Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways by Evelyn McDonnell – Da Capo Press. ISBN# 0306820390
‘Hello Daddy! Hello Mom!
I’m your ch – ch – ch – cherry bomb!”
The Runaways were the first teenage, all-female, hard-rock band signed to a major American label. At the time, squealed psychosexual boasts concerning independence and ‘being on top’ were about as assertive as a teenage young lady could get without pissing off either the starched feminists, like Phylis Schlafly’s MOVE, or their parents. In spite of all the blah-blah-blather and anarchic assertions of ‘independence’ typified by their raw little blood-engorged and distended Cherry Bomb, the band were pretty much ignored everywhere but the Rust Belt and the always cool UK. More or less an asterisk in between the Phil Spector-controlled R&B/pop of the Ronettes and the Crystals. Breaking out on the cusp of the Beatles, the barely musical political punk of the Slits in the late 70s and the overproduced chocolate box prettiness of the Go-Gos and the Bangles, were the real deal, the Runaways.
The author, Evelyn McDonnell, a veteran rock journo, does a splendid job of placing the cruelly underrated group in both a clear historical context as artist/musicians in her scrupulously researched Queens of Noise. The tale of just what the costs were in pursuing those ambitions in the 1970s is brutally fascinating.
Consider the group’s abandoned Pygmalion, a cheesy L.A hustler called Kim Fowley, famous in England for managing “Elvis Presley’s cousin” P.J. Proby. Fowler has had more showbiz personas than Sybil. Obsessed with “finding and creating a female jailbait Rolling Stones,” Fowley advertised in The Hollywood Reporter for nothing. When he met a 16-year-old Joan Jett at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco in West Hollywood, he told a third girl picked up off the Sunset Strip that he would be their pimp/svengali. The very idea of it, an all-girl band—jailbait with a sleazy blonde singer to Fowley, fun and freedom to the girls—was kinda sorta inevitable.
Fowley mercilessly drilled the band members. He knew both rock n’ roll stagecraft and the kind of chauvinistic, über hetero machismo his “c+*n#s” needed to hear and bombarded them with it to “prepare them.” Jett, the sexy raccoon-eyed singer and rhythm guitarist; West, the drummer; Jackie Fox, one of a succession of bassists; Lita Ford, the lead guitarist; and Cherie Currie, the blonde front-woman: Fowley put them through a boot-camp in the demands of rock performance. And it worked right away! Fowley got a record contract with Mercury, made himself a hero at Rolling Stone magazine, and talked the girls into a deal with the band that was favorable to him. Having lied to their parents about tutors and chaperones, Fowley sent them out on tour, collected their earnings, gave them pocket money for three squares a day, a motel bed and little else.
Despite it all, the Runaways got good. 16 and 17 at the beginning, straight and unsophisticated, they were soon “at least” bisexual. Five albums in four years. Gigs all over the world. At first they went along with Fowley and wore revealing clothes, but the music always won out anyway because it was so good. As they took to dressing ‘normal’ an at-first empathetic male audience could turn on them in the midst of a gig. More and more into the music and fatigued by the bullshit, they fired Fowley! Only Cherrie Currie kept up the suggestive rock ’n’ roll Ho persona, but she took a back seat more and more as the Runaways became seasoned professionals.
They didn’t sell many records but British punk audiences loved them. Worshipped by an army of female worshippers in Japan, yet marginalized in the States, they truly were a cult phenomenon. Anyone who doubts how badass scary-good they were only needs to listen to the energy that is Live in Japan.
McDonnell does a grand job to get past the self-serving memoir by Joan Jett, Neon Angel and Floria Sigismondi’s worshipful but fictionalized movie The Runaways. The real Runaways were undone by the usual stuff. Heroin for West. Dope in general for everybody else. After their split, Currie became an actress. Fox went to Harvard Law School. Ford enjoyed fleeting solo success. West did jail time. The most successful, Jett, rock royalty, has protected the Runaways’ legacy despite infighting, making certain royalties go to all band members. She has also inspired a generation of female musicians. And McDonnell has righteously rehabilitated a pioneering band’s reputation.