CERTAIN ARENAS are so entrenched in sexism and misogyny that when women break through and gain entrance there’s a complicated and tragic trajectory, fitting of the best dramas. Evelyn McDonnell’s chronicle of the Runaways, Queens of Noise, gives this all-girl hard-rock group, the first to sign a multiyear major record label deal and tour the world, the recognition and serious consideration as pioneers that they deserve, granting them a position in cultural, social, and feminist history.
Through extensive interviews and research, McDonnell, a music critic, author, and journalism professor at Loyola Marymount, provides a panoramic scale, sense, and dignity to a complicated and emotion-filled saga that still divides the key players and band members, replete with ongoing lawsuits and deeply entrenched resentments.
Though never commercially successful, the Runaways continue to influence many. Typifying its large outreach, especially on outsiders of all kinds — not just women — it seems fitting that Omid Yamini is among those McDonnell interviewed for her research. An Iranian-American teenager stranded in Virginia when he discovered the band’s music in the early 1990s, he went on to “amass the largest Runaways collection in the world,” and his discography is included at the end of Queens of Noise.
“Getting most people to talk was the easy part,” McDonnell explains of her interviewees’ willingness to analyze and explain the Runaways, their music, and their spectacle. “The hard part was getting people to stop talking.”
One person who wouldn’t stop talking was the much-maligned, indefinable, self-proclaimed “horrible human being with a heart of gold,” Kim Fowley, whose reputation as a lecherous and exploitative Svengali McDonnell challenges, even while not letting Fowley off the hook. (In her acknowledgments, McDonnell thanks her husband and son for their patience in putting up with the “interminable answering machine messages, pronouncing ‘This is Kim Fowley ...’”)
“Loud, freakish, vulgar, vulnerable, and just plain weird,” McDonnell sums him up, and Fowley’s quotes, given his slippery, oracular conman talents, are among the best and most piercing in the book. The chapter devoted to his backstory is titled “Legendary Prick.”
On a summer day in 1975, 16-year-old Joan (Larkin) Jett rode four buses from Canoga Park to Huntington Beach on a Fowley-originated mission to meet and jam with Sandy (Pesavento) West, 10 months Jett’s junior. From there, McDonnell meticulously shapes the band’s evolution (with multiple band members coming and going) and disintegration, and the subsequent fallout and career paths of its members, including the well-known successes of Joan Jett and the groundbreaking guitar player, Lita Ford.
McDonnell shows the sexist roots of the rock world and how the girls worked against incredible odds. “Rock critics,” McDonnell writes, “were allegedly steeped in the counterculture tradition of New Journalism, but it seems that the Runaways provided them with an opportunity to unleash their pornographic and misogynistic ids.” She cites numerous reviews and articles, including one by the legendary Lester Bangs, who wrote a “stunning piece of stream-of-consciousness porn.” According to Bangs, although the Runaways’ music “sucks syphilitic rodents,” he desired lead singer Cherie Currie anyway, because she was a “Child…which is why I wanted to defile you in the first place.”
The Runaways were at their best live. McDonnell quotes reporter Phil Sutcliffe:
When the musicians are, as usual, male, they are a macho mirror to the fans who worship them, like a corporate Narcissus ogling himself. But when the musicians are female, it’s no mirror, it’s the real thing, the challenge of a relationship rather than a solo jerk-off — so the Runaways don’t get any shadow boxing, they are in for the championship every time they go on stage.
McDonnell’s writing is straightforward, and her passion comes through in an enticing hybrid of music fandom and academia. She cites Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, and the Runaways’ origins in the Plains of Id, Surfurbia, the Foothills, and Autotopia, demonstrating how only in this Southern California landscape could a band like theirs emerge.
Yet her writing is also unpretentious and frank and full of awe when it comes to the music. “The three-minute rocker by Jett and Fowley,” McDonnell writes of the song “Wasted,” “gets cranking with one of Lita’s gnarliest riffs, the kind that makes you want to scrunch your face up and play air guitar.” Of the pressure faced by Currie to be the front woman while at the same time retaining a collective identity for her band mates, she writes simply: “No wonder she got fucked up.”
Queens of Rock is dedicated to Sandy (Sandy West), the drummer and arguably the heart and center of the Runaways, whose story is the most tragic. McDonnell’s original interest began as a thesis on Sandy. But McDonnell gives time, thought, and attention to each band member — including Micki Steele from the Bangles, Kari Krome, Jackie Fox, Vicki Blue, and Laurie McAllister — providing them with agency and letting their sides of the narrative shine through. At times I had the impression that McDonnell pulled back on her own opinions like a politician, or like a mother trying to share her attention and affection equally among all her kids.
The much-hyped Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart movie The Runaways leaves out the most enticing details and stories, offering a meager Joan Jett/Cherrie Currie side story. But as a supplement to Queens of Rock — with its music and portrayals — which is how I watched it, it’s great. McDonnell also delves into the movie’s history and the drama surrounding its creation, and the commercial exploitation of the sex scene between its two stars. The subsequent public frenzy was reminiscent of the struggles the Runaways faced, relegated to a sex-fantasy and not taken seriously. In an idealized feminist landscape, the girls and women would unite against the forces excluding them, rather than spending energy fighting with and alienating each other. But that’s what they did, and McDonnell doesn’t gloss over the band’s continuing divisions, the revolving allegiances, and the toll of giant personalities during the loaded three and a half years of the band’s existence, exemplified by the revolving door of five bass players. Nor does McDonnell sidestep the girls’ ill-informed, vocal disdain for the same feminism that brought them their Title IX freedoms and other “un-sisterly” and uncharitable behaviors, not just among band mates, but directed against other women rockers, such as Patti Smith, who apparently sent the Runaways away when they tried to meet her backstage at a concert in Huntington Beach, leading Currie to comment later in an interview on the older singer’s “saggy tits.”
But as McDonnell notes, “Expecting a group of musicians to be models of sisterhood is like expecting every black artist to uphold the race — it’s a form of double standard.” Equal rights should include — both unfortunately and fortunately — the equal right to be an asshole. The ego-centered and self-destructive hallmarks of success and failure in rock ‘n’ roll — addiction, promiscuity, ruthless competitiveness — are equal opportunity traits.
Though their beginnings were envisioned by Fowley as a money-making wet dream of jail-bait nymphets, the Runaways refused to conform to any such stagnant idealization. They were, though, unabashedly sexual, finding “personal agency and freedom by doing what boys had done for years,” McDonnell writes, “expressing themselves through loud, sexy rock ‘n’ roll.” The public might not have been ready, but these girls — mere teenagers when they started — rocked, in the process kicking the door down for others.
Miley Cyrus has claimed Joan Jett as one of her greatest inspirations, and she’s done a cover of “Cherry Bomb.” Cyrus’s recent disastrous VMA performance and the media’s obsession with it has echoes of Currie’s “Cherry Bomb” performance 37-years before, the only song where Currie wore a bustier and fishnets, inspired by the drag of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yet for the most part that’s how Currie is remembered—a somewhat masculine sexualized charade of her own creation, turning America’s pedophilic sexualization and puritanism into an angry confusion, causing hatred to course with titillation. The vitriol of the attacks currently directed at Cyrus, at 20 years old, clumsily unleashing her sexuality for the public’s consumption (and no anger, say, at Robin Thicke or MTV) is reminiscent of Currie — one headline in a Japanese magazine featuring a fetishized and sexualized Currie ran with the headline: “Fuck me, Kill me: The Runaways.”
In Queens of Noise, McDonnell suggests a song for Miley to cover, and after the VMA performance, McDonnell, by way of her website, offers Cyrus this advice: “Miley, I know you worship Joan Jett: Go back and look at her career. She never stooped to a pole dance. And she would have punched Thicke in the face.”
Victoria Patterson is the author of the novel This Vacant Paradise.