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The Runaways' 'Bad Reputation'

Rock ’n’ roll was, for the most part at least, strictly a man’s game until The Runaways came along.

by Harvey Kubernik


Rock ’n’ roll was, for the most part at least, strictly a man’s game until The Runaways came along. Mere teenagers when they formed, under the guidance of rock visionary Kim Fowley, The Runaways constantly had to fight to be taken seriously by a music scene that stubbornly refused to accept them.

But The Runaways persevered, and though they flamed out almost as suddenly as they appeared, Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Sandy West and a revolving cast of bass players inspired girls across the globe to throw off their oppressors and take up arms, or in this case, guitars.

“Here in this country we shape our own destinies.” — Barack Obama.

“Cherry Bomb” might just be the anthem that defines The Runaways.

The all-girl rock ’n’ rollers that stood up to a male-dominated music scene in the mid-1970s are hotter than ever, thanks to a new movie about the band, “The Runaways,” and an avalanche of book and CD releases.

But if you want to understand the essence of The Runaways, give “Cherry Bomb” a listen. Though the song was written about the band’s blonde bombshell lead singer, Cherie Currie, it could just as easily tell Jett’s own story.

“For me, the song says the same thing, initially with Cherie singing and now me, but the context is now different,” suggests Jett from her home in New York. “In The Runaways, it was written about Cherie, but it was really written about all of us. It was about a type of girl and that name was Cherie. And she was the ‘Cherry Bomb,’ and she is the ‘Cherry Bomb.’ But it’s just as easy for me to step into the song, because you’re singing about a type of girl. And it was written for Cherie and very easy for me to step into it, because I was the one who wrote it.”

More than that, “Cherry Bomb” embodies everything that made The Runaways such a sensation, especially among fans of their own gender.

“I do think it’s an anthemic song,” says Jett. “I think it’s got the hooks. It’s what rock ’n’ roll is. It’s the f**kin’ height of rebellion. It’s saying and shoving it right up parents’ asses. And boy’s asses. I really think it’s a female-empowering song. And I felt it then. Even though it was about a specific thing, and even though people tried to diminish it and say, ‘Well, you know, the corset. It’s just sex.’ You’re missing the point. We’re owning our sex. We aren’t the toy. I just feel it’s a powerful song and I feel powerful singing it. I feel strong singing it. You like that people connect to it. And can find a meaning in it even now.”

The Runaways on the silverscreen
Out in U.S. theatrical release and worldwide distribution this spring, “The Runaways” movie has tongues wagging.

The film stars Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” fame as guitarist Jett and Dakota Fanning as lead singer Cherie Currie. Actor Michael Shannon, an Oscar nominee for “Revolutionary Road,” portrays Svengali Kim Fowley in this endeavor, while guitarist Lita Ford is played by Scout Taylor-Compton, Stella Maeve has a turn as band co-founder /drummer Sandy West and Alia Shawkat is Robin, a fictional composite character of all the girls who played bass in the group.

It was Fowley who helped bring this musical creation to life, assembling it with Jett and West during 1975 and ’76.

As for the film, it’s not necessarily a band documentary or a biopic, as the movie producers could not secure life story rights for guitarist Lita Ford or bassist Jackie Fox. The original Runaways’ drummer and co-founder, Sandy West, died in 2006 from lung and brain cancer. In addition, The Runaways’ first bass player, Micki Steele, later to be in The Bangles, is also fictionalized.

The Runaways’ theatrical run began March 19 by independent distributor Apparition and earlier premiered in late January at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

DJ and longtime music supporter Rodney Bingenheimer is portrayed in the flick by Keir O’Donnell. Bingenheimer was the first to spin the demo of “Cherry Bomb” during the last days of his famed Sunset Blvd. English Disco club in 1975. In ’76, he debuted The Runaways first LP on his “Rodney on the Roq” KROQ-FM program. Shortly thereafter, Bingenheimer’s opening weekly radio theme song was the Sandy West-sung Runaways’ version of The Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll.”

“The movie is pretty amazing. I liked it,” Bingenheimer beamed. “I still play the music. They were the first all-girl teenage rock band that really broke the barriers for the other girl bands and female artists after them. Look what happened with The Go- Go’s, Bangles and Plastiscines. I remember driving Roger Taylor and Brian May from Queen out to Fullerton to a high school dance to see The Runaways. When we walked on the campus the school principal stopped us and said we couldn’t attend. I told him, ‘This is Queen. And, he replied, “I don’t care if it’s the King.’”

Reporter Todd Martens in the March 10 issue of The Los Angeles Times asked Fowley his reaction to seeing the film. “I have two of them,” he said. “On a good day, it’s a musical version of ‘Rebel Without a Cause,’ and on a bad day it’s a nighttime soap opera with some rock ’n’ roll music. From a marketing perspective, it’s a coming-of-age movie that works. Michael Shannon is a genius. He’s the new Christopher Walken.”

Fowley is a child of Hollywood. Shelby Payne, Fowley’s mother, had a cameo scene as the cigarette girl in “The Big Sleep,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. His dad Douglas Fowley did a slew of episodic TV roles, including a regular stint on “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” as Doc Holiday. Doug acted in dozens of movies in his 50-year stage and film career, including “Mighty Joe Young” and “Singin’ in the Rain.”

For 12 years, according to Fowley, Jett and Kenny Laguna, her manager, have shopped some sort of movie pitch about The Runways around Currie’s ‘Neon Angel’ memoir.

Four years ago, Hollywood producer John Linson, who loved The Runaways from seeing them in the pages of Creem magazine, negotiated a deal for Cherie’s book.

“The Runaways” film, a teen-rocker flick, is partially based on and informed by Currie’s own 1989 memoir, “Neon Angel. The Cherie Currie Story.”

“The Runaways” film marks the debut theatrical collaboration between Apparition and River Road Entertainment. It is produced by John Linson, Art Linson and Bill Pohlad. Pohlad, along with Bob Berney, recently launched the new motion-picture distribution company, Apparition, which has brought films “The Tree Of Life,” and “Bright Star and the Young Victoria” into the world.

“I first got involved when my partner Bill Pohlad, who was the head of River Road Entertainment, had worked with Art Linson on ‘Into The Wild’ mentions Apparition CEO Berney. “And through that relationship with Sean (Penn) and Kristen (Stewart) Art had developed the project and been working on it. He brought it to Bill who told me about it. I got very excited about not only the story but the cast that was lining up. It then came together. For us we had followed the progress during production.”

“The Runaways” movie was also not just a festival circuit acquisition by Apparition.

What attracted Berney to the property in the first place?

“It was really the story, the relationship, the up and down of Cherie and Joan’s relationship that I think was interesting, combined with the music world,” he says. “So it was not to make just a rock ’n’ roll movie but one that had a real emotional relationship.”
Berney was at both the Los Angeles premier and in Austin, Texas at SXSW.

“I think those two screenings had people who really knew the characters and everything, and to see the response, not only the applause, but during it the laughs and the recognition, the crying and the emotion, and to see that actually finally delivered [was great],” Berney explains.

“Chemistry is key,” Berney underscores. “John and Art Linson and Bill (Pohlad) really pulled it together. It was beautiful. They really worked around schedules and fought to get Michael Shannon, which just to me was amazing. All of them. And the world now gets to know about Kim Fowley.

Berney continues, “He was obviously at the L.A. premiere and he came to Austin for SXSW. Kim just took over the town. At one point he was doing an interview and the radio station just turned it over to him and he became the DJ for three segments. I think they didn’t know how to say no. But it was all good. Kim was walking around the town surprising everybody.”
New discovery

In the summer of 1975, Fowley telephoned Billboard journalist/author Ritchie Yorke. He had just heard his latest discovery The Runaways.

A freelance writer, the Toronto-based York was in Los Angeles doing interviews with the likes of Steely Dan, Seals and Crofts, Peter Frampton and others.

“Kim Fowley, who I’d known since our first associations in London in 1966, invited me to drop over to his West Hollywood apartment for lunch,” recalls Yorke “I’d also written the liner notes for his album Good Clean Fun. While I was there, he received a phone call from Joan Jett/Sandy West, founding members of the Runaways.”

This was more than just an average phone call, however.

“They were doing their first-ever telephone audition, performing a rather loose version of ‘All Shook Up,’ based on the Suzie Quatro arrangement of the evergreen tune,” says Yorke. “I was not a big fan of Ms. Quatro, but I listened to them playing before Kim did. He’d handed me the phone to ‘vet’ their talents. I had a bit of a reputation as a talent spotter, having predicted the North American success of Led Zeppelin and Yes, and having discovered the Miguel Rios re-working of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony.’ He said that if they impressed me with their talents, then he would work with them. Recognising the obvious need for a Runaways-type band in the California music mix, I said to Kim: ‘It sounds like rock ’n’ roll to me.’”
And it had something else.

“I’d been a huge fan of the girl groups of the 60s and 70s, including Martha And The Vandellas, The Marvelettes, The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Raindrops, The Chiffons and many others. While The Runaways weren’t in that esteemed class, they did have something going for them. Whereupon Kim responded: ‘Thank you Ritchie. If you had said they were crap or bad, I would have rejected them.’”

A week after Fowley and Yorke talked, I then received a call from Fowley demanding me to “interview this band for Melody Maker. See them perform. Pay attention to me, not just the girls. Take notes. This is a movie.”

I later went over to Bingenheimer’s English Disco on Sunset Boulevard one evening and then the following afternoon to the Whisky A Go-Go for The Runaways’ debut as a four piece: Joan Jett, Sandy West, Micki Steele and Lita Ford.

The Kim-and-Joan team then drafted Cherie Currie as lead singer. Micki existed the group, (later joining The Bangles). Peggy Foster then joined briefly on bass, and by the end of the year the bass spot was filled by Jackie Fox.

In February 1976, the determined Fowley managed to get the band signed to Mercury Records. He cut their debut album at Fidelity Sound in North Hollywood. The band breaks internationally in England with some Melody Maker coverage.

For that Melody Maker article, a boastful Fowley proclaimed, “This is no Bay City Rollers bullsh*t — press conferences with milk on the table. I’m proud of The Runaways LP. This album could win a Nobel Peace Prize. It’s as important as the Magna Carta. This is a significant sociological statement — an album for teens by teens singing about sexual and violent subjects. Role reversal on a modern level.”

Fowley took me on an educational field trip to Peer Southern Music, who secured The Fowley-penned Runaways tunes in 1977. The company remains the longtime house of a portion of Buddy Holly’s lucrative catalogue and Donovan’s fabled copyrights.
Fowley also introduced me to legendary booking agent Tats Nagashima. Said Fowley back then, “He will get them to Japan. He grew up in the Bronx with Jewish people. He works with Mr. Udo, who brought The Beatles to Japan. This act can work internationally. I knew Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. So don’t f**k with me!”

Around the same time Kim introduced me to Rene Hall walking on Hollywood Blvd. one afternoon. I felt like I belonged in the music world.

In 1977, The Runaways recorded Queens Of Noise at The Beach Boys’ Brother Studios in Santa Monica.Fowley co-produced the record with former Half Nelson/Sparks guitarist Earle Mankey. Beach Boy Dennis Wilson attended the Fowley/Runaway sessions at the beach facility.

The Runaways embarked on a U.S. tour, while momentum built for their initial visit to Japan. Fox left the band on that tour, and Joan Jett picked up the bass to play their Tokyo Music Festival date. The album Live In Japan was also released in 1977, and it become a popular import item.

In winter 1977, The Runaways entered Larrabee Studios in Hollywood to do Waitin’ For The Night. Vicki Tischer-Blue took over on bass, and Joan Jett became lead singer. One evening, Bingenheimer and I hand-clapped behind Joan on the track “Gotta Get Out Tonight.” Fleetwood Mac was in an adjoining studio. Stevie Nicks and Suzi Quatro visited a couple recording sessions, while Bryan Ferry and Jerry Hall also checked out Larrabee and Fowley in action.

By 1978, Kim and the band had ended the relationship. The group recorded And Now …The Runaways. Tsicher-Blue was replaced by Laurie McAllister. They do a final tour and disband in 1979.

Jackie Fuchs (aka Fox) would later attend Harvard Law School, where she was a classmate Barack Obama.
BecomingJoan Jett

When I first met Jett, she was a teenage Valley girl who then quickly re-invented herself on many levels: visual, wardrobe, posture, confidence and attitude.

She had hunkered down and then emerged as a prime mover of The Runaways’ sound with Sandy West.

Coupled with producer/songwriter Fowley’s impulsive and calculated efforts and with his music business acumen, they collectively helped pave the way for many females to pick up electric instruments and form rock ’n’ roll bands.

After The Runaways broke up in 1979, Jett went to England and recorded with Steve Jones and Paul Cook of The Sex Pistols. In 1982, her rendition of The Arrows’ “I Love Rock N’ Roll” was a #1 hit record.

Jett has earned six platinum albums, and her aggressive-but-tender persona has influenced musicians, fashion designers, writers and activists.
I hadn’t seen or talked to Jett in over 30 years. I conducted The Runaways first band interview for Melody Maker when she was age 16. Jett will turn 50 in September.

I remember talking baseball with Jett that day in 1976. When she lived in Baltimore, Md., and was known as Joan Larkin. She went to the game where pitcher Jim Palmer of the Baltimore Orioles tossed a no-hitter.

During our 1976 Melody Maker interview, Jett said at the time, “Until a year ago life was a bummer. I used to live for Friday nights; now I couldn’t live without this group.”

In fact, Jett was living in two worlds then: those of rock ’n’ roll and a 16-year-old Valley school girl.

The only thing that’s gone bad so far with this group is a newspaper ran a big story on us and told our ages,” she said. “Every day after rehearsal we’d go to the store on the corner to get some cigarettes, and now the guy behind the counter says he can’t sell ‘em to us ’cause we’re under 18. That’s a bunch of sh*t. So is school.”

Flash forward to 2010, and Jett describes “The Runaways” movies experience as “surreal.”

“I was on set, so it wasn’t a shock,” volunteers Jett in a hotel suite inside The Lux Hotel in West Los Angeles. “Seeing Kristen on set was not a shock, ’cause I had been seeing her like that and hanging out as me. You know what I mean? The surreal aspect is more seeing it as The Runaways. It’s a movie and a parallel story line. It doesn’t have every detail, and there’s a lot left out and a lot in there — meaning every day was so full. There could have been 50 other incidents that could have been in there. But yeah, it definitely gives you a sense of what it was like being in The Runaways. The essence is there for sure.”

About the often harsh depiction of Fowley on screen, Joan maintains, “Well remember, it’s a movie and there was more humanity and warmth and camaraderie that existed during this time, I think, that maybe didn’t come across. You have a lot of great experiences and it’s a family. And you follow any family around you are going to see elation and disharmony. That’s just the way it is.”

As for her songwriting partnership with Fowley and their defiant stance for their brand of rock ‘n’ roll to be heard?

“I think, beyond the songwriting, Kim and I had a bond in the sense of the mission. We were on the same page with the mission of creating this band and getting girls up there to play rock ’n’ roll. It’s something I really believed, you know.

“Kim to me was so many different things: He was a teacher. I had no choice but to learn how to write songs, because Kim is sort of a stream-of-consciousness guy sometimes and he’s a very big personality and we’d just start saying words. I had the guitar and started playing what comes out. I had never really written anything before. So all this stuff is very fertile.

“My experience with Kim … It was just fascinating to me and so creative at the time that things just popped out. I was mostly a music-and-melody person. I could be a word person, but that was more after the fact. A lot of the songwriting was very stream of consciousness. I think what we wrote about were very ‘sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.’ That’s what we were living. That’s what I knew.”

Jett and Fowley endured decades of insults and the one-time ridicule of elitist music business snobs as they justified the mere existence of The Runaways. In the end, Jett still doesn’t quite understand that reaction.

“Look, the whole thing when it ended was very depressing,” says Jett. “It was a struggle to get through that — this thing I loved so much that I really believed could change the world, and [I] really thought we were good and genuinely and naively believed this. And to see the reaction that was so harsh and mean-spirited. Because we’re playing music? Because we’re playing f**kin’ rock ’n’ roll? You know what I mean? It was just weird, and I did not get it and it made me really angry.

Jett continues, “Why is was so threatening for girls to play rock ’n’ roll? I just don’t get it. I still don’t get it. To be told, ‘You can’t play rock ’n’ roll.’ What are you talking about? I’m sitting in school with girls playing cello and violin playing Beethoven and Bach. What are you saying you can’t play rock ’n’ roll? What does that mean? You can’t master the instruments? No. You can’t do it socially. Because rock ’n’ roll is the Sticky Fingers album cover? Rock ’n’ roll is Robert Plant standing with his shirt open. Go take a listen to ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and how dirty that song is. How it drips. How it sonically is tactile. You can feel it. It’s not over-produced and done in reverb. It’s like you were in the room. And when I listened I wanted to make those sounds. And teenagers are sexual. Teenage girls are sexual. Sorry.”

Actually, Jett is unapologetic when it comes to what The Runaways were all about.

“It’s reality,” confirms Joan . “And, to dismiss it like it should not have a voice is very insulting to teenagers. And I see this now upon reflection. But at the time I was not thinking about it as that. It’s definitely a fact. Kids are out there having these experiences. So why are you making us the villain? Guys were doing it.”

Stewart had told me she was very nervous when she first met Jett. For her part, Jett liked Stewart right away.

“I mean, I thought she was really great,” says Jett. “It probably took a minute for us to get comfortable. I’m sure I just started talking to her. I started blabbing and talking about The Runaways for three hours — extraneous details, why I formed the band, what it meant to me, what I was trying to achieve. Any stories I could remember. Songwriting stuff. Anything I could remember about The Runaways. Private things I’d never tell anybody. All that stuff I spoke to her about. I asked her ‘Are you gonna cut your hair?’ She said yes. It really gave me a sense of comfort that she was very committed to becoming me.”

To prepare Stewart for the role, Jett gave her an education on The Runaways’ history.

“I burned her a bunch of CD’s, all the studio records,” says Jett. “I burned her bootlegs from Cleveland, The Whisky A Go-Go, the Starwood, a club that used to be in West Hollywood that is gone. So she could hear our on stage banter, hear our audience yelling. I burned her me talking at age 14. I had a half an hour talking to my aunt. Sort of this Maryland/Pennsylvania/Southern drawl thing that I had. Whether or not she utilized it was not important. It was more for her to get a scent of who I was. Who was this person she was used to seeing with black hair and heavy makeup and a guitar? But not knowing who’s Joan? Whose Joanie? Who is that person?”

“The Runaways” movie also contains a scene where young Jett is shown taking a guitar lesson from her teacher, and she’s at odds with his instructional and restrictive methods.

“I went into the music teacher and wanted to play rock ’n’ roll, knowing you have to learn the basics,” recalls Jett. “Now, I know he wanted to teach me the basics. At the time I did not want to hear it. He tried to teach me ‘On Top Of Old Smokey.’ I sit through the lesson and leave. And that’s it. I never went back I bought one of those ‘learn how to play guitar chords by yourself’ [books] and it shows you the diagram, work with your hand and I took that in my room and sat with my singles and learned how to play guitar. I didn’t fight with the teacher.”

Asked about her current relationship with Cherie Currie, Jett turns reflective.

“On some levels with Cherie and I have not changed at all,” Jett says. “I want to have learned [something] in my life but not necessarily [anything] that different. I want my essence to remain. I think Cherie’s essence remains. It’s really great, because at the time of The Runaways we didn’t have enough communication. We didn’t sit down and talk about ‘what is bothering you?’ with any of us. Maybe things could have been rectified if that had happened. But things happen the way they did for a reason.
“But it’s great to be friends with Cherie,” she enthuses, “and we went through so many things, and we shouldn’t have that distance. And I think it’s really special and I’m glad that we had a chance to do this.”