The perfect driving experience and the melding of music and machine is what Cars and Guitars is all about. So buckle up, drop it into reverse, and floor it back a thousand years to 1979, when skinny tie rock and Fox-bodied pony cars ruled the earth.
This time, let’s look at the 1979 Ford Mustang and the song “My Sharona” by The Knack. In the summer of 1979, we’d say it was a pretty good bet that “My Sharona” wafted from the new Mustangs buyers snapped up around the country and turned a lot of heads down at local hangouts. Both were new iterations of their respective genres and when paired together are a perfect snapshot of pop culture in 1979. With no further delay, let’s set the transporter dials back forty years to the dawn of the Eighties.
The world was at a tipping point in 1979. While the internet revolution was still decades away, the first wave of new-era electronic technologies was gaining momentum. The video cassette, the compact disc, the personal computer, and MTV would soon infiltrate every aspect of our lives and would be the first step in the journey leading us to where we are today. In the automotive scene, Detroit was about to endure a second wave of competition from global automakers, but was beginning to claw its way out of the “Malaise Era.” Traditional rock and roll were under assault by New Wave, a musical genre ignited by the still smoldering embers of the punk rock movement, and fresh new artists exploiting visual elements for the new medium of video.
Talk is cheap, so let’s get a taste of the times by listening to this killer live performance by The Knack from 1979. They were a great band onstage anchored by the incredible Bruce Gary on drums and Berton Averre’s lighting-fast guitar licks and solos. Even though The Knack was hugely successful, they suffered from massive overexposure and an equal amount of flack during this period. Many say they were a shameless Beatles rip-off but by today’s standards, they dwarf any current star du jour with their sheer musicianship, songwriting, and live playing. Listen to how hard-hitting the rhythm section is here with impeccable timing and tightly knit vocals from Doug Fieger and Averre.
If there was ever a car that straddled two automotive eras, it would be the 1979 Mustang. It was everything the Mustang II was not. Based on Ford’s new Fox body platform, it was light years ahead of its Pinto-based predecessor. With styling penned by Jack Telnak, it was crisp and made the baroque Mustang II seem as obsolete as music without an accompanying video clip.
Although Telnak worked his way up the design chain within Ford’s global operations, his defining work would become the 1979 Mustang, which would reflect his fluency with international auto design. When the 1979 Mustang sold a blistering 369,936 units, (compared to the Camaro’s 282, 571 sales of the same year,) Telnak was promoted to lead Ford’s North American design team. From there he would go on to create the look of the 1983 Thunderbird, 1984 Lincon Mark VIII, and the 1986 Taurus. His last contribution to the automotive world would be Ford’s “New Edge” theme before retiring in 1997.
Essentially a short-wheelbase Ford Fairmont, the new Mustang was light, agile, and could be had with a 302 V8 and a four-speed manual transmission. For the first time, Ford combined the Mustang with the Capri on the same platform, sending the previous European-based model back across the pond. Available in a coupe and hatchback, it would take another four model years to be joined by a convertible version.
Engines for the 1979 models included an 88hp, 2.3-liter four-cylinder Pinto mill, a 132hp 2.3-liter Turbo Four, a 109hp 2.8-liter Cologne-built V6, and the 5.0-liter V8 rated a whopping 140hp. The 2.3 turbo, as well as the V8 models, could also be optioned with the newly developed TRX handling suspension that included Michelin 390 mm tires and accompanying metric-sized wheels.
By 1980, the 302 V8 would be dropped for a 255 cubic-inch version for better gas mileage and a response to the “gas crisis” the country found itself in. The Fox body Mustang would usher in a new era of continual updates and performance enhancements, all the way until 1993 when it was finally replaced by SN-95 model. Although most folks might think 1979 was the beginning of the “5.0” era for Mustang, the Cobra was the performance model in 1979. The GT moniker would replace it in 1982 and the rest is history. Ford sold 10,479 Pace Car models as well.
If there was ever a band that mashed up pop music, it was The Knack. Although a seemingly overnight success, they had been paying their dues for years. Singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Doug Fieger, initially gained fame in Michigan back in the ’70s with his band Sky. But when the group was met with lukewarm reviews, he changed the backdrop and fled to Los Angeles in 1973.
It was in the City of Angels that he met guitarist, Berton Averre, and they began a decade-long writing partnership. Songs from this period appeared on The Knack’s debut album, although some remained shelved for years. Drummer, Bruce Gary, and bassist, Prescott Niles, would eventually join the band and The Knack made their live debut on June 1st, 1978 at the Whisky A Go-Go in Los Angeles.
The Knack was turned down by several record labels, so they became relentless road dogs and played an unrelenting cadence of concert dates. Their tight, frenetic sets started garnering attention which culminated in 14 record contract offers after an impromptu onstage jam with Bruce Springsteen.
Get the Knack debuted on June 11, 1979, and it didn’t take long for radio stations to place “My Sharona” in heavy rotation. The syncopated rhythm section grabs your attention, but it’s the guitar riff that hammers the hook into your brain. It bolted to the top of the Billboard charts in the summer of 1979 and stayed there for six straight weeks, going gold in just 14 days. “My Sharona” went on to be the number-one-selling song of 1979 as well. The album Get The Knack went gold soon after holding court at number one for five weeks until it abdicated the top spot to Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door.
There was a second hit off their debut record, “Good Girls Don’t” which for this author is the best song from the album, but after that, The Knack never regained the momentum of their freshman album. Although all the band members were busy after their heyday, most aren’t very well known outside of The Knack’s fanbase. Too bad, because each was extraordinarily talented and brought their very best game. Sadly, drummer Bruce Gary died of lymphoma in 2006 at age 55 and vocalist Doug Fieger passed away in 2010 of brain and lung cancer at 57.
The good news is the Mustang lives on with the new S650 iteration, and the marque is doing very well, thank you. Ford has stayed the course with a gas-powered Mustang and let’s hope we can enjoy a Blue Oval, petrol pony car for years to come.
The Knack lives on in the music that has taken a permanent spot in the pantheon of rock music. So boot up your favorite streaming service, point your car toward the vanishing point, and relive the days of power pop and old-school Detroit iron. Although Doug Fieger and Bruce Gary have gone to the great jukebox in the sky, they’ll ride shotgun with you every time you hit play on Get The Knack.
As we bow out of this month’s episode of Cars and Guitars we leave you with a clip of Berton Averre teaching us how to play the guitar solo in “My Sharona.” A treat to watch Berton still rocking out after all these years. Stay tuned for more Cars and Guitars.