AUTHOR EVELYN McDONNELL SORTS THE MUSIC FROM THE MYTHS TO TELL THE “REAL STORY OF THE RUNAWAYS”
By Suzanne Rush
The band that spawned one of rock’s most durable female icons was born in a suburban rec room in greater Los Angeles. Suzi Quatro-wannabe, Joan Larkin, had to take four buses from the San Fernando Valley to meet up with drummer Sandy Pesavento at her Brady Bunch-like homestead in Huntington Beach. But, the moment the two 16-year-olds began to jam on “All Shook Up,” they knew they’d finally found rock ‘n’ roll compatriots. This guitar-drum duo, who rechristened themselves Joan Jett and Sandy West, would form the nucleus of The Runaways, the first all-girl rock band to get a record contract. The rest of the lineup would variously include: Micki Steele, Lita Ford, Cherie Currie and an ever-changing roster of bass players.
Jett and West may never have come together without the assistance of Hollywood music producer, Kim Fowley. Legendarily eccentric Fowley, the original “Mayor of the Sunset Strip” — who trolled its nightclubs with DJ Rodney Bingenheimer — hit upon the idea of creating an all-girl band after meeting 14-year-old lyricist, Kari Krome. Since Krome could neither play nor sing, Fowley recruited musicians. But, as music writer and journalism professor, Evelyn McDonnell tells it in her book, Queens of Noise, The Real Story of the Runaways, “few girls were picking up electric guitars and drumstick in the mid-‘70s.” And when they did, as Fowley discovered, the public’s response would be less than exultant.
During its three-year lifespan, The Runaways were never much more than a cult band. Three decades later, the release of Floria Sigismondi’s eponymous biopic brought the band wider acclaim. But the 2010 film, which focused on Jett and Currie (played by Kristin Stewart and Dakota Fanning) to the exclusion of the other players, was based almost solely on Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel. As such, it bears the flaw of all movie biographies — mainly, that a lot has to be jettisoned to squeeze a lifetime into in 90 minutes. McDonnell’s book remedies those omissions with dozens of interviews conducted with the entire cast of players, including women who auditioned and didn’t make the cut, those who did briefly and left, former managers, roadies and a variety of people who were part of the 1970s music scene in Los Angeles. What emerges from her investigation is a story more complete, messier and more heartbreaking than Sigismondi’s truncated script could contain.
The band debuted as a trio in late ‘75, with Micki Steele on bass and vocals. Soon Fowley added guitarist Ford and singer Currie. Exit Micki Steele, who was replaced with Jackie Fuchs (a.k.a. Fox).
This “Fab Five” ensemble was drilled and rehearsed to exhaustion by verbally abusive, Fowley — whose favorite invectives included names like “Dog Shit” and who liked to pelt the girls with garbage while they played to prepare them to become the kind of “Rock and Roll Pigs” who could withstand any assault. The pummeling paid off; Fowley got them signed to a recording contract with Mercury Records. He also had them sign a partnership deal that McDonnell describes as, “…fascinating, hilarious, disturbing, prophetic, ingenious, and pure Fowley. It’s hard to believe any attorney acquiesced to it, no matter what their experience with entertainment law…” The Mercury contract was more straightforward, but imposed a “grueling workload for teenagers who were also supposed to be getting their GEDs or diplomas.”
Neither deal was in the ultimate best interests of the adolescents. Then again, the story of exploitation in the music business is hardly unique.
In 1976, the band recorded their first album, The Runaways, and began a two-month U.S. tour that was inadequately financed and was chaperoned by a road manager who was a sexual predator. A European tour followed and then a second album, Queens of Noise, was released in early 1977. Take five teenagers, add nonstop work and travel — far from the restraints of parents — and you’re bound to get some acting out. And act out they did.
McDonnell recounts stories of the group’s rampant drug use, sexual exploits and hotel room thrashings, all the while trying to sort the facts from the myths. Many of the reports are contradictory, depending on whom she interviewed. One tale from that period depicts Fowley sexually abusing a fan in a motel room while horrified band members watched — something only half of them recall and Fowley flatly denies.
Jackie Fox, the sole, narcotic-free Runaway, is quoted from a 2009 blog entry: “’Unfortunately it’s been almost twenty-five years since the Runaways were a band and even under the best circumstances memory is a funny thing.’”
Or, as McDonnell bluntly states, “Maybe someone is lying.”
In June of 1977 the band went to Japan. It was a tour that would mark their greatest triumph as well as their undoing. In Tokyo, where the song “Cherry Bomb” was number one, they were given the full Beatlemania treatment by thousands of plaid-skirted schoolgirls. This was exhilarating to some members and terrifying to others. Fox suffered a meltdown, due to infighting and overwork, and flew home before their gigs were completed. Currie, who had been the highly sexualized, focal point of the Japanese media, quit soon after Fox. The Runaways Live in Japan would be their last album as a quintet and remains a testament to their legitimacy as musicians.
Back in L.A., Vicki Tischler (a.k.a. Blue) joined on bass, Jett took over all vocal duties and they recorded their third studio album, Waiting for the Night. Another European tour followed, and then, late in that same year (by which time Blue was already out, replaced by Laurie McAllister) a fifth album, And Now the Runaways, was recorded. However, before it could be released, the combined forces of internal strife, lack of funds and rampant sexism in the rock world had taken their toll. The Runaways disbanded for good.
In just-over three years the band had recorded five albums, toured the U.S. and Europe twice, triumphed in Japan and run through several bass players. As McDonnell documents, during most of that time, masturbatory, male rock critics across two continents had mostly savaged the musicians, referring to them as “bimbos,” “sissies,” and “bitches” and portraying them as rock imposters who they’d rather fuck than hear. That Currie performed wearing a Rocky Horror Picture Show-inspired corset and Fowley packaged the band as jailbait (despite the fact that Jett and West were likely gay) fueled some of this talk. Yet, it is clear from the existing live performance footage that they were always a tight group of teenaged pros with decent chops. As McDonnell writes, “it’s hard to believe they didn’t become one of the greatest acts of their time.”
By the end, the reviews had gotten better, the songs had moved away from Fowley’s Hey-hey-we’re-the-Monkees-with-vaginas lyrical schtick, but what The Runaways never achieved was radio airplay — the make-or-break component of musical success. Aside from their anthem, “Cherry Bomb,” which never even broke into the top 100 on the U.S. pop charts, and some rotation on KROQ in their hometown, the girls couldn’t crack the airwaves. More than anything, that may have been what finally killed the act. Abuse is one thing. But abuse without success is intolerable.
Some band members found that elusive success post-Runaways. Joan Jett, who had always garnered the most praise from critics, was saved from druggy-self-immolation by replacement Svengali, Kenny Laguna. Under Laguna’s management, she went on to record a number of hit songs, including “I Love Rock and Roll,” and remains the best-known former-Runaway. Lita Ford achieved commercial success through a fortuitous alliance with Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne and a string of metal-rock albums. Cherie Currie pursued music and acting careers, the highlight of which was co-starring with Jodie Foster in the 1980 Adrian Lyne movie, Foxes. Jackie Fox became an entertainment lawyer, Vicki Blue, a filmmaker — notably of the Runaways documentary, Edgeplay — and Micki Steele, a member of the hit band, The Bangles.
Sandy West, universally praised as a hard-hitting rock drummer, was not so fortunate. She died of cancer in 2006 after spending her post-Runaways years chasing a never-gonna-happen reunion and becoming involved in an escalating series of drug crimes that would land her in prison. Laurie McAllister, who went on to play bass in another Fowley girl band, The Orchids, died in 2011.
Whatever path these former teen stars took to adulthood, The Runaways experience has refused to release them from its thorny, emotional grip. For over three decades, acrimonious lawsuits regarding rights to the band’s songs, name and likeness and monies owed have raged between the women — in ever-shifting alliances and enmities — and between the women and Fowley. To this day, “all the members are wary, suspicious and defensive — aggressively so,” writes McDonnell.
She should know; she’s clearly done her research. One has a sense when reading McDonnell’s book, which alternates in tone from no-nonsense to wryly amused to compassionate, that no matter how many accounts of Jett, West, Ford, Currie and Fox may follow, Queens of Noise will likely remain the final word on this band.
“They came. They saw. They fought and fucked and played and hustled and sang their hearts out,” writes McDonnell. “They didn’t conquer, but they weren’t defeated.”
Or, as Joan Jett says of her first band, “‘It was an amazing time, probably the best time of my life.’”
Queens of Noise, The Real Story of The Runaways, Da Capo Books, available wherever books are sold.
Check out Evelyn McDonnell’s Populism blog at http://populismblog.wordpress.com
During the band’s tenure they made five albums. Numerous post-breakup compilations have been released in the U.S. and overseas. But these are the original vinyl releases.
Mercury – SRM-1-1090
“Queens of Noise”
Mercury – SRM 1-1126
“Live in Japan”
Mercury – SRM-1-3740
“Waitin’ for the Night”
Mercury – SRM-1-3705
“And Now…The Runaways”
Cherry Red ARED3