Joan Jett has been defying expectations her entire life. When she was a kid, her first music teacher told her that girls weren’t cut out for rock and roll. Later on, her first band, The Runaways, was subjected to the same kind of sexism. They target violence from scumbag audience members that aren’t quite ready to accept women as rock stars.
Jett proves herself to her enemies who can’t grasp the fact that women can do the same sort of bravado. She chops like their male counterparts.
She had to swim upstream for years to get anywhere in the music industry. Her first album rejects by 23 different record labels before she finds someone willing to give her a chance.
None of these roadblocks were enough to stop her though. She drives and commits – and no one tells her what she can or can’t do with her life.
Blackheart Records, the label that she starts when no one else wants to distribute her music. It still exists now, and after spending 40 years livings as an LGBT woman in a heterosexual male-dominated industry. She’s stronger and more resilient than ever.
Influencing the ubiquitous nature of her songs like “I Love Rock and Roll” and “Bad Reputation”. It is enough on their own to keep it memorable. There is far more about Joan Jett that we have come to appreciate and admire over the years. Her story is one that is full of roadblocks, controversy, and tragedy, but it’s one that’s worth telling.
Despite having to fend off naysayers and sexist pigs for most of her life, Jett never gave up. A lot of people would have thrown in the towel, but Joan wasn’t about to give up on her dreams. She dedicates and drives and in the end, all of that ended up paying off.
Who Says ‘Girls Can’t Play Rock N’ Roll’?
Joan Jett was born on September 22, 1958, in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Her name is Joan Marie Larkin. And she uses the stage name ‘Joan Jett’ when she starts her music seriously in her late teens.
When she is 13, she receives her first guitar for Christmas but she teaches by her instructor that ‘girls can’t play rock and roll’. Joan could care less what he thought though and kept on rocking without a care. She was determined to prove him wrong. For real though, what did he know?
Her family ended up moving to West Covina, California when she was 15. Once there, she started frequenting Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, an ‘all-ages glam-rock club’ on Sunset Boulevard.
It was there that she met some of the most influential movers and shakers of the Southern Californian music scene. She also started experimenting with her image. That’s when she started wearing black leather with black eyeliner and sporting her signature black shag hairdo.
She was inspired both musically and aesthetically by Suzi Quatro who reaffirmed to her that girls could indeed be successful rock and roll stars if they wanted to be.
At the club, she met drummer Sandy West through producer Kim Fowley. Through Kim, Jett and West were subsequently introduced to the other musicians that would eventually form The Runaways.
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And don’t go anywhere just yet. We’ve still got plenty of ground to cover. Stay tuned to find out why the Runaways eventualy disbanded and how Blackheart Records rose from its ashes.
Dirty, Sexy, Rock And Roll
The Runaways consisted of Joan and Sandy in addition to lead guitarist Lita Ford, bassist Jackie Fox, and lead singer Cherie Currie. Joan and Fowley did the majority of songwriting for the band including their early hit song ‘Cherry Bomb’ which helped put the band on the map so-to-speak.
The girls wanted to be rock stars like their idols The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. They wanted to put out what they called ‘dirty, sweaty, sexy rock and roll music’ but not everyone believed in their vision.
When people told them that girls couldn’t play rock ‘n’ roll, what they really meant was that they shouldn’t because it implied sex – more specifically, It meant that they were in charge of their sexuality and owning it. Simply put, this was a direct threat in their eyes to the patriarchal establishment.
Magazines were constantly running sexist headlines and articles back then focusing on the band member’s age, gender, and looks instead of their music.
To make matters worse, Kim Fowley encouraged this kind of behavior by constantly calling the band members inflammatory and degrading names, keeping them strung out on drugs without money of their own, and he even encouraged Cherie Curie to go out on stage in her underwear in addition to posing for sexually charged photoshoots.
Audiences were also equally abusive. Jett and the rest of the band were constantly subjected to verbal and even physical abuse at their shows. It wasn’t uncommon for the musicians to be covered in spit by the end of a gig. It was dehumanizing, to say the least, and for the longest time, they couldn’t seem to wrap their minds around what the problem was.
For real though. Why would somebody go to a show just to insult and degrade the band?
Everything Was Falling Apart
The Runaways released five albums in just four short years as they toured the globe. As time went by, they found more respect and success. After landing a number-one album in both Australia and Japan, they started receiving a reception that Joan compared to ‘Beatlemania’.
Right around that time, a couple of change-ups were made to the band’s line-up. Jackie Fox ended up getting sick and left the tour only to be replaced by bassist Vickie Blue. And after Cherie Curie left, Joan took over the lead vocals.
According to band members and their parents, Kim Fowley continued his abusive pattern of mistreating the band members. Not only did he deny them schooling and health care, but he also did his best to dial up the drama by pitting the band members against each other.
In 1978, Vickie Blue left the band and Laurie McCallister took over as bassist. The Runaways played their final show on New Years’ Eve 1978 in San Francisco.
According to Joan, Sandy, Lita and a producer by the name of John Alcott had formed a camaraderie of sorts and she wasn’t a part of it. The band was falling apart and she didn’t know how to stop it. So, to avoid being fired from the band that she helped start, she made the difficutl decision to leave voluntarily.
What might have initially seemed like a risky move, however, proved to be the beginning of an exciting new chapter of Jett’s career.
The Birth Of Blackheart
In order to deal with the pain and frustration of The Runaways breakup, Joan says that she started drinking a lot. She was angry, and justifiably so, but she didn’t know how to make sense of things and the bottle gave her that temporary sense of relief that she needed at the time to get by.
Jett continued to live on the edge while recording music for a film that The Runaways were commissioned to record a soundtrack for. This was right around the point that she met Kenny Laguna, a producer, and manager that she would enjoy a lifelong creative relationship with.
After being hospitalized for a heart infection, Joan went overseas to record a self-titled album in Europe. 23 different record labels rejected the album so Joan and Laguna decided that they would form their own indie label and release it themselves. That’s how Blackheart Records came to be.
Laguna used to sell the album out of his trunk after shows and had a difficult time keeping up with the demand. It was a huge success and the beginning of a label that would thrive for the next 4 decades.
She Loves Rock ‘N’ Roll
Joan’s first album with the Blackhearts “I Love Rock and Roll” was released in 1981. It was a smash hit, reaching number two on Billboards Hot 100. The title track was a cover of a song by the Arrows that Joan had been performing live for years. It went on to become one of the best-selling singles of all time. It sat at the top of the charts for seven weeks and was the 3rd most popular song of 1982.
To this day, the album remains Jett’s most successful work. It sold 10 million copies and has even been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The song’s enduring popularity was boosted by the fact that it received a lot of airplay on the newly launched and hugely influential television network MTV.
1982 also saw three more top 20 hits including ‘Bad Reputation’ and `the bands covers of ‘Crimson and Clover’ and ‘Do You Wanna Touch Me’.
Kim Fowley Hurt People And Joan Might Have Known About It
Fowley died in 2015, but in the documentary Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways, Jackie Fox revealed that Fowley had a history of grooming the young girls in the band.
She further admitted that he had raped her while she was in the band and she was still just a teenager. She asserted that other band members, including Jett, had known about the incident but chose to do nothing about it.
Joan issued a statement denying the allegation, maintaining that if she had known about something like that happening to any one of her bandmates, she wouldn’t have just stood by and let it happen. When asked about Kim in 2018 by the New York Times, Jett reaffirmed that she doubted the validity of the accusation but pointed out that she can’t really speak definitively to what Fox experienced.
There really is no question about it. Joan Jett has earned her place as a legend of Rock and Roll. She’s an entrepreneur, activist, feminist role-model, rocker, mentor, and fashion idol among many other things.
At 62, Joan Jett is still rocking just as hard as she did back in the 70s and 80s. The only difference, is now she has very little to prove. She’s already shown the world beyond a shadow of a doubt that girls can rock just as hard as any of the boys.
Anyway, we’d love to hear from you. Who do you think would win in a knock-down dragout rock battle between Joan Jett and Ann Wilson from Heart? Let us know how you think that fight would go down in the comments section below.
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