Tuesday, August 30, 2016

JOAN JETT: Glorious Results of 40 Years of Rock and Roll

Photo courtesy of Jen Cray @ JenCray.com
JOAN JETT
Glorious Results of 40
Years of Rock and Roll
_________________________

It was just the other day. I was
rummaging through the sky-
high stacks of records piled up
in my home office — searching
for the perfect soundtrack to
enhance my afternoon writing
session. Then, I spotted a CD
that I hadn't visited in a long
time — The Runaways' debut.
Suddenly, it hit me like a sack
of rocks — holy cow, this record
came out 40 freakin' years ago!
And so the story begins.
_________________________

I can still remember the summer of '76. In fact, it was exactly 40 years ago today when, as a crazed 13-year-old, I was blasting my KISS 8-Track on the family Hi-Fi set, while perusing the latest issue of People magazine that my mom had just brought home from the A&P. And there they were — on page 32  The Runaways. GULP! It was my first-ever glimpse of the new So-Cal, all-girl rock combo, and my interest was piqued, to say the least. But while other teenage boys would soon zero in on Cherie Currie, the band's blond bombshell lead singer or lead guitarist Lita Ford and her airbrushed, micro hot pants, I was immediately more intrigued by the group's dark and mysterious rhythm guitarist — 17-year-old, Joan Jett.

THE RUNAWAYS - 1976
(Lita Ford, Joan Jett, Jackie Fox,
Sandy West and Cherie Currie)
With the airwaves dominated by chart-busting feel-goods about romantic rodents, dancing waterbirds and Twinkie addicts, The Runaways' guitar-driven self-titled debut was viewed as less than radio-friendly when it arrived in the summer of 1976. As a result, it barely grazed the lower rung of the Billboard Top 200. Subsequent releases, Queens of Noise and Waitin' for the Night, didn't fare much better — at least not in the U.S. However, The Runaways were embraced more warmly abroad particularly in Japan and Sweden where they were hailed as bona fide rock stars. Seemingly unable to shake the stigma attached to the "jail bait" image created by eccentric manager, Kim Fowley, the band failed to gain the momentum necessary to break through the glass ceiling of the male-dominated U.S. rock scene. After four solid studio records, and with a (now) ever-changing line-up, The Runways had finally run out of steam by 1979. But in ensuing years, several of their tracks, including "Cherie Bomb," "I Love Playin' with Fire," and "School Days," have become classics songs that either were written, or co-written by  Joan Jett.


Fast-forward to the summer of '81. Having graduated only a few days earlier, I found myself headed out with a couple of my high school buddies to see the Ramones perform at a club in Orlando. From the driver's seat, Pat popped a Memorex tape into his car cassette deck. From the back seat, I reached out and snatched up the case from the console of his '65 Mustang. The hand-written insert read: JOAN JETT Bad Reputation. The songs that began tearing through the speakers sounded fresh and exciting to me — edgier than anything I remembered hearing previously from The Runaways. During one of the sweatier-sounding cuts, Jett posed the lyrical question, "Do you wanna touch me?" My raging teenage hormones prompted me to reply with a resounding, "Oh, hell YES!" Despite a few of the tracks possessing a bit of a bubblegum feel, Jett's debut solo record made for an overall comfortable stylistic fit with many of my other newly-minted favorites, such as The Sex Pistols, The Clash and of course, the Ramones. Simply put, Joan Jett was now BACK on my radar!


By early 1982, radio had (finally) discovered Joan Jett, and her band, The Blackhearts, as the infectious, chart-topping breakout single, "I Love Rock and Roll" was receiving massive airplay across the board. And while working my daily shifts at a prominent Florida record shop, I gave the entire soon-to-be platinum-selling I Love Rock Roll album near non-stop in-store exposure. The songs were crisp and catchy, (primarily) three-minute earworms that oozed attitude. Gloriously Lo-Fi, the authentic-sounding speaker crackle buzzing throughout only enhanced the record's appeal — and I couldn't get enough of it. And with Jett's striking fuchsia jacket and porcelain-white skin popping off the electron-blue background, the cover made for an album that looked as sensational as it sounded. Heck, even after nearly 35 years, "(I'm Gonna) Run Away," "Victim of Circumstance" and "You're Too Possessive" still get me "chubby."


Jett continued clobbering the Billboard charts with her third record, Album, in 1983 and the 1984 follow-up, Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth. Described best (by me) as cozy campfire companions to I Love Rock and Roll, both records provided ample portions of retro-style doo-wop and rockabilly, with layers of irresistible street-wise harmony vocals  all pinned to a modern-day pop-punk backdrop. Now spitting out high-energy hits like a human rock and roll Pez dispenser, Jett scored with such arena-style sing-alongs as "Fake Friends," "Everyday People," "The French Song," "I Love You Love Me Love," "I Need Someone" and the super-sweet 1984 remake of "Cherry Bomb." Released during the days just prior to MTV going totally viral, I would often rush home early from weekend parties in order to catch episodes of Friday Night Videos, Night Flight, and Night Tracks in hopes of capturing at least one of Jett's eye-catching videos on my trusty Beta-max recorder. But it wasn't the radio tunes that drove me to grinding the grooves off these two records — it was lesser played tracks, including "A Hundred Feet Away," "Secret Love," "Hold Me," "Long Time," "Someday" and "I Got No Answers" that (still) hit me like aural heroine.


Arguably her finest work to date, Jett's fifth record, Good Music, arrived in late 1986. From the well-crafted songs to the world-class performances to the polished-to-perfection production, the record  exemplified a beautiful balance between grit and gloss. Although Good Music stalled-out at what had to be a disappointing #105 on Billboard, the hooky title track, as well as "This Means War," "Outlaw" and "Contact" all grabbed me by the nards, and commanded me to cough — hard. Remakes of The Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner," The Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun" and the Jimi Hendrix classic, "You Got Me Floatin'" were all turbo-charged, and consequently they smelled like heaven. It was also during the Good Music tour when I first saw Jett perform in concert. It would take a couple of years before I could think straight again or even function effectively in the real world.


Graduating to movie star status, Jett made her silver screen acting debut in the 1987 feature film, Light of Day. Although the role hardly seemed like a stretch, Jett received high marks for her portrayal of Patti Rasnick, guitarist for the fictional rock band, The Barbusters. In fact, despite being cast alongside such established names as Michael J. Fox, Gena Rowlands and Michael McKean, I personally thought that Jett stole the show. In addition to various tunes from an array of popular artists, the soundtrack also featured a fistful of new Jett tunes, including the Bruce Springsteen-penned title track.


Up Your Alley returned Jett to the Top 20 album chart in 1988. Boasting the back-to-back Top 20 singles (and MTV staples), "I Hate Myself for Loving You" and "Little Liar," the record was Jett's first million-seller in six years. Other stand-out tracks included "Ridin' with James Dean," "I Still Dream About You" and Iggy Pop's, "I Wanna Be Your Dog," I had the pleasure of catching a couple of  theater dates on the Up Your Alley tour. I was even invited personally by a station staff member to be a spectator when Jett gave a live on-air radio interview in Orlando during the tour. Long story short, Joan Jett was super-cool. Decked-out from head-to-toe in black denim and leather, she smiled, shook my hand, signed my album, and even posed for a picture with me — while I just stood there,  whimpering and wetting myself  like a pathetic little wuss.


Given her longstanding reputation for revisiting classics, Jett's 1990 covers album, The Hit List, likely made sense at the time. But in hindsight, it was possibly a bit of a misstep — for various reasons. While the re-vamped version of AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds" made for an engaging single and video, others (for me) lacked the sizzle of some of her previous remake efforts. However, I will say that Jett's take on the iconic Everly Brothers / Nazareth hit, "Love Hurts" serves as one of her shiniest crown jewels. And after attending numerous Jett performances in clubs and theaters, I finally had the distinct privilege of seeing her live on an arena stage during the Hit List tour — opening for Aerosmith in April 1990. In short, sometimes bigger is better.


Three years had passed since Jett ran the table in 1988. And by the time her next proper studio album, Notorious, was released in August 1991, the rock and roll landscape was changing drastically. Consequently, the record that I like to refer to as the sexier Siamese twin to Up Your Alley, received nowhere near the attention that it deserved. Following a lengthy separation, I went back recently and revisited Notorious. Simply put, it still holds up. "Backlash," "Ashes in the Wind," "Lie to Me," "Don't Surrender," "Treading Water" — ALL superb! Particular props are also due for "Wait for Me." Recorded originally by The Runaways, it's possibly the best of the 10-song batch. Gee whiz, if Notorious had only been released a year and a half earlier...


I was on tour working as a personal assistant for a platinum-selling arena rock band during the summer of 2006. I remember being on the bus late one night, watching VH-1 while en route from a concert in Green Bay to the next night's show in Chicago. Wedged within a barrage of videos from the likes of Nelly Furtado, Gnarls Barkley and the Pussycat Dolls, the striking and brash-sounding new clip for "A.C.D.C" came suddenly screaming across the HD screen. I leaned over quickly and apprised the bass player for whom I was working, "Holy crap — that's Joan Jett!" Although Jett had been touring consistently over the years and had released several compilation and import records, this remake of the 1975 Sweet classic was the first new music that I'd heard from her since the Pure and Simple album in 1994 — and it was, HOT! So, on my next off-day from the tour, I took a cab to the nearest record store and nabbed a copy of Jett's just-released Sinner CD. Also featuring such noteworthy selections as "Riddles," "Change the World" and a remake of her own 1983 album track, "A Hundred Feet Away," Sinner (along with Cheap Trick's Rockford) proved to be one of the hottest rock records released during that long and steamy summer. In fact, when the tour I was on had a date at Jones Beach amphitheater, I went to the Virgin Mega Store in Times Square and bought a second copy  a birthday gift to the legendary drummer for whom I was also working.


A hefty chunk of Jett's personal and professional life story played out on the big screen in the 2010 feature film, The Runaways. As I noted in my original online review, I found the movie to be quite entertaining. I also commented that while Dakota Fanning did a lovely job of portraying Cherie Currie, Kristen Stewart literally became Joan Jett in her role. Two enthusiastic thumbs-up, for sure.

Jett's 12th studio record arrived in September 2013. Featuring "Any Weather," "TMI," "Fragile" and "Different," Unvarnished delivered some of her strongest material in decades, and serves as a glorious showcase for a truly iconic artist whose "tires" clearly still own enough tread to sustain unlimited additional laps around the track.


Showing no sign of slowing down in 2016, Jett, along with fellow legendary co-conspirators, Heart and Cheap Trick, is currently on a monster-sized U.S. concert tour  one that will have her criss-crossing the country through September 23rd.

In sum, you can't fake rock and roll — certainly not for 40 years, anyway. When an artist walks onstage and steps up to the mic, they'd better have something real — something relevant to say. From day one, Joan Jett has always accomplished both. When she sings about love, heartbreak and life's frustrations — delivered in her signature, authentic, heartfelt rasp, we feel it too, or at the very least, we can relate to it. And after four decades of ever-changing trends and fads, Joan Jett continues to maintain total artistic integrity. As longtime manager / business partner / collaborator / producer, Kenny Laguna, put it so perfectly and succinctly during her 2015 induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, "Joan Jett IS rock and roll!"

-Christopher Long
(August 2016)


Me and Joan
(Orlando, FL / Jan. '89)
_________________________


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2 comments:

  1. too cool, Chris! I love the article and the pic!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Ms. Fleming! I always appreciate your kind words. Don't be a stranger.

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