In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
There really was a Sharona. Actually, there really is a Sharona; Sharona Alperin has been a successful real estate agent in Los Angeles for decades. Over the years, Alperin has given a bunch of interviews about being the Sharona from “My Sharona” — including this one, last year, with her daughter. But in 1979, when Alperin met Doug Fieger, frontman for the LA rock band the Knack, she was 17. Fieger was 25. The biggest hit of 1979, then, was a song about a grown man being hopelessly horny for a teenage girl.
Doug Fieger came from the Detroit suburbs, and he led a trio called Sky who released a couple of albums on RCA in the early ’70s. After Sky’s records didn’t go anywhere and the band broke up, Fieger packed up and moved to Los Angeles, where he met a guitarist and keyboardist named Berton Averre. They put together the Knack, started playing local clubs, became a local sensation, and quickly signed to Capitol. Somewhere in there, Fieger and his girlfriend walked into an LA clothing store, and Fieger immediately lost his mind for Sharona Alperin, who was working there at the time. Right in front of his girlfriend, Fieger walked up to Alperin and invited her to a Knack show.
By all accounts, Fieger basically pestered Alperin for a full year. She had a serious boyfriend, so she wasn’t interested, but she liked the band. Fieger and Averre wrote “My Sharona,” the Knack’s debut single, together; Fieger says the song took him about 15 minutes to write. It was one of many Knack songs about Alperin. (Others included “She’s So Selfish” and “That’s What The Little Girls Do.”) The band played it for Alperin one night at practice, and it didn’t occur to her that the song was about her until she was driving home that night. Apparently, though, she liked it enough to pose for the single’s cover art. That’s her up at the top of the page.
All of this is, quite simply, pretty gross. “My Sharona” isn’t a love song; it’s a sex song. It’s a song about being so horny that you’re climbing the walls. Its lyrics are absolutely brazen: “Never gonna stop, give it up, such a dirty mind/ I always get it up for the touch of the younger kind.” There’s also the bit where Fieger bleats about what’s running down the length of his thigh, Sharona. And yet somehow the scuzziest thing about the song isn’t even the lyrics; it’s the delivery. It’s Fieger yipping and hooting and stuttering and electric-shock yelping, sounding like he can’t keep himself together. And apparently, he really couldn’t.
This one extraordinarily horny man melting down over this way-too-young girl was, in the end, what it took to break new wave in America. In interviews, Fieger talked about how he wanted the Knack to bring back the excitement of the British Invasion; he was, after all, old enough that he’d watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. But Fieger was also at least aware of what was happening in England, and “My Sharona” was directly inspired by Elvis Costello songs like “Pump It Up.” (Elvis Costello never had a top-10 hit in the US. His highest-charting single, 1989’s “Veronica,” peaked at #19.)
UPDATE: Berton Averre has a clarification to make.
I was inspired by the drum breakdown in "Pump it Up", the energy, the kick and snare as opposed to straight hi hat snare that most other songs do. That's pretty much it. The riff came out of my gut. The song came out of Doug and my sense of fun, and the history of rock.
— Berton Averre (@Averre13) February 17, 2020
The Knack weren’t the first new wave band to score an American #1 hit; that was Blondie, who’d gotten there a few months earlier with “Heart Of Glass.” But “Heart Of Glass” was, more or less, a disco song. “My Sharona” was plainly not. “My Sharona” stood in stark opposition to disco — a big and brash and dumb and horny white-guy rock song, recorded fast and clean. The Knack had come along at the exact right moment — just as the disco backlash was entering the public consciousness, when people wanted something new. For a minute, the Knack were it.
The Knack recorded their debut album Get The Knack with Blondie collaborator Mike Chapman, the producer probably most responsible for figuring out how that early American new wave should sound. “My Sharona” might not sound a whole lot like “Heart Of Glass,” but it does sound like a previous Chapman-produced chart-topper, Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child In The City.” Both “My Sharona” and “Hot Child” are catchy, sticky, classicist guitar-driven power-pop songs, and both of them are songs where sleazy grown men with weird voices get way too excited about much-younger girls. The first time the Knack played “My Sharona” for Mike Chapman, Chapman told them that it was a #1 hit. He should know.
So “My Sharona” was not a paradigm shift. It had precedents, “Hot Child In The City” among them. In its big fists-up drum sound, “My Sharona” recalled the giddy glam-pop songs that Chapman had recorded with UK bands like the Sweet before coming to the US. “My Sharona” also shares at least a bit in common with mid-’70s bubblegum stompers from groups like the Bay City Rollers, and with revved-up early-’70s hard rockers like Bachman-Turner Overdrive, who also stuttered dirtily in their #1 hit. The “My Sharona” bridge, with the giddy Berton Averre guitar solo, sounds more than a little like Boston.
But on “My Sharona,” as on the rest of their deeply underrated debut album Get The Knack, the Knack busted out all those well-known tricks with force and urgency and charm, which is really all a pop musician ever needs to do. Fieger later said that “My Sharona” was written from the perspective of a 14-year-old boy. And even though it’s clearly written from the perspective of a 25-year-old man so horny that he feels like he’s still 14, there’s a joyous teenage immediacy to the song. Fieger is getting away with something, and he sounds like he knows it.
“My Sharona” is also just a good rock song. The entire band contributes to that riff. The drums kick hard in an instantly-recognizable pattern. The bass has a flirty growl to it. The guitar slashes and peacocks. When the whole band hits the Ric Flair “whoo!” together on the chorus, it’s genuinely exciting. Morally, “My Sharona” is an indefensible song. But it’s also a lot of fun, which is all an indefensible song can really hope to be.
“My Sharona” sold more than any other single in 1979, and Get The Knack also moved two million copies. Record execs started signing any band that sounded like the Knack, which makes the band at least partly responsible for the new wave boom in America. But the Knack also kicked off an immediate backlash of their own, and they never again came anywhere near the success of “My Sharona.” Their follow-up single “Good Girls Don’t” made it to #11, but the band’s next two albums, 1980’s …But The Little Girls Understand and 1982’s Round Trip, both tanked. The Knack broke up in 1982.
So Doug Fieger did not become a rock star in any lasting way. He did, however, finally win the girl he’d been breathlessly and publicly pursuing. Sharona Alperin started dating Doug Fieger a year after they’d first met, and they were engaged for a while. They broke up a little while after the Knack did. In this LA Weekly story, Alperin says, “My line was, it was time for me to become my Sharona.” (Great line.)
When none of their solo careers worked out, the Knack reunited in 1986. They toured and recorded intermittently over the years. That ended in 2010, when Doug Fieger died of brain and lung cancer. He was 57.
Oh, another thing about “My Sharona”: It was the #1 song in America on the day I was born. I feel pretty good about that.
BONUS BEATS: In 1979, the 19-year-old college student “Weird” Al Yankovic wrote a wonderfully dumb “My Sharona” parody called “My Bologna.” Accompanying himself on accordion, Yankovic recorded it in the bathroom across the hall from the college radio station where he was a DJ. Yankovic sent “My Bologna” to the syndicated novelty-song DJ Dr. Demento, who loved it. Doug Fieger also loved “My Bologna,” and he introduced Yankovic to the head of Capitol Records. Capitol released “My Bologna” — the version that Yankovic had recorded in the bathroom — as a single. And thus, a decades-long beloved song-parody career was born. Here’s footage of Yankovic playing “My Bologna” live in 1979:
(Yankovic’s highest-charting single is 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” a parody of another song that will end up in this column. It peaked at #9, and it’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Dead Kennedys came up with their own “My Sharona” parody — “my payola!” — and included it in “Pull My Strings,” an anti-music industry song that they played at the Bay Area Music Awards in 1980. Here’s the live recording, later included on the 1987 Dead Kennedys compilation Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Run-D.M.C. and producer Rick Rubin sampled “My Sharona” on the group’s 1987 classic “It’s Tricky.” The Knack sued over the uncleared sample in 2006, and the lawsuit was settled three years later. Here’s the “It’s Tricky” video:
(“It’s Tricky” peaked at #57. Run-D.M.C.’s highest-charting single was the 1986 Aerosmith collaboration “Walk This Way,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 5.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1990, before he formed House Of Pain, Everlast rapped over a “My Sharona” sample on his single “I Got The Knack.” Here’s the video:
(As a solo artist, Everlast has never had a top-10 hit; his highest-charting single, 1998’s “What It’s Like,” peaked at #13. House Of Pain are a different story; their highest-charting single, 1992’s “Jump Around,” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Quentin Tarantino wanted to use “My Sharona” in Pulp Fiction during the butt-rape scene with the Gimp and Zed and Marsellus Wallace. (Tarantino once said that “My Sharona” “has a really good sodomy beat to it.”) But on the same day that the Knack got the Pulp Fiction offer, they also got an offer to use the song in the Ben Stiller film Reality Bites. Apparently, it was not a difficult decision. Berton Averre: “One was this hip comedy starring Winona Ryder, and the other was for the homosexual rape scene in Pulp Fiction. Hmmm, that’s a tough choice.” The Reality Bites scene actually caused a renewed wave of popularity for “My Sharona”; it returned to the Hot 100 in 1994 and peaked at #91. So here’s the (great) scene of Winona Ryder, Janeane Garofalo, and Steve Zahn dancing to “My Sharona” in a gas-station convenience store: