Joe Pop

The Runaways: a retrospective.

Spring 1977. I’m 14, and entering the wilderness of adolescence-a world of moodswings, raging hormones and experimental dress sense. I feel the need for a new soundtrack to my life, something chosen by me to replace the random Xmas gifts of Abba and Elton John. I’m just beginning to realise that there is a whole world of music out there waiting for me to discover, but its quite hard to know where to begin, as I have no older siblings or cool friends to guide me. So, alone, I summon up the courage to enter my local record shop, a hippie hovel reeking of patchouli and Hawkwind. I have no idea what I’m looking for.

I’m cruising the racks looking at album covers. Nearly everything has a swirly Roger Dean sci fi cover, and even I, with my limited knowledge, know that is something to avoid. But suddenly, something catches my eye. The record cover has a picture of a girl with white blonde hair, a sequinned top and way too much eye make up to be respectable. I don’t know what it is, but something tells me I have to have this record. I pay my £1.99, and literally run home with it under my arm.

In my bedroom, I pore over the pictures on the gate fold sleeve of this group called The Runaways. As well as the lead singer on the cover, the rest of the band were pictured, brandishing their guitars, shag hairdo’s and powder blue eye shadow with attitude. They looked like a gang of surly teen dyke shop lifters in their platforms and polyester tank tops. I was reminded of the tough girls at school who I both admired and was scared of. One in particular was Donna Kirkpatrick. At 15, she had already broken off 3 engagements, had two inches of brown roots showing through blonde hair, no eyebrows, a wrap around Starsky and Hutch cardigan, laddered black tights, battered cream peep toe high heels, a love bite and an ankle chain. Every day she would show up late for school reeking of cigarette smoke, sex and boredom, to sit in the back of the class, disliked by most who perceived her as a ‘slag’. After a hard days gum chewing and giving everyone withering looks, she would be collected from the school gates by her 23 year old boyfriend in his car, to be whisked off to drink Bacardi and cokes in pubs. Donna lived a life totally removed from homework, parents and cleaning out hamster cages and in my shy and inhibited eyes she was a goddess.

The Runaways were an American all girl group who released their first album in 1976. The band were all aged under 17, and legend has it that they were recruited by a manager/svengali from the white trash teens who hung out in a L.A glam rock disco’s car park. If this is true, I like to imagine the future Runaways sitting on car bonnets, drinking under age and popping Quaaludes while Kiss blares out from a tinny car stereo.

The fact that the Runaways are a ‘manufactured’ group doesn’t bother me at all. Some great groups-The Supremes, Public Enemy, The Spice Girls and The Sex Pistols-were put together this way. All that matters to me is the end result, and to me, both then and now, The Runaways are as authentic and valid as I need.

If you haven’t heard them, The Runaways records sort of mixed a Suzi Quatro-esque glam thump with an early punk, almost Ramones-esque type minimalism. The songs are snotty, bratty and full of bravado, underscored with the inexperience and vulnerability of adolescence. Key words and phrases were ‘night’, ‘streets’, ‘wild’, ‘bomb’, ‘fire’, ‘wasted’, and ‘neon angels on the road to ruin’. At 14, this was a world I wanted in on.

One of the most important things for me about this record, was that it was the first music that I ever mimed to in front of a mirror. I don’t know where I got the idea from, no one showed me how. I just instinctively picked up a dead light bulb to use as a mike, and pouted and preened along as I felt a ‘rock star’ would. I did however have the brains to know that this was an activity you did alone. behind closed doors; a guilty secret. The fact that I, a boy, was mouthing to words sung by a girl, didn’t seem strange to me either. In retrospect, I see this now as a milestone on my queer journey.

The Runaways made a couple of albums before splitting on New Years Eve 1979. I often wonder what its like to be an ex Runaway. As it is, I do know what became of them.

Cherie Currie, the white haired singer who initially attracted me to the band, went off with dreams of becoming a solo star and a film actress. I did see one film she made, ”Little Foxes”, in which she basically played herself, a no good, born to lose pill popping wild girl in the fast lane. Its quite a crappy film, but touching in parts as it describes a group of teenage girls struggling with the hostile terrain of adolescence. In real life, Cherie let real life imitate art by becoming a junkie. However, after many years, she has kicked the habit, become a drugs councillor and is trying to break into country music. She also wins awards for her striking wood sculptures which she makes using a chansaw!

I saw Cherie perform at New York's Squeezebox club in 2000. She was in fine rock form in her leather trousers and flailing hair. The crowd went wild and she was visibly moved by the reception. I got to meet her afterwards and told her how much her records had meant to me when I was growing up. She graciously clinked her glass against mine. I was thrilled.

The leads guitarist, Lita Ford, worked for years after The Runaways split as an aerobics instructor and beautician, before relaunching herself as a sleek, leather catsuited heavy metal goddess. Her records were lumpen dross. Lita now lives on a tropical island with her bodybuilder husband and her kids who she is training in martial arts.

Jackie Fox, the bassist, left the band after the strain of a Japanese tour resulted in a mild suicide attempt. She left rock to train as a top show biz lawyer, and is presently, along with the rest of the band, suing the arse off their former manager for misuse of funds and alleged abuse.

Sandy West, the drummer, gigged around L.A in The Sandy West band. From her web site, you could purchase their demo tapes, as well as an autographed set of drum sticks, a bargain at $10. Sadly she died from cancer in 2006.

And of course, rhythm guitarist Joan Jett went on to be JOAN JETT, QUEEN OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL. I personally believe Joan to be ( now bear with me on this one), in her purity and minimalism, as true a conceptual artist as Yoko Ono or John Cage, and in her tom boy leathers, as queer as Kathy Acker or Dennis Cooper. Her dedication to loud guitars, punching fist salutes and shouted choruses is so great, I think you would find the words “I love rock and roll” running through her like a stick of sea side rock, should you saw her in half.

When people write about mid 70’s music and the birth of punk, they mostly talk about the same old stuff: The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls etc. Well, for my money, The Runaways were just as radical, just as nihilistic, just as suberbanly trashy. I feel they should be remembered and celebrated.

So, these days I don’t play my Runaways records that much, preferring some ambient experimental doodle or other. but now and again, when ever I’m feeling a bit petulant, I’ll play an imaginary guitar along to “Queens of Noise”, and pretend I’m still a bad girl.

And Donna Kirkpatrick, where ever you are, I hope you are not living in some grotty flat, on your third kid and your second marriage. I hope you are driving fast down a motorway in an open topped car, drinking Bacardi from a bottle, with a lover half your age by your side.