell they were having fun, that they were like, “Oh, good, let’s go trash my latest girlfriend. Let‘s do it in a song. How cool would that be?”, instead of moping. You know, moping is boring. Especially, because the other side of the coin, or rather the second prong of the two prong downer of recent modern music is that people don’t learn to play very well. It’s hard to be musically interesting if you’re really stunted and limited. Every stage of the development of rock music up until a certain point, people getting better and better on their instruments and more importantly better and better at coming up with chord progression in songwriting and that just kind of stopped dead. When was the last time you heard some young person talking about his recent favorite band and going, “Man, the guitarist is great!” It’s not even relevant anymore.
I remember I had a conversation with a friend of mine, who’s the son of one of my oldest friends and he’s very intelligent and I was bitchin’ about this and I was trying to think of the word I would describe and I said, “glory”, it actually is like a heavy, uplifting, kind of hair on the back of your neck stand up moment and I said, “I just want know when’s the last time you heard a new song that had a sense of glory?” And he said, recently enough, “Well, that’s not what they’re going for.“ And I thought about it later and I thought well, that’s a very tired reason. Because when I bring up, “When was the last time a band had great harmony?” “Well, that’s not what they’re going for.“ “When was the last time you heard a great guitarist?” “Well, that’s not what they’re going for.“ “When was the last time you heard real, expert songwriting craft?” “Well, that’s not what they’re going for.“ Well then, what the fuck are they going for? What’s left? Singing? No. Writing? No. Playing? No.
Well, what are you other than a fucking poseur? Well, one of the reasons basically is that were living in an immediate society and kids are growing up less disciplined than ever in many ways. And learning how to play an instrument is not easy. You can’t just sit down and pick up an instrument, there are the occasional geniuses that do it, but you can’t just sit down and pick up a guitar and start smashing away and having expert time and rhythm and being able to find new chords and going to them in time and rhythm. It takes practice. It actually takes sitting down and hammering out that same chord structure a hundred and fifty times until your fingers are comfortable enough where you can do it in rhythm and fast enough and most people, and that’s actually one example, but most modern musicians in these bands don’t want to do that.
Apparently, whatever they do is good enough because thank God for them the music doesn’t seem to be much of an issue anymore. And people talk about what trouble the modern music business is in, and it‘s in terrible, terrible trouble, and a lot of that has to do with modern technology and downloading instead of buying and the old style contract structures and where is the new money going to come from, and all that, but if bands were getting kids off like the bands got you off and the bands got me off, those concert halls would be filled and people would be making money.
G: Kids these days have “Guitar Hero” and they get a quick fix and a false sense of playing guitar.
Exactly. There’s a saying that goes, “Do you want to be a symphony conductor or do you want to wear tails and wave a baton.” In other words, those are the trappings, those are the image, your words, of being a conductor and there are a lot of people now days that say I want to be a musician in a band. Why? Well, because they’re saying they make a lot of money. Not because the music that I grew up on is so inspiring to me that I want to do that too. And frankly, I don’t blame them because there hasn’t been all that much to inspire them. I have found, because I’m a baby boomer, and I’ve never been married, never had any kids, but all my friends are married, all my old buddies are married and they have kids. Everyone of them, their kids at some stage in their teenage years, out of curiosity or exposure or whatever start listening to their parents CDs . They don’t go back. I’m telling you these kids that were just as, “Oh, I hate hearing about how great your music was.”
I have this friend, an old friend, and her daughter had good grades and was going to Santa Cruz and all that. One day my friend tells me, “You know she’s totally into Love. You know the group Love, but this is not like being into Zeppelin that the whole world knows, this is actually paying attention. And she goes, “She just absolutely loves them and I didn‘t put her in that direction she just basically discovered it.” So, I feel that when exposed to great music, kids get it. They really do.
To make a boxing analogy, because I know you’re writing for a boxing site, imagine if you will, that every boxer that, you’re seventeen and every time you turn on a boxing match, it’s some hump. It’s like the latest flavor of the month that has a 20 and 0 record because they found 20 guys he could beat. And imagine, your dad sits you down and goes, “Hey, this guy is Sugar Ray Leonard, watch how he boxes.“ You go, “Jesus, he’s fantastic! Look at those moves! Look how fast he is! Look how he reacts! Look how he covers up!” You know, it’s like it’s undeniable talent. Imagine how stark the contrast would be if you saw a great boxer after watching a bunch of mediocre boxers. It’s undeniable, so basically, they think when, you know I have a girlfriend, she’s not like a teenager, but she’s younger than me. And so there was a lot of music from my era that she’d never heard before. And I would put on some song and say, “Do you know how much has gone on in this song, check it out we’re only a minute and a half into it, in other words, that’s how much it’s packed with talent and interest and after a while she would admit to me that the album that she was listening to at the time of a modern artist, the next time she’d put them on she’d say, “There’s kinda nothing going on.” And so, no matter what era you’re from, the things that make you essential, they’ll be noticed and they’ll be appreciated.
I wasn’t very nationalistic about it, the music that I loved was the music I loved whether they came from Pittsburgh or San Diego. The people that influenced me most on guitar were the same, I imagine, that influenced a 14 year old. The usual guys, but Jimi Hendrix was my idol. He’s remembered most for the flash and the drive and rightfully so, I mean, he basically created pelvic thrust in rock music.
It’s an absolute translation of the animal man in a guitar part which is kind of mind-blowing if you think about it. But for me, the biggest change, and I recognized this with the first Hendrix song I ever heard, when I was 13 years old, the first one I heard was “The Wind Cries Mary“ and he went into the guitar solo and I was thinking, “Oh, my God, he’s playing melody“ It wasn’t just blues rhythm. And that, I mean, again, that’s art for art’s sake and it was unthinkable before him really.
G: He opened the door for so many people. He was a special guitarist who was able to do what he did in the short time that he did it in. Amazing.
Yeah, I was actually thinking the other day about that. The only three idolsI have are the Beatles, Jim Hendrix and Bob Dylan and those three were the inventors of what we know as rock “n’ roll, but the modern you know what sixties rock was, the big explosion that we never recovered from, the Beatles were it, they were way in the top, but without what Dylan did in terms of songwriting and yes attitude and in terms of what Jim did with his playing. Everything great that happened in the sixties you can trace back to one or more of those three extremes, The Beatles, Dylan and Hendrix.
G: I have come to the conclusion that you are “criminally underrated” as a guitar player. When I listen to your guitar playing I get the feeling you’re serving the song and that the song is the top priority at that moment.
Well, you just stole my thunder because that’s exactly what I was going to say. The guitar parts are there to serve the song and when you go into the guitar solo it’s function, at it’s best, is to keep the vibe of the song going and it’s just basically an instrumental approach to what the song is conveying, and so, playing melody whenever possible, playing recognizable parts as opposed to just licks. The world’s most beloved guitarist all fall into that category. And really this is because without the song there’s nothing. We were talking about Jimi, I use Jimi as an example, as amazing, as world-shattering as his playing was, if he didn’t, by the fluke of nature also write great songs, it wouldn’t have mattered. It wouldn’t have made a difference.
The song is the delivery and if it’s not a good song, you know, a jazzman can sit and listen to a solo and get something out of it and I had my Be-bop period when I was 18, 19 years old and I can still appreciate a good jazz player but really the world responds to songs in rock ’n’ roll. Because of Jimi Hendrix we ended up also growing up glorying in the instrumental aspects of it. If you were to ask people who their favorite guitarists are, dollars to donuts they just happen to be in bands or are individuals that also create great songs. Our purpose was always the songs.
“My Sharona” was an extended solo, and on Round Trip, “Africa” was an extended solo, and when we played live, which I think you saw us, “Tequila” was an extended solo. Those are the only extended solos in the Knack camp, because we weren’t that kind of a band, we didn’t want to be that kind of a band. Because we love rock ’n’ roll, you know, it’s like anybody else, we could appreciate that there are times that somebody does want to hear a big solo and as long it has interest and isn’t just somebody wanking.
G: How frustrating is it to hear a song that you’re totally into and then the solo comes in and it doesn’t add to the song? And when the solo is done, you think, “Oh, okay, we’re back to the song.”
Right, and you go, “Good, we’re back to the interesting stuff.” It kind of reminds me of a TV show or a movie or a play in which there are several storylines, like let’s say the parents have a story line, and the 16 year old kid has a story line, and invariably one of the storylines will be more interesting than the other. Well, it’s like that, it’s like the song intrinsically will have more interest than all the absolute best guitar solos. And so, you’re going to want to get back to the part that has the full entertainment spectrum, you know, that has storyline and characters.
G: The musicianship of The Knack was outstanding! Each member held their own and served the song. No one member tried to overshadow each other or the song. I saw The Knack play a few years back and you guys had so much energy. You guys were an awesome live band.
Well, we prided ourselves on that, you know, we always were, and we never at any age would have gone out if we weren’t able to give the people our best show. And as far as, what you said about the individual musicians never overshadowing the song, I have to give credit where its due, Doug was the leader of the band. He was the absolute quarterback on that. And of course, that brings us to Bruce our drummer, who was spectacular. He was nuts-good, he really was. Fortunately for him, the music we really loved and we ended up being influenced by as The Knack were groups like The Who and of course The Who had the original insane drummer, Keith Moon. If you listen to what he’s doing in the middle of a Who song, it’s ridiculous, it’s like he’s playing a drum solo, and it’s so great, it’s so exciting, it’s so fun, yet it’s so unexpected. And with Bruce he had the ability to do that and Doug would very tightly rein him in so that it never became about the drums. Doug had a vision, he definitely had a vision.
G: I offer my condolences at the loss of Doug earlier this year and respectfully I ask the next question. And you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to, but how have you been since Doug’s passing?
Well, I’m doing fine. Doug had been sick for several years. I thought we were prepared for his death and when it happened I found out that it’s still a shock. Doug died so well, he was unbelievably brave. I, for purely selfish reasons, it was kind of, in terms of The Knack, it was this awkward thing because I would never have wished for Doug’s sickness, needless to say, but I was the one member of the band that didn’t really feel like going out and playing anymore. I had great fun playing and its definitely something that I feel I miss now not having that at all.
But certainly, you know, the grind, the flying out to play a gig and flying on to the next one got old. If it wasn’t a special gig, if it were up to me, we just wouldn’t have done it, three times in the summer would have been find with me. So the aspect of if someone were to say to me well you know it heartbreaking that you‘ll never get up on stage with The Knack again. Well, never doing it again, that is very sad when you think about.
G: Doug had a great sense of humor. Each time I watch the “Live From The Rock N Roll Fun House” DVD, I crack up with Doug’s character, Emcee Jimmy Lemonjello! Where did he come up with that character?
In the early Beatles era, you would see these movies, you would actually go to the movie house and it was a presentation of a whole lot of groups, you know, just like what we would call videos nowadays. And like there’s one called Go-Go Mania, I gather Beatle Mania and there might be one of the Beatles song, or the Hollies song, or some group you never heard of doing a song. And one of those movies had this guy hosting it and he had hair like the wig that Doug found for that. And so Doug’s character was based on that guy as best as we can remember.
G: What was the process for creating songs for the group? What came first the music or the lyrics? Can you talk to us about that process?
The thing is the creative relationship, there’s nothing else like in the natural world, people who don’t have a creative partnership-relationship really can’t relate to what it is, because there are so many things going on at once. If somebody says, “Oh, I know, my relationship with my wife…” Well, no, you don’t know. Because it’s the drive to create. One is so vulnerable when one brings say a song to the table, you probably as a writer know what I mean, you present something and someone says, “Uh, no.”
It just feels like they kicked you in the nuts. It feels like they denied the part of you that’s most central to your existence and if you have a relationship with another human being where basically the two of you are kind of doing that to each other everyday you get together. There’s got to be a whole lot of trust. If one is a musician, if one considers oneself a professional musician, a professional songwriter and you come to the guy you write songs with and you say what about this, blah, blah, blah, blah and he goes, “Nah”. Doug and I, especially in the early stages, like a lot of songs on Get The Knack, we would write at the same time together in the room, like I’d bring in the riff from “Sharona” and we’d go back to his apartment after bashing away at it at a rehearsal, just kinda jamming on it, and we would write it, you know, words, music, he’d have music ideas, I’d have word ideas.
There is this kind of trust and respect that either one of us could say to other one, “Yeah, that’s great.” or “No, that’s not.“, and by the way, one of Doug’s greatest strengths was his excitement in the process. It was so thrilling to be writing with somebody that would say, “We need the guitar to do some kind of transition at the riff.” I’d go, “Well, what about this?” “Yeah, that’s great!” Talk about passion for pop music.
The two of us together, it must have been intimating, because there’s nobody who cared as much about a certain kind of music as I do, as Doug did, and vice versa and we both knew it about each other. It’s the only way you can ever have a successful writing partnership. The trust has to be there. In all cases, the music came first cause there’s a lot of songs that Doug would write on his own, but if I’m not mistaken, and I really don’t think I am, he would come up with the lyrics. There’d be a lot of times when I would create a song structure musically, and he would go, “Yeah, that’s great.” and he would take it and go home and call me up and say, “Here’s the first verse.” It would be that two stage thing, that I would be at home recording on a four-track or something and just like working up song ideas and then just giving him the raw material or in some cases, pretty much finished without the lyrics and he would then go home and do them. So, it was always music first.
G: I’d like to ask you something about one Knack song. “One Day At A Time” from “Serious Fun”. What happened? That should have been a huge hit for you guys. What can you tell us about that song?
If I tell you the story, you’re gonna think I’m making it up. When we signed with Charisma, they were a new label and we had supposed image issues. They saw we had great stuff and they wanted to sign us, so we thought well it must really be great stuff if they’re afraid of our image and they’re signing us nonetheless. So, from the start, they had a guy, I won’t mention names, but they had a guy and he was basically their A&R guru and he said from the start, ““One Day At A Time”, that’s a hit I can bring home, that’s the one.” And so, there was this strategy in place, that we break the album with a song that’s more our harder rock song and so that’s why “Rocket O’ Love” was out first, and then we get whatever tracks we can onto that and then we can add another song and every time we came to him he said, “I‘m holding off on “One Day At A Time”, we’re breaking it at the right time, blah, blah, blah.
Never broke it. And we just were mystified and bewildered. We found out later on that at some phase based on some of the other acts on their label they had figured out, or decided, that The Knack wasn’t going to happen on Charisma, regardless if whether they could have gotten a hit out of us or not and so they, personally, buried “One Day At A Time“.
G: It’s such a great song.
Well, you know, we like it. You’ve always liked it and we thought it could have been a hit. It’s pretty galling to think that the reason they didn’t push it hard is they were afraid it would be a hit and they decided they didn’t want to deal with it. And, yeah, that’s what happened
G: There were also those critics that wrote you guys off as Beatles-wanna-bes, when that was the furthest thing from the truth. The only comparison I can distinctly make is that The Knack and The Beatles both had strong writing ability and strong musicianship. What do you think of the Beatles comparisons?
There was something that they didn’t like about us. In some cases, they weren‘t good journalists, they weren’t professionals. Robert Dilbern was the lead reviewer and critic for the L.A. Times and he obviously didn’t like our band and when “Get The Knack” first came out, on the front of the entertainment section, the picture of “Get The Knack” next to a picture of “Meet The Beatles”.
So, before you’ve read a word, you’re thinking, “Who the fuck do these guys think they are?” Then, in the first paragraph, he says, “The Knack’s music is geared to a 13 year old’s taste.” So, right away, if you’re 18 years old, you’re thinking I really don’t want to like these guys. He’s kind of front-loading all the reasons why someone wouldn’t like our band. Then, you turn to page 6, which nobody sees, and he’s reviewing the album and saying, “This a really good song and this is a great song and it could go on to be a classic.” And I’m thinking, “Then why the hell is that not on page one?”
It was designed not to help us and I’m thinking “Well, then, why are you a reviewer? Why don’t you just write an article.” And really, I mean, there were other examples I can share, you know, I won’t bore you with the other examples where people were bending over backwards to not do their jobs because for whatever reasons they didn’t want us to be a hit, they didn’t like us, I don’t know, Doug rubbed some people the wrong way and he said things in early interviews and there was this really stupid politicization of music going on at the time. Liking a particular kind of band put you in that camp, and for me, it was like you were talking earlier about limiting and being very limited and kind of closed down in your approach to other kinds of music, and for me I thought well, that’s just robbing a whole lot of people of different styles of enjoyment.
I mean, I would tell people at the time, meaning it totally, that I really liked the Sex Pistols and I really liked Abba and then I’d sit back and watch their brains explode. Because at the time it was inconceivable, you were either the kind of person who liked Abba or the kind of person who liked the Sex Pistols, well, I’m the kind of person who likes people doing pop music really good. And so, there are so many different ways around the lot, to be able to deliver a song that has meaning.
You’ve got the depth of a Paul Simon song, you’ve got the fun of an Abba song, you’ve the anger and drive of a Sex Pistol song, who would be dumb enough to rob themselves of Paul Simon because they like the Sex Pistols? Nobody’s that stupid. Using the sixties as an example, can you imagine somebody saying, you know, James Brown’s song, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” comes on and it‘s followed by “Don’t Worry Baby” by The Beach Boys, “Oh, I hate The Beach Boys because I like James Brown.”
G: Years back I’d come across friends who only knew The Knack for “My Sharona”. When I’d share a cassette tape of other Knack songs they were impressed by the songs and their musicality.
I understand to a certain extent what happened, because “My Sharona” was such a big hit and kind of a phenomenon in it’s own way. It would overshadow a lot of songs, that’s understandable. You couple that with the self-fulfilling prophecy of the reviewer who just couldn’t wait to blast the band and the music and it just became a reality of it’s own, that was the reality of perception. When I was growing up in the late sixties, The Beach Boys were a joke. And The Beach Boys were a joke because we were all hippy kids. And The Beach Boys, “Oh, they were that band that did Surf Music.” Well, skip forward five or six years and The Beach Boys music is considered great, capital “G”.
G: When you played the “My Sharona” solo, with the lights coming up and the crowd standing on their feet and arms in the air, you felt the powerful feeling of energy and feedback, there’s kind of a build up to that I think, because you know the fans want to hear “My Sharona”, they’ve heard it many, many times, but when six hundred people start laughing at a joke, its as if you’re hanging on a ledge and you’re waiting for a response and when it happens, it registers simultaneously with audience, that has to be mind blowing.
That’s very insightful. You’re right, “My Sharona” is a proven commodity, you know it’s going to get them going and with the joke, they’ve literally never seen the show before and never heard the joke before.
G: One more question before we sign off Berton… Do you have an rock instrumental CD in you just dying to get out?
You know, there have been times when I thought, I’d like to do that just to basically show what I can do and to create some, I hope, good music. I am so separated from the music business at this stage of my life. Let me put it this way, if I had a good friend who had a website from which he launched new music and he said, “All you have to do Bert is record 15 songs and give them to me and I’ll do the rest.” I would do it. But, I don’t have any level of expectation. It’s hard for me to do music without it being career oriented. I’m a results guy, I really am, and that’s one of the reasons why the musical theater thing works so well for me
because you write on assignment. You don’t wake up in the morning and go, “The sky’s so blue.” and it inspires you to write a song. You’re inspired to write a song because we need a song. And I love working an assignment, because it focuses me. So, just basically to write and create instrumental music, I’d rather take anything good from that and apply it to what we’re doing in musical theater.
G: On behalf of RSR, I want to thank you for your time and the great interview. I hope you have continued success with composing for Musical Theater.
Thank you. I hope you got some good stuff.