Despite the attitude, of which they exhibited a ton, by Joan Jett’s own admission The Runaways were not a punk band. When they formed in 1975, Legs McNeil had yet to popularise the term and “Blitzkrieg Bop” was a year away from release. The five were “just a rock’n’roll band”, inspired by Sabbath, T.Rex, Alice Cooper and Suzi Quatro and, rather than embodying a zeitgeist, were committed to writing about their own experience in their music language of choice. Rebellion is in the eye of the beholder, but The Runaways clearly signposted it with their name – a pack of “bad girls” out of control (every twitchy conservative’s nightmare/fantasy) – and their calling card, “Cherry Bomb”. That risqué title, the sneering taunts of 15-year-old singer Cherie Currie and suggestive backing moans made a neat package of teasing and affront.
Looming over The Runaways is the predatory spectre of Kim Fowley. Though there’s a strong argument for erasing him from their story and returning its full ownership to the band, the fact is that as producer, manager/hypeman and co-writer of many of their songs he was, until they parted ways in 1977, a significant player. The obligation is to recognise The Runaways’ talent independent of Fowley and irrespective of their gender, which is something this boxset, comprising their four studio LPs and a live album recorded in Japan, serves.
Birtha and Fanny were forerunners of The Runaways, as well as Quatro, but still their debut blows in on a blast of singularly audacious air – the short, swaggering “Cherry Bomb”. Written by Jett and Fowley during Currie’s audition for the band, it shows a middle finger to female behavioural convention and is driven by a brutal rhythmic chug with Lita Ford’s guitar solo the pivot. Her chops are also central to “Is It Day Or Night”, which moves with a bluesy, Deep Purple-ish thrust, while Lou Reed’s “Rock & Roll” homage is made over with power chords and plenty of cowbell. Both “You Drive Me Wild” and “Thunder” are indebted to glam: the first to “Ride A White Swan”, the latter to “Mama Weer All Crazee Now” (a cover of which appears on And Now… The Runaways). If the inappropriately unsubtle “Lovers” comes on like a simplified Thin Lizzy and “Blackmail” is a hard rock revision of “Johnny B Goode”, then “Dead End Justice” is the set’s musical bookend to “Cherry Bomb”. Conceptually, though, it’s a different beast, a lengthy narrative about “dead-end kids in the danger zone” with Jett and Currie plotting to bust out of “a cheap, run-down teenage jail”. If The Runaways hit headlines, however, that didn’t translate into sales – the first album just scraped into the Billboard 200.
For 1977’s Queens Of Noise, Sparks guitarist Earle Mankey signed up as co-producer, charged with delivering a more radio-friendly sound. It’s most evident on “Midnight Music”, which cheekily bites the Cass Elliot hit “Make Your Own Kind Of Music” and sees Currie singing in a radically different voice, with chiming guitar accompaniment. Jett’s “I Love Playin’ With Fire” is a more familiar hybrid of Alice Cooper and Free that accelerates madly toward the fade-out, but the Ford/Fowley closing epic, “Johnny Guitar”, is almost unrecognisable as The Runaways. A showcase for Ford’s guitar prowess, it starts as a slow, swampy and degraded blues number before easing into a Hendrix-style solo that runs over the three-minute mark. Queens Of Noise impresses with its stylistic range, songwriting development and more imaginative production, but chart success eluded it too.
Originally not released in the US or UK, Live In Japan probably has as much or as little value in this set as a listener’s rating of live albums in general determines, though it is a document – both of The Runaways’ Beatlemania-like popularity there and the last recordings with Cherie Currie and Jackie Fox. It draws from three shows, the highlights being a blues-boogie iteration of “You Drive Me Wild”, a cheerfully swinging cover of “Wild Thing” and “Gettin’ Hot”, a tough, Hendrix/Sabbath hybrid that doubles as a flamethrower.
There’s no denying that the last two albums in this set are disappointing retreads, though they’re also records of a different kind – of the band’s recovery from burn-out, drug addiction, personality clashes and membership changes (Jett moved to lead vocals; Fox was replaced first by Vicki Blue, then Ford). Waitin’ For The Night was their third LP of 1977 and Fowley’s last with the band as producer. Their playing is ferociously on-point, but the songs are composites of hard-rock tropes, the barrage of power chords numbing where it once thrilled, though there’s glee in Jett’s “You’re Too Possessive”, with Ford’s solos throwing to Sunset Strip rock. There’s even less left in the tank come 1978’s And Now… The Runaways, which the band initially decided not to release. It features a perverse choice of covers in the sluggish “Eight Days A Week” (with organ) and Steve Jones/Paul Cook’s unremarkable “Black Leather”.
Nonetheless, The Runaways’ legacy stands, secured by the indomitable spirit that became an exemplar for the likes of Vixen, L7, Babes In Toyland and The Donnas, and the invincible rock’n’roll noise of their first two records.