New Runaways Bio Digs Deeper, Rocks Harder Than Hollywood's Version
Mercury Records Classic Runaways lineup: Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Lita Ford, and Jackie Fox
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.