Lately, I have found myself craving for new stage outfit ideas and I was not surprised when I happened to look once again at Cherie Currie’s old stage clothes as inspiration. I already stole her the idea of stepping on a stage wearing nothing but a tight corset, shorts and fishnet tights and I’m ready to do it again. I’m not telling you what though, pieces of clothing are just the background of this particular story.
I’ve always looked up to Cherie as I could see a lot of myself in her. Not the prettiest gal in the room, average at school as for many other things in life, living in someone’s more popular shadow. But when she stepped foot on that stage in those challenging outfits you could only just genuinely say “holy shit”. Cherry Bomb was one of the first cover songs I forced my former bandmates to perform and still, I feel the need to play that again and again after almost ten years. The Runaways are a rare way to address the female rock experience. We are used to seeing the Sid’s Nancys and the Yoko Onos of the world but pointing the spotlight on someone who actually plays seems difficult. Yes, there have been crucial female acts before them: Suzi Quatro, Janis Joplin, Nancy Sinatra, Nico, The Livebirds, The Pleasure Seekers, Fanny, but nobody ever came in the shape of what the Runaways did. Rock n’ roll was the same no more.
In 1975, a year before the band’s actual take-off, guitarist Joan Jett was introduced to the LA Frankenstein record producer Kim Fowley. The 16-year-old rocker told Fowley about her idea of starting an all-female band and unconventional as it was the producer jumped on board and teamed up Joan with drummer Sandy West. The hunting for the other band members continued and it mainly consisted of touring local clubs and asking pretty teenagers if they could play any instrument, any at all, because in Fowley’s sick vision that was not relevant at all. So he eventually found the guitar shredder and later international rockstar Lita Ford, then singer and Bowie worshipper Cherie Currie and finally Jackie Fox, who, being a guitarist, never even picked up a bass in her life. Fowley had a twisted mind but he was no fool when it came to music, those girls could actually write songs and play well, he got them together for his biggest jailbait jackpot.
The Runaways’ genesis was really quick: they signed a record deal with Phonogram Records on the basis of a single rehearsal, no demo, no live show. Their record deal was split into two parts, one binding the band to the label and the second binding the band to Fowley who co-wrote and produced the first LP. Fowley trained his girls his way, which was certainly not the kindest but was indeed effective. He used to throw peanut butter jars and all sorts of objects at them while rehearsing in order to prepare them for even the roughest audiences. The girls learned to growl and to bite and for “the king hysteria” it was icing on the bad-girl cake.
Those teenage girls trussed up in satin corsets and leather catsuits, not only shouted fiercely about being your ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch cherry bomb over sick riffs, but they were also historical rule-breakers and feminist symbols. Lita Ford stated:
Even if they were aware of being pioneers of something big, I don’t think at 16 they fully realised what they were representing at the time. Let’s just take a step back. In the ’60s girls escaped their homes to go see the Beatles and to faint in front of their presence. This happened because someone finally got that not necessarily they had to follow their mothers’ steps and become silent submissive housewives. Women wanted more and music was a crucial element to free them. It may look absurd for us today to think of 14-year-old groupies in the late ’60s, we might think they were violently forced but it was not the case. Most of the times they were lonely girls escaping a life of boredom in suburbia, chasing beautiful guys with guitars travelling all over the world and of course, exploring their own sexuality.
The Runaways showed everyone that girls could play too and that rock n’ roll was not an exclusive club for boys only. They talked about being a teenager but they did it for the side of the misfits, those who couldn’t care less about being cheerleaders, but wanted to to be where the boys were. Equal rights, equal treatment. This is what hit me in the first place about this band, I could relate like no other.
However, this was not the only weapon in their hands. Let’s just look at the lyrics of their most famous (and infamous) song Cherry Bomb:
You might think it is sexy and yes, there was a sexual element to it, just as Joan Jett faking an orgasm on the album’s next track, You Drive Me Wild. The message though here is “It’s 1976, I am standing in front of your male hormones in a corset, I feel good with myself so why not wearing it? You think I wore this just to tickle your desires? You can tell yourself whatever you want but it wouldn’t be necessarily true!”. It was a challenge. The Runaways owned their sexuality, they were in control of how they were being presented and not just being objectified. Nobody told them what to wear, they did it themselves. They were a band who was always told rock n’ roll was a sport of men and they faced that reality pretty much every day, just like when Creem’s journalist Rick Johnson dropped them this very review:
He did not fully understand he was not messing with America’s sweethearts and Joan Jett stormed his office while he was cowardly hiding under his desk. He got his reply publicly alright too:
THE FALL & THE FALLOUT
No heroic story comes without a dark side though. The rock lifestyle is difficult to get right. The mainstream sex, drugs and rock n’ roll scenario usually leaves aside the more tedious reality of musicians and their off-stage lives. The one of The Runaways is a stranger-than-fiction back story.
Drugs and alcohol were flowing at all times, part of the band was arrested in Britain and assaulted with a knife in a club. Cherie got pregnant by a much older crew member and had to stop for a mid-tour abortion. Jackie almost committed suicide after a nervous breakdown and recently accused Fowley of raping her in 1975.
Cherie was the first to realise that wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, she was 16 and already heavily addicted to cocaine and quaalude, so after only two years with the band she left. The band stood together for another two years with Joan Jett on the lead vocals, but slowly each one of them was heading in a different direction until they officially parted ways in 1979. This can easily happen, especially with young people, it may be the most genuine way to end up a band, you got a feeling that should be it and you simply let it go.
But one thing is for sure, The Runaways have paved the way for artists like Pink, Lady Gaga, or even Madonna who have figured out how to make the music industry work for them while maintaining their personality, image and provocation. I’d like to lead people to see the Runaways as more than just Joan Jett’s first band or the ones who recorded Cherry Bomb. They continue to inspire many women to pick up microphones, guitars and drumsticks, so let’s pay the respects we should pay. Hail to the queens of noise.