Praised as progenitors of modern riot girl music and champions of gender equality in the rock context, the L.A.-based Runaways were the first group of its kind: An all-female band whose members played their own instruments and rocked like Thin Lizzie instead of merely singing bubblegum pop.
Just as nearly every boy-band since 1964 pays homage to Elvis, The Beatles, or The Stones, so does every post 1980 pop-starlet (from Pat Benatar and Blondie to Courtney Love and Taylor Swift) owe musical debt to The Runaways.
“The Runaways could play like the boys, but without once pretending they weren’t girls,” observes author Evelyn McDonnell in Queens of Noise: The Real Story of The Runaways.
The new rock biography from Da Capo (340 pages with an 8-page photo insert) takes readers back to the band’s formation in the mid-‘70s—in the wake of the Title IX legislation promising the “fairer sex” equal opportunity in the workplace—to its messy dissolution four years later, when egos and addiction wedged the still-young women apart.
Even casual fans recognize Joan Jett and Lita Ford for their 1980s radio hits and MTV appearances, but few are as familiar with the contributions of corseted front-woman Cherie Currie and athletic drummer Sandy West to Runaways folklore. McDonnell’s book is an all-inclusive overview that draws hundreds of quotes from dozens of magazine and television interviews with the musicians, managers, confidantes, and kin to paint a bigger, clearer picture than any previous work. The Mamarama author (who also writes for The Miami Herald and Village Voice) digs deep, separating fact from fiction and myth from reality in between her own lucid expositions on the California culture, geography (“Exopolis”), and demographics (wo)manifesting in The Runaways’ union, ascent, success, and concomitant struggles.
“The Runaways were children of divorces and remarriages—quintessential latchkey kids of Frankenstein families,” surmises McDonnell.
We meet 16-year old Joan “Jett” Larkin as she buses into Canoga Park and teams with Sandy “West” Pesavento in response to an ad placed by Machiavellian music insider Kim Fowley, who’d co-written / produced novelty songs like “Alley Oop” and “Papa Oom Mow-Mow” in the ‘60s and wanted to prolong his shelf life in a finicky business.
We listen in as Larkin and Pesavento enlist bassist Michael “Micki” Steele and knock around cover tunes like The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” and Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll.” But then McDonnell switches gears, rewinding to shed light on Jett’s Philadelphia upbringing and West’s surfer girl childhood before assembling the rest of her puzzle pieces into a Polaroid mosaic of a nascent band trying to make something click along the Hollywood’s decadent Sunset Strip.
Steele doesn’t work out (but achieves stardom later with The Bangles) and is replaced by Jacqueline “Jackie Fox” Fuchs on four-string. Lita Ford answers the call for lead guitarist and signs on without taking a nickname. Relying on his military past—and using lyrics written by teen poet Kari Krome—Fowley supervised band practices in a warehouse space above a Rexall (and later his own mobile home), acting as drill sergeant to his unseasoned charges. He’d even bring friends over to “test” the girls’ mettle by heckling and pelting them with objects as they rehearsed, fortifying their nerves. But promoters and record execs passed on Fowley’s “jailbait” band and advised him to return when the project felt more complete.
Searching for a Brigitte Bardot-like personality to sing and be the group’s focal point onstage, Fowley “discovered” 15-year old Cherie Currie (and her identical twin, Marie) at a night club. Currie’s introduction was the turning point, and songs like “Cherry Bomb” became the catalyst for better shows in bigger venues, where guys and girls alike lined up to gawk at the pinup-rockers. South Bay house party concerts and a reel-to-reel recording session resulted in limited—but general favorable—press, which in turn landed the ladies coveted gigs at The Whisky a Go-Go and The Starwood. By mid-1976 the emancipated girls inked a deal with Mercury Records (with their parents as cosigners), unknowingly ceding most of their rights and royalties to puppet-master Fowley.
“Currie’s bustier was certainly a historic breakthrough—or lowering of the bar,” opines McDonnell.
“After her, many pop and fashion stars made underwear their outerwear: Vanity, Madonna, the Spice Girls, Pink, Katy Perry.”
To her credit, the writer maintains objectivity when discussing The Runaways’ eponymous debut and sophomore effort, Queens of Noise, elucidating the virtues of each LP without glossing over their flaws (bass novice Fox wasn’t even allowed to perform on the first album). In chapters like “Blood and Guts,” “Hot On Your Heels,” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Pigs” she chronicles the band’s decidedly unglamorous time on the road, cramming in vans and motoring from show to sparsely-attended show with Fowley barking over their shoulders. Kenny Ortega (of High School Musical fame) is tapped to choreograph the shows and teach the girls how to strut their stuff, further blurring the line between empowerment and exploitation. McDonnell notes how the girls’ lack of polish—but considerable kills (especially West, Jett, and Ford)—charmed at first, and how their innocence was effectively co-opted and corrupted along the way.
The band fails to break in the States but triumphs in the Far East after Ralph Peer Jr. books a Japanese tour. Readers will alternately grimace and grin absorbing the girls’ maltreatment at the hands of managers and chaperones like Fowley and Scott Anderson, who hit on Currie and company when not hollering at them—but who’s unwelcome advances are routinely rebuffed by self-confident Jett and Ford. McDonnell gives insight on how the Runaways were a marketer’s wet dream—at least on paper—a quintet of gorgeous, barely-of-age girls playing Zeppelinesque “cock rock” and shilling anthems and ballads “by teens for teens.” Yet Creem, Circus, and Rolling Stone weren’t so quick to heap on the accolades, their critics undecided on whether Fowley’s gimmick was a perverse display of servitude and submission by the girls rather than a true case of sisters doing it for themselves.
“These were hedonistic girls set loose in decadent times,” McDonnell writes. “No regrets, no apologies, no guilt, no buzz kills. The men around them walked a tightrope of indulgence and support.”
We go on the road, flop in the hotels, and peek backstage—where the mischievous musicians make “pee popsicles” and spray unsuspecting passersby with seltzer. We visit photo shoots at which creepy shutterbugs pose the ladies provocatively and in as risqué dress (or undress) as they can stomach. The nymphets take heat from Disney after allegedly “doing funny things with French fries at one such session at Magic Kingdom. Cleveland fans will enjoy details concerning the band’s rowdy Agora shows and coverage in Scene Magazine.
“I am impressed with any band that causes so many folks…to try to break or con their way in,” wrote Agora booking agent Joyce Halasa in a letter to the group’s management.
Drugs and alcohol eventually dilute the band’s musical chemistry and interpersonal dynamics. West and Ford drink their male companions under the table while Currie and Jett pop pills and shoot up to numb repressed emotions and unresolved issues. The rampant philandering and pharmaceuticals scares off straight-laced Jackie, who years later reemerges as a brilliant entertainment lawyer. Her stand-in, Victory “Vicki Blue” Tischler, appears on the group’s last two efforts—both unremarkable recordings made under strained circumstances (McDonnell cites the band’s 1977 live album as its best). Homesick and strung-out, Currie also quits by ’78 for a short-lived career in television (and chainsaw art).
Later chapters highlight the band’s breakup (and resulting litigation) and subsequent endeavors by all participants. While Jett and Ford were bound for glory, the muscular West worked in construction and debt-collecting before succumbing to drugs, crime, and—in 2006—cancer. Currie eventually cleaned up, wrote her memoirs (Neon Angel), and recently returned to the stage. Fox produced a well-received Runaways documentary based on Currie’s autobiography—Edgeplay—but McDonnell notes how Jett protested the film’s focus on their problems rather than their music. Likewise, the author remarks on the shortcomings of Floria Sigismondi’s 2010 movie The Runaways (starring Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart): Ford’s role was minimized, and the band’s bassists combined into single fictitious character amalgam named Robin.
Perhaps the most fascinated aspect of the fishnet-adorned book is McDonnell’s armchair psychoanalysis of The Runaways’ principle players. Instead of dismissing Fowley as an opportunistic Svengali (like many writers before her), she traces the term’s actual connotation to its nineteenth-century Trilby roots and assesses its meaning for modern times. By most accounts (including his own), Fowley was / is a self-serving asshole who architected the band’s fortune to his favor but was ill-equipped to play surrogate father to five stubborn, fiercely independent young women. But the impresario was hardly the first nor last of his kind, and Jett, Ford and West were able to keep the overlord’s libido—if not his bank account—in check. And without hard evidence to support the many accusations leveraged against the lewd promoter over the years, McDonnell seems unwilling to condemn him for his alleged “Sex Ed” romps with one or more of his subjects. In the end, Fowley comes off as an unlikeable, pathetic crazy uncle whose arrogance and “reverse Midas touch” has him botching one chance after the next, despite whatever business acumen he may have possessed.
In stark contrast stands Jett, who starts off a naïve kid without a driver’s license and winds up a Billboard sensation. McDonnell considers Jett’s broken home when scrutinizing her musical moxie and take-no-shit attitude, and hypothesizes how the guitarist’s ambiguous sexual orientation figured in a band of beauties whose other members were more forthcoming about their proclivities. The debate still rages whether The Runaways—with their makeup model looks, lingerie, and leather—truly gave girls something to aspire to in the late ‘70s, and whether said influence outweighed the degree to which they were objectified (and allowed themselves to be objectified) by drooling males.
“It’s a fable of individuals trying to make sense of a country of changing norms, of girls raised to believe they could do what boys do, who then crashed into the wall of sexual harassment and discrimination,” summarizes McDonnell.
“It’s a parable of prodigal daughters leaving broken homes as well as happy homes, to carve out new ways of being.”
Queens of Noise is also quite the page-turner—a worthy addition to the library or reading list of any self-respecting audiophile, music history buff, or reformed rock misogynist
The book contains a comprehensive bibliography, discography, and acknowledgements section. Contributors thanked include Cliff Burnstein (Q-Prime manager of Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers), Bun E. Carlos (drummer for Cheap Trick, who opened for The Runaways early on), Darcy Diamond, Peggy Foster, Bob Gruen (photographer), Mickey Kravitz, Kenny Laguna, Toby Mamis (manager), “Phast” Phreddie Patterson (Ramones), Ralph Peer (talent scout), Iggy Pop, Floria Sigismondi (movie director), Kenny Laguna (songwriter) Kent Smythe, Donna Santisi (journalist), Phanie Diaz (drummer), Stella Maeve (actress), Earle Mankey (guitarist / producer) and many more.