March 26, 1982
By John Liebrand
Runaway Joan Jett Finally Finds a Home
A touch of quiet elegance in no way describes Joan Jett. As a matter of fact, she started her career as the most important part of the most outrageous and most attention-getting rock band of the ‘70s – The Runaways.
You're probably wondering what made the Runaways so unusual and amazing. After all, you're thinking, what's so amazing about a scuzzy rock band whose members are all 16-year old girls? Wouldn't it be more unusual to have a rock band composed of old ladies? Or ferns?
Perhaps. But only if you look at it through the cold, dispassionate eyes of a scientist. Barely adolescent girls strapped to high voltage electrical appliances singing songs like "Cherry Bomb" and "You're Too Possessive" are about as disorienting a sight as seeing David Lee Roth hum the theme song to The Waltons!
The Runaways were great. And they still would've been great even if they were guys and had facial hair and had hard rock names like Aerosmith or Foghat. The Runaways may not have been capable of shooting off a string of 64th notes or coming up with “Stairway to Heaven”, but they had something very special. Call it charisma. Call it style. Call is sexploitation. Call it whatever you want.
I CALL IT ROCK AND ROLL GUTS!
Joan Jett explains why she quit the Runaways.
"It was four years of trying and touring and making albums and going all over the place. All of a sudden we were 19. We finally realized how severe things were. We weren't getting airplay. We were getting bad press and nobody was ever going to take us seriously. It was getting depressing. We could see it developing from a way's off, but we just didn't want to admit it."
Musical differences also had a role in the split.
"A couple of the girls wanted to get more into heavy metal. I wanted to stay with mainstream rock and roll. We had a meeting one day and I told them I was quitting. The Runaways were important to me. It's not something to live down. It bugs me when people cut the Runaways down. I get in the mood to fight. I put everything I could into that band."
But that doesn't mean Joan Jett won't play heavy metal, of course. Her big hit, "I Love Rock'n'Roll" is as heavy metal as a song can get without being performed by Black Sabbath. "I like all kinds of music," she said, "I just don't want to have to concentrate on a certain kind of sound."
The Runaways may have been commercial flops in the United States, but they were solid superstars in Japan. "We were in the top five," said Joan, "Right up there with Aerosmith and Kiss. It was like being a Beatle over there. It was unbelievable. My hair got ripped out. People were always screaming and chasing us down the street."
It was a real culture shock. Joan explains.
"You live in America, where you're not really that big of a deal. But you go to another country and all of a sudden 6,000 fans start waiting for you at airports. It was really unbelievable. In Japan, half of the audiences were female. At the time that was very surprising. Not many girls saw our shows in America. In Japan, though, women are treated as second class citizens. It must have been like a revolution or something for all those girls to see an all-girl band like the Runaways play a kick ass rock and roll show.”
Joan’s current band, the Blackhearts, started in 1980. Lee Crystals plays drums. Eric Ambel plays rhythm guitar. Gary Ryan plays bass. The Blackhearts are an all-male band. Joan said she thought it would be sacrilegious to have any girls in the band.
The Blackhearts' early days were difficult at best. They played small places, stayed in small motels and kept adequately fed by swiping other peoples' breakfasts from unattended room service trays. The Blackhearts couldn't find an acceptable deal from any big record companies, so Joan used her own savings to start Blackheart Records. She used famous producers. Kenny Laguna who was a prime motivator and producer for Jonathan Richman, Greg Kihn, Jay and The Americans, 1910 Fruitgum Company, Ohio Express, etc., handled the production along with Ritchie Cordell, who has written and produced 18 worldwide hits. Among those written or co-written by Cordell include "Mony Mony," “I Think We’re Alone Now”, "Indian Giver" and "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin."
Musicians such as Steve Jones and Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols as well as Clem Burke and Frank Infante from Blondie helped out on her debut album. Naturally, it was an incredible record. As an import it sold 22,000 copies a few weeks after it was released. But Joan still waited before committing herself to a major label. So when record stores sold out of her import album and needed more fast, she pressed them herself on her Blackheart label. Even then, record stores couldn't keep up with consumer demand.
Her debut, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts was spearheaded by the No. 1 song, “I Love Rock N’ Roll.” The song became somewhat of an anthem and was in hot rotation all over the country. Finally Joan got together with Neil Bogart and signed a mutually satisfying deal with Boardwalk Records, where she remains today.
Joan Jett didn't write "I Love Rock'n'Roll." She heard it on an English TV show in 1976 and immediately knew it would be a hit. The song was performed by a group called the Arrows. Joan says there's lot of other cover songs she's like to do, but she's not telling anybody what they are. "You gotta keep your battle plans secret." she said. Her latest album has covers of "Crimson and Clover," "Bits and Pieces" and a killer cover of "Little Drummer Boy". It’s a song she had wanted to record for years and realized this was the perfect opportunity to do so.
This interview was done over the phone. Joan was answering questions while watching a boxing match on television. She was a tomboy when she grew up. Joan doesn't prize fight or anything, but she's an excellent baseball player. Her favorite team is the Baltimore Orioles, She prefers to play hardball. She's too tough for softball.
"Everybody else is scared of hardball,” she said, “but I play it when I can. I like to play second base because when somebody hits a single and there's a big guy on first base that's ready to take me out and slide into me ... I do double plays that you would not believe!”
Tough Night for a True Star