Neon Angels On The Road To Ruin
By Marianne MoroHard rock and heavy metal have always been the great unkown as far as female musicians are concerned. If that's the case now, it was far worse in 1975. Teenage girls were groupies or fans and that was pretty much why the New York Dolls gestated in N.Y., and the Sex Pistols and Throbbing Gristle took root in London, West Coast rock "glam" rock ala the Berlin Brats and Zolar X took root in L.A. It was around this time that Joan (Jett) Larkin and her friend Kari Krome met rock impresario Kim Fowley, who is best described as a white trash version of Malcolm McLaren and formed the Runaways, an all-girl rock band that has influenced riot grrls and countless others since their demise in 1979.
Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco circa 1975 was the starting point for the band. Lyricist Kari Krome, singer/guitarist Joan Jett, drummer Sandy West and bass player Micki Steele played their first gigs as a part of the burgeoning and tight knit L.A. punk community. The Runaways' sound was a hybrid of punk and hard rock, though the guitar chords were more in line with metal bands than the sparse sound associated with punk rock.
Unable to hack Kim Fowley's skanky personality, Steele quit and later reappeared in the poppier Bangles in the '80s. Krome never performed onstage with the band, and later disappeared from the credits entirely. In fitting Hollywood fashion, Kim Fowley selected Cherie Currie, a doe eyed blonde whose recurring stage uniform was a corset, as the group's singer. Then there was Lita Ford, who played up the heavy metal slut queen persona of the '80s, and penned such immortal lyrics as "went to a party last Saturday night/didn't get laid/got into a fight". Joining the Runaways permanently shortly after original member Micki Steele left, Lita put aside her initial loathing for Kim Fowley for the greater good of the band. Her biggest claim to fame would be her post-Runwaways duet with Ozzy Osborne on "Close My Eyes Forever."
Whereas the musical force behind the group- Lita, who looked like she could beat you up if you looked her the wrong way and Joan, who looked like she could beat you up if you... well, you get the idea. Though the band occasionally wore sailor suits onstage and looked pretty good while bashing out heavy metal riffs.
It was indeed a different world then. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Bob Greene wrote a deadpan article about being trapped in a room interviewing the band. How much of this was journalist exaggeration and how much was truth one my never know, but it was hilarious. As with all bands of any importance, there were nasty rumors of every imaginable stripe about the group: in-fighting, lesbianism, rape, abortion and suicide attempts. Above and beyond that, the music itself proved thunderous. "Cherry Bomb," "You Drive Me Wild" and "American Nights" stand up against any three minute crunch rock classic, now or then. The novelty aspect stemmed from the fact that they were teen-age girls. It didn't matter if they played like Led Zeppelin, Vivaldi or George Jones, they were still "jailbait." Even 30 years later social obsessions haven't changed much. Would Britney be such a big deal if she were an elderly 25-year-old when the public first saw her? The entire album featured blistering riffs topping off melodic rock songs and naughty lyrics for the time. In the epic closing number, "Dead End Justice," Joan and Cherie escape from juvie. Simultaneously kitchsy and hardcore, like the musical counterpart to all those post-Exorcist made for TV movies starring Linda Blair.
The Runaways were a big draw in Japan, and a live album recorded there was released in 1978. Lita considers it their best effort. The second album Queens Of Noise released in 1977, featured more of the same riffage and teen-age girls gone wild lyrics. "Johnny Guitar" showcased Lita's chops. She could actually play! This was a shocker to all the journalistic pundits who regarded the group as a PR man's wet dream and little else.
By the time Waitin For The Night was released, Jackie had left the group and rumors abounded. "You're Too Possessive" later appeared on a Blackhearts album. Getting away from the stripper pole album cover theme of the second album, Waitin' For The Night had the girls (now minus Cherie and Jackie and with new bassist Vicki Blue) clutching onto barbed wire, their hands bloodied. The songs had a darker, guitar-heavy tone. Despite being stars in Europe and especially Japan, the Runaways played few live shows in the U.S.. After Waitin' For The Night failed to chart, the band recorded one more album And Now...the Runaways,and broke up.
Joan went back to her "punk roots" producing the Germs' debut in 1980 and recording with Sex Pistols' Steve Jones and Paul Cook, then moving on to forming her own band the Blackhearts. Legend has it the the Blackhearts' first album Bad Reputation was rejected by 23 record companies before signing with Boardwalk Records. The first pressing was released independently by Blackheart Records, a rarity in those days. Lita sang with Ozzy and became a hair band sex symbol of sorts. Jackie Fox became an entertainment lawyer. Sandy West worked with Lita on a truncated musical project and later formed her own band. Vicki Blue produced a film about the band that has not been officially released yet. Cherie released a solo album, recorded with her sister Marie and co-starred with Jodie Foster in Foxes. Kim Fowley lived in New Orleans for awhile, but is now back in Southern California compiling showcases at the Knitting Factory every now and then.
Even though other "all-girl" rock bands have tried since then, most notably Kittie and the Donnas, most of them were media darlings for a time and then fell off the face of the earth. The Runaways suffered the opposite fate. During the time of disco, the Runaways were just a footnote, barely fodder for the last kooky story on the 10 o'clock news. The band that had been branded a novelty by press in their time, is in retrospect, as admired and imitated by young female musicians as the flashier punk and pop icons that flourished later.
Also see our interview with Runaways biographer Evelyn McDonnell
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