The Runaways: Rock and roll provocateurs

Making their London debut and in action at the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, the teenage American girl group, the Runaways and their singer, Cherie Currie, 16, at far right, rendering "Dead End Justice" to their predominantly male audience, Oct. 1976. Bassist Vicki Blue is at center, and Joan Jett is shown at extreme left. AP Photo

The 1970s Los Angeles-based band the Runaways was not only one of the first all-female rock groups, but the band also served as the launching pad for the successful solo careers of Joan Jett and Lita Ford. Though they weren't able to achieve greater commercial success in their brief four years together, the members of the Runaways would later influence other women rockers, including '90s bands L7, Bikini Kill and Babes in Toyland.

Cover of "Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways" by Evelyn McDonnell.
Da Capo

With a no-nonsense attitude, bold and provocative lyrics, and a blistering sound that bordered on glam, punk and metal, the women of the Runaways proved they can share the same stage with their male counterparts. Years later -- in 2010 -- the trailblazing band's story was dramatized in the movie "The Runaways," starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning.

The history of the Runaways -- five teenagers from different backgrounds who met as strangers under the guidance of  30-something male scenester Kim Fowley -- is told in an upcoming book, "Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways," by music writer Evelyn McDonnell. An extensively-researched work, this definitive biography features interviews with the surviving group members, along with the very quotable Fowley and former band associates. More than just a story about the band's music and exploits, "Queens of Noise" also addresses the barriers the Runaways faced from radio, rock critics and audience members.

The origins of the book can be traced to a thesis that McDonnell -- a former senior editor at The Village Voice and the author of "Mamarama" -- wrote about the band's drummer, the late Sandy West, as a mid-career fellow at USC's Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism. "I have been interested in the Runaways for years," she told CBSNews.com. "Tim Page, who is one of the professors at Annenberg, had seen "Edgeplay" [the 2004 documentary on the Runaways directed by their former bassist Victory Tischler-Blue] and we started talking about how fascinated we were by Sandy West's appearance in that movie. Obviously there was a huge story that was hinted at. So that became my thesis and it got published as the cover story in LA Weekly even before the program was done. "The Runaways" movie also came out, so that was kind of good timing."

The popular Runaways lineup consisted of five talented and volatile personalities: singer Cherie Currie, who daringly wore a bustier on stage and moved like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury; rhythm guitarist/singer Joan Jett, who was the band's rock and roll conscience; lead guitarist Lita Ford, who provided the band's pop metal edge; bassist Jackie Fox, who projected a "girl-next-door" persona; and drummer Sandy West, who was explosive on her kit. "They were the first to be all-girls playing instruments and to really be trying to play glam rock," said McDonnell, "and to first to be that young and go international with it."

Undoubtedly, the driving force behind the Runaways from the very beginning was controversial mentor/manager, Kim Fowley, who has often been portrayed as a charismatic, divide-and-conquer-type taskmaster; the book, however, also offers a balanced view of the man, whom the Runaways later extricated themselves from. "He pushed them to have a kind of edge," McDonnell said of Fowley's attitude toward his proteges. "He really did believe in them and had a vision. I think he also shot himself in the foot a lot of the time. The fact that they ended up getting rid of him was also a really interesting part of the narrative in terms of feminism for some girls that young to go without the guy who really brought them together."

Although they wouldn't admit it at the time, the members of Runaways were arguably feminists in some ways, according to McDonnell. "Their goals were certainly compatible with the goals of feminism in terms of promoting female power and equal rights for women musicians," she said. "Joan Jett always said the Runaways owned their sexuality, that they were in control of how they were being presented and not just being objectified. In retrospect, Joan has identified herself as a feminist and became very much a role model, and so have the other ones to a degree without necessarily using that word."

In addition to detailing the band's triumphs (highlighted by a memorable trip to Japan where the Runaways were superstars) and wild times, "Queens of Noise" also describes the obstacles the Runaways encountered, particularly within a radio industry that was resistant to playing their music, and from some of the male rock writers who used disparaging -- even sexist -- language towards them. "I knew it was going to be there," McDonnell said, "but I think I was surprised by the degree of it and also how it was in respectable publications from respected critics."

The Runaways were never able to achieve commercial success that Heart, another female-fronted band from that era, was able to reap; other factors such as lack of money and record company support and infighting plagued them. Following the group's breakup in 1979 was a long period of estrangement among some of the ex-members. "It is really sad," McDonnell said, "and I think they all want to get over it and none of them are really able to. There is just a lot of tension and fractiousness between the members, as there is between Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, or between members of the Who. [Former Bikini Kill singer] Kathleen Hanna said in the book, 'Why do women always have to get along?' Maybe this is the part of the feminist lesson -- girls don't have to behave and play nice with each other. They are very different women. Time has brought some of them closer to each other and some of them further apart."

Since the Runaways' breakup, women-dominated rock bands have been more prevalent -- from '80s groups the Go-Go's and the Bangles, to current acts like the Donnas and Savages. "I think that there are individuals who are able to break through in really strong ways," said McDonnell, "whether it's 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." Yet, a recent Salon.com article describes the lack of female participants in major music festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo. "That was really disheartening to think about, because there is a lot of money in playing those festivals. So [there's] an economic power issue that is still going on," said McDonnell.

As for "Queens of Noise," McDonnell said she hopes the book will lead people to see the Runaways as more than just Joan Jett's first band or the group who recorded "Cherry Bomb." "These are four or five young women who really stepped out there on their own in a very aggressive and provocative manner and traveled the world," she said. "It changed their lives and I think they changed people's lives. They did help pave the way for many bands up until this day, and they continue to inspire many women to pick up microphones, guitars, drumsticks, samplers or keyboards. I hope that they get taken more seriously and are given more attention."

  • David Chiu

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