Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Queens of Noise - The Runaways
I recently watched the feature film on the Runaways with my son. To him the movie was ancient history and he was surprised to learn it was based on a true story and that the Joan Jett in the movie is the same artist who performed "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" a song he really likes. For me it was a return to an era I'd rather just forget. I was in high school during the band's heyday and the women were just a few years older than me. Seeing the 1970s lovingly recreated for the film was kind of a nightmare for me, ha-ha. I was not a fan of the band back then, I'm not sure I ever even heard any of their music at the time. I do remember reading an article about them that disapprovingly noted their use of their sex appeal to promote the band (as demonstrated in the cover art of this album with the band clutching strippers' poles) which led me to think they were just a gimmick band. Then Joan Jett became a big star and I liked her records so I went back and checked out the Runaways' music and I liked what I heard. This album was their second record and it sure beats most of what was on the radio back in 1977. I like the band's debut album too but I think this was their definitive statement as a band. The best song is the album opener "Queens of Noise" which was written by Billy Bizeau and sung by Joan Jett. It is the only non-original song on the album but it fits the band perfectly, an ideal theme song for the group. It rocks out wonderfully but I wish the band had increased the tempo and I could certainly do without the hideous synthesizer solo. The song illustrates the difference between the Runaways and the punk bands they are sometimes compared to. A band like the Ramones would have emphasized the song's velocity but the Runaways prefer to emphasize its heaviness. Heaviness also carries the day with Jett's "Take It or Leave It" with its excellent power riff and Jett's forceful vocal as well as lead guitarist Lita Ford laying down some fiery licks in her solo. "Midnight Music" is a lot more poppy although it is still driven by a heavy riff. Cherie Currie sings the lead vocal and co-wrote it with the band's manager Kim Fowley and Steven Tetsch. "Born to Be Bad" was penned by Fowley, drummer Sandy West and future Bangle Michael Steele who had been an early member of the Runaways. It is a self-referential song that plays up their bad girl image. If a guy was singing it I'd find it insufferable, but I like hearing a woman singing about being a rock and roll rebel. The verses are slow-paced, pushed along by a simple heavy riff and then pick up speed for the chorus. Ford delivers a noisy solo that is full of heavy metal cliches but gets the job done. The most appealing part of the song is Jett's charismatic lead vocal. "Neon Angels On the Road to Ruin" was written by Ford, Fowley and bassist Jackie Fox and it is another song inspired by the band's persona. It is a rocking boogie with an outstanding vocal from Currie. Side two opens with Jett's "I Love Playin' With Fire" which is one of the strongest songs on the album. Jett's snarled vocal is backed up with a fast paced hard-riffing tune that foreshadows her solo work. The hard rock noise continues with "California Paradise" which was composed by Fowley, Jett, West and Kari Krome. The song is driven by West's energetic drumming and an alluring, sarcastic vocal from Currie as she croons a twisted paean to California's charms. "Hollywood" is credited to Fowley, Fox and Jett although it is hard to believe it took three people to come up with such an inane song. The song may be dumb but it is very catchy with the chorus boasting one of the strongest hooks the band ever came up with. Jett screeches out the vocal with impressive urgency. "Heartbeat" was written by Currie, Ford, Fowley, Fox and the record's producer Earle Mankey. It is more of a power ballad than a rocker, sweetly sung by Currie as she describes a brief hook-up with a fellow performer. "Johnny Guitar" was written by Fowley and Ford as a showcase for Ford's metallic guitar playing. It is a slow blues that goes on for more than seven minutes. Currie's vocal is buried deep in the mix making it hard to hear the lyrics which describe making love with the title character. The focus of the song is clearly directed at Ford and her guitar. I find her frenzied fretwork self-indulgent but I suppose metal-heads will dig it. The song is easily the worst one on the album for me. Regardless of Ford's regrettable heavy-metal leanings, I consider this to be one of the best hard rock albums of its era right up there with the best work of AC/DC and Blue Oyster Cult. The Runaways were a terrific band, West and Ford could really play, Currie was a talented singer and Joan Jett is one of the greatest rockers of her generation. Despite the sexual exploitation associated with their image, the Runaways' music was a powerful feminist statement of empowerment and liberation. Even with all the countless female punkers and riot grrrls who followed in their wake, I still find this record's statement of female rock power wildly exhilarating. The Runaways kicked out the jams as well or better than any of their male peers. I think they were one of the best American bands of the 1970s. Recommended to fans of the Donnas and L7.