Sex sells: The girl band that changed pop forever

Under-age, under-dressed, and over-the-top, The Runaways were the first girl rock group to make a global impact. Now their story is a movie. Chris Salewicz recalls his times with Joan Jett, Cherie Currie and their band

In early October 1976, The Runaways, an all-girl five-piece from Los Angeles, played a sell-out show at London's Roundhouse, their debut date in the UK. At the centre of The Runaways' stage act was the appearance of singer Cherie Currie, dressed in a corset, panties, and fish-net stockings – "my way of being a rebel and out there in my underwear" is how she described it later. Such "rebellion", however, only emphasised her 16-year-old "jailbait" appeal, one exploited with no great subtlety by Kim Fowley, the group's manager.

The NME review by Tony Parsons no doubt precisely echoed Fowley's intention: "Runaways brought the house down with some hot, hard, bitching rock and roll, the fact that they are young and extremely horny teenage females was a bonus" – words which might have earned him some censure in today's changed social climate. Yet almost three-and-a-half decades on, The Runaways are fêted as the template for the tidal wave of female musicians who have come to dominate the charts, in a world in which overtly expressed sexuality and confident feminism can apparently co-exist. Rather than to the austere art and humourless presence of Patti Smith, such phenomena as The Spice Girls can trace some of their careers to that of The Runaways, the first female rock act to truly make any kind of global impact.

Less than five months before The Runaways played at the Roundhouse, Patti Smith had herself sold out the venue. But, as I had discovered in June 1976 in Los Angeles, when I had been writing a cover story for the NME, none of The Runaways, whose oldest member was only 17, would have considered her a rival. "Watching Patti Smith is like morbid curiosity," pronounced Cherie Currie. "It's like the way people look at a dead dog lying in the middle of the road with its guts spilling out."

I had been staying at the Hyatt House on Sunset Boulevard. On a very hot afternoon all five Runaways had trooped up to my ninth-floor room. Cherie, clothed in tight satin, had walked into the room and given me a thoroughly unnerving petulant and punky once-over before dropping down on the bed to lie there on her belly running her fingers through her hair. But she was the only group member to display such attitude. The rest were cheery, friendly California girls, with sparkling white teeth, all looking as though they showered three times a day.

As on stage, it was co-group founder Joan Jett who was in charge, quickly dropping her heavy-lidded pose for perky enthusiasm and a knowing humour. They seemed very natural and easy-going, older than their years, and rather intelligent. It surprised me to learn that they were still at high school‚ apart from Lita Ford, the eldest, who had graduated the previous week.

But Cherie Currie's comment about Patti Smith seemed almost like a model for the kind of rent-a-quotes that punk artists would be handing out like instant slogans over the coming months. Except that the object of her attack was already honoured as the high priestess of punk. (The other Runaways nodded in agreement, by the way, Lita Ford adding "She looks as if she's coming down off of four quaaludes.") But wasn't such irreverence the essence of the movement? Appositely, Cherie's words could as easily have come from one of the New York Dolls, perhaps from Johnny Thunders.

"The Runaways paved the way for punk," said Evelyn McDonnell, a respected American writer currently working on a thesis about the group. "They were a bridge between the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols. Their tours of England and Japan and their infamous summer tour with the Ramones of the US paved the way for the musical explosion that was to follow. But they didn't survive to get their due."

In the mid-1970s, Los Angeles was the world centre of the music business, which was hinged around Laurel Canyon-style soft rock. By contrast Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco, a world of platform shoes and eye-shadow, which ran on Sunset Strip from 1972 to 1975, had a playlist made up of British glamrock. The music of David Bowie, Roxy Music, Gary Glitter, Suzi Quatro and The Sweet would sail out of its doorway, playing to patrons whose average age was between 12 and 15 (apart, that is, from members of Led Zeppelin, habitués when in town). Some of those girls included the future members of The Runaways; it is not insignificant that "Cherry Bomb", the best-known Runaways' song, borrowed much of its structure from "Blockbuster" by The Sweet.

Kim Fowley, a friend of Bingenheimer, had had a career as a record producer working on the fringes of the music business; his successes were often with novelty records, including "Alley Oop" by the Hollywood Argyles, a US No 1, "Nut Rocker" by B Bumble and the Stingers, and Napoleon XIV's "They're Coming To Take Me Away Ha-Haaa!". While in the UK he had produced early versions of Slade and Soft Machine as well as co-writing the B-side of "I Love My Dog", the first hit by Cat Stevens. In the early 1970s he had co-produced, with John Cale, the first LP by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.

In 1975 rhythm guitarist Joan Jett (born Larkin), who was then 15 years old and whose idols were Suzi Quatro and Keith Richards; and drummer Sandy West, influenced by Queen's Roger Taylor, separately approached Fowley at Rodney's about forming an all-girl group. He put them in touch with one another. At first working with bass-player Micki Steele, this early form of The Runaways started to play the southern California party circuit. Their progress was temporarily stymied when Steele left; she later became a member of The Bangles. But Jett and West met up with further Rodney's alumni: lead guitarist Lita Ford, a fan of Ritchie Blackmore and Jeff Beck, and singer Cherie Currie, who was the daughter of Hollywood actress Marie Harmon and once such a Bowie clone that she would wear an Aladdin Sane facial zigzag to Rodney's. The line-up was completed by the arrival of bass-player Jackie Fox, who took her style from Kiss's Gene Simmons.

In early 1976 The Runaways signed to Mercury Records, and The Runaways album was released in America in late spring of that year. Fowley ensured that the album's liner notes listed the girls' ages – four were 16, Lita Ford (who had been born in Streatham in south London) the only 17-year-old. And the inner sleeve was also graced by an extract from a long article about the group that had run in Who Put The Bomp, a legendary California fanzine: "The white middle-class suburbs were bound to have their outbreak of teen troublemakers. That's The Runaways. Their roots are TV, hanging around and going to Hollywood on weekends because it's the only thing to do after five days of school and partying. They make you hear the frustration of teenage life, and even more, the utter bone-crunching boredom of nothing to do and nowhere to do it. The Runaways aren't just 'an all-girl band' or an exercise in women's lib. They're a rock'n'roll band. They're rock'n'roll. They're for real." The author was Lisa Faucher, also 16.

"The fact that they were put together, rather than emerging organically as a group of friends, and so quickly had success at such a young age, meant they had an unstable structure that got put under an immense amount of pressure," said McDonnell. "They were not built up to earthquake codes. I think Kim Fowley was in over his head with handling a bunch of adolescent women. He overplayed their jailbait image and underplayed their talent."

Although The Runaways toured America with the Ramones in the summer of 1976, there was little similarity between the sounds of the two groups. The release of the Ramones' first album in April 1976 had had an immediate effect on the emergent UK punk acts: apart from the Sex Pistols, almost every act began to play at twice their original speed. The Runaways' first album was recorded already, however, and the LP's songs had a pace that was quintessential hard rock, a reference back to glam rock rather than to the future.

"I was pleased to see them emerge," remembered Viv Albertine, who almost immediately after the Roundhouse show had found herself as guitarist in The Slits. "But they didn't come very much as a new thing. It was like an old man's fantasy. But when The Slits were happening we spent a night with them in a houseboat in Chelsea that they were staying in. They were just such cool girls, Joan Jett especially: there was no rivalry, and I was very pleased for her that she got her own thing together and it was so successful. Sandy was a lovely girl‚ the first girl I ever met who I could fancy, she was so centred without being boring."

Japan took to The Runaways to such an extent that, astonishingly, they were the fourth most popular overseas act in the country, behind Abba, Kiss and Led Zeppelin. During a Japanese tour in the summer of 1977, promoting their Queens of Noise album, Jackie Fox quit, Joan Jett taking on her bass-playing duties for the remaining dates until Vicki Blue took over. When Cherie Currie walked out at the end of the shows, Jett took on the lead vocalist mantle. The next year The Runaways split with both Kim Fowley and Mercury Records, and then themselves split up, playing their final date on New Year's Eve 1978.

Later there were allegations of misconduct, sexual and otherwise, on the part of the management and record company; a financial settlement was eventually reached. "They were just wiping the floor with us, taking our money, keeping us stoned, and fucking us," said Lita Ford. In Edgeplay, a 2004 documentary made by Vicki Blue, who had succeeded Jackie Fox, Cherie Currie described how she kept information about Kim Fowley from her parents: "I didn't tell them everything he had done; my father would have absolutely taken out a gun and blown his brains out. I still hope one day someone does."

Spending time in London in 1979, Joan Jett teamed up with Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols, working on assorted demos, one of which was a version of "I Love Rock'n'Roll", a 1975 hit by Arrows. Re-recorded in 1982 by her new group, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, the song was No 1 in the United States for seven weeks in a row, and is Billboard's No 28 all-time song. Many more hits followed, as well as a creditable acting career. Lita Ford also enjoyed considerable success – her 1984 single "Fire In My Heart" was an international Top 10 tune, while its follow-up, "Gotta Let Go", was a number-one record in the US. At the end of the decade, with Sharon Osbourne as her manager, she had a run of hits, including "Close My Eyes Forever", a duet with Ozzy Osbourne, an international Top 10 record. Meanwhile, Cherie Currie became a chainsaw artist, and Jackie Fox a music and film entertainment lawyer. Sadly, in 2006, Sandy West died of lung cancer.

There was, of course, a further significance to that Runaways' Roundhouse event, beyond the surprise that this new act, with one album just released, had shifted every available ticket for the concert. That show marked the first emergence of a new social grouping. On the periphery of the audience was an assortment of people, all of whom clearly knew each other. Almost all of them were semi-androgynous, black leather jacketed and black haired, and hardly out of their teens. Included were most of the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned; Siouxsie Sioux, Patti Paladin and Judy Nylon of Snatch, as well as Viv Albertine; and Gene October, Billy Idol, and Tony James, all still members of Chelsea.

"That Runaways Roundhouse gig was really important," observed writer Jon Savage. "It brought together all the punky people in London for the very first time, the first big gathering of punk... The Runaways themselves were almost incidental."

Not a wild one: does the new movie about The Runaways play too safe?

The Runaways was one of the most eagerly anticipated films at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Determined to produce a party that would rock as hard as the band once did, the film-makers in their wisdom organised a Runaways concert to follow the world premiere, in which Joan Jett and Cherie Currie were joined on stage by the actors depicting them – Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning.

Sadly, the anticipation that the four would play together, or that Currie and Jett would perform on stage together for the first time since Currie left the band in 1978, were dashed when Jett, wearing a sleeveless spandex jumpsuit, was left to sing the band's hit "Cherry Bomb" alone.

But in the film it's Currie, played by Fanning, rather than Stewart's Jett who takes centre stage. The opening shot of menstrual blood on a southern California pavement introduces the 15-year-old Currie, who would be chosen from a concert crowd by the manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon portrays him as a gregarious sexual manipulator) to be the requisite blonde who fronts a band of girl rockers.

The opening salvo of the veteran music-video director Floria Sigismondi's feature-film debut suggests an unconventional, in-your-face biopic in the style of Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy, but instead she serves up a conventionally framed formula of "girls from the wrong side of the tracks find each other, form band, discover sex, drugs and rock'n'roll and then break up on the cusp of superstardom".

That the story starts and ends with the involvement of Currie is partly down to the fact that the endeavour is loosely based on Currie's slim book about the period, Neon Angel, although Currie has claimed that the rape which caused her, aged 14, to cut her hair to look like David Bowie's glamrock style has been omitted from the picture.

Also lacking is any insight into the troubled family life of Jett, which is possibly due to her heavy involvement in the production. Drummer Sandy West died of cancer in 2006 and is given a warm portrayal, lead guitarist Lita Ford is faded into the background, while bassist Jackie Fox, now an entertainment lawyer, is in a dispute with Jett over the use of the band's name, and goes unmentioned.

In the end this is less the story of The Runaways than the Currie, Jet and Fowley triangle show, although some would argue that that's about right.

Kaleem Aftab

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