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New Book on The Runaways Cements Their Legacy (With Photos)

Joan Jett and Lita Ford at the Whisky in August 1977
Joan Jett and Lita Ford at the Whisky in August 1977
Credit: Jenny Lens

The story of The Runaways is mythic for many reasons: Sure, hot jailbait girls were involved, but then there's the fact that two of them went on to become bonafide, solo rockstars. There's also the fact that the man who helped put the girls together, Kim Fowley, is an inimitable character. And let's not forget the music, particularly the infectious come-on of their biggest hit, "Cherry Bomb," which set the template for bad girl bombast in rock n' roll.

There have been attempts to tell the Runaways story before, including Cherie Currie's book, Neon Angel, on which the 2011 bio-drama starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning is based, and bassist Vicky Blue's documentary Edgeplay. But the compelling new book, Queens of Noise by former L.A. Weekly writer Evelyn McDonnell, is the most exhaustive and diplomatic account of the band's rise to fame and the sad downward spiral some of its members later experienced.

See also: McDonnell's 2010 cover story on the Runaways

McDonnell got the notoriously private Joan Jett to tell stories for the book; the Currie quotes are mostly all culled from Neon Angel. Currie tells us she and Ford opted out of talking with McDonnell because she was still mourning deceased drummer Sandy West and she didn't like the way the drummer was portrayed in McDonnell's piece.

Also included in the book are reminiscences from Fowley, Rodney Bingenheimer, Iggy Pop, Alice Bag, Don Bolles, plus countless hangers-on, groupies and journalists. Full disclosure: I've become close with Fowley and Bingenheimer over the years, and of course both play huge roles in Runaways history. Bingenheimer has been the band's biggest supporter, while Fowley has often been portrayed as the Svengali-like villain in the group's rise and demise.

Currie's allegations of sexual impropriety by Fowley -- in which he showed the girls how to fornicate by taking advantage of a passed out girl -- are discussed in Queens of Noise. The book gets everyone's take on the alleged incident and but ultimately leaves it an open question. It's important to note, however, that Currie apologized to Fowley later for her ill words about him which she blamed a lot on her years as "a drunk." Still, she recently told me her ire was more about money she felt he owed her and the band in the past. (See our full interview with Currie on this blog soon).

 

The Runaways at the Whisky (click to expand)
The Runaways at the Whisky (click to expand)
Credit: Brad Elterman

But don't get the wrong idea. Queens of Noise is nothing like Neil Strauss' Motley Crue tell-all The Dirt or any of the sex and drug-fueled tomes that came after it. Yes, there are drugs, and yes there is sex (a lot if it referencing the lesbian hook-ups in the band) but the book successfully walks the line between juicy oral history and thoughtful exploration of five young women who made a big impact on the music world and Los Angeles generally.

Academics are quoted, and The Runaways career trajectory is put in the context of the feminist movement and increasingly non-traditional family structures. (For the most part, The Runaways were latch-key kids.) Some of the extrapolations can get a bit convoluted, but even when they do, McDonnell never reaches too far to make a point. Thus, the book is an essential read for fans of '70s-era L.A. rock, though Currie's more personal book resonated more with this fan.

The Runaways impact is indisputable: From the Go-Gos and Courtney Love to Pink and Katy Perry, they paved the way for female musicians, proving young women could be saucy and slay on stage too. They've definitely become more appreciated in the past couple decades. Queens of Noise's scholarly approach will likely cement their legacy.

Evelyn McDonnell reads from Queens of Noise tonight at 7 pm at Book Soup

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