Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
- Joan Jett
- Gary Ryan
- Lee Crystal
- and Ricky Byrd
One of the first women to play hard rock.
That’s how Joan Jett wants to be remembered, and it’s safe to say she earned it. From day one Jett stuck to her guns, did things her way and thoroughly embarrassed anyone who dared to say girls can’t rock hard.
If you had to sit down and imagine the ideal female rocker, what would she look like?
Tight leather pants, lots of mascara, black hair and she would have to play guitar like Chuck Berry’s long-lost daughter. She wouldn’t look like Madonna or Taylor Swift.
Maybe she would look something like Ronnie Spector, a little formidable and dangerous, definitely—androgynous, for sure. In fact, if you close your eyes and think about it, she would be the spitting image of Joan Jett.
Jett has always brought danger, defiance and fierceness to rock and roll. Along with the Blackhearts—Jamaican slang for loner—she has never been afraid to explore her own vulnerabilities and dark side, or to speak her mind.
It wouldn’t be going too far to call Joan Jett the last American rock star, pursuing her considerable craft for the right reason: a devotion to the true spirit of the music. She doesn’t just love rock and roll; she honors it. Whether she’s performing in a blue burka for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, working for PETA or honoring the slain Seattle singer Mia Zapata by recording a live album with Zapata’s band the Gits—and donating the proceeds to help fund the investigation of Zapata’s murder—her motivation is consistent.
Over the years, she has acted as spiritual advisor to Ian MacKaye, Paul Westerberg and Peaches. She has been called the Godmother of Punk, the original Riot Grrrl and the Queen of Noise (after the second Runaways album, Queens of Noise). At 21, she produced GI, the first and only Germs album; she was “adopted” by Mötörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, who gave her some stage attire (then took it back); she was insulted by Rush and Molly Hatchet; and she gave Sid Vicious the black belt she had worn in the Runaways, which he wore until the end. People have said that if Joan Jett didn’t exist, we would have to invent her. But the important thing is that no one had to. She invented herself.
Long before the black leather, the seditious black shag, the dark eye makeup and low-slung guitar insouciance that became an iconic image firmly fixed as the critical link between glitter and punk, Joan Jett was Joan Larkin, an intense teenager sitting in her West Covina, California bedroom, teaching herself guitar. The uprooted 14-year-old, a transplant from suburban Maryland, had big dreams. They were set to a soundtrack of records she heard at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco on the Sunset Strip: 45s by T. Rex, the Sweet, Suzi Quatro, the New York Dolls and David Bowie. She sat in her room playing along with the records she loved until she understood why they spoke to her. She was trying to unlock their musical language—first to speak to herself, and then to others. In even the most calculated piece of glitter dross, she could locate the beat of a genuine rock and roll heart.
Years later, after she enjoyed hits with songs she had written and songs she covered, it would become obvious that the genuine heartbeat she had been hearing from the beginning was her own. Unlike many of Rodney’s patrons, she never got entangled in the sensational goings-on at the Continental Hyatt House or became a Led Zep hanger-on.
“I wanted to be a rock star, not wait around a hotel for some rock star,” she said in 2002.
Thus, it was probably more akin to field research than fan worship the day she camped out in the lobby of the Hyatt House to catch a glimpse of Suzi Quatro in March 1975. For twelve hours she sat there. Never moving. Never asking for an autograph, just staring when Quatro walked by.
“What’s with the girl who keeps looking at me, and looks just like me?” Quatro asked her then–publicist/tour manager, Toby Mamis.
Jett was still there at eleven that night, and it was clear she had no plans to abandon her post. So Mamis explained that Quatro had gone to bed.
“I can’t go home,” Jett replied resolutely. “The last bus back already left, and I told my mom I was staying with a friend. I’ll be okay here.”
Touched, Mamis let the teen and her friend, an unemployed waiter, sleep on the floor of his hotel room. Did she ever get to meet her idol? Not for years. But Mamis was to play a pivotal role in her life.
One month after that night, Jett met Kim Fowley—Hollywood fixture, producer and impresario—at Rodney’s and told him she wanted to put together an all-girl band. It was as if the warm winds of destiny were blowing down Sunset Boulevard that spring; two other similarly minded girls, songwriter Kari Krome and drummer Sandy West, had gotten in touch with Fowley independently. Fowley gave Jett West’s number, and Jett took four buses to Huntington Beach to meet her. Almost immediately they started auditioning girls to fill out the lineup, hiring bassist Micki Steele (later replaced by Jackie Fox; and still later a Bangle), guitarist Lita Ford and singer Cherie Currie.
Beginning in 1975, the Runaways released four albums and one live set, toured Europe, toured with the Ramones and opened for both Tom Petty and Cheap Trick. But despite the peak moments, they were not taken nearly as seriously as they should have been, noticed more for the novelty of five toothsome teenagers rather than the musicians they were. They never sold many albums in the U.S.
When the Runaways broke up on New Year’s Eve in 1978, Jett saw it as only a minor impediment. She engaged the services of Mamis, who had co-managed the last incarnation of the Runaways, as her de facto manager. Jett and Mamis traveled to London and enlisted former Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones to produce and play on a demo for her. They recorded three songs, one of which was a number by British glam group the Arrows called “I Love Rock ’n Roll” that Jett had heard on British TV and never forgotten. The three tracks, boasting a certain laddish charm, were eventually released on the 1993 compilation album Flashback.
Jett returned to Los Angeles to write songs for a movie based on the Runaways’ lives. But when she stalled trying to come up with eight songs in six days, Mamis asked Kenny Laguna, a songwriter/producer/musician friend who had worked with the likes of Tommy James and the Shondells, to work with Jett. At first, Laguna balked, but he changed his mind when his wife, Meryl, insisted that Jett had a certain something.
“She was beautiful, and her voice reminded me of Darlene Love,” remembers Laguna. “She could let her hair down, and she didn’t mind sweating. I remember telling her I was going to get her a record deal. I had no idea how hard it was to get a deal for a woman with a guitar. An Atlantic Records exec said, ‘Joan should stop hiding behind the guitar and get out there and rock like Benatar.’”
Within three days, the two were in the studio recording songs they had written. Six months later, Laguna had taken over her management, and the Lagunas and their infant daughter, Carianne, relocated to London, where Jett’s first album was recorded.
The self-titled solo debut, recorded before Jett formed the Blackhearts, was released by Ariola Records in Europe in May 1980, but no American label was interested. Undaunted, Laguna and Jett decided to form Blackheart Records and release it themselves, making Jett one of the first women to own her own label. Never mind that in the beginning they were selling copies of the record out of the trunk of Laguna’s Cadillac. (Some twenty years later, Carianne Brinkman would run Blackheart Records and manage Jett, modernizing business operations and creating artwork previously handled by her mother, Meryl Laguna.)
The demand for the LP grew, overwhelming the ability of Blackheart Records to keep up with the orders. Neil Bogart took a chance on Jett, re-releasing her album on his new Boardwalk Records in 1981. He renamed it Bad Reputation, after what would become Jett’s second-most-famous song, thanks to a second life as the theme for the TV series Freaks and Geeks.
The next order of business was to find some actual Blackhearts. An ad in the L.A. Weekly simply stated: “Joan Jett wants three good men. Show-offs need not apply.” She set up in S.I.R.’s rehearsal studio and began auditions, with X’s John Doe at her side supplying bass and acting as arbiter to help with the selections. At the end of two days, they hired bassist Gary Ryan, who had recently been sleeping on Doe’s couch and whose girlfriend was Lorna Doom from the Germs; guitarist Eric Ambel (who was replaced by Ricky Byrd during the recording of Jett’s second album, I Love Rock ’n Roll); and drummer Lee Crystal.
Touring relentlessly, Jett and the Blackhearts recorded the tracks for I Love Rock ’n Roll between dates. Among the songs was a secret weapon. Laguna rerecorded the title track at the Who’s Ramport Studios. It leaped off the vinyl, crackling with menace, danger and the kind of hard bop that only the former Shondell could bring to it. The record would catapult to the top of the Billboard charts, where it stayed for seven weeks, becoming a jukebox/bar-band/karaoke classic. Following her signature hit up the charts was “Crimson and Clover,” a shimmering psychedelic take on the Tommy James hit, featuring Ambel on guitar.
Jett’s live shows kept pace, as she prowled around the stage in a tank top and Converse sneakers, dripping sweat and brutal confidence. She was never worried when the rock zeitgeist shifted from punk to hair metal to grunge to Britpop and back. She kept on playing her stripped-down rock and roll, with its combustible choruses, trashy glam flourishes and hard-driving rhythms. The only thing she changed was her trademark shag haircut in 2001, when she was thumbing through a magazine, saw Nikki Sixx and thought it was her. But the shag was back after a couple of years.
Over time, she has become an icon as well as a feminist symbol, though she has never made an issue of gender. She inspired countless girls to form bands.
“I’ve always taken that aspect of my life as serious as a heart attack. If anyone ever said anything against girls playing rock and roll, I was ready to go to war,” she has explained. “It’s nice that people say I’m the 'Godmother of Punk.' I just say I’m a rock and roller. And how I want to be remembered? As one of the first women to really play hard rock and roll.”
Inductees: Ricky Byrd (guitar), Lee Crystal (drums; died November 5, 2013), Joan Jett (vocals, guitar; born September 22, 1958), Gary Ryan (bass)