The Runaways: The Movie, the Music, the Madness and the Magic
The movie The Runaways started out as a film called Cherry Bomb that was based on Cherie Currie's autobiography. At that time, it was considered to be more of a personal memoir in moving picture form and not so much the story of the band. But over time that seemed to change with Joan Jett's character in particular taking on a more important role. Though in the movie Lita Ford is also portrayed, her role is muted as Lita was unwilling to sell the rights to her story (after reportedly being offered only $1000). The other Runaways -- Sandy West and Jackie Fox -- are nothing but background characters in the film. This could lead one to ask, is this really a movie about The Runaways?
The truth lies probably somewhere in the middle. Though the movie seems to focus on the Currie / Jett relationship, that dynamic was an important factor in the formation of the band. But it is not the whole story. Notably, many familiar with the band's manager Kim Fowley have pointed out his part in the movie has been turned way down as his over-the-top personality would likely steal the show if allowed to go unchecked.
The movie certainly has a decent amount of star power behind it with Joan Jett portrayed by Twilight's Kristin Stewart and Cherie Currie by Dakota Fanning. Michael Shannon (Bug, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) puts the creepy in the freaky Kim Fowley with Lita Ford and Sandy West represented by Rob Zombie's Halloween 1 & 2's Scout Taylor-Compton and Stella Maeve respectively. Also on board are Elvis Presley's granddaughter Riley Keough as Cherie's sister Marie Currie and Tatum O'Neal as their mother.
Certainly any Runaways fan looks forward to the movie but with a bit of apprehension as this is already a band that is somewhat misunderstood. Will the movie further complicate the band's history or actually offer some glimpse of what went on behind the scene? It is difficult to make most casual observers understand that this band was more than a gimmick. Sure, they were groundbreaking and unusual as an all girl hard rock band. And yes the band's sexuality was exploited for financial gain. But this was a band with the musical chops to stand on their own. Even if they could not stand united.
The Runaways formed in 1975 when Joan Jett and Sandy West were brought together by Kim Fowley. Fowley has often been credited with putting the band together and indeed has been known to take credit for it, but the truth was more complicated. Jett and West both separately had the idea to form an all girl rock band when they each came to Fowley. He got them together and The Runaways were born, originally as a power trio with singer / bassist Micki Steele (later of pop rockers The Bangles). Several personnel changes later, the band had settled into the line-up that would record their 1976 debut album.
With Cherie Currie on vocals, Lita Ford and Joan Jett on guitars, Jackie Fox on bass and Sandy West on drums, the debut album from The Runaways was like nothing ever on the record store shelves before. It proved girls could rock and rock harder than many of their male counterparts. With tracks like "You Drive Me Wild," "Blackmail," "Dead End Justice" and the now classic "Cherry Bomb," the band showed not only that they had the skills but also that they had something more. But, some would argue, the gimmick got in the way.
The Runaways debut barely made a dent in the Billboard album chart, stalling at #194. Their even better 1977 follow-up, Queens of Noise, which featured songs such as "Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin," "I Love Playing With Fire" and "Johnny Guitar" fared only slightly better at #177. While many people seemed to know the band, they knew them only as "the all girl rock band." Mainstream America did not seem to want to give them a chance. But then, in the world of hard rock, there is always Japan.
When The Runaways arrived in Japan in 1977, only three bands were bigger there at the time -- ABBA (the biggest band in the world at the time), KISS (who have always been huge in Japan) and Led Zeppelin (who were, well, Led Zeppelin). While in Japan, they sold out show after show, had a television special as well as made numerous television appearances and recorded the album Live in Japan.
Now, I would like to say that I had been a fan of the band from the very beginning, but the truth is I was like all my friends in 1976 -- listening to Boston, AC/DC, Triumph and Kiss. We knew who the band was, but to us, The Runaways were just that "all girl rock band." They were not getting played on the radio -- even the "obscure" shows we listened to that played Motorhead and Iron Maiden -- so how could they really be any good? But when it became obvious the band was big in Japan.... well, every hard rocker knows Japan has better taste in music than the US.
I picked up Live in Japan and was hooked. Days later, my friends were hooked. We were certain The Runaways were about to take the world by storm and we were going to be the first ones there. Maybe the fact that Live in Japan was never released in US should have been a clue, but we were on a mission now and could not be deterred by little details. Little did we know that while we thought things were breaking big for the band, the beginning of the end was close at hand.
While in Japan, Jackie Fox left the band. She was replaced by Vicki Blue and it appeared things would go on as before with major stardom seeming certain. But the release of The Runaways third album, Waitin' for the Night, despite being even better than their previous releases, failed to even make the Top 200 chart. Songs included "Wasted," "School Days" and "You're Too Possessive" among others. My friends and I waited for the album to break, but it never did.
In 1978, the band split with Kim Fowley and also with their record label, Mercury Records. Rumor speculated there were disagreements regarding money, creative direction and the future promotion of the band. Vicki Blue left the band and was replaced by Laurie McAllister. A fourth studio album was recorded but never released. Slowly word leaked out that The Runaways had broken up. My friends and I, though disappointed, moved on the first ripples of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and turned our girl band crushes to Girlschool. But this wasn't quite the end...
In 1980, Joan Jett's solo debut album was released. Despite great songs like "Bad Reputation" and "Doing All Right With the Boys," the album failed to get noticed. If five Runaways couldn't make, what chance did a solo Runaway have? But then a funny thing happened. In the summer of 1981, "I Love Rock and Roll" exploded up the singles chart and suddenly everyone was a Joan Jett fan. The single ended up at #1. The album went to #2. Joan Jett went on to certified stardom.
A couple of years later, Lita Ford followed Joan Jett's example and released Out for Blood. Though not the mega success that I Love Rock and Roll became, Out for Blood was a respectable debut and soon Lita Ford was a firmly established solo artist with a dedicated following of her own. Lita Ford was a little more metal while Joan Jett had been a little punkier. It was a dynamic that had fueled the creativity in The Runaways. Apart, they were a little less diverse, but perhaps narrowing their individual appeal is what finally brought audiences to them
I Love Rock and Roll was probably the high point of Joan Jett's career, but she remained a major player throughout the 1980's. Many believe she was the most successful Runaway and in number of releases this is true. But Lita Ford actually had more hits on fewer releases and managed to extend her hit streak into the early 1990's before leaving the music scene to raise her family. Joan Jett continued on after her heyday when musical styles left her a bit out of the mainstream making it hard for a straight ahead rocker to hit the charts. In short, it is hard to say which Runaway has been more successful but easy to say both have given us some great tunes -- both with the band and as solo artists!
"Cherry Bomb" (Live in Japan)
When you pull out your old Runaways albums now, they may seem a little dated, but it is purely due to the technical limitations of the times. Any band today could record any song from The Runaways note for note and have it sound fresh and current. Surprisingly, as best I can tell, there is no Runaways tribute album available. But this will likely change with the release of the movie. The band is remembered fondly by too many people to now have a tribute.
Ultimately, the true test of a band is not how many albums they sell or how many concerts they sell out, but rather how the band is remembered in the years to come both by fans and other bands. Just as pioneers like Budgie and Diamond Head had little impact on the sales charts yet huge impacts on future groups like Metallica and Slayer, The Runaways are often sited by both all girl bands that came later as well as female musicians who may have instead played in male dominated bands as a huge influence. Beneath all the hype and exploitation that Kim Fowley heaped on The Runaways, the bottom line was the girls could play.