Despite being quickly disregarded as a novelty act when their star faded in the mid-70s, time’s twisty roads have made the Runaways one of the most oddly important bands of that decade. Their story is a cult band template: not the first but certainly the most famous all-girl rock band who actually rocked; cobbled together by the infamously way-out manager/producer, Kim Fowley; leaders Joan Jett and Lita Ford eventually became big stars; oodles of bootlegs and import reissues through the latter ’80s repositioned the band as the pre-punk gutter-glam rockers they were; and then ultimately, a main inspiration to the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s. It all built to a feverish pitch when a movie project was announced circa 2008. When the film finally opened in 2010, it unsurprisingly didn’t break any box office records, but was a serviceable intro to the band’s story. The opening shot and Michael Shannon’s take on Fowley alone are enough to recommend it. Next came a biography from singer Cheri Currie, and there have been other books touching on the band. But a new one, Queens of Noise: The Real Story Of The Runaways, by Evelyn McDonnell, looks to be the definitive biography on the band. McDonnell, currently a journalism professor at Loyola Marymount, interviewed all the major players, and her experience as a writer and editor with The Miami Herald, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and many more offers a sure hand to pull the Runaways’ surprisingly complex story into place.
First off, can you give me a little bio of your journalistic life? And then a bio of your music-loving life, like when/where did you start seeing bands?
I began writing professionally while I was still in college, as a freelancer for The New Paper in Providence. My first assignment was to interview a new local band named Throwing Muses. I continued to write for them, mostly about music, and for The Providence Journal, until I moved to New York in 1988. In New York, I freelanced for everyone, it seems: Rolling Stone, Spin, Ms., The New York Times, Billboard, Newsday, Interview, etc. I was the music editor at the Village Voice and SF Weekly and the pop music critic (later pop culture writer) at The Miami Herald. I also wrote or coedited five books before Queens Of Noise, including Rock She Wrote, Rent and Mamarama.
I’ve always loved music. I lived in a small town in Wisconsin, so my first concert-going experiences were with my family at Milwaukee Summerfest: Dave Brubeck, Journey, Squeeze. As a teen, I drove down to Chicago for a few shows, like New Order and the Dead Kennedys. But it wasn’t until I went to college that I was able to regularly go see bands. I spent far more time in the clubs of Providence, Boston and even New York than I did at campus parties at Brown. I was hungry and omnivorous in my musical appetite. I also helped bring bands, from James Brown to X, to campus. Then I moved to the East Village, which was heaven, being able to go to shows every night, and not having to drive! And getting in free as a critic!
How far back does your interest in the Runaways go? Were you one of those teenage girls who was inspired by them? Please tell me you had the pictures on the wall in the bedroom, twirling your phone cord while talking with a friend about skipping school, à la Riff Randal in Rock N’ Roll High School!
Alas, I was too young to even know about them when they were around. They didn’t penetrate my prepubescent small-town life. While I knew and liked Joan Jett later, it really wasn’t until the early ‘90s, when friends and musicians started talking about the Runaways as underappreciated, and I started running into Joan at riot grrrl shows, that I went back and educated myself and became a fan.
I liked the Runaways movie, but it’s been said by some that the film only showed mostly Joan Jett and Cherie Currie’s story. What did you think of it? Did you have anything to do with the making of it? And can you give me a quick opinion you garnered from each member of the Runaways, and Kim Fowley?
It’s definitely Cherie and Joan’s story. As such, I like it. It’s a rare female buddy movie, and has good music, good performances, some smart writing and perceptive themes. But I think it should be called something else, because it’s neither a fair, accurate, nor complete depiction of the Runaways. Obviously, the members who were left out (in part because they chose not to participate)—Lita [Ford], Jackie [Fox], Vicki [Blue]—are not happy about it (though I don’t think Lita has ever seen it). Joan and Cherie were participants in the film in various ways, although even they have some mixed feelings about it. Kim also granted rights to his story and image, but he hates it.
I liked that very early in Queens of Noise, you aimed to debunk the myth that the Runaways were just pawns of Kim Fowley. That said, how much input do you think the band had insofar as their image and how it was presented; and musically, where they could record, and with whom?
They developed more control, and more wisdom, as they went along, of course. I know Kim made Vicki lose weight, and someone told me recently he did the same to Lita. But I don’t think they ever wore anything they weren’t comfortable with. Kim actually wanted women with strong personalities and already developed images. “They came complete,” he says. I honestly believe Cherie chose the corset, and Kim loved it. That said, they clearly did not choose the cover of the first album, or a lot of the official images, I bet. They probably had basically no say about the recording of the first album, and they wouldn’t have known what to do if they had. But already by Queens Of Noise, they were looking for a polished sound and fighting with Kim, “Lord of Garbage,” about it. Earle Mankey was brought in to appease them, and to play good cop to Kim’s bad.
Any good stories from trying to nail down Kim Fowley for an interview? And how much did you actually talk to him?
Don’t you mean how much did he talk to me? I had to spend about an hour being berated for being too feminist in my L.A. Weekly article and convincing him I wasn’t out to hang him. Then I had to spend another hour hearing about Black Room Doom and promising I would mention them. That was the first phone call. Ultimately, Kim was extremely cooperative and helpful, if also combative and profane. I lost track of our conversations, but I would say they lasted about 20 hours total. And there’s probably been another 20 since I finished the book, including two phone calls last week! The guy likes to talk.
I mainly ask this because I think the Ramones are integral to, well, everything, but what did the band think of the Ramones, and how many of the individual band members followed the “New Wave” of the era? I assume maybe they were products of the stadium rock sound of the very early ’70s, just the thing that the Ramones were trying to erase at that time.
Well, they toured the States with the Ramones in ’78, so by then, they were quite aware of, and good buddies with, the Ramones. Actually, they were aware of them by 1976, because they famously dismissed the Ramones and Patti Smith in an early interview, earning the ire of much of the New York press. I’m sure by the time they all toured America together, that early comment was forgotten and forgiven. Stadium rock was an influence on Lita and Sandy [West] in particular, but Joan and Cherie were more into glam. And by the fall of ’76, Joan in particular was smitten with punk. The Runaways hung out with the Sex Pistols. (Steve Jones wrote them a song.) They were good friends with Blondie. Joan produced the Germs. I think of them as one of the first punk bands.
You mention in the book that all the Runaways still have such harsh feelings between them. The movie and rumors over the years imply a number of inter-band romantic entanglements. Do you think that is what has complicated the otherwise de rigueur bitterness that most bands eventually reconcile in time?
Maybe, but I think their bitterness isn’t significantly different from, as you say, the de rigueur, and I don’t think they’ve had the same amount of financial incentive to reconcile as, say, the Who or Rolling Stones. The band was not built on pre-existing relationships and ultimately some of them were very different from each other. Their’s became a very dark scene that some have been loathe to revisit. That said, they also don’t all hate each other; some of them are quite close. But those alliances tend to shift over time, for whatever reasons, usually having to do with fame or money.
Because the band wasn’t able to have too many official releases, a lot of their legacy through the latter ‘80s and ‘90s was built on numerous quasi-legit “rarities” records, Japanese bootlegs, half-assed re-packagings, etc. And frankly, a lot of those demos and unfinished recordings aren’t that great. Did any of the members express to you any anger about all those recordings that got out there (as I assume they had little input in them). And why, despite all the revived interest in the band, hasn’t there been a proper reissue of their original albums?
Some members are mostly mad about the idea that someone is, again, making money off of them, and they’re not seeing any of it. Micki Steele (a latter day Runaways bassist, and eventual bassist for the Bangles) has particularly complained about early demos being released, and blamed Kim. I can not figure out why their albums aren’t properly released here in the States. No one has been able to explain this to me. Partly, there must just not be enough financial incentive for Universal (or whatever they’re called now) to do so. To this day, the record company probably does not value this “all-girl band” because they are all girls. And perhaps the label is bitter about the fact the Runaways sued them. It’s incredible to me. Cherry Red has a done a great job with the albums in England though.
You mention in Queens of Noise that between the film and the books that have been written, the full story of the Runaways had still never been told. Do you feel you’ve been able to complete the story, as it stands?
I’m sure there are stories I still haven’t heard. Some of them may even be true! There were also claims I couldn’t verify or decided were in poor taste or just didn’t make the cut. The story is a lot more complete than it was before, but I’m also looking forward to Lita’s memoir, and books by any of them, really. I’m sure they all kept some tales for their own telling.
Through your research and interviews, did you get a sense that there’s any possibility of a reunion show of the surviving members? (Drummer Sandy West passed away in 2006.) I believe Cherie Currie is doing a tour soon, right?
Cherie has been and is playing shows. She and Lita have recorded a Christmas (?!) song together. But Joan has said she is not interested in a reunion. I doubt Jackie or Vicki would do it either (or be asked). I suspect Cherie and Lita will be on stage together before the year’s out, at least to sing their collaboration. But unless they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or something, I would be quite surprised if they reunited. Pleasantly surprised.