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Kim Fowley as the man behind The Runaways

A conversation with a rock ’n’ roll impressario

By Harvey Kubernik

“Life is a series of beatings until you get positioned.” — Kim Fowley

Veteran record producer and songwriter Kim Fowley’s musical creation, The Runaways, has been the subject of a full length feature movie starring Kristen Stewart of “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” fame as guitarist Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as lead singer Cherie Curie. Actor Michael Shannon, an Oscar nominee for “Revolutionary Road,” portrays Fowley in this endeavor.

“The Runaways” film, a teen rocker flick, is partially based and informed by Curie’s own 1989 memoir, “Neon Angels.” It’s not necessarily a band document or a biopic as the movie producers could not secure life story rights for guitarist Lita Ford, and Jackie Fox, bassist. The original Runaways’ drummer, Sandy West died in 2006 from a brain tumor. In addition, the Runaways’ first bass player, Micki Steele, later to be in The Bangles, is also fictionalized.

Besides producing the bulk of The Runways’ original Mercury albums, Kim Fowley’s legacy is further evidenced with a long overdue reissue of The Quick’s album, Mondo Deco, a 1976 LP release for Mercury produced by Fowley and Earle Mankey, and now out on Radio Heartbeat label.
In addition, Fowley and Mankey’s production of two late ’70s Helen Reddy albums, Ear Candy and We’ll Sing In The Sunshine, have just come out on Raven Records.

Fowley has three tracks as producer and artist in the Rhino/WMG Records four-CD box set, Where The Action Is! Nuggets Los Angeles 1965-1968, out last September.

A collection of Fowley solo recordings and his productions from the 1960s was released in November 2009 on Norton Records. One Man’s Garbage Another Man’s Gold was issued on double vinyl and as a single CD.

Kim Fowley, a Los Angeles native, is cited and quoted in my own “Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon” book published by Sterling in the U.S. and U.K. You want a real Hollywood his-story lesson? I suggest checking out his contributions to my print trek.

When asked about how Hollywood has changed since 1959, the year he entered the record business, Fowley replied, “It’s empty and hollow now. The hope is gone. The hope left when they had the L.A. riots in 1992. It’s never recovered. It’s like somewhere in the midwest with Palm Trees. We went from Jody Reynolds at Gold Star recording studio doing ‘Endless Sleep’ in 1957 to girls with artificial body parts thinking gang members are exotic at club nights in Hollywood waiting for famous people who never arrive. That’s what it has turned into.

“Hollywood is a state of mind and an attitude and the whole L.A. metroplex is a parking lot pretending to be a city.”

Photo courtesy of Kim Fowley

Photo courtesy of Kim Fowley

Record producer, songwriter and maverick visionary, Fowley offers up more of his thoughts on the Runaways.

I know during filming of “The Runaways” you had a meeting with yourself, Joan Jett, actors Kristen Stewart and Michael Shannon recently in Woodland Hills, Ca. at a local Denny’s restaurant. Joan is the executive producer of this Runaways movie and she felt it was appropriate for everyone to meet and have some insights and research into your multi-tasking roles in the band’s 1975-1977 world.
Kim Fowley: I showed up to the meeting and dinner. I have 28 personalities and marched in. Kristen had been studying the real Joan Jett, and Michael needed to see the real Kim Fowley in action. He wanted to see what that chemistry was. My parents were actors and I showed the stars some acting at the dinner table. I did some moves at the table. Some actors and actresses like Kristen Stewart are reserved and quiet off -camera but on the screen they become something bigger: Magical and edgier.

You see, all during the Runaways I had to create ‘New Kims’ all the time to deal with the group because they couldn’t concentrate. Michael Shannon went back to the movie set armed with information for his craft.

I wasn’t invited to the set for any of the filming but at the last minute I picked up the phone and was invited that night to the movie wrap party at El Cid restaurant in Hollywood on Sunset Blvd. I showed up after I went and got a new ‘Marlon Brando’ haircut from his ‘Apocalypse Now’ movie, with a death row kind of veneer to it and makeup.

What is it like to know and get paid to have an actor portray you in a real movie?
Fowley: I sold my life rights for the section involving “The Runaways.” There’s a window of time. I have songs in the movie, too. So, what happens is I show up, Michael Shannon had been running around in make-up for the movie.

I go as Brando imitating Michael Shannon on a ‘Bent’ level. So when I arrived, to all the actors and actresses, suddenly I became him. He was Kim Fowley for a month but I became Michael Shannon for a night. Because they were used to seeing him, same height, standing around and looking and acting like me. So I just played him as I remembered showing him how to play me.

Break down the movie wrap party for me.
Fowley: I met actress Riley Keough. She is Elvis Presley’s granddaughter. I talked to Dakota Fanning. I had met her before, months ago, when I had green hair and she came to the Roxy Theater to watch Cherie Currie perform. I met her father, too. Kristen Stewart remembered me and was very friendly. She enjoyed the Denny’s meeting. She was happy.

There were a bunch of other actors, including one who is ‘The Denny Rosencrantz’ figure. Denny was the executive who signed the group to Mercury Records. The female supporting cast was there, some of them had lesbian characters. They were slightly older, like 21 or 22. I met the other three members who play the Runaways.

I had to answer a lot of questions about Runaways’ record back catalog. Peer Music the publisher has cared about the catalog as well as they have cared for the Buddy Holly & The Crickets catalog before Paul McCartney ever entered the picture. They have been very supportive.

I basically got film crew and technical and support people asking why I was not on set because it would have been fun to have seen me and Michael Shannon in the same room. The director showed up, Floria Sigismondi. Her husband is Lillian Berlin of The Living Things, that we play on Sirius/XM radio on Little Steven’s Underground Radio channel.

What a cool artistic and economic victory for you. Am I the only one with a memory of the scorn and ridicule you received on occasion? Yet, you always knew there would be a major movie with big movie stars about The Runaways. You predicted it in 1976.
Fowley: I always think cinematically.

Why does this band The Runaways still resonate with fans, record buyers and musicians? A German film crew was just in Hollywood doing a documentary on The Runaways. And now another round of media coverage.
Fowley: We were first. There were women in the American Civil War that followed armies around and played music for the troops around famous battles. There was Ina Ray Hutton in Groucho Marx movies and her all girl- band, but they were women over age 21. There were people like Bertha, Fanny, girl singing groups, the Spector groups, the Gordy groups, the Brill Building groups. And in 1964, my own girl singing group, The Murmaids, topped the Cash Box and Record World charts with “Popsicles and Icicles” that I produced.

The Murmaids were the last all-girl singing group that ever had a top 5 record in Billboard before The Beatles came along and conquered America. I had done girl-themed and women-themed things before. But The Runaways was the first time that girls under age 18, female, played guitars, bass, drums, sometimes keyboard, sang and wrote, or co-wrote, their own material. That was the news. It was brand new.

Because it was brand new and never done before, and because teenagers have no legal rights to anything, and girls and women have had a hard time all these years, and this was at the beginning of feminism movement, there was no sympathy for this concept anywhere.

I always knew The Runaways were important. I did a lot of stories and interviews with the group before and after the debut LP and have credits on two albums. Now I get questions from UCLA and USC college students, around my own book gigs, telling me a litany of feminist and punk-perceived aspects of The Runaways. Why?
Fowley: Because of the Darwin Law. If you look at the Darwin book of Evolution, you see Cro-Magnum, and I saw rock ‘n’ roll from a Darwinian perspective. Elvis shaking his ass like a woman. All going through the New York Dolls and David Bowie, and all of a sudden you turn the page and there has to be a girl standing there. The U.S. male was becoming more feminine. And the British men kept getting more and more feminine. They weren’t turning into John Wayne guys. Even David Lee Roth, who was growling as he did it like a striptease dancer. The feminine aspect of the Western male just kept going on, and one day it just evolved into a vagina, breast, curves and estrogen. And so I saw it coming and went looking for it, talent scouting like Sam Phillips of Sun Records anticipating Elvis Presley, who was looking for a white guy who sounded like a Negro.

As a trio, I brought The Runaways into Gold Star studios with Stan Ross engineering, who had worked on records of Eddie Cochran, Phil Spector and Brian Wilson. I also brought the group as a trio into Cherokee Studios, which The Robb Brothers owned.

In July of 1976 I talked to you and The Runaways at a rehearsal room. You acted as catalyst in molding five schoolgirls together to comprise the promising outfit. Before then Phast Phreddie of Back Door Man magazine offered his living room in Carson, Calif., for the trio to make their official live debut.
Fowley: I bought Joan Jett a guitar to replace her $39.95 special from Sears. Sandy had a drum kit and Micki a bass from a girl from Cleveland, who left it behind. I took the girls to Cherokee Studios to see how tape works. Already I could tell Joan wanted to be Keith Richard instead of Duane Allman. She leaned toward a rhythm stance.

The Runaways, under your guidance, began picking up a following. In the meantime bassist Micki Steele was replaced by Jackie Fox, found by disco owner and radio DJ, Rodney Bingenheimer.
Fowley: My concept was a female sports team with guitars. Like the backfield of a football team. Joan and I, with Sandy, had gone to see the original “Rollerball” with James Caan, and we all thought, “That’s what the Runaways should be like.” We then saw “Clockwork Orange” and decided to put the two together. That’s the concept of the band live.

(To be continued. This is part one of a two-part interview.)

A link to "Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon"

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