One of the first commercially viable female lineups in rock, the Runaways materialized out of the Sunset Strip rock-club scene in the mid-1970s, enjoying a few brief and controversial years of fame before self-destructing. Their raunchy, guitar-heavy sound was showcased on four records that earned mostly terrible reviews from the predominantly male rock-critic establishment. A cult following later sprang up, and their first single, “Cherry Bomb,” endures as a classic glam-rock anthem some 25 years after its release. The Runaways remain best remembered as the first band of both Joan Jett and Lita Ford.
The Runaways were a creation of Kim Fowley, a record promoter, band manager, deejay, artist, and fixture on the debauched West Coast rock scene of the late 1960s and 1970s. Earlier in his career, Fowley had written the hits “Alley Oop” and “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow,” along with songs for the Byrds and the Beach Boys. He was known for his sometimes-overbearing hype, especially of acts that often failed to meet expectations. In 1975, the 43-year-old Fowley met a Hollywood teenager named Kari Krome at a party for shock-rocker Alice Cooper. Krome was reportedly 14 at the time, and writing lyrics for a nonexistent band—an all-girl version of the Ramones. She introduced Fowley to her friend, 16-year-old guitarist Joan Larkin, who later adopted the stage name Joan Jett. Fowley then found a drummer from the Long Beach area, Sandy Pesavento, who changed her name to Sandy West. The combo first played together in August of 1975, with Krome on vocals; Fowley then replaced Krome with Sue Thomas, whose stage name became Michael “Micki” Steele. Their first live show was at a home in Torrance, California.
After Fowley began to hype the band in Los Angeles rock circles they recorded a demo, Born to Be Bad, in late 1975. By this time Steele had switched to the bass guitar, and was being taught by a member of Steppenwolf. After advertising in a trade paper for a female guitarist, they found 16-year-old Lita Ford, who, like Jett, could play Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin tunes note for note. They also found a new lead singer, Chérie Currie, whom Krome and Jett had met at a teen disco in Hollywood called the Sugar Shack. Currie had a glam-rock bad-girl image that fit perfectly with the band’s teen-vixen image. Steele then left the band-later to join the Bangles—and Jackie Fox, who adopted an anglicized version of her German surname, Fuchs, took over as bassist. Fowley set up a showcase performance on a Los Angeles rooftop, and the band was soon signed to the Mercury label.
Their eponymous debut, The Runaways, was a mix of glam, pop, and rock, and opened with what would become their unofficial signature song, “Cherry Bomb.” The tracks were cowritten by Fowley, who also produced the album. Critics were merciless, deriding the band as yet another failed invention of Fowley’s, this time with a delinquent-bad-girl image. The album barely cracked the Billboard Top 200. Lost in the hype, however, was the fact that these young women actually played their own instruments, a relative rarity in mid-1970s rock. Journalists who came to interview Jett often asked her, “What makes you think you can play guitar?,” a question that Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service writer Tom Moon said “burned [her] like hot irons.”
True to their name, the Runaways actually did leave home, heading to New York City to play at the famed punk rock venue CBGB’s. Their next stop was England, where they were spent 19 hours in jail for taking keys from their hotel. Their second release, Queens of Noise, released in February of 1977, sold slightly better than its predecessor. Still, with their racy lyrics that focused on sex, drugs, and drinking, the band had a hard time being taken seriously and breaking into the crucial radio market. Trouble was also brewing internally—Jett had taken some of the lead vocals on the record from Currie, and Fowley often fomented rivalries between band members. A tour of Japan in June of that year was the breaking point: though greeted by throngs of ardent fans, tensions increased, and Fox departed in July. Currie walked away a month later.
The band found a new bass player, Vicki Blue, via a case of mistaken identity at a mall in her hometown of Newport Beach, California—a Runaways fan approached Blue, thinking she was Lita Ford. When Blue learned that Fox had left the band and were auditioning for a replacement, however, “we left the mall and went
Members include Vicki Blue (born Victoria Tischler on September 16, 1959; joined group, 1977), bass; Cherie Currie (born on November 30, 1959, in Los Angeles, CA), vocals; Lita Ford (born on September 18, 1958, in London, England; immigrated to the U.S. as a child), guitar; Jackie Fox (born Jacqueline Fuchs on December 20, 1959), bass; Joan Jett (born Joan Larkin on September 22, 1958, in Philadelphia, PA), guitars, vocals; Laurie McAllister (born in 1958; group member, 1977), bass; Michael “Micki” Steele (born Susan Thomas; group member, 1975), bass; Sandy West (born Sandra Pesavento on July 10, 1959, in Long Beach, CA), drums.
Group formed in Los Angeles, CA, 1975; signed to Mercury Records, 1976, released self-titled debut, 1976; toured the United Kingdom, September to October 1976; toured Japan, June to July 1977; played final show on December 31, 1978, in San Francisco, CA.
Addresses: Website—The Runaways Official Website: http://www.therunaways.net.
to my parent’s house and put in a call to Kim Fowley,” she recalled in an interview with Retro-Rocket’s Chris Parcellin. “That call lead [sic] to an audition with the band and within days I was the new bass player.” Blue played on the Runaways’ third record Waitin’ for the Night, released in December of 1977. It failed to chart at all in the United States.
Fowley abandoned ship in early 1978, and while Jett tried to keep the band viable, artistic differences divided her and Ford still further. Jett was interested in the new punk scene, while Ford and West were hard rockers. A final album, And Now The Runaways, included “Black Leather,” a song written for them by Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. Mercury didn’t even release the album in the United States; it appeared in Europe on the Cherry Red label. Rhino Records finally released it in 1981 with a different track order as Lost Little Girls. The band’s final show was a New Year’s Eve gig in San Francisco on the last day of 1978; Blue quit after that, followed by Jett in April of 1979.
Jett went on to an impressive career, fronting Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and earning a fortune from their cover of “I Love Rock and Roll,” originally recorded in 1975 by the Arrows, a group of British and American musicians. Jett had seen them perform the catchy tune on a British television show during a Runaways tour, and had tried without success to convince her band-mates to cover it. Currie had a short-lived solo career with her twin sister, releasing Beauty’s Only Skin Deep in 1978; she also appeared in the 1980 Adrian Lynefilm Foxes with Jodie Foster. Fox went to work for Ariola Records’ promotion department and later became an attorney. West and Ford formed a band for a time, but then Ford had a marginally successful solo career as one of heavy metal’s rare female solo artists. Blue appeared in the 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap before becoming a film and television producer, using the name Victoria Tischler-Blue. In 2000 she produced Edgeplay: A Film about the Runaways compiled from footage shot by fans. The title is an S&M reference, which Blue told VH1 writer Joe D’Angelo was a fitting metaphor: “The story of the Runaways is quite a dark tale, where things are never really as they seemed along with the fact that we were only 16 and 17 years old and traveling around the world completely unchaperoned.”
The Runaways, Mercury, 1976.
Queens of Noise, Mercury, 1977.
Live in Japan, Mercury, 1977.
Waitin’for the Night, Mercury, 1977.
And Now The Runaways, Cherry Red (U.K.), 1979, released in the U.S. as Little Lost Girls, Rhino, 1981.
Best of the Runaways, Mercury, 1982.
Billboard, December 3, 1994, p. 111.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 8, 1994.
“’Edgeplay’ Brings Runaways to Screen,” Retro-Rocket.com,http://www.retro-rocket.com (June 30, 2003).
“Rare Joan Jett, Lita Ford Footage to Appear in Runaways Movie,” VH1, http://www.vh1online.com (June 30, 2003).
“The Runaways,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 30, 2003).
“The Runaways,” Trouser Press,http://www.trouserpress.com (June 30, 2003).
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