How Joan Jett Started the Runaways at 15 and Faced Down Every Barrier for Women in Rock and Roll

These are dark days for every­one who cares about equal­i­ty. After decades of painful progress and some hard-won vic­to­ries for women in the U.S., the guardians of patri­archy seem hell­bent on undo­ing moder­ni­ty and set­ting the clock back decades to keep pow­er. The misog­y­nis­tic spec­ta­cle is nau­se­at­ing. One rem­e­dy, Rebec­ca Trais­ter rec­om­mends in her new book of the same name, is to get “good and mad.” The voic­es of women resist­ing the cur­rent wave of polit­i­cal attacks can guide right­eous out­rage in con­struc­tive direc­tions, and we can learn much from women who pushed past the same bar­ri­ers in the past through sheer force of will.

Women like Joan Jett, who, in a recent inter­view with Court­ney Smith at Refin­ery 29 expressed her thoughts on the chal­lenges of the present (“I think it’s still very much the same as it was many years ago”). Her advice: con­quer fear.

“Peo­ple count on you being fear­ful,” she says, “as a woman or who­ev­er you are and what­ev­er you want to do. They count on that fear to keep them from forg­ing ahead and fig­ur­ing that out. It’s def­i­nite­ly fear-induc­ing, and it’s not a fear you want to face. But it is doable.” The rock icon direc­tor Kevin Ker­slake (who has just released a Jett doc­u­men­tary) calls a “fem­i­nist man­i­festo in the flesh” should know.

Jett her­self express­es some dis­com­fort with the label of fem­i­nism (“I’m for peo­ple being what they want to be”), but her career has served for decades as a mod­el for women seiz­ing pow­er in the music indus­try, and she’s nev­er had any patience with sex­ist dis­crim­i­na­tion. She “want­ed to be a rock­er ever since she got a hold of a gui­tar, even though she was told girls don’t play rock and roll. That didn’t stop her from form­ing The Run­aways despite the sex­ist road­blocks the band faced.” So goes the descrip­tion for Marc Maron’s recent inter­view with Jett on his WTF pod­cast. The ugli­ness women in rock faced in the 70s is depress­ing­ly famil­iar. Before she even learned to play, Jett was told by a gui­tar teacher, “girls don’t play rock and roll.”

Undaunt­ed, she quit lessons, taught her­self, and learned her favorite songs (Free’s “Alright Now” topped the list). Then, when her fam­i­ly moved to L.A., she sought out oth­er like minds to form an all-girl rock band. With no exam­ples to look to, Jett fig­ured it out on her own, find­ing a club that played glam rock for teenagers and find­ing her peo­ple. At fif­teen years old, with­out songs or a demo tape, she called pro­duc­er Kim Fow­ley, then start­ed assem­bling the Run­aways, start­ing with drum­mer Sandy West, then, after play­ing as a trio with Mic­ki Steele, recruit­ing lead gui­tarist Lita Ford, bassist Jack­ie Fox, and singer Cherie Cur­rie. “We went in the stu­dio right away,” she tells Maron.

The Run­aways were “try­ing to express our­selves the way we knew how,” Jett says in her inter­view with Smith. “Not much dif­fer­ent from what the Rolling Stones were doing. We didn’t want bar­ri­ers put up on what we were allowed to sing about, say, or play.” By 1976, they were signed to Mer­cury Records, releas­ing their debut album, and tour­ing with Cheap Trick, Van Halen, Talk­ing Heads, and Tom Pet­ty and the Heart­break­ers. The fol­low­ing year, they released Queens of Noise and quick­ly became asso­ci­at­ed with punk. Amer­i­can crit­ics sav­aged the band, and they faced vio­lence and sneer­ing con­de­scen­sion at home but were beloved super­stars in Japan (see them play “Cher­ry Bomb” live in Japan at the top).

When Cur­ry left The Run­aways that year, Jett took over as the lead singer, and when the band broke up in 1979, she put her­self back togeth­er, moved to New York, cre­at­ed her own label after a cou­ple dozen rejec­tions, and formed The Black­hearts. An unstop­pable musi­cal force, Jett still plays and tours and still refus­es to back down for any­one, even though, she tells Smith, “on some lev­el, it can be eas­i­er not to fight and to go along. That’s what women have to decide: do you want to go along, and maybe your life will be a lit­tle bit more com­fort­able if you don’t make waves?”

Her advice is as straight­for­ward as her path has been rocky—“stand up for your­self… You’ve got to resist that. Find some­one to sup­port you…. We’re still fight­ing the same issues that I was dis­cussing years ago. There’s a thing on a loop about what girls can achieve. When they come up, you’ve got to chal­lenge those assump­tions at every turn.” If anyone’s earned the right to give advice like that to young musi­cians, it’s Joan Jett. Check out the trail­er for her new doc­u­men­tary Bad Rep­u­ta­tion just above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Four Female Punk Bands That Changed Women’s Role in Rock

Chrissie Hynde’s 10 Pieces of Advice for “Chick Rock­ers” (1994)

33 Songs That Doc­u­ment the His­to­ry of Fem­i­nist Punk (1975–2015): A Playlist Curat­ed by Pitch­fork

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • sandy campbell says:

    I just wan­na start off by say­ing you are so bad ass . when I was about 14 I want­ed to be a just like you,me and my friend Marie want­ed to learn how to play gui­tar and be just like The run­aways . I nev­er fit that sweet lit­tle girl image I want­ed to be bad ass I want­ed to be heard and be loud .

  • Arch says:

    I don’t think any of this is as sim­ple as Joan says it is. Obvi­ous­ly there were oth­er female rock­ers before Joan…I mean in ear­ly days she was a car­bon copy of Suzi Qua­tro in appear­ance and deliv­ery. Kim Fow­ley was a letch and had the con­nec­tions the band need­ed. There’s cred­it to be giv­en to him for mold­ing the act but the abuse was appal­ing (Joan still has a lot to answer for regard­ing the alledged rape of Jack­ie Fox). Let’s be com­plete­ly hon­est here too… The Run­aways land­ed on a major label as teenagers. After that all implod­ed, Joan had that nice lit­tle item on her resume when she rebuilt her career. Also her label depend­ed on good dis­tri­b­u­tion which she got. So many indie artists nev­er had a prayer back in that era. She caught some big breaks due to her pre­vi­ous celebri­ty.

    One more thing, the Black­hearts have nev­er had a female mem­ber oth­er than Joan.

  • QoE says:

    Waters down the mes­sage when you include links to any­thing fea­tur­ing self-pro­claimed anti-fem­i­nist Chrissie Hyn­de.

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