October 17, 2023

The Runaways may have started out as almost the puppets of the seedy and manipulative Kim Fowley, but they quickly managed to break out of that particular exploitative cage, not only changing the playing field for women in rock music but also creating some genuinely exciting and powerful rock music along the way. This set deservedly celebrates their achievements.

Looking back at the facts today, through the occluded lens of more enlightened and equality-minded times, it’s hard to fully grasp the impact of The Runaways when they burst onto the scene with their debut album and ‘scandalous’ single Cherry Bomb, in 1976. All-female rock bands are a common enough sight today, but not only were The Runaways one of the first (there were Fanny and, to an extent, Suzi Quatro before them, but few others) but they were a five-piece made up of 16 and 17-year old Californian girls fresh out of LA and playing up to the bad-girl ‘Runaways’ tag to the hilt. They were managed and moulded by the svengali-like Kim Fowley, a frankly odious and exploitative man whose reputation suffered a not undeserved hammering in the later years before his eventual death, regarding his controlling, abusive and, in the case of one well-documented occurrence, frankly illegal and very disturbing actions. While his contacts and vision did undoubtedly open a lot of doors for the young band, the way he went about things and pushed them at a bewildering pace meant that in some ways they succeeded thanks to their own abilities and despite his involvement – and it is the rightly celebrated output of the girls themselves which I will be concentrating on here, with the Fowley Factor not given overdue attention. Because despite claims of them being ‘manufactured’ at the time, this was no Monkees situation, with the Runaways being a proper, serious working rock band from Day One, with instrumental abilities defying their teenage youth.

The self-titled debut album arrived in summer 1976, with its iconic cover photo of singer Cherie Currie setting out the band’s stall right away. The band is well known now as being the launchpad for the career of Joan Jett, with lead guitarist Lita Ford also having some commercial solo success in the 1980s, but drummer Sandy West was also an ever-present along with those two as the core of the band. Bassist Jackie Fox was a band member by this time, and is credited with playing on the album, though in fact the bass parts are handled by an uncredited Nigel Harrison, from Blondie, as Fowley absurdly refused to allow Fox to play on the record despite the fact that she was playing live at the time. The album leads off strongly with one of the band’s signature pieces, Cherry Bomb, and contains other strong cuts such as Is It Day Or Night, American Nights and the lengthy ‘theatrical’ finale of Dead End Justice, while a cover of Lou Reed’s Rock And Roll is done quite well, but overall it’s something of a formative debut, with several of the ten tracks somewhat forgettable (songs such as Lovers, Blackmail and Secrets have a hard time getting their hooks into my brain no matter how often I listen to them). The potential is there, but the band’s playing and songwriting would improve very quickly after this. Just to illustrate the way times have changed, incidentally, the photo of each band member appears on the back together with her name, instrument – and age!

The follow-up album, Queens Of Noise, arrived only seven months after the debut, in January of 1977, but the progression and improvement is remarkable. Fox is now handling her own bass parts, and the adept way in which she performs the task makes a mockery of the decision not to have her featured on the first album, as she is clearly an extremely adept musician. If Cherry Bomb had been an early calling-card for the band, the title track Queens Of Noise gives it a run for its money right away here, setting out not only the band’s musical style but also their whole image and attitude – and it has a chorus immediately far more memorable than anything on the first album, with the exception of Cherry Bomb. In fact, the album is stuffed with highlights: Neon Angels On The Road To Ruin is absolute classic Runaways in musical and lyrical terms, California Paradise is a fine ode to their home state, albeit with a slightly darker undercurrent, and the similarly West-Coast derived Hollywood features some very neat vocal harmonies. Midnight Music and Heartbeat show a broadening of musical influences, and I Love Playin’ With Fire is essentially a Joan Jett manifesto. One oddity which is not explained anywhere is the co-writing credit on the impressive Take It Or Leave It to Jett along with Jagger and Richards – there is of course a Stones song of the same name on the 1966 Aftermath album, but it shares no musical or lyrical similarity that I can discern, and the original album credits according to various internet sources have it as a Jett song alone. It’s a fine song for sure, and one of the strongest here, but it’s certainly something of a mystery. In actual fact there is only one real miss on the whole album, that being the closing Johnny Guitar; intended largely as a guitar showcase for the rapidly evolving talents of Lita Ford, the song is not only a plodding slow blues, but also suffers from a notably muddier sound than the rest of the record, and its seven minute running time doesn’t help. There was another track recorded at the sessions entitled C’Mon, and it would definitely have made a stronger replacement. One other slight fly in the ointment was that Jett and Currie shared the lead vocals almost equally here, and with Jett having yet to discipline her rather raw singing voice by this time, her lead vocals are generally weaker. Overall, however, a great album, the band’s biggest seller, and boasting a rather impressive cover photo as well. What a difference seven months could make!

One thing which The Runaways shared with seemingly almost every rock band in the world at that time was that they were absolutely enormous in Japan. It seemed in the late ’70s that you couldn’t throw a rock without it hitting a band who had a reasonable following in Europe or the US but were practically The Beatles in Japan, and The Runaways were no exception to this for whatever reason. It was therefore a fairly logical step to record a live album over there, and thus we get Live In Japan on the third disc here. The album was intended for the Japanese domestic market initially and, despite releases in some other countries, never appeared on vinyl in either the UK or the US (and not even on CD until four decades later). Happily it is included in here, in its proper chronological place, because it is the best thing released by the original five-piece band without a doubt, confirming just what a tight and impressive live unit the Runaways were by this time. Queens Of Noise and California Paradise make a tremendous opening one-two punch, and there is barely a weak track – with the sole exception of a somewhat pointless cover of Wild Thing. Only four songs from the first album and three from the second (that opening pair and Neon Angels) are included in the twelve tracks here, with four more not previously released. The debut album is well represented by Cherry Bomb (naturally), You Drive Me Wild, a superb American Nights and the Lou Reed song Rock And Roll, though the latter could have been given a little more power in the live environment. The new songs are all good – All Right You Guys and I Wanna Be Where The Boys Are sound as if they might well be dreadful, but are in fact both excellent, while the Ford/Fox composition Gettin’ Hot is one of the band’s heaviest efforts to date. Finally, the album concludes with the track left off Queens Of Noise, C’Mon, which is an excellent addition and makes up for its studio exclusion. Perhaps the only complaint would be that it would have been nice for the CD mini-sleeve to have replicated the original downward-opening gatefold, which showed the band members’ lower halves joined to the top halves! Things were getting a little fractious behind the scenes, however, and the end of the Japanese tour sadly saw Jackie Fox leave the band, along with Cherie Currie, whose departure may have been on the cards for a while. Fox was replaced by new bass player Vicki Blue, but otherwise the band carried on as a four-piece, with Jett assuming the lead vocal role (half of which she was already doing, to be fair).

With the loss of their talismanic frontwoman, some were beginning to write off the band before the next album, Waitin’ For The Night, arrived in early 1978. Those people could not have been more wrong, as the album exceeded expectations in every possible way, and arguably stands as the band’s finest studio recording of all, even above Queens Of Noise for consistency. Fowley by now was taking more of a back seat, with Jett taking up even more of the songwriting duties, backed up by Ford with occasional contributions from the other two. The cover photo, showing the band in leather jackets under a full moon behind some barbed wire, seemed to indicate a defiant stance to tell the world that they weren’t going anywhere, and while that would not be the case long-term, it was certainly borne out by the material here. There are plenty of punchy and catchy songs here – Wasted, Little Sister, Gotta Get Out Tonight and Ford’s Trash Can Murders, but the best of the material showed a real development in the songwriting craft and musicianship which by now left the band of two years previous on the first album sound like a world away. Wait For Me is a multi-faceted song which has some beautifully melodic vocal lines and delicate accompaniment rubbing shoulders with heavier sections without ever seeming like a cut-and-paste job, while Lita Ford’s Fantasies indicated her openly admitted desire for the band to go in a more traditional ‘metal’ direction than Jett’s punkier, glam-rock leanings. It may take more than a leaf from Black Sabbath’s Dirty Women in places, but it’s a tremendous piece of almost ‘epic metal’ which shows a side of the band not too often explored. Jett meanwhile shows her own vision for the band with the snappier, high energy School Days, which pairs up new wave aggression with classic Alice Cooper attitude as a match made in heaven. The best two tracks, however, may be the closing two; the title track is a pomp-filled ‘power ballad’ with shades of Boston’s More Than A Feeling about it from time to time, and is a real standout, while the closing You’re Too Possessive is a rip-roaring ‘girl power’ anthem long before that even became a ‘thing’. You didn’t tie down a Runaway, was the message – you simply hung around until you were no longer fit for purpose, and that was the way it was. Naive and a little obvious as a posturing image one might cynically remark, but it still rattles along joyously and rings true even today, 45 years on. A sadly underrated album which really should have put the new, more mature and leaner Runaways on the map for the long haul, but it wasn’t to be, as the band were about to go out with their first real ‘whimper’ rather than another bang.

The final release And Now…The Runaways rounds out this set disappointingly, being a largely uninspired, and rather short album bolstered by three cover versions and boasting a dreadful cover. Vicki Blue is credited, but did not play on the album having left the band for health reasons, and all of the bass parts are handled by Ford. There are some moments which stand out – the cover of Slade’s Mama Weer All Crazy Now is good fun (The Beatles’ Eight Days A Week much less so!), and Ford’s Little Lost Girls is a decent enough track, but too much of what’s here would surely have been left off either Queens Of Noise or Waitin’ For The Night. Lita Ford’s creepingly insidious showcase I’m A Million (sung by herself) showed more willingness to experiment, but again was too slight to really sustain its duration. Worst of the lot is Sandy West’s Right Now, its already slight appeal ruined by some hideously cheesy parping keyboards supplied for whatever unholy reason by guest musician Duane Hitchings. It’s a very poor way for Sandy to get her first studio lead vocal (she had previously sung Wild Thing on the live album), and is a mystery how it ended up on the record. The unearthing of a Sex Pistols semi-obscurity to cover (Black Leather) wasn’t worth it as an album closer, and after a brief period when they were joined by Laurie McAllister on bass, the band were dissolved.

Their ending might have been somewhat inglorious, but for two brief and exciting years before that The Runaways turned the whole world of female rock musicians on its head, instituting a sea change in attitude which led to the arrival of bands such as Girlschool, Rock Goddess and Vixen, and a genie which would not go back into the bottle. The Runaways may have started out as almost the puppets of the seedy and manipulative Kim Fowley, but they quickly managed to break out of that particular exploitative cage, not only changing the playing field for women in rock music but also creating some genuinely exciting and powerful rock music along the way. This set deservedly celebrates their achievements.