Opinion is still divided on the Runaways’ place in the musical universe. To many, they were the first all-girl (instrument-playing) rock band to matter, spiritual godmothers to the Go-Go’s and Bangles, the initial model for riot grrrl bands and seminal punk-rockers to boot. Others see them as nothing more than a pre-packaged peepshow whose heavy metal-cum-glitter approach was dated from the very start.
Here are the facts: LA teenagers Joan Jett (whose love of T. Rex and Suzi Quatro inspired her to learn guitar) and drummer Sandy West decided to form a band with encouragement (and eventual management) from Kim Fowley. The band that recorded The Runaways was a combination of raw garage-band playing and brassy, high-school-bad-girl sexuality typified by their unofficial anthem, “Cherry Bomb.” (Future Bangle Michael Steele was in the first Runaways lineup, but had been replaced by Jackie Fox by the time Mercury signed them. All the same, Nigel Harrison of Blondie was the uncredited bassist on the band’s first album.)
By the time Queens of Noise (a decided improvement over the debut) was released, trouble was fomenting; although Cherie Currie was the “official” lead singer, Jett wound up taking the microphone on six of the ten songs. Things came to a head when Fox quit the band during a triumphant tour of Japan (documented on the Live in Japan album), followed shortly thereafter by Currie. Vicki Blue came on to play bass, and Jett took over the reins for good.
Except in Japan, the Runaways never made any real commercial inroads. Many saw them as inept puppets — merely another Fowley hype — and refused to take the music seriously. Waitin’ for the Night (bass on all but one song played by Sal Maida) did nothing to alter that. The album came out just as modern-day punk was emerging, and Jett (if not the rest of the band) had readily latched onto the scene — to the extent that Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols contributed one song (“Black Leather”) to And Now…the Runaways, an album that did not get an American release at the time. West and guitarist Lita Ford were headed in a more heavy metal direction, and the album would prove to be the band’s last.
Posthumous notes: Flaming Schoolgirls is a substandard compilation of live tracks and studio outtakes, while Little Lost Girls is actually And Now…the Runaways given an American release as a picture disc (later on CD). The Best of the Runaways and I Love Playing With Fire are further recaps of various material. As for the band members, Joan Jett hit the jackpot as a solo artist; Lita Ford became a huge metal star under her own name; Laurie McAllister (who held down the bass spot in the band’s waning months) ended up in another all-girl Fowley project, the Orchids. Cherie tried film roles and sang solo and with her twin sister Marie.