Rock Rewind: The Story Of How Joan Jett Became A Queen Of Rock
"If you have a dream ... go for it"
Best known as the front woman of Joan Jett & The Blackhearts as well as a member of The Runaways, Joan Jett has had a huge impact on the rock world.
Since she started making a name for herself, Jett has been called a “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, the “Godmother of Punk” and the “Original Riot Grrrl.” She has helped open doors for women in the music industry. And she has been an inspiration for many, always following her dreams and doing what she loved.
So let’s dive in and take a look at Joan Jett’s story …
The Runaways | Going Solo | The Blackhearts | Discography
How It Began
Born Joan Larkin in 1958, Jett got her first electric guitar and started taking lessons at 13. But the lessons didn’t last long. Jett’s instructor was adamant about teaching her folk songs but that wasn’t what she wanted to be playing.
In an interview with The Guardian, Jett recalls:
“I went to the guitar teacher and said, ’Teach me how to play rock’n’roll.’ He looked at me like I had three heads. I quit after one lesson and bought one of those “how to play guitar by yourself” books, which taught me the basic barre chords. Then I sat in my bedroom and listened to records by Free, Deep Purple, T Rex and Black Sabbath because they had big fat barre chords and were slow and easy to play; I learned by ear. Playing with my records didn’t seem difficult or like music homework, it was more like fun.”— Joan Jett
Soon after, her family moved to California and her parents divorced. Joan changed her last name and Joan Jett was born.
While she would tell people that was her mother’s maiden name, that wasn’t really true. Jett chose the name because she felt it had more of a rocker sound.
It wasn’t until 1975, when Jett was 16, that she co-founded The Runaways. The all-female band went through a few different line ups before settling on:
- Joan Jett on rhythm guitar
- Sandy West on drums
- Jackie Fox on bass
- Lita Ford on lead guitar
- Cherie Currie on lead vocals
In 1976, The Runaways signed on with Mercury Records and released their first album. Over the years, The Runaways opened for rock bands including:
- Cheap Trick
- The Ramones
- Talking Heads
- Van Halen
- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Vicki Blue Takes Over On Bass
The band had a huge following in Japan after the release of “Cherry Bomb”. They also gained popularity in Europe, Canada, Australia and South America. But they couldn’t garner the same attention in the US.
In 1977, Fox left the band during a tour in Japan. Years later, Fox would share that the band’s manager Kim Fowley sexually assaulted her in a room full of people, including Jett and Currie.
Jett and Currie have said they did not witness the assault. In a statement, Jett explained, “Anyone who truly knows me understands that if I was aware of a friend or bandmate being violated, I would not stand by while it happened.”
After returning from Japan, Vicki Blue joined the band as the new bassist.
Joan Jett On Lead Vocals
Later in 1977, Currie, one of the original valley girls, left the band after. Some believe her departure followed a blow out with Ford. Others say she was burnt out on cocaine and quaaludes and quit to escape the lifestyle.
In a 2016 interview Currie explains that Fowley pitted the band against each other. He felt it would help the band maintain their edge. She goes on to explain, “We just never had a break … Either we were touring, rehearsing or in the studio, and we were making no money at all. They were making a lot of money off of us.”
Leaving “was the end of a nightmare” for Curie. Though she has said she doesn’t regret her years with The Runways.
“I’m so grateful for that time. People can change. They can. Without [Fowley], Joan never would have happened … so I owe him a great deal and I was very honoured to take care of him towards the end of his life. I would have done it again and again, and I’m sorry that I lost him.”— Cherie Currie
Later in 1977, the band parted ways with Kim Fowley.
The Runaways replaced Fowley with Toby Mamis and Jett took over lead vocals. The foursome recorded two more albums before Blue left in 1978. Laurie McAllister replaced Blue but never recorded any albums with the band. The band’s last concert was on New Year’s Eve in 1978 before breaking up in 1979.
Joan Jett Goes Solo
In 1979, after recording 3 songs with Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols in England, Jett returned to the US. Here she completed the film We’re All Crazee Now!
The film was loosely based on The Runaway’s career. The film was never finished because Jett got sick partway through. Parts of the footage would later appear in an underground film called Du-beat-eo.
During her work on We’re All Crazee Now!, Jett met producer Kenny Laguna. The two decided to team up and Jett relocated to Long Beach where Laguna was based out of.
Jett’s self-titled solo album in 1980 was the result of this partnership.
Later in 1980, Jett formed the Blackhearts with the help of Laguna. After placing an ad in LA Weekly, Jett (vocals and rhythm guitar) had her band:
- Gary Ryan (Bass)
- Eric Ambel (Guitar)
- Danny “Furious” O’Brien (Drums)
Before heading out on their first tour through Europe, the band played several gigs in California. Venues included Golden Bear and Whiskey a Go Go.
At the end of the tour, the band fired O’Brien. The remaining band members moved to Long Beach and held auditions for a new drummer. After choosing Lee Crystal to play drums, Jett and the band toured the US.
Laguna funded the band as they slowly grew their fan base. Eventually Laguna started a joint venture with Neil Bogart, the founder of Casablanca Records. He signed Jett and the Blackhearts onto his new label – Boardwalk Records.
In 1981, the band released their first album, I Love Rock n’ Roll. During recording, Ricky Byrd replaced Ambel on guitar. Byrd explained in an interview, “One day I went to a studio to jam around a bit with Jett and everything clicked.”
Following the release of the band’s 3rd album, Ryan and Crystal left the Blackhearts. Thommy Price and Kasim Sulton quickly took their places.
Over the next few decades, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts would see members come and go, hitting many milestones along the way. They would:
- Have sellout tours with Police, Queen, Aerosmith and others
- Be one of the first English rock groups to play in Panama and the Dominican Republic
- Have their own New Year’s Eve special on MTV
- Be the first band to perform a series of shows at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
- Break the record for fastest ticket sell out at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
- Get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Jett would also begin appearing in films and on television as an actress and voice over artist. Her acting debut was in Light of Day with Michael J Fox and Gena Rowlands.
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Over more than 4 decades, Joan Jett produced multiple studio albums on her own and alongside The Runaways and The Blackhearts.
1. The Runaways (1976)
The Runaways was the self-titled debut album of Jett’s first band. Jett and Fowley wrote “Cherry Bomb,” the album’s most successful track, during Currie’s audition. Currie had prepared “Fever” by Peggy Lee for the audition but the band wouldn’t play it. Instead, Jett and Fowley wrote the chorus of “Cherry Bomb” on the spot and Currie performed it instead.
The song peaked at 6 on the US Billboard Bubbling Under Hot 100 and became very popular overseas, especially in Japan.
2. Queens of Noise (1977)
Queens of Noise is the second studio album by The Runaways. Like their previous album, this one was hard rock with hints of punk rock.
Before recording the album, the relationship between the Runaways and Fowley became strenuous. As a result, everyone agreed to have a different day-to-day producer brought in. Earle Mankey, who’s known for his work with the Beach Boys, took over. Fowley remained involved, though on a much more periodic basis.
3. Waitin’ for the Night (1977)
Before the release of The Runaways’ 3rd studio album, Jackie Fox and Cherie Currie left the band. This made Waitin’ for the Night the first album with Jett on lead vocals and Vicki Blue on bass. It was also the first album released after the band brought in Mankey.
The album didn’t chart in the US but became a success in Europe.
4. And Now …The Runaways (1978)
And Now …The Runaways was Jett’s fourth and final album with the band before they broke up.
When they started recording the album, Blue left the band so Lita Ford filled in on bass. The producer also seemed to favour Ford and West, giving them individual solos. In a future interview, Jett reflects back on the recording of And Now … The Runaways.
“I had a funny feeling I was about to get fired from a band that I helped create.”— Joan Jett
After recording they brought on Laurie McAllister on bass but she never had a chance to record with the band as they broke up shortly after. The reason for disbanding had to do with musical differences between the members.
5. Joan Jett (1980)
Jett’s self-titled album was her solo debut and the first album she worked on with Laguna. The Roll-Ups backed the album, which features well known artists, including:
- Paul Cook and Steve Jones of Sex Pistols
- Clem Burke and Frank Infante from Blondie
While Jett and Laguna were able to find a record label to release the album in Europe, they weren’t so lucky in the US. 23 major labels rejected the album before the pair started Blackheart Records and released the album. They sold copies after concerts and to record stores from the trunk of Laguna’s Cadillac.
In 1980, Jett, along with The Black Hearts, signed on with Boardwalk Records in the US. In 1981, the label re-released Joan Jett as Bad Reputation. While the song listing was rearranged, the album is identical to the self-titled release.
Upon its 1981 release, the album received positive reviews from critics and made it to No. 51 on the Billboard 200.
6. I Love Rock ‘n Roll (1981)
I Love Rock ‘n Roll was Jett’s second studio album after leaving The Runaways. It’s also the first with The Blackhearts as her backing band.
To this day, I Love Rock n’ Roll is Jett’s most commercially successful album, having sold 10 million copies. This had a lot to do with the success of the title song, which was originally performed by Arrows in 1976. It charted No. 1 on Billboard Hot 100 for 7 weeks.
The album also had several other covers of songs by The Halos, The Runaways, The Dave Clark 5 and more. “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James & The Shondells was also featured on this album.
During an interview with The Record, Joan recalls, “People worried that I didn’t change the words in ‘Crimson and Clover’ to ‘him’ from ‘her’. It was only because that wouldn’t have rhymed.”
Mick Rock, who’s known for photographing rock musicians such as Queen, David Bowie and Ozzy Osbourne, took the photo that the band used for the cover art. In fact, his I Love Rock n’ Roll cover is often seen as one of his most iconic images.
In an interview Rock explains that his vision was Jett as “a female Elvis”.
7. Album (1983)
Album was different from Jett’s previous releases as it only had 3 cover songs. (Unless you had a copy of the initial cassette release. That version had a hidden track at the end of side one covering “Star Star” by The Rolling Stones.)
The label released “Fake Friends” as the first single to the dismay of Laguna who felt it was a bad fit for rock radio. The second single release was “Everyday People.” Neither fared well on the US charts with the first reaching No. 35 and the second peaking at No. 37.
The album ranked at No. 15 on the US Rock Album Charts and 20 on Billboard 200.
8. Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth (1984)
The studio released the original version of this album in 1984. At that time it featured 8 original pieces and 4 covers. In 1998 the band’s label reissued it with 7 bonus tracks, including covers, dance mixes and a live version of “Talkin’ Bout My Baby.”
The title, Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth, is a line from an episode of The Honeymooners. The album itself never made it past 67 on the Billboard 200 and the label struggled to release a successful single.
9. Good Music (1986)
Part way through the recording of Good Music, Ryan and Crystal left the band. As a result, this was the first album that featured recordings by Kasim Sulton on bass and Price on drums. The album also featured appearances by The Beach Boys, The Sugar Hill Gang and Darlene Love.
The original title of this album was supposed to be “Contact.” That’s why the cover art features a contact sheet of photos. But in the final stages, the title was changed to Good Music.
The song “This Means War” was included on the soundtrack for Light of Day, which was Jett’s movie debut.
The album peaked at 105 on the Billboard 200 and the title single reached 83 on the Billboard 100.
10.Up Your Alley (1988)
A year and a half later, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts released their 5th studio album, Up Your Alley. The album saw more success than previous albums with the first single, “I Hate Myself For Loving You,” reaching No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The single featured a guitar solo by Mick Taylor, formerly of The Rolling Stones. It was also used as the Sunday Night Football theme song in the 2006 and 2007 seasons. And it got the band nominated for the Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal Grammy in 1988.
The following single, “Little Liar,” and the album itself both reached No. 19 on their respective charts.
11. The Hit List (1990)
While The Blackhearts played on this album, The Hit List was credited solely to Joan Jett. The album was made up entirely of covers including music from:
- Sex Pistols
- The Kinks
- ZZ Top
- The Doors
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience
- The Everly Brothers
- The Chambers Brothers
- The Modern Lovers
Jett’s cover of “Dirty Deeds” by AC/DC charted the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 36. The album performed best in New Zealand, peaking at No. 16.
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12. Notorious (1991)
Notorious was the first Joan Jett and The Blackhearts album featuring Phil Feit on bass. Feit had previously played bass for Billy Idol. Paul Westerberg of The Replacements also made an appearance on the album for “Backlash.”
A quote from Jett in the 1991 Press Release for the album reads:
“I think Tommy Price [drums] and Ricky Byrd [guitar] really played their asses off. The Blackhearts did everything exactly the way it was called for in each song without even thinking about it. We did it all ourselves – all the background vocals, all the music except for The Uptown Horns — and I’m really proud of it.”
13. Pure and Simple (1994)
Pure and Simple was the first album without longtime lead guitarist Ricky Byrd. Tony “Bruno” Rey replaced Byrd on guitar. Kenny Aaronson also joined the band, replacing Feit on bass.
In a JBTV interview, Joan shares, “On the new album, it’s live. It’s like what you would hear in a club. That’s my basic track guitars, there’s live drums, live bass and all that stuff. And I’ll sing also so everybody knows pretty much where we are. And if I get a great vocal during that initial putting down of the tracks, we keep it and we use it. So really, for the most part, you’re getting a really live recording … you’re hearing what you would hear if you went to a gig.”
In their 1994 review, Rolling Stone says the album “suffers from a little too much earnestness.” But they do go on to say that it also “packs most of the things you look for in a Joan Jett record (chief among them lots of big guitars), and Jett’s arresting, corrugated voice shows as much backbone as ever.”
14. Naked (2004)
In 1995, Aarson and Rey decided to work on other projects. Aaronson reunited with New York Dolls and took over for Sami Yaffa on bass. Rey became a musical director, working with clients including Enrique Iglesias and Rihanna.
10 years later, Joan Jett and The Blackhearts released Naked. The studio album was only released in Japan. With Aaronson and Rey gone, Doug Cangialosi took over on lead guitar and Sami Yaffa played bass. Laguna also joined the band on keyboard.
Sinner was the first studio album to be released in the US and most other countries for 12 years. The recording included another new line up of Blackhearts:
- Dougie Needles – lead guitar
- Enzo Penizzotto – bass
- Thommy Price – drums
- Kenny Laguna – keyboard
Most of the songs on the album were from the Japan only release, Naked. The group did, however, throw in some new mixes. Jett’s first ever political song, “Riddles,” was a new version of Naked’s “Right in the Middle” with fresh lyrics.
16. Unvarnished (2013)
In 2010, a rock biopic called The Runaways premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was about Joan Jett’s first band and based on a memoir by Cherie Currie. The film features Dakota Fanning as Currie and Kristen Stewart as Jett. Grossing $4.6 million, the movie received positive reviews.
3 years later, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts released their 12th studio album. Most of the previous Blackhearts lineup returned for this recording. The only change was Acey Slade replacing Penizzotto on bass.
Unvarnished made it to No. 47 on the US Billboard 200 and was the first album to chart since 1990.
In 2015, Joan Jett played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Nirvana when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted Jett, The Blackhearts and Nirvana. And in 2018, a documentary about Jett, called Bad Reputation, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
17. Changeup (2022)
9 years after the release of Unvarnished, Jett released her next studio album with the Blackhearts. The album features 25 songs. All the songs were acoustic versions of ones she had previously released.
In an interview with GMA, Jett shares, “It’s an approach that we’ve taken that’s different. It’s a little changeup from what we normally do. And it was something that initially we wanted to give to our fans as a sort of like an extra bonus. But once we started recording the songs, we just kept going and recorded as many as we could.”
For nearly 5 decades, Joan Jett has impressed rock lovers everywhere. She’s been called a trailblazer, a queen, a godmother and the original rock girl. Even today, Jett continues to be an inspiration for women and rockers everywhere.
“If you have a dream, no matter what it is, a neuroscientist or guitar player, go for it. And don’t let anyone else tell you what your life’s going to be because you have to live it.” — Joan Jett