the band at legendary rock club the Whisky, which became the Runaways' home
Evelyn McDonnell interview by Robin Cook
If any rock band was vindicated by history, it would be the Runaways. Once they were considered a sleazy joke perpetrated by Kim Fowley. People weren't laughing anymore when Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll" became a number 1 hit though. Or when Lita Ford became a heavy metal goddess. They certainly weren't laughing by the 1990's, as riot grrls looked to these hellraisers as trailblazers. The Runaways became the subject of a documentary (Edgeplay, directed by ex-bassist Vicki Blue) and a biopic (The Runaways, starring Kristen Stewart as Jett and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie).
And now, the band is getting a long-overdue appraisal-via-rock-bio: Queens of Noise, written by journalist Evelyn McDonnell. McDonnell examines the music (finally!), the Los Angeles scene that spawned the band, and the complicated personalities involved in the Runaways' short time together.
Queens of Noise is available online now.
PSF: Your book does something almost no other account of the Runaways has done: it explores the band's recording legacy and their growth as songwriters and performers. Why do you think this aspect has been overlooked before? Do you think other factors are at work besides sexism?
EM: Clearly there's an element of sexism at work here, in the sense that the Runaways always fought to be taken seriously as musicians and songwriters- and they still face that struggle today. There was a constant refrain in the live reviews: "Guess what, they can actually play!" This is what always happens to women, from Joni Mitchell to Taylor Swift: everyone wants to write about whom they're sleeping with and what they're wearing, no one wants to talk about their music. The Runaways themselves have been complicit in this selective historicization. Neither Cherie Currie in Neon Angel (her memoir) or Vicki Blue in Edgeplay (Runaways documentary) pay much attention to the band's artistic importance and development. The Runaways can be the drama queens of noise.
It's also a lot easier to talk/write about sex and drugs and fights and corsets than to talk about music. The Runaways story has plenty of those juicy strains; they can drown out more serious considerations.
PSF: People make a huge deal about Kim Fowley's role vis a vis the band. Case in point: Robert Christgau's review of the band's debut album, where he writes, "This is Kim Fowley's project." Yet other (male) rock bands have also had notorious managers and Svengali figures mapping out their careers. Do you think Fowley's relationship to the Runaways is similar to that of other rock managers?
EM: Kim Fowley absolutely modeled himself after Col. Tom Parker, Andrew Loog Oldham, and Brian Epstein. He was a peer of Malcolm McLaren and a model for Simon Fuller. When people oversubscribe credit for the band's success (and failure) to Kim, they deny the Runaways their own agency -- undoubtedly because they were teenage girls. But there was something particularly sleazy about Kim's loud, overbearing, vulgar persona and age vis a vis underage women. Fowley courted that controversy. It was even part of the gimmick.
PSF: The book describes some pretty horrible, abusive behavior on the part of not only Kim Fowley but also the people he hired to work for him. How do you think the Runaways were able to withstand and resist this treatment?
EM: It helped that they had each other. Ultimately, they outnumbered -- and overthrew -- Kim. It also probably helped Sandy and Joan that they were batting for the other team, so to speak. And Joan, Sandy, and Lita were tough, strong people. They learned to push back against Fowley's nastiness and appreciate what can be his genuine charms. Jackie and Kim had a bond because they were both brainy and keenly aware of their own intelligence.
Cherie was more vulnerable, and Kim preyed on her more. But I think she learned to give as well as she got too. Fowley called them his bitches, and Pygmalion style, they became bitches. Ultimately, that training backfired against him.
PSF: Joan Jett describes her time in the band as the best of her life, and it's very clear other ex-Runaways have no regrets about their tenure. What do you think they gained from the experience?
EM: Personally I'd have given my eye teeth to get out of high school and travel the world wearing hot outfits and playing loud rock'n'roll. Even when the dream became a nightmare, it sure beat the alternative of an average American adolescence. They gained confidence, courage, and experience. They learned how to be a team (some of them more than others).
And most importantly, they got to express themselves as young, emancipated women. As Jenny Lens says in the last chapter, music provided an outlet and an alternative -- better ending up damaged and dazed from nightlife than ending up a suburban housewife.
PSF: When you were interviewing the Runaways, did you find them to be open to talking about their years in the band? Were any of them reluctant to revisit that period, and if so, how did they eventually open up?
EM: They were all reluctant in different ways, about different topics. I felt like I had to earn everyone's trust. I never won Cherie's: I interviewed her twice for the Sandy West story, but she wouldn't talk to me again for the book. Jackie, on the other hand, wouldn't talk to me for the Sandy article, but after we had lunch and got to know each other, she agreed to talk for the book and was ultimately quite helpful. Lita was also willing to talk about Sandy but then reluctant to talk for the book. I did sit with her for about an hour, but we spent half the time talking about her latest album for a L.A. Times story. Even Joan, with whom I have developed a good relationship over the years, and who cried within the first 10 minutes of my interview with her about Sandy, was terse and tight-lipped when it came to talking for the book. There were obviously incidents and issues that various members did not want to revisit. It was clearly fraught territory. I just did what any interviewer should do: be gentle but firm and work slowly up to the hard questions.
PSF: It seems that in some respects, the Runaways were in the right place at the right time: at the cross-section of the glam/Sunset Strip zeitgeist and the rise of punk rock. They were clearly inspired by the glam (example: Joan Jett idolized Suzi Quatro) and came to be embraced by punks. Had they come along earlier or later, they might have seemed out of place or behind the times. Would you say that's an accurate statement?
EM: Actually, I think they were a few years ahead of their time: If MTV had existed during their tenure, I think the Runaways would have been stars in the U.S. too. The Go-Gos, hair metal, Joan and Lita's solo career -- all were enabled by music television. Musically, the Runaways missed the glam train but were too hard rock once punk happened. They were in the right place, but at the wrong time.
PSF: Earlier, I'd asked about the double standards regarding how people saw Fowley's relationship with the band. There was also some pretty nasty sexism on the part of critics. Ironically, there aren't as many similar stories of this kind of treatment coming from male musicians, particularly punks. I'm not saying the musicians were inherently less misogynist (God knows!), but it's something I noticed. (Rush treated the group badly, but it se
EM:s more a case of Rush behaving like jerks than misogyny.)
EM: A lot of musicians were definitely supportive of and friends with the Runaways, from Led Zep to the Ramones. There was some kind of bad blood between Rat Scabies and Joan, but no one seems to remember what it was about. However, I don't think the Rush incident was a complete anomaly. Joan says they dealt with chauvinism from all quarters, and as a solo artist, she certainly has tales to tell of shitty behavior from the guys. Molly Hatchet warmed up for her once, and singer Danny Joe Brown told the crowd, "I can't believe we're opening up for some bitch."
PSF: I was thinking that one of the band's antecedents was the Shangri-Las. The musical message of the Shangri-Las' songs was very different, but again, these were teenage girls with a tough image. What other female performers would you consider precursors of the band?
EM:: Shangri-La's definitely. And of course Suzi Quatro, in all of her bands and solo career. Also, Lesley Gore and Darlene Love, especially on Joan. Goldie and the Gingerbreads, Fanny, and Isis (even though the Runaways dissed them:) all predated the Runaways as female rock bands, though their sound was very different.
PSF: The band avoided any involvement with the women's movement of the 1970's. Since then, however, Joan Jett has embraced the term: "My view of feminism is all-encompassing and empowering." She has also collaborated with openly feminist artists like L7 and Bikini Kill. What about other band members? Would you say they've come to accept the term or are they still wary of it?
EM:: The others are all pretty wary of feminism still, by name certainly, but also by deed to varying degrees.
PSF: Even in the early 1980's, there were still female artists who didn't see the Runaways as pioneers (Exene Cervenka: "Joan Jett has a lot to offer, but the Runaways did nothing to advance the status of women performers.") It wasn't really until riot grrl that the Runaways came to be seen as pioneers. Why do you think it took so long?
EM:: I think a lot of women couldn't get past the corset and hot pants any more than the men could. They were dismissed for having sexually objectified themselves and even seen by other women as a novelty act with a male pulling their strings. And it's true, compared to the radical stances of some of the acts that followed them: -- the Slits, the Raincoats, the Bags, etc. -- there was a regressive element to the Runaways. It took the perspective of a decade for Riot Grrrls and their ilk to appreciate how the Runaways had helped make those other female bands possible, and desired.
PSF: What about the band members and their reactions to Queens of Noise? The book definitely is fair to the band (and even Fowley). How do they feel about it now that it's out?
EM:: Well, you should probably ask them! Jackie Fox said very nice things about it on Facebook. Cherie and Lita have not read it, as far as I know, and have been somewhat dismissive of it in interviews. Last I knew, Joan was still reading it. Vicki liked the bits she read in Amazon Sneak Peeks but I haven't heard from her since she got the whole book. Kim likes it overall, except for the feminist stuff. All in all, given the usual drama that surrounds all thing Runaways, I feel like this is a ringing endorsement from a still-divided band!
The Runaways peddled California dreaming (and scheming). The California dream was a specific iteration of the American dream, and Fowley and his dream team did their best to conflate the two. Prior to the Runaways, after all, he had produced the music for American Graffiti, George Lucas's ode to ‘50s teenagers, cars, and rock ‘n' roll, which was set in the Central Valley city of Modesto. On such songs as "Cherry Bomb," "Is It Day or Night?," the over-the-top operetta "Dead End Justice," "Hollywood," and of course, "California Paradise" (in which Currie hisses, "California—you're so nice" with sibilant sarcasm), the erstwhile Gene Vincent producer carried on these themes of sex, juvenile delinquency, and music—fast women in fast cars with loud radios. A writer in the British fanzine Bump ‘N' Grind described the theme as "the saga of California—‘It's Paradise'. You know the format—non-stop all-night partying, skipping school, and getting stoned, and other very naughty things like that. Y'know, I'm seriously thinking of going to live in California."
To understand the Runaways, you have to understand Los Angeles in the 1970s—and vice versa. The story of five girls, from five different neighborhoods, whose paths converged in the teen clubs, rock bars, recording studios, and rehearsal spaces of Hollywood, provides a clear window into that epochal time and place. The Runaways' sexploitation/liberation bridged the heterogeneous topography and aesthetic, social, and ethical contradictions of one of the world's most loved and hated cities. The adolescent guitar-slingers also blew up a few bridges.
"Being in L.A. in the mid ‘70s was all about Santa Ana winds, Benedict Canyon, tanned skin, and Malibu," says Vicki Blue, one of the Runaways' bass players. "It was driving down Santa Monica Boulevard then turning north on Doheny before it got to be Beverly Hills, and making the loop back down to Sunset. It was about Chemin de Fer pants, fitting into them, size twenty-six, extra long legs, with platform boots."
But the Runaways' L.A. wasn't the groovy, bohemian Laurel Canyon hangout of Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Nor was it the apocalypse-soon noir bummer of the Germs, X, and Black Flag, of punk clubs Madam Wong's and the Masque. The Sunset Strip of the mid-‘70s was a good trip going bad. The Runaways, as they sang, were "Neon Angels," in the City of Angels. But they were also on "the roads to ruin."
From Queens of Noise, by Evelyn McDonnell. Reprinted by arrangement with Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.
Also see our earlier Runaways artcile
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