Best Of The Runaways
Click on song title links for the lyrics to that song.
January 1976. Hardly rock 'n' roll's proudest moment. America's pop Top 10 drifts aimlessly in the Me Decade, awash with MOR flotsam and disco jetsam. What little rock 'n' roll succeeds in poking through probably attracts scant attention in rock 'n' roll heaven: The Bay City Rollers and Sweet are more on the level of confection or novelty, not unlike, say, C.W. McCall, whose "Convoy" is serious business. In short, the charts offer little that's potent, important, tough 'n' honest.
Interviewing Joan Jett, the emerging head of the Runaways, for a magazine's update on the group as they finish recording their second album in L.A., I note the state of pop radio and ask how she likes the gestating New York CBGB scene and acts like Patti Smith, Blondie, Television, the Ramones, et al. For there is a sort of connection -- they're all sparks in a rock 'n' roll renaissance, new voices making some noise.
"It's about time some fun kind of music came back," Joan asserts. "We want to get some other kind of music in there 'cause every time I turn on KHJ [then L.A.'s reigning Top 40] I can't listen to it for more than 10 minutes. 'Cause it's the same kind of music over and over, disco, pop, and... if they'd just throw something in there once in a while! I think a lot of people want to hear it."
April 1982. A lot of people do want to hear it, and they keep Joan Jett's first single from her second solo album on Boardwalk Records, "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," number one for seven weeks. Unfortunately, KHJ, on which Joan very much wanted to be heard, has long retired into a country format. But Joan is heard on Top 40 stations as well as FM album rock radio, and her song stands as an anthem. It's all more triumphant-sounding when you know what went before it. From the critical lambasting the Runaways suffered (Rolling Stone still refers to them as "Kim Fowley's quintet of teen teasers"), the group's failure to succeed in the U.S. (in Japan they were superstars), and the fact that the other Runaways twice refused Joan's plea to record the song, to the lengthy string of rejections Joan Jett's first solo album elicited from major labels. "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" exemplifies the winning style Joan has forged with producer / manager Kenny Laguna. It's a heavy metal approach to pop that might lapse into bubblegum were it not for Joan's sensibility, which is very much punk.
The origins of Joan's style are here to be relived in The Best Of The Runaways. With a directness previously unheard from women in rock, the Runaways belted out statements of teen rebellion. Lady James Deans, if you will. Teenagers themselves, they championed for their g-g-generation the glories of rock 'n' roll, late night partying, and sex, but the archetypal emphasis was on living to the max, true to your passions. And of course in a middle class world this meant being "bad." And fairly often -- as in most of the tracks selected for this set -- they expressed this most devastatingly in writing and performance. The Runaways played loud, hard, heavy, and... well. The rhythm section of Sandy West (drums), Jackie Fox (bass, Side 2) and later Vicki Blue (bass most of Side 1), and Jett (rhythm guitar) cooked, and provided a great foundation for Lita Ford's adept and aggressive lead guitar playing, which ambitiously reached for Jeff Beck/Jimmy Page heights.
The Runaways' moxie shocked many (including some critics?). But it also changed some male-female stereotypes, and spoke for a whole lotta girls, some of whom consequently turned to playing rock 'n' roll too. Arguably, the Runaways made possible Chrissie Hynde, Pat Benatar, the Go-Gos, Girlschool, and countless others.
If that end justifies the means, one cannot fault the Runaways for the way they were formed, produced and "directed" --largely by Hollywood Argyle-turned-rockmeister Kim Fowley. Fowley, it seems to me, was more catalyst than Svengali. Most of the Runaways were very talented, and when they came to Fowley they were rockers looking to happen, not seals looking to be trained.
The beginning predates Fowley, actually. It goes back to 1974 when 14-year-old Joan Jett trailed Suzi Quatro around Hollywood's Continental "Riot" House. Quatro, though Detroit bred, was one of the several glitter-pop stars (Gary Glitter was another) who became the rage in England in the early 70's but could barely get arrested in the U.S., except to fans like Joan. As she explained her Quatro fixation to me, "I didn't like [early 70's all-women groups] Fanny or Isis. They didn't really do it - play rock 'n' roll." In 1975, Joan and friend Kari Krome approached Fowley to help them form a band. Fowley, the story goes, told them if they could find one more he'd do it. Soon after Joan and Kari met Sandy West in the Rainbow Bar parking lot... and Kim went to work. First he determined that Krome was okay as a lyricist but not as a singer, and proceeded to bring in Mickey Steel (quickly replaced by Jackie), Lita, and a vocalist Cherie Currie, whom he found at a San Fernando Valley teen club called the Sugar Shack.
After rehearsing them, Fowley signed them to Mercury, and produced The Runaways. Like most first albums it was raw like the ch-ch-cherry bomb of the opening track, "Cherry Bomb" (which by the way was the sort of number that tagged them as Jailbait Rock. Consider such lines as "Hey street boy...I'll give you something / to live for / Have ya, grab ya, 'til you're sore"). Definitely not the stuff of Queen / Yes / Genesis-styled opuses, the music prevailing on album rock radio in the mid-70's. Queens of Noise, the second LP, wasn't exactly subdued, but its songs and production were far more refined, with Earle Mankey (Sparks, the Beach Boys) brought in to co-produce. By this LP, Joan's sphere had grown more dominant. Previously, she'd written or co-written much of the Runaways' best material, now she sang most of it, too. Yet, the Runaways persisted as a group effort, and this is evidenced on their Live In Japan LP, an LP never released in America but represented here by "You Drive Me Wild."
Back in the U.S. in 1977, the girls cut their third Fowley-produced studio LP, Waitin' for the Night. It was pretty much Joan's record, considering that both Cherie and Jackie earlier had left the band, and only Jackie had been replaced (by Blue). Once again, the Runaways propounded their essential pop / metal / punk style, but American radio refused them again, now lumping them with the Sex Pistols, Clash, Jam, and whatever as an excuse not to admit that times had changed.
Still, Joan, Lita, Sandy, and Vicki clung together, and in 1978 they parted ways with Kim Fowley and, since their deal was tied to Fowley, Mercury. In now was Suzi Quatro and Blondie's manager at the time, Toby Mamis. It was Mamis' inspired idea to offer the group to producer Kenny Laguna, but Laguna, Joan's current mentor, turned them down! Mamis then turned to ex-Thin Lizzy producer John Alcock, and they cut And Now...The Runaways!, as it was titled in Europe (The LP wouldn't find release in North America until 1981, when Rhino Records put it out as Little Lost Girls.) It was during these sessions that the differences set in that would tear them apart, with Lita and Sandy on one side (heavy metal), and Joan on another (punk). Vicki Blue, meanwhile, was sidelined with a medical condition (not drugs), leaving Lita to record many of the bass parts on the album. For their remaining gigs, they replaced Blue with Laurie McCallister. But McCallister would leave shortly to form the Runaways-like Orchids (who released one LP on MCA).
Yet the final bizarre twist in the story came in the months before the Runaways' total dissolution in early 1979. Joan ended up fulfilling an obligation to film the Runaways movie(!). Called "We're All Crazy Now", it would star Joan with actresses playing her fellow bandmates. The movie, thanks to Joan's current success but much to her chagrin, may find release in late 1982. In the meantime, it sits vaulted away. The Runaways' records, thankfully do not.
And where are the Runaways now?
Joan: Well accounted for here and in journals everywhere.
Lita: About to release her debut with the Lita Ford Band, a metal outfit also featuring Neil Merryweather on bass.
Cherie: Acting in films. Did "Foxes" and recorded one poorly received LP with sister Marie called Messin' with the Boys. See Vicki.
Sandy: Rehearsing the hard rock Sandy West Group to begin playing the Hollywood club scene.
Jackie: Last reported to be working for a motivational therapy organization, after having toiled in record promotion.
Vicki: Recording with Cherie in the Currie Blue Band, after having recorded one unreleased LP.
"I think the Runaways were just too honest."
-- Joan Jett, New Musical Express, April 1982.
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