Drummer with the Runaways
Wednesday 25 October 2006
Sandy Pesavento (Sandy West), drummer, singer and guitarist: born Long Beach, California 10 January 1960; died San Dimas, California 21 October 2006.
In 1976, five teenage girls who called themselves the Runaways burst on to the music scene with the single "Cherry Bomb". They were like the Ramones with added sex appeal and played a proto-punk style of music influenced as much by the hard rock of Led Zeppelin and Kiss as by the glitter sound of Slade and Sweet.
Assembled by the musical Svengali Kim Fowley in Los Angeles the previous year, the band - Cherie Currie (vocals), Lita Ford (lead guitar), Joan Jett (rhythm guitar, vocals), Jackie Fox (bass) and Sandy West (drums) - released five albums between 1976 and 1979. With short, sharp songs like "You Drive Me Wild", "Born to Be Bad", "Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin", "School Days" and "Wasted", they became cover stars, toured the world, appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test and played arenas in Japan before imploding after several line-up changes because of bad management.
West said later, "We were not into the feminist thing but we opened a lot of doors for girls", and their legacy lives on in every female rock band from Girlschool to the Hedrons via the Go-Go's, L7 and the Donnas. But, while both Jett and Ford went on to successful solo careers in the Eighties, West, the other constant in the Runaways' short existence, failed to get back into the charts.
She was born Sandy Pesavento in 1960 in Long Beach, California, the most athletic of seven sisters, enjoying surfing and water-skiing. She briefly played the violin but took to drumming with gusto when her grandfather bought her a kit. Her early interest in classical music was soon replaced by an appreciation of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Queen and Aerosmith. She started playing live aged 13 as the only female member of a local band. "We played very loud music," she told Metal Maidens magazine. "I was aggressive and I was physical." In summer 1975, aged 15, she met Fowley at the Rainbow Bar & Grill in Hollywood:
I saw this guy in this weird orange suit in the parking lot at closing time, and my girlfriend said: "That's Kim Fowley. He's made records with Alice Cooper." So I walked up to him and said: "My name's Sandy West, and I'm a drummer." And his eyes lit up.
Fowley called West the next day to give her Joan Jett's number. "She took about three buses to get to my house," West recalled:
She had a little Sears guitar, but she had perfect rhythm. Who ever heard of a 15-year-old girl with perfect timing? We'd go to Kim's apartment in Hollywood every weekend, write songs and audition people. Our main goal was to have hit songs, sell out concerts, have fun and see the world. But also to be taken seriously as musicians.
Within a few months, West and Jett had been joined by Ford and Currie and the bassist Michael Steele (later of the Bangles). Steele had been replaced by Fox by the time Fowley secured them a deal with Mercury Records. The lyricist Kari Krome and Fowley co-wrote much of the group's early material but, as time went on, Jett became the primary writer, with the other members also involved. "I wrote all my drum parts," said West:
Lita wrote all her guitar parts, Joan was the mastermind at creating chunk, rawness and attitude, Cherie was the perfect front person - a female David Bowie - and it worked.
Unfortunately, Fowley saddled the band with a sleazy "jailbait" image that turned many critics against them. Nevertheless the stomping, swaggering "Cherry Bomb" caught the mood of the time, and the band ventured to New York to play CBGB's club and toured the UK in autumn 1976 to promote their eponymous début album. Queens of Noise followed in 1977 and then Live in Japan.
Currie and Fox left soon afterwards, Jett took over lead vocals and the group became a four-piece, with Vicki Blue, and then Laurie McAllister, filling in on bass for Waitin' for the Night (1977). They parted company with Fowley, were briefly looked after by Toby Mamis and Peter Leeds, and finally broke up in 1979 after releasing their last album, And Now . . . the Runaways.
The most technically accomplished musician in the Runaways, West had often sung lead vocals on the group's cover of the Troggs' "Wild Thing", a track she re-recorded as the B-side of her 1986 solo single, "F-13". When she launched the Sandy West Band, she sang as well as playing the guitar and drums, but the group released only one EP in the mid-Nineties.
West dreamt of a Runaways reunion, which was often mooted but never happened. She occasionally performed with Currie, and recently took part in Edgeplay (2004), a documentary about the group directed by their former bassist Vicki Blue (a.k.a. Victory Tischler-Blue). "Now that I look back," said West,
even the rough times were good. How many teenage girls get to do what we did in a lifetime? We used to stick together, go to bat for each other, support each other. A lot of people think all we did was fight with each other, but that's not true. We had a lot of great times.
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