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Songwriter Knight Tries Her Own Device

September 10, 1986|STEVE POND

When Holly Knight decided to form a rock 'n' roll band, the first thing she got was a record contract. That took two days.

Then she recruited a singer and a guitarist, wrote songs, chose a band name and prepared material. That took two years.

Most musicians do it the other way around. But Knight didn't have to follow the usual path for her band, Device, because Chrysalis Records figured she could do for herself what she had already done for Pat Benatar, Tina Turner, Rod Stewart and lots of others.

The way Knight tells it, getting the record deal was almost too easy. "(Songwriter-producer) Mike Chapman went to Chrysalis and said, 'Holly Knight wants to put a group together. She has no songs and she can't showcase for you because the band's not together yet, but you know the songs will be of the highest quality and she'll put together a great group.' And they signed me purely on that basis."

Before she formed Device (which plays the Coach House tonight and the Palace Thursday), Knight co-wrote Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield" and Turner's "Better Be Good to Me." And while she was leisurely assembling the band, she did some serious moonlighting, writing or co-writing more songs for Benatar and Turner ("Invincible" and "One of the Living," respectively), plus tunes for Stewart ("Love Touch"), Heart ("Never"), Animotion ("Obsession") and Divinyls ("Pleasure and Pain"), among others. Add up the credits and Knight is one of the more successful songwriters of recent years.

"Basically I'm writing the same good songs, but now Device gets to keep them," Knight said. "And I'm just banking on the fact that it's gonna be as successful as those other artists."

So far, it hasn't been. The band's first single, "Hanging on a Heart Attack," only made it to No. 35 on Billboard's chart, while its album, "22B3," peaked at No. 73.

But success has apparently taught Knight to be confident.

"I'd be disappointed if it doesn't do well," said Knight, wearing black leather and looking younger and less glamorous than her album cover and publicity photos. "I'd be very disappointed. But I know that the quality of these tunes is the best that I could have done for that time. I'd know that if it didn't happen it'd be for reasons beyond our control, not because of the quality of the record."

Even before becoming a hit songwriter, Knight had ambitions as a performer. In the late 1970s she was the keyboardist in Spider, a pop-rock band that made two albums for Mike Chapman's short-lived Dreamland label.

After that she began writing under Chapman's tutelage, making a name for herself but never tempted to record a solo album.

"I never thought of doing that," she said. "Not for one minute. I got irritated at people telling me I should do it, because I wanted a group, and I wanted a group name. There's something appealing about groups. . . . Besides which, I think Device is a cool name."

It's the "high-tech . . . sexual connotation" of the name that she likes, and that's what she was looking for when she recruited L.A. guitarist Gene Black and then spent two years combing the United States, England and Australia before finding singer Paul Engemann.

"I wanted the band to have a very modern edge to it, but also very nasty," she said. "I thought lots of stuff coming out of England had the right amount of electronic, groove-beat type thing, but not enough fire, not enough rawness. To me, the guitar is the sex in the band, and without that it's all too tidy."

Device sounds rougher than the overtly pop approach of Knight hits such as "Love Is a Battlefield" and "Love Touch." But one thing remains constant: the lyrics' brassy, cocky pose.

"It wasn't deliberate, and I never thought that all my songs were tough-sounding until people pointed it out to me," Knight said. "But I suppose I find it appealing when people are strong. Growing up in a city like New York, you have a different way of thinking, and part of that is being strong and protecting yourself. And I'm a very sort of passionate person. I'm very sensitive, and if I feel something strongly it comes out."

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