Classic pop, reappraised by the Magazine
Written to woo an underage girl, My Sharona, sung by
Doug Fieger, who died this week,
has been linked to everyone from George Bush to Girls Aloud. How did a disposable song with hidden swearing prove so enduring, and who was Sharona?
First come the jerky loud tom-toms, then the leaping loud bass, then the choppy and very loud guitar. My Sharona was the biggest American hit of 1979 and remains instantly recognisable.
Lead singer Doug Fieger, then 27, had been in a series of groups and tended, he said, to write "nasty songs about girls I know". The debut single for his new band The Knack, one of these was for Sharona Alperin, a 16-year-old schoolgirl at Los Angeles's Fairfax High who was introduced to Fieger by his then-girlfriend. "She had an overpowering scent," he recalled in 1994, "and it drove me crazy."
With the age of consent being 18 in California, you might expect My Sharona to be one of those songs that hides its intentions in coded language. Not a bit of it. "Never gonna stop, give it up, such a dirty mind," goes the first verse. "I always get it up for the touch of the younger kind."
Unlikely subject matter for a number one perhaps, but in 1979 Capitol Records had decided to develop a huge band, and The Knack were launched with every trick in the music biz book: tall tales of bidding wars, record sleeves that pointedly recalled The Beatles and a producer with a impeccable track record - Mike Chapman, the man behind Suzi Quatro, The Sweet and Blondie.
Chapman recorded the song fast and cheap, with one addition to the band: Sharona herself. "I thought she looked about 14," a studio engineer told Sound On Sound magazine, recalling how Alperin joined them and how Chapman sneaked in a swear word.
Fieger and Alperin at a Bee Gees concert, LA, 1979
Everyone present was asked to add a chanted background vocal, very low in the mix, which consisted of the "F" word followed by "-a-me".
Capitol then made the recording ubiquitous; the single, with Alperin on the sleeve, went on to sell 10 million copies and The Knack toured extensively, during which Fieger sent Alperin a ticket to join him in Hawaii. "We were together for a long time after that," he told the Sydney Sun Herald. "We lived together in Los Angeles for four-and-a-half years and I wrote a lot of songs about her."
'Knuke The Knack'
Meanwhile, the song divided opinion. Like most monster hits, its influence spread beyond the charts, with "Honk If You've Slept With Sharona" bumper stickers adorning Californian cars. LA impresario Kim Fowley attributes its party anthem status to a hostility towards disco: "The Knack made it because the heterosexual white audience found out that everyone in disco was gay."
The Knack (on revival show Hit Me Baby One More Time)
The music press was not kind to the band, portraying them as a marketing exercise in sanitised punk, and "Knuke The Knack" T-shirts began to appear and were briefly worn by the band before they decided the joke wasn't funny. "We were blamed for everything short of Jonestown," Fieger recalled during their 1986 reunion.
Despite the barbs, the song became a pop culture staple, endlessly parodied and reinterpreted. First up was indefatigable parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic, whose accordion-powered My Bologna was the beginning of a stream of his food-themed re-writes.
In 1987, Run-DMC based their rap single It's Tricky around the My Sharona riff; 19 years later, The Knack were reported as seeking $150,000 from Yahoo, Amazon and Apple for distributing the hip-hop track on the basis that the sample was unauthorised.
The president's iPod
In the early 1990s two film studios, according to Fieger, approached him on the same day seeking to use My Sharona. Told he could pick only one, he opted to have the song soundtrack Winona Ryder dancing in Reality Bites. Fieger said that the alternative - the scene in Pulp Fiction in which Marsellus Wallace is sexually tortured - would have been "hilarious and wonderful", but that he was "hoping to meet" Ryder.
The Knack at the BBC, 1979
George W Bush raised eyebrows in 2005 when he announced that My Sharona was among the songs on his iPod; the president's detractors were quick to quote lines like "Runnin' down the length of my thigh, Sharona" to illustrate the absence of family values in this celebration of priapic abandon.
Its most recent revival was in Girls Aloud's No Good Advice, which critic Ben Thompson described as "cannibalising body parts from The Knack's My Sharona".
My Sharona has been back on the airwaves this week following Fieger's death and while it is inconceivable that anyone would hope for a massive hit in 2010 with a song about attraction to underage girls - or boys - that is not in the minds of most listeners or dancers when My Sharona blares out. What makes it so revivable is its army of hooks and riffs, from its stop/start structure to the Buddy Holly-style stutter.
"We call it the 'golden albatross'," said Fieger in 2007, "but it's been good to us and afforded me a wonderful lifestyle."
And what of Sharona?
The pair broke off their engagement, but remained close. Alperin is now an estate agent specialising in celebrities' homes and spent last weekend at Fieger's deathbed.
"Doug changed my life forever," she told ABC News. "He left on Valentine's Day, a day of heart and love and that was Doug - all heart and love."
Smashed Hits is compiled by Alan Connor.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I have a bad habit of changing this song to suit whatever situation I'm in at the time. I nearly drove my boyfriend mad on the Barcelona Metro by singing My Girona every time we went through the L4 stop of the same name during a two-week holiday. After a few days, just humming the riff on the train would send him into a murderous rage. And that is where the genius of the song lies - in its riff. The lyrics are puerile fantasy that make little sense, the vocal performance is undistinguished - but that bass line is a visceral thing of beauty. LL, Leeds
My mum calls it the Helicopter Song as the beat reminds her of the sound inside a helicopter when she made a trip to an oil platform in the North Sea. James Marshall, Edinburgh
"That was Doug - all heart and love." I think that's called grooming. Laura, London
This affair is no more controversial than Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his cousin when she was only 13 and he was 23. I don't know if he wrote a song about it though. Ian, Essex
Annoyingly catchy song, but for me the best aspect of it was the Dead Kennedys' send up in Pull My Strings, the song they wrote about being manipulated by their record company - My Pay-ola. Classic. JB, Bradford
A classic song that will never die. But how could you not mention the iconic cover version by The Chipmunks? Mysturji, Basingstoke
You forgot the My Corona version that was doing the rounds when the beer started to become popular in the States about a decade ago. James Schulkes, London
It was lame song that unfortunately many ignorant people thought was by the Ramones. William Johnson-Smith, London
I thought it was by the Ramones. Joe Craig, London
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