Sandy West, the formidable drummer whose taut, brawny traps work propelled mid-’70s all-grrl phenom the Runaways to dizzying heights, died on Saturday, October 21, from lung cancer. West was only 47 years old, and it’s a damn shame, in part because West’s work was so grossly underrated by the many who reserved the Runaways little more than scorn. Plagued by the perpetual, misogynistic chicks-can’t-really-rock syndrome, the Runaways were an exceptional torpedo to that tired hulk, and West herself represented perhaps its most convincing refutation, because she didn’t do anything but just-fucking-straight-ahead rock it.
A Southern California beach girl with a legitimate rock & roll fetish, she had begun playing Zeppelin and Sabbath covers at age 13 with an otherwise all-male garage band on the numbingly active teenage kegger circuit. A chance 1975 meeting with Strip Svengali Kim Fowley at the Rainbow changed all that; bear in mind that West was just 15, one of an army of local hip chicks who thought nothing of hitchhiking dozens of miles to dig in at Rodney’s English Disco or the Starwood (spots full of the quasi-Humbertish likes of Bingenheimer and Fowley, trolling for teen thrillers who might be able to jump-start a new scene). After Fowley led her to Joan Jett, the earliest incarnation of the Runaways was born. While Fowley was bent on exploiting a weird national obsession with redefining the teenage girl (a Zeitgeist that also involved Suzi Quatro, Tanya Tucker, Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver and Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby), Jett and West were downright serious bad-ass rockers. Once Lita Ford and Cherie Currie got into it, there was no stopping them.
Even as punk rock set out to murder rock & roll, the Runaways jolted it back into life, treading the mainstream’s shadowy borderline with gorgeous abandon and a set list bristling with undeniable killers: “Cherry Bomb,” “I Love Playing With Fire,” “Getting Hot,” “You Drive Me Wild” and dozens more. The band faced stacks of dismissive crap that tagged them an annoying novelty or, as Trouser Press’ Ira Robbins sniffed, “a fake rebel band”; but, as West told a Metal Maidens interviewer in 2000, “The musicianship was so good and so powerful, I never worried about that.” The Runaways refused to break stride, and began burning down houses around the world, gaining a rabid international following even as Fowley’s under-my-thumb methodology grew heavier and more debilitating. Through all the insults, postshow adolescent high-jinks and foul drama, West sat back on the riser and drove the damn thing with a muscular, metronomic brilliance worthy of the best male rocker. “An exuberant and powerful drummer,” Joan Jett said, “so underrated, she was the caliber of John Bonham.” While West did lead her own mid-’80s band for a time, her brief, almost incalculably influential work with the Runaways guarantees her well-deserved immortality.