Joan Jett - Biography

Wow. There are all sorts of great things to mention when the subject is Joan Jett: the wild schemes of impresario Kim Fowley; the groundbreaking snarl of The Runaways; the rags-to-riches fable of the Blackhearts. She was teenage rockstar abroad; as an adult she settled for World Domination. She kicked open door after door after door. She jammed with the guys from the Sex Pistols. She was the first female rocker to start her own record label. In 1982, her single “I Love Rock N’ Roll” stomped its way to #1 and just sat there, a behemoth, for seven weeks. She starred in the rock paean Light of Day with Michael J. Fox, directed by Paul Schraeder of Taxi Driver fame, and she was great, and Bruce Springsteen wrote the title track, just for her. In baseball, when Carl Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles was set to break Lou Gehrig’s fabled record for most consecutive games played — one of the most cherished records in a sport that cherishes records like no other — and he was asked to chose whomever he wanted to sing the national anthem, he made the obvious choice: the original Riot Grrrl and Godmother of Punk, Joan Jett. Way to go, Carl — and he’s a conservative Republican!

At 15 in 1975, Jett was living in Los Angeles. She and drummer Sandy West had the idea to start an all-female, teenage rock band, and pitched the idea to notorious industry impresario, Kim Fowley. You could devote this entire entry to Fowley. He was the consummate music-industry character, with an insatiable appetite for chasing down novelty projects, cult acts, and whatever else he thought might turn a quick buck. Remember “Alley Oop” by The Hollywood Argyles? It went to #1 in 1960. That’s a Kim Fowley production. How about "They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" It’s a 1966 comedy song by Napoleon XIV, about mental illness; it features nothing but percussion, tambourine, and sirens. The B-side was called "!aaaH-aH ,yawA eM ekaT oT gnimoC er'yehT" and the singer billed as "Noelopan VIX". It was the A-side played backwards. It was a worldwide hit. That’s Kim Fowley. He also produced records by and wrote material for acts ranging from the Modern Lovers to The Byrds to Warren Zevon to Gene Vincent. He took credit for being a founding member of the Mothers of Invention. Kim Fowley.

Fowley liked the idea and agreed to help Jett and West assemble a band. They added 16-year-old lead guitarist Lita Ford and lead singer Cherie Currie; Jackie Fox would play bass. Fowley promptly got them a deal with Mercury; they promptly recorded their debut, The Runaways (1976 Mercury); it was promptly released; and The Runaways were quite promptly rock stars. They were a mixture of hard rock, glam, and punk, dressed (barely, at times) in leather and lingerie. It was a whole jailbait-on-the-lam schtick, and was it exploitative? Maybe; and did it work? You betcha. Not so much in the US, but The Runaways were huge overseas. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Van Halen, and the Ramones all toured with The Runaways — as the opening act. The Sex Pistols and The Damned and Blondie were fans. The LP went platinum. "Queens of Noise," "Neon Angels (On the Road to Ruin)" and "Born to Be Bad" are all infectious, but the all-time classic is “Cherry Bomb.” Cherry Bomb! The balls on these girls!

Predictably it all fell apart by 1978. How punk was Joan Jett? Back in LA, she produced the sole LP by punk legends The Germs, (GI 1978 Slash). Then she used some of her Runaways' connections to start a career as a solo artist. In 1979 she recorded a demo with ex-Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones, including a cover of The Arrow’s "I Love Rock N' Roll.” She also befriended Kenny Laguna, a producer and songwriter who would help with her debut, recorded at The Who’s studio. The finished recordings were rejected by 23 record labels — 23 profoundly shortsighted record labels. So Jett, with Laguna’s modest bankroll, simply started her own label, Blackheart Records, and released it herself. She assembled a crack band to tour the material, distributed the LPs as best she could, and sold boatloads of copies out of the trunk of her car. Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records — Kiss’ label! — finally noticed, signed Joan, and re-released the LP as Bad Reputation (1981 Blackheart). It’s a romp through the 50s, 60s, and 70s, featuring a wry and rollicking cover of Gary Glitter’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)”; Paul Cook and Steve Jones appear on the arch version of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” The band toured, then went into the studio to record the follow-up.

I Love Rock N’ Roll (1982 Blackheart) was a gargantuan hit. It went to #1 and stayed; so did the title track. The second single, a cover of Tommy James & the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover," also broke the Top 10; a second version of "Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)” made it to #20. The third Blackhearts album, Album (1983 Blackheart) went gold. Joan Jett plowed ahead and still hasn’t stopped. Legions of all-female bands have claimed her as a primary influence, from L7 to La Tigre and Bikini Kill. Recently, Jett reunited with the Blackhearts to record and release Sinner (2006 Blackheart); she continues to master the fine art of three-chord, raunchy rock ‘n roll.

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