(M) Denim and Leather Remembers: The Runaways, by The Runaways

"A generation which ignores history has no past and no future." Robert Heinlein

By Sam Graham

1976 was a good year for rock & roll. We had Technical Ecstasy by Black Sabbath, Rocks by Aerosmith, and High Voltage by AC/DC. At this point, rock was, as the late James Brown said, a man’s world, but when the first successful all-girl rock band, The Runaways released their self-titled debut, the game was, for all intents and purposes, changed.

Considering the world this album was released into, it needed to make an instant impact. The first track, entitled Cherry Bomb did just that. The then-jailbait singer Cherie Currie sings about while she may look like that innocent ‘girl next door’, behind closed doors she’s pure filth, and has decided she wants us all to know it. The music is straight-up rock and roll, and guitarists Joan Jett (yes, the Joan Jett) and Lita Ford (yes, the Lita Ford) keep a solid rhythm alongside the drums (played by Sandy West), thus keeping Currie as the main focus of the song. Of course every good song needs a guitar solo, and in Cherry Bomb, while Lita treats us to some blues-laden licks, Currie sounds like she’s having a damn good time listening to it, if you get my meaning. This song is gratuitously over-sexed, but is that any different to male rock bands? Hell no. All The Runaways did was put it from their perspective, and in 1976, it worked brilliantly.

The second song has more of a typical 70’s feel to it. You Drive Me Wild wouldn’t sound out of place inSuzie Quatro’s catalogue, as it has that similar bopping rhythm that Devil Gate Drive (1974) had. Quatro’s classic was only two years before, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a direct influence there.You Drive Me Wild carries that raunchy riff all through the song, only taking a break when Currie sings. The chorus is given some flair by the bass guitar, played by Jackie Fox, and that was in the days before people needed to put a load of x’s on the end of their names to sound cool. This song is again mainly carried by Currie, but doesn’t feel overpowering, and the repetition of that opening hook makes for a very catchy song.  Even though we’re only at the second track, it’s abundantly clear that catchiness is something The Runaways do well. Lita’s solo in this track is better than Cherry Bomb’s, and features more of her style. Also, like the Cherry Bomb solo, it seems to leave Miss Currie quite wanting.

Is it Day or Night opens with a short drum solo, mixing up the ‘straight-in’ aesthetic of the previous two songs, and goes into a riff that makes me think of old Kiss. Maybe it’s just the tone of the guitars, but it has the similar kind of vibe to it. This song isn’t as catchy as the previous two, and takes a lot more listens to get under your skin. When compared to the rest of the album, is probably my least favourite, but it’s short and sweet, and shows an ability to write different kind of music.

Thunder brings the album back the catchiness and like the first two songs, it’s made possible by both the guitars and the vocals working together. The chanting of the song title in the chorus and the actual riff which you get to hear on its own just over half way through the song, makes a good stand-out point. Ford doesn’t get to flex her fingers in this song as there’s no guitar solo; instead there’s a hint of piano in the background of the interlude which breaks up the established formula. Thunder is far superior compared to Is it Day or Night, even if just because it’s catchier.

Next comes a cover of Velvet Underground’s 1970 song Rock & Roll. Like all good covers, The Runaways completely changed the feel of it. While Velvet Underground’s version has a more chilled out, Rolling Stones Under My Thumb (1966) kind of feeling to it, The Runaways version is shorter, a little bit faster, and features probably the best guitar hook on the album. This version, ironically enough, has more balls to it than Lou Reed’s and what they’ve done with it fits in perfectly with their style. There’re probably legions of people who prefer Velvet Underground’s original, but for me, it has to go to The Runaways, because frankly, it’s just more rocking.

Lovers is the shortest song on the album and like most rock & roll, it’s about the pursuit of sex. It alludes to wanting ‘real love’ in the chorus, but the verses are about pure carnality. It has a similar kind of rhythm and pace as Is it Day or Night, but with a much catchier hook, similar to Thunder, like they’d taken the best bits of both and made this. Lovers is a happy song that feels longer than two minutes and eight seconds. Lita Ford gets her high notes out in the verses, accentuating the vocals and giving the song that bit of extra punch that without it, would have left the song sounding a bit banal.
American Nights sounds a lot like Baba O’Riley (1971) by The Who and you’ll recognise those three chords straight away. It’s an upbeat tune that’s not hard to get a nice little headbang on to. Cherie Currie feels a bit in the background in this song, but maybe that’s just because the hook is so good that it’s hard to concentrate on much else. A full-on Jim Steinman-styled piano section comes in at the half-way mark which continues on through a key change and it’s here that Currie becomes the front and centre of the song. Following that comes a drum and vocal only section that was made popular in the 80’s with American glam rock bands like Poison. It doesn’t last long however as Jett and Ford bust in with the chorus again and makes the song end on a very good note. American Nights is probably the most enjoyable song on the album for its hook and straight-forwardness.

The opening to Blackmail treats us to an impressive scream from Cherie Currie that I wish there was more of on the album, because that one second proves that she can wail like the best of them. The actual song sounds like a Status Quo song, for its use of often used blues chords. The stand-out part has to be the guitar solo. Lita lets rip some brilliant licks here from its beginning to its end, then leads the song back into the chorus.

I don’t know what it is about the penultimate song, Secrets, but it feels a bit like filler. It lacks the hooks that made almost every song before it so memorable and what is in the song doesn’t feel like anything new. The hook on the guitar is OK and the vocals are OK too, as are the drums and bass. They’re all OK, but, I don’t know… It’s just difficult to pick something good out about it. The piano section in the middle is nice, but again, earlier songs also had parts like this and were better. Never mind eh?

The Runaways ends with the longest, and by far the strangest track on the album. If concept albums tell a story, then Dead End Justice is a concept song. It starts out with a heavy riff and some back-to-back vocals by both Cherie Currie and Joan Jett, who out of the both, I prefer Currie. The lyrics in the first section of the song are somewhat like a continuation of Cherry Bomb, about a self-proclaimed blonde bombshell who considers herself a bit of a badass. Ford takes a bend-laden solo that also shows off some flash before the lady in question turns to a life of crime. The most interesting part of the song comes next as Joan and Cherie chant about a fairly dark incident like it’s one of those playground skipping-rope songs.

Then the second half begins and unlike the first part, it’s more story-based. The lady is now in juvenile hall and to the sound of Sandy’s militaristic drum beat, she plots her escape with a cell-mate.

As strange as it is, it’s really well done and makes an interesting change from the solid rock and roll of the rest of the album. It manages to keep its musical-ness while telling the story. Strangely enough,Dead End Justice ends with some piano that sounds a little too much like Toccata & Fugue (byJohann Sebastian Bach) for comfort. I know I said those exact words in my Megadeth review last week, but it’s for the same reason. Maybe it was the done-thing thirty or forty years ago, I don’t know.

And that ends The Runaways’ self-titled debut.

All in all it’s a solid album, but that solidity does start to wane a bit as the album progresses. The songs with the most punch are at the beginning and apart from Dead End Justice, the last couple of tracks fall a little bit short in comparison. It was definitely a good move of the to put Cherry Bomb first as that song on its own seems to present everything that The Runaways were about. Like I said earlier, at that point rock was a man’s world, they were just throwing their hats in and proving they could do it just as well.

On the other side of that coin, I can imagine that a lot of their popularity revolved around the novelty that they were all female, and it begs the question: if they were all guys, would they still have been signed? I like to hope so, because the music is strong enough for it, but the cynical part of me begs to differ.

Has it stood the test of time?

It has, but more so as a legacy than the music. The Runaways’ short-lived career ended in 1979 for just about every cliché for why bands break up. As we all know, Joan Jett went on to form Joan Jett and The Blackhearts and Lita Ford went solo with a career that cemented her as the metal MILF that she is today. Nowadays Currie isn’t in the music biz that much, but makes artwork with big hefty chainsaws instead. Bassist Jackie Fox went on to work a variety of jobs, but in short, disappeared from the public eye and drummer Sandy West, like Jackie, went on to work in a variety of things after a fairly unsuccessful solo album. Sadly, Sandy West died in 2007 of lung cancer.

While not the first women in rock music, The Runaways opened the door for the new generation of women in rock, as well as women as musicians. Before they came along, a woman playing the guitar like that was unheard of, so aside from certain morality issues of over-sexualising fifteen year old girls, they did quite a lot of work for feminism, whether they realised it or not.

It seems that The Runaways were all but forgotten except by a few. Both Jett and Ford are more famous for their solo efforts than this band, and that’s probably what they’ll always be remembered for. However the band returned to the public eye in 2010 when a film based on Cherie Currie’s memoirs came out. The Runaways received good reviews and praised the actresses playing Currie and Jett (Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart) and for me, it showed that the girl playing the slate-faced protagonist of the Twilight franchise could actually act. Many hoped for a reunion, but it seems unlikely. It would be great, but without Sandy West, it would never be the same.

If you’ve never heard this album before, but like your rock old and ballsy, The Runaways are a band for you. Their debut album may not have my favourite song on there (California Paradise (from Queens of Noise in 1977)), but all in all, it’s still a scorcher.

Devil-Horn Rating (Out of Five): \m/ \m/ \m/ \n