With the release of an archival title, Live at the House of Blues, Hollywood, the bassist reflects on time spent with the band touted as the next Beatles
Prescott Niles has lived a charmed life, at least as far as his music is concerned.
As the bass player for the Knack, he was part of something that began with the band’s 1979 smash hit, “My Sharona,” and eventually made them a major phenomenon, earning comparisons to the Beatles. However, his career brought him several extraordinary encounters well before he saw that success.
VIDEO: The Knack “My Sharona”
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Prescott was a regular at legendary rock venues Max’s Kansas City, The Fillmore East, and Steve Paul’s The Scene in the late 1960s and ‘70s. His association with another Brooklyn musician, guitarist Velvert Turner, led him to meet Jimi Hendrix on several occasions and later, to play live with Spirit’s Randy California and Arthur Lee of Love.
Nevertheless, Niles’ role as an early, erstwhile trendsetter in the world of power pop remained intact well after the Knack’s initial demise. He played bass on Josie “Johnny Are You Queer” Cotton’s second album, backed up rocker Gary Myrick and, in 2011, joined Missing Persons, a band that shared the Knack’s tenure at Capitol Records in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
However, one of his greatest rewards came in 1986, when he was invited to participate in a studio jam with George Harrison and, in turn, given the opportunity to record the song “Someplace Else” for the soundtrack of the ill-fated film Shanghai Surprise, which later appeared on Harrison’s Cloud Nine album in re-recorded form.
AUDIO: George Harrison “Someplace Else”
These days, Niles maintains a comfortable, seemingly down-to-earth existence in Los Angeles. His children, Gabe, Noah and Olivia, take after their dad by making music in their own outfit, Gateway Drugs, and have, to date, released a pair of albums of their own. Meanwhile, Niles himself proudly retains his connection to the Knack. Although the band broke up for the final time following the death of singer and front man Doug Fieger in 2010 and the passing of drummer Bruce Gary four years earlier, he proudly touts the posthumous release of a new live album, Live at the House of Blues, Hollywood, recorded a mere two weeks after 9/11 on September 25, 2001.
Indeed, a two-hour phone call with this amiable individual testifies to his enthusiasm as far as sharing the Knack’s legacy and the amazing exploits he’s had as a musician both before and since. Nevertheless, it’s the Knack that dominates the conversation as he reflects on the band’s mega-selling debut, Get the Knack, its immediate successors, …But the Little Girls Understand and Round Trip, and the three albums that followed when the group reconvened in the ‘90s — Serious Fun, Zoom and Normal as the Next Guy.
“Capitol Records groomed us and gave us money to become the next Beatles,” Niles now says in retrospect, noting that he’s still in contact with several of the folks he worked with at the label. (I have to mention at this juncture, that yours truly was a promotion rep for Capitol and, as such, had the pleasure of seeing the band live and subsequently meeting them backstage after an L.A. concert. A photo that documents that event still hangs on the wall of my music room, as does a platinum record commemorating the success of “My Sharona.”)
Anyway, back to Niles.… “I have a unique story like nobody else,” he insists. “I grew up in Brooklyn, but I worked as a busboy in Upstate New York to make some money, but they fired me. So I knew about the Woodstock area so we went up there a couple of days early. As we’re hitchhiking, we could see the line-up of the bands posted on the telephone poles. So I get an idea. Why don’t we say I’ll tell people that I’m a guitar player for Santana and I gotta get to Woodstock. I gotta get a ride. Nobody really had heard of them so they didn’t know the difference, so that’s how we got a ride. My whole thing was to get there a day or two early because I didn’t have any money to buy tickets. Somebody told me they still needed work done so the idea was to sign up do some construction or at least pretend to, and then at least I’d be there and not have to pay. I didn’t know that the next day everybody got in free anyway.”
Inspired by his experience at Woodstock, Niles became immersed in the music scene back home in Brooklyn.
“The Fillmore was my education,” he recalls. “The greatest groups played there, and early on, I knew I wanted to play music and be a musician. So a year later, I’m back in Woodstock with my friend Velvert. He had been Jim Hendrix’s understudy, and after Jimi died in the summer of 1970, people figured Velvert was going to be maybe a good facsimile. So we’re in Woodstock a year later signing a record deal with Gulf and Western and Woodstock promoter Michael Lang for his record label. That’s my Woodstock story. I think it’s pretty, unique let alone the fact that I hustled getting there.
Of course, Niles’ big break came when he joined the Knack, and from that point on, the Beatles comparisons became inevitable, thanks to the band’s look, attitude and instantly infectious songs.
“The funny thing was when we played live, nobody ever brought up the Beatles,” Niles insists. “Nevertheless, Capitol Records was one of the ten record companies I wanted to is go with. We were offered a lot of money by Polygram Records, so when people say to me that Capitol signed us for the most money ever for a new group, I don’t know about that. We only took $100,000. We didn’t take a million because we didn’t want to owe money on an advance.”
Prior to the Knack, Niles spent a formative period in England between 1973 and 1975, which is where he met the man who would eventually become the Knack’s producer, Mike Chapman. So when I was in England, it seemed that which is that every song most of the hit songs were written by Mike Chapman and making the top ten. I befriended Mike through his wife, which enabled me to meet a lot of people.”
Around the same time, he had the opportunity to meet drummer Bruce Gary, an American who had played in a band with bassist Jack Bruce and ex-Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor.
“I met Bruce before the Knack,” Niles says. “He was incredible, really into the progressive scene. We were going to form a band, but it never happened. Anyway, it got me back to L.A., but then he went back to England to play with Mick Taylor.”
In the meantime, singer/guitarist Doug Fieger, a native of Michigan, was beginning to scope out his own plans for the future. He had previously played in an eclectic rock band called Sky, whose sole album happened to be produced by Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller. Nevertheless, Sky failed to find a following and Fieger decided to move to L.A., where he met future Knack guitarist Berton Averre. After recruiting Gary as their drummer, Niles was brought on board a mere week before the band’s first gig.
“Bruce called me one day, and said, ‘Hey, man, I’m playing with these guys,'” Nile recalls. “Bruce, Berton and Doug had done a demo that they sent to Capitol. So Bruce told me I’d be cool to play bass because I kind of looked the part. So we rehearsed and we did a showcase for Casablanca records two days later. But it was clear they weren’t into what we did.”
Still, the band needed a name.
“Before the Knack became the Knack, Doug wanted to call the band 2020,” Niles reflects. “But there was another group called 20/20.”
Happily, that didn’t prevent the band from being signed and the rest, as they say, is history.
“We were a great band,” Niles says in retrospect. We just started playing, but we had no idea what was happening in the beginning. A lot of the songs simply came naturally as a result of the band just being the band, songs like ‘(She’s So) Selfish’ and ‘Frustrated. And of course, ‘My Sharona’ came as a result of being a band with a unique band sound and having a drummer like Bruce Gary and Berton’s guitar playing, which was exceptional. And so everything kind of grew organically. Nobody told us what to write. Nobody gave us money. We just played and did our thing.”
Still, there was more to it than that.
“I knew we were special during our rehearsals,” Niles continues. “Plus, playing with Bruce number one was a dream to me. But Doug was a great frontman, Berton was an exceptional guitar player, and I dug the material. So I knew then that was probably the best band I had ever played with, one I was excited to play with. I was not just doing it to do it, because I wanted it to be great. And Bruce was such a great drummer. I was good, but I knew I had to be really good. Because Bruce was the kind of guy that if you made a mistake on stage, he would stare at you when you messed up. I say that affectionately. After that show, we shook hands and we knew we had something special and we started gigging around the town and like any other band, we were doing two shows a night at The Troubadour.”
Before long, the buzz began.
“The greatest thing that happened for us that was not happening at that time in L.A., was that people started jamming with us,” Niles maintains. “And the first person to jam with us was Eddie Money. When we had met him, we just hit it off. He invited us to jam with him and we’d do ‘Two Tickets To Paradise.’”
Other encounters quickly followed as the Knack became ingrained in the thriving L.A. music scene. “Tom Petty was in the audience at The Troubadour drunk, and he came up and we did ‘Mona’ and ‘Not Fade Away’,” Niles remembers. “I was feeling good at that point, because I was thinking, like, why would people jam with us unless we were really good and we had something special? The third person that jammed with us was Bruce Springsteen. Steve Stills would jam with us as well.”
Niles says that at that point, a lot of record companies became interested in signing the band. “They heard the songs of course, but I think the fact that we were getting respect musically and why we went with Capitol in particular was not only due to the fact that they had signed the Beatles, but because everybody at the company came to see us — the people in the mailroom, the secretaries, and it became almost like family to us. We didn’t do it for the money. I heard stories saying that they gave us money. They wanted us to be the Beatles, they groomed us for that and all this other crap.
All these years later, Nile still credits Mike Chapman for the success of “My Sharona.”
“Ironically, Mike Chapman was the only person that said ‘My Sharona’ was a number one song,” he explains. “We just ran through the song the first time we went to record it. And Mike went, ‘Okay, great.’ And we went, ‘What do you mean? That was just a run through. And he goes, ‘Yeah, well, you got it. And we argued with him, but then we went and heard it. Mike knew what he wanted. No, it wasn’t perfect, but he wanted the freshness to it. And we were able to do that with only minor overdubs on the guitar and vocals. When I tell people that they can’t believe it, because Bruce’s drumming was phenomenal. And to me, Berton’s guitar solo is one of the greatest pop solos of all time. Unfortunately, Berton never gets the credit he deserves. And when they made the single, they cut half the solo out.”
At the time, even as the Knack was fielding comparisons to the Beatles, the backlash from the critics were beginning.
Given the advantage of hindsight, Niles is able to put it all in perspective.
“Listen, the Beatles had three lead singers,” he reasons. “We had one. How can we be the Beatles? It was the whole vibe. Some people said that the cover of our first album was an attempt to emulate the cover of the Beatles’ first album, but I can assure you that that picture was not staged to imitate the cover of the Meet the Beatles album. It’s just a group shot with goofy faces. But the critics grabbed on to that.
“So a lot of the attacks on us were based on the fact that somebody said we wanted to be the new Beatles. Just because we sold more records and we went gold or sold more singles more singles than any other group since the Beatles doesn’t mean we were milking those comparisons. We had picked the record label because Doug liked it. The Beach Boys were on Capitol as well. The critics were more critical of us because they were trying to put us on a pedestal.”