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New Runaways Bio Digs Deeper, Rocks Harder Than Hollywood's Version

Classic Runaways lineup: Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Lita Ford, and Jackie Fox
Classic Runaways lineup: Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Lita Ford, and Jackie Fox
Mercury Records

Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways By Evelyn McDonnell Da Capo Press, 342 pp., $25.99.

Anyone who has seen either the Hollywood film The Runaways or the documentary Edgeplay may think they know the story of this band of five teenage girls who provided one of the more curious and cautionary tales of '70s rock and roll. But both of those efforts were skewed by the participation and personal prejudices of the filmmakers and participants alike.

However, in this book, skilled music journalist McDonnell (Mamarama, Rock, She Wrote and various newspapers) brings together all of the viewpoints and characters for the Rashomon-style tale of the band who paved the way for femme-fronted groups ranging from the Go-Go's and Bangles to L7, the Donnas, and Sleater-Kinney.

McDonnell also did a lot of original research, speaking with most of the key players and members as well as Kari Krome, the buried-under-the-legend teenage poet whose writings helped inspire the very concept and early development of the Runaways.

The idea was thus: create a band entirely of teenage girls playing hard rock/glam-style music and turn up the "jailbait" angle of wild-child sexuality in interviews, photo shoots, and onstage.

After some original lineup shifting (future Bangle Michael Steele was the group's original singer/bassist), the "Fab Five" Runaways came to be Cherie Currie (vocals), Joan Jett (vocals/guitar), Lita Ford (guitar), Jackie Fox (bass), and Sandy West (drums).

Central to the story is Kim Fowley, the magnetic, sharp, shamelessly self-promoting, crude, and flat-out weird "Svengali" who deserves both the credit for gathering, launching, and supporting the group, while also striving to remain dictatorial, fetishistic control over the band for whom he gladly labeled himself as their "pimp."

Cast as the out and out villain in many Runaways bio recaps, McDonnell paints a more even-keeled picture of man who is alternatively the group's father and creepy uncle at the same time. "Kim Fowley is an appalling character," McDonnell writes. "That appall is part of his appeal."

Simply put, without Fowley, there would have been no Runaways. McDonnell ultimately mostly absolves Fowley of the most oft-repeated charge of nefariousness: that he ran away with the Runaways' money.

There are plenty of cringeworthy moments as McDonnell paints an only-California-in-the-'70s scene of girls not old enough to vote -- much less drink -- go wild with booze, drugs, parties, and sexual affairs of both genders (sometimes within the group itself). It's all titillating, of course, but nightmare prose for any parent of a daughter.

Still, it can't be ignored that the rampant sexism the band faced (drooling male music journalists and power brokers, a dismissive "girls can't rock" perspective), hindered their career and acceptance in a way that would be unimaginable in 2013. Indeed, had they been around during the advent of the '90s "Riot Grrl" movement (many of whose bands clearly acknowledged a debt to the Runaways), though would have likely been at the forefront.

But the Runaways never hit commercially. First single "Cherry Bomb," sung live aggressively by Currie in a jailbait Victoria's Secret corset and stockings, remains their sole "hit."

Story continues on the next page.

 

Near-misses detailed in the book include the band's rejection of Stevie Nicks' "Gold Dust Woman," as well as their ill-fated attempt at recording "I Love Rock And Roll" -- which would later became a huge smash for Jett and launch her solo career.

The Runaways' uneven material and competing credit grabs made their four studio albums a hodgepodge of tunes. Ironically, a common consensus is that the Live in Japan record is their best representation of the band. And the Runaways had plenty of room for growth.

But with the many details of conflicting personalities and ambitions in the band (who never gelled on a personal level), the decay would have likely happened sooner or later. Frequent lineup changes, like going through bassists like Spinal Tap went through drummers, didn't help matters either.

After the band dissolved, the original five took wildly divergent paths. Jett became (and remains) the biggest star, with multiple hits and continues to be a popular live draw. Ford found a modicum of success in the hair-metal era ("Kiss Me Deadly"), and is on the comeback trail. Currie dabbled in music and acting, and currently is a singer and chainsaw-wielding, wood-carving artist. Her memoir, Neon Angel, was also the basis for the Jett-produced Runaways movie.

Fox -- the brainiest in life, if weakest musically -- took all the hard-knock lessons learned as a Runaway to become a respected entertainment lawyer. Sadly, West -- the brawny, feather-haired tomboy and acknowledged heart and soul of the group -- would go through many personal trials, get addicted to crystal meth, and ultimately die of cancer in 2006 , making even a one-off reunion an impossibility for the still-fractious members. (However, her voice is heard in the book via entries from a never-published memoir.)

Queens of Noise is as wild a read as was the Runaways' short-lived career. But in the hands of such a skilled, careful, and picture-painting writer as McDonnell, it's far more than the scandalous jailbait journalism it might have been.

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