Tuesday, January 15, 2013

How Joan Jett's "Runaway" Solo Success Improved Former Band's "Reputation"

Before my recent '80s conversion, I never understood the big deal about Joan Jett. As with the Go-Go's, I used to hear critics talk about how she was a pioneer for females in rock and some mumbo jumbo of that nature. For what? One big hit single that she didn't even write? And it wasn't even that great of a song anyway. So when I'd see her name listed with potential nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I had to wonder if I'd missed something.

I think I had.

Before Joan Jett fronted the Blackhearts (whoever they happened to be), she was a member, though not lead singer, of a notorious all-female band called the Runaways. The Runaways are probably more famous now than they were when they were actively performing. A couple of years ago, a movie came out about the Runaways starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, and when a movie comes out about a '70s band and it's starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, people might tend to think that the band must have been really significant. Turns out there's still some debate over just how significant the Runaways were. I love a good rock scholar fight just as much as the next blogger. In his AMG bio of the band, Steve Huey writes:
Often dismissed during their existence as a crass marketing gimmick, the Runaways have grown in stature over the years as the first all-female band to make a substantial impression on the public by playing loud, straight-up, guitar-driven rock & roll. Since all of the members were teenagers (some of whom were still learning to play their instruments when they passed their auditions), the band's music was frequently raw and amateurish, but it neatly combined American heavy metal with the newly emerging sound of punk rock. In the media, the Runaways were victims of their own hype, supplied by maverick promoter/manager Kim Fowley. Fowley's insistence on a sleazy jailbait image for the group made it easy for the press to dismiss them as nothing but a tasteless adolescent fantasy -- an impression bolstered at the time by the admittedly erratic quality of their music. But in the end, the Runaways' sound and attitude proved crucially important in paving the way for female artists to crank up the volume on their guitars and rock as hard as the boys; plus, they produced one undeniably classic single in the rebel-girl manifesto "Cherry Bomb."
But in his review of The Mercury Albums Anthology, Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes:
Anybody won over to the Runaways via the charms or Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning will find this to be much too much -- really, they’ll be satiated by a quick download of “Cherry Bomb” -- as this is intended for connoisseurs of sleaze and those under the impression that the female foursome were pioneers not at all under the skeevy thumb of Kim Fowley. Both groups may find what’s contained on Mercury Albums Anthology somewhat underwhelming: the Runaways plodded as much as the plundered, hammering out three-chord riffs that had more to do with frizzy-haired metal than any kind of proto-punk ... the lasting impression of this double-disc set is that the Runaways' myth is always better than their music.
In other words, the Runaways may have been influential, but that doesn't mean they were particularly good.

A band always looks better, however, when one of its members goes on to display legitimate talent in a solo career. But while the Runaways sounded like '70s bar band rock and heavy metal, Jett leaned more toward punk and, intriguingly, glam rock. She recorded her first album without even having a record deal, and as with the Runaways, I'm not sure how many people actually heard this material at the time. But in retrospect, I think solo Joan Jett was already an improvement. Her first small hit, "Bad Reputation," sounds to me like the Great Lost Ramones Song.

Her first album also included a cover of '70s glam rocker Gary Glitter's "Do You Wanna Touch Me? (Oh Yeah)," which became a hit only after Jett had broken through with "I Love Rock 'n' Roll." Of course, the statement "Do You Wanna Touch Me?" has a very different meaning now that Glitter is a convicted child molester, but I'm sure Jett meant no such harm.

In summary: despite "looking tougher" and "rocking harder," the Runaways were no Go-Go's, solo Joan Jett is actually pretty good, and sometimes my unconscious sexism gets in the way of my discovering good music.

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