Black and white promo photo of Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive

Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

2015
Category:
Performers
Members:
  • Ricky Byrd
  • Lee Crystal
  • Joan Jett
  • Kenny Laguna and Gary Ryan

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts smash genre (and gender) boundaries

by fusing punk, glam and heavy metal with '50s and '60s rock & roll. With a fiercely DIY spirit and a disdain for conformity, the band has carved out a career marked by subverted expectations and raucous music.

Biography

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Charismatic leader Joan Jett leads the charge. With a guitar draped low over her hips, a defiant stare, and leather worn like chain mail armor, she exudes onstage authority and confidence. Jett is always the coolest person in the room, and an inspiration to anyone who feels like an outsider or misfit. But beneath this tough-as-nails exterior is a musician with depth and versatility. Her voice can be sandpaper-rough or achingly tender—and she's never shied away from making herself vulnerable, either with anger or despair.

Born in 1958, Jett was raised on a steady diet of heavy metal and glam rock, especially Black Sabbath, Suzi Quatro, T. Rex, and the New York Dolls. At age 14, she received her first guitar—and, a few short years later, willed her rock 'n' roll fantasies into existence. Jett became a charter member of pioneering all-female rock band the Runaways, whose brash powderkeg single "Cherry Bomb" inspired legions.

When the Runaways dissolved after a New Year's Eve 1978 show, Jett quickly regrouped, finding managers—including Kenny Laguna, who would go on to play in and produce the Blackhearts—and new bandmates. A newspaper ad in the L.A. Weekly that read “Joan Jett wants three good men. Show-offs need not apply" caught the eye of bassist Gary Ryan, an L.A. punk scene denizen who was just 15 when he auditioned for and joined the band.

After some initial instrumental turmoil, the golden-age Joan Jett & The Blackhearts lineup coalesced with the addition of drummer Lee Crystal—known for playing with New York Dolls' Sylvain Sylvain—and New York City-based guitarist Ricky Byrd. Live, this band quickly emerged as a white-hot rock force. The nimble rhythm section anchored a rabble-rousing twin-guitar attack, with Jett adding livewire rhythms to Byrd's smoking leads.

Before the band had settled in, however, Jett separately recorded a solo album. Released in 1980, the self-titled record was a sonic blueprint for her career, mixing revved-up originals and rocked-out covers—highlighted by the Ramones-esque rumbling youthquake of "Bad Reputation," bar-band boogie "Too Bad on Your Birthday," and the fist-pumping glam anthem "Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)." Significantly, one of the cover songs included the Lesley Gore-popularized empowerment classic "You Don't Own Me." Jett's version features gauzy Wall of Sound production, wary-sounding piano and a mournful saxophone—a perfect match for a steely, pleading vocal delivery.

"You Don't Own Me" was an omen: When no label wanted to release this album, Jett and Laguna took matters into their own hands. The duo formed Blackheart Records and issued the LP themselves. Having their own label gave the pair unparalleled artistic and merchandising freedom; in fact, they even sold the record from the trunk of Laguna’s car after gigs. Only when demand outstripped inventory did Jett link up with a label, Boardwalk Records, which reissued the album in 1981 as Bad Reputation.

Starting with 1982's breakthrough I Love Rock 'n Roll, Jett and the band recorded albums together. Their studio chemistry was just as combustible, as heard on the record's attitude-thick title track. Originally performed by British act The Arrows, "I Love Rock 'n Roll" laid out not just the genre's seductive power, but the irresistible lure of teenage lust. The tune was a major smash, landing at No. 1 for seven weeks on the Billboard charts and spawning an iconic, black-and-white music video that became popular on MTV.

Soon after, a fuzz-coated take on Tommy James and The Shondells' "Crimson and Clover" also hit the Top 10, cementing the group's fortunes. As this song implies, the members of Joan Jett & The Blackhearts had deep reverence for music history—including and especially R&B-inspired '50s rock & roll, vintage rockabilly, '60s girl-groups, and tough-talking NYC punk. That became clear as the '80s progressed, and the band released a string of increasingly ambitious albums: 1983's Album, 1984's Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth, 1986's Album, and 1988's Up Your Alley.

Besides encompassing disparate genres (the panoramic, string-swept ballad "Hold Me" or brash power-pop "I Hate Myself For Loving You"), these efforts feature clever interpretations of other people's work—including a faithful take on Chuck Berry's "Tulane," a surf-punk spin on Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun" and a reverential version of Sly & The Family Stone's "Everyday People." Yet the band's original songs pierce the soul in other ways: Frank lyrics about sex, scorning fake friends or unworthy crushes, and marching to a different beat serve as a provocative soundtrack.

As the years passed, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts thrived even more on sonic rejuvenation. The band never abandoned its snarling rock & roll core, but dabbled in glossy hard rock, grimy grunge and snappy modern punk. Covers-wise, the band dug even deeper, unleashing a grimy, menacing take on the Stooges' proto-punk classic "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and a meditative version of the Replacements' "Androgynous."

On the originals front, Jett collaborated with riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna (the searing punk tune "Go Home," the wisdom-celebrating "Spinster"), grunge icon Dave Grohl (the jagged "Any Weather") and Laura Jane Grace (an organ-burnished "Soulmates to Strangers"). As these songs imply, unlike many other rock bands, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts aren't afraid to get serious or grow up. For example, on 2013's Unvarnished, lyrics grapple with the death of Jett's parents, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the negative impact of fame.

Through example, Jett also showed new generations of artists the importance of maintaining control over their art. Blackheart Records would continue to release Joan Jett & The Blackhearts albums throughout the '80s and '90s, and became a nurturing, artist-friendly label home for other punk and pop iconoclasts. Jett's also been a mentor to Miley Cyrus, who inducted her into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and an idol to Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong.

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts' legacy is one driven by perseverance, and an enduring desire to show younger artists they don't have to compromise their ethics, independence or personality to survive—and find great success—in music.

Inductees: Ricky Byrd (guitar) , Lee Crystal (drums; died November 5, 2013), Joan Jett (vocals, guitar; born September 22, 1958), Kenny Laguna (songwriter, producer; born January 30, 1954), Gary Ryan (bass)

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Joan Jett & the Blackhearts perform "Bad Reputation"

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