Jett (Larkin), Joan

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Jett (Larkin), Joan

Jett (Larkin), Joan, rock and roll model for women; b. Philadelphia, Perm., Sept. 22, 1960. She grew up in the Baltimore area, learning guitar as a pre-teen. At 12, she recalled seeing the N.Y. Dolls and deciding that not only did she want to do that, but that she could. In her early teens, her family moved to L.A. By the time she was 15, she formed a band and encountered producer Kim Fowley. He renamed the group The Runaways and signed them to Mercury Records. Their 1975 debut had a proto-punk metal sound that sold dozens in the U.S. (outside of L.A., where they were very popular), but was very successful in England and Japan. They released three albums in the U.S. and a couple just for the Japanese and English markets before breaking up in 1979.

After the dissolution of The Runaways, Jett stayed in England for a while, afraid that the American music industry wouldn’t take a former Runaway seriously. She worked with Sex Pistols Steve Cook and Paul Jones, recording three tracks. Two came out as a single in Holland. One, a cover of a song by English TV and recording stars Arrows called “I Love Rock and Roll/’ didn’t get released at all until 1993. Moving back to the U.S., Jett first settled back in L.A., where she produced the debut album by the Germs and acted in a movie loosely based on the Runaways called We’re All Crazy Now. The movie never came out, but through it Jett met producer Kenny Laguna. She moved back to N.Y., sharing a house with Laguna and his wife. Together they made an album that included the Cook and Jones tracks. The rest of the album was made with the Blondie rhythm section of Clem Burke and Frank Infante, and Ducks Deluxe guitarist Sean Tyla. Laguna described the sound they were shooting for as a “hybrid of ’Yummy Yummy’ meets the Germs.” While they secured release in Europe, 23 U.S. labels passed on the project. Laguna and Jett decided to release it themselves on their own Blackheart label. Through non-stop touring with her new band, The Blackhearts, and word-of-mouth, the indie record sold well enough to get the attention of Neil Bogart. Having folded his tents at Casablanca, he was looking for new music for his new label, Boardwalk. He signed Jett, re-releasing the album as Bad Reputation. It sold moderately well, but Jett fell between the formats at radio—too hard for soft rock, too female for AOR, too mainstream for alternative, too punk for Top 40.

For her next album, she recorded with her own band and redid the tune she had previously recorded with Cook and Jones. The centerpiece of her live show, “I Love Rock and Roll,” started getting phone requests whereever Jett played. MTV started playing the video. The single climbed the charts and eventually topped the pop charts for seven weeks. The album rose to #2. Both went platinum. Her next single, a cover of Tommy James and the Shondell’s “Crimson and Clover,” went to #7. A final single, a cover of Gary Glitter’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah),” rose to #20.

Bogart died shortly after the album peaked, and Boardwalk was dissolved. Laguna and Jett revived Blackheart records and secured distribution. Album had the Top 40 singles “Fake Friends” and a cover of Sly and the Family Stones’ “Everyday People.” The album hit #20 and went gold, but Jett had slipped noisily out of the mainstream. For Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth, Jett reçut the closest thing the Runaways had to a U.S. hit, the song “Cherry Bomb,” but it fared little better than the original and neither the album nor the single broke the Top 40. Her ambitious 1986 album, while featuring guest tracks with girl group star Darlene Love, The Beach Boys, and Scorpio from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, didn’t have a chart hit. Even her performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “Light of Day,” the title track from the movie she co-starred in with Michael J. Fox, didn’t revive her pop career greatly, again just skimming the Top 40. It didn’t help that the movie bombed at the box office.

For Up Your Alley, Jett took the 1990s approach to a hit, and asked Desmond Child for a power ballad. She brought far more to the by-rote “I Hate Myself for Loving You” than the song deserved, and it went to #8 in 1988, followed by “Little Liar,” which broke the Top 20. The album went to #19 and sold platinum. While covers made up a large portion of her repertoire, her next album, The Hit List, was entirely composed of her versions of her favorite songs. She managed to bring AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap)” into the Top 40. The album also included a duet with Ray Davies on The Kinks’ “Celluloid Heroes” and charted respectably at #36. Her 1991 album, Notorious, featured “The Only Good Thing (You Ever Said Was Goodbye)” which was performed with Desmond Child and Dianne Warren, and also included the song “Backlash,” with The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg.

By the mid-1990s, Jett’s pop credibility might have started to wane, but her influence on the burgeoning crop of women rockers, particularly the ones to the punkier end of the spectrum dubbed “riot grrrrls,” was enormous. She produced an album for Bikini Kill and recorded a fundraising project with the group The Gits, called Evil Stig, to help raise funds to find the person who raped and murdered the group’s lead singer, Mia Zapata. For Jett’s own 1994 album, Pure and Simple, the band L7 recorded the track “Activity Grrrl” with her, and she co-wrote three other songs with Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. “You Got a Problem” found Jett bridging the gap between the riot grrrls and contemporary pop, as she co- wrote it with Hanna and Child. Her most recent album, 1999’s Fetish, found a more mature Jett working on a concept album about sex, fetishes, and other related topics. Even in a larger framework, Jett lost none of her rocking edge.


Joan Jett (1980); Bad Reputation (1981); I Love Rock and Roll (1981); I Love Playing with Fire (1982); Album (1983); Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth (1984); Good Music (1986); Up Your Alley (1988); The Hit List (1990); Notorious (1991); Pure and Simple (1994); Fetish (1999).

—Brock Helander