Teen-age America is having a Big Knack Attack.
High school corridors across the country are echoing with the brash, '60s-style rock of the Knack, a Los Angeles-based band whose debut album, "Get the Knack," is at the top of every rock chart. So is "My Sharona," the quartet's slyly sexy hit single.
The Knack's sudden rise to prominence is more than just another pop fairy tale. Capitol Records' whiz kids owe much of their starting success to one of the shrewdest promotional campaigns in pop history.
Aided by manager Scott Anderson, a former Capitol merchandising staffer, the band cleverly courted the L.A. rock press, using its initial enthusiasm to orchestrate a ferocious record company bidding war. The ploy paid off handsomely. The band reportedly won a hefty $500,000 guarantee for two albums, with options for up to seven records over a five-year period.
But who are these guys?
They're not telling.
They've refused all interviews, even a cover-story offer from Rolling Stone. Their press kit is pure pop mythology. Instead of biographical data, it reveals the group's astrological signs, preference in girls and favorite colors.
The press has returned the favor, savagely attacking the band's alleged insincereity and insensitivity. Rolling Stone described the band as "unrelievedly cynical about all the junk food topics that fill their debut album." Another critic began his review by saying, "This record makes me gag."
One L.A. writer sneered: "Theirs is music for Ken and Barbie dolls, not for human beings."
Hugh Brown, a San Francisco conceputal artist, has even launched a "Knuke the Knack" campaign, complete with a kit of Knuke the Knack T-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers. One sticker reads: "Honk if You've Slept with Sharona." His best customers? The Knack themselves, who recently bought half a dozen kits.
It's no wonder that rock critics, the medium's resident historians, resent the Knack's carefully prefabricated image. This is a band without fingerprints. Even at their first L.A. gigs last year, the group had already embraced its flirtatious '60s pop stage persona, donning skinny black ties, white shirts and tight black pants.
(Its album jacket completes this transformation, depicting the group in "Hard Day's Night" poses and resurrecting Capitol's Beatles-Era Logo.)
The Knack quickly became the talk of L.A. after a flurry of skillfully scheduled club dates last summer. "It got so their dressing room looked like a music business convention," one talent scout said. "There'd be six or seven different labels backstage at nearly every gig."
To make sure the record companies got the message, the band brought along its own fan club, armed with free or half-price tickets to the local clubs. "Their audiences were crazy" one label scout said. "You couldn't help but be influenced by all the enthusiasm. It was funny, though -- I'd see the same faces at every show."
In another move, the band sign with the prestigious William Morris Agency before it even landed a record deal. Officially the group signed on to strengthen its club bookings. But industry sources claim that the ties with William Morris served to intensify record company interests in the band.
Last December the group announced that it would pick a record label within a week. This prompted a flurry of last-ditch pitches by the top brass at virtually every major company. When the Knack played a prominent Hollywood club that weekend, five different record presidents came to see them, including such industry heavies as Clive Davis (Arista), Mo Ostin (Warner) and Al Coury (RSO).
But by then, Capitol had the inside track. "It was almost like going after a girl," said Bruce Ravid, the man who signed the group. "You just got this feeling that you were going to score."
Most bands only meet a handful of company executives. Capitol seduced the Knack en masse. "We brought down everybody to see them," said Bruce Garfield, another Capitol executive."If the head of the label met them, so did the sales, the advertising and the art department -- even the secretaries."
Capitol expects to make a handsome return on its investment, especially at the rate the album is selling -- it went platinum in seven weeks. And the group, now touring Australia and Japan, will begin a 35-city U.S. tour in mid-September. To accommodate the group's predominantly teen-age audience, many of their club dates will be non-alcoholic affairs.
These preparations are crucial to Capitol's ongoing promotional campaign, which pictures the Knack as a pivotal force in the future of rock 'n' roll. "The Knack represents a whole generation," said Bob Ringe, the group's William Morris agent. "They're the band of the '80s. Their demographics are incredible -- it's across the board. This music is for all kinds of kids.
"But they're not punk," he enthused. "They're clean."
Ringe said that he just missed booking the group on Bob Hope's TV special from China. Asked why the group should share the bill with an elder statesman such as Hope, the agent said, 'But don't you see, that's the Knack's audience, it's everybody."