Joan Jett was just 16 when she swaggered into rock and roll, but the doe-eyed tomboy already had the quiet self-assurance of a young Keith Richards. Despite entering the scene at a time when female musicians were defined by saccharine pop tunes or the melodic folk of Stevie Nicks, Jett was determined to play hard-edged rock. “I was sitting in Hollywood wanting to play guitar and thinking ‘I can’t be the only girl in Hollywood, in Los Angeles, California, who wants to play rock ’n’ roll,’” she says. “There have to be other girls out there like me.”Jett began learning the guitar at 13 after receiving the instrument as a birthday present from her father. When her family moved to Los Angeles she would go see gigs and, having developed an obsession with Suzi Quatro, hang out at the singer’s concerts and in her hotel lobby. It was a bit too Single White Female for Quatro’s liking, and she has since said “It was quite spooky at times.” Around this time Jett met music producer and all-round Svengali Kim Fowley in a bar and told him about her ambition to create an all-girl rock group. He put her in touch with drummer Sandy West and three bandmates later The Runaways were born.
Between ’75 and ’79 The Runaways toured with The Ramones, released five albums and achieved popularity of Beatles proportions in Japan, but their success in the US was limited. Their young age and singer Cherie Currie’s provocative outfits saw them dismissed as “jailbait rock” and a combo of constant touring, exhaustion, drugs and jealousy eventually tore the band apart. Currie also claims they were ripped off and abused by manager Kim Fowley, who by his own account would hurl insults and rubbish at the band to prepare them for live gigs. When The Runaways broke up Jett set out on her own and released her first solo album in 1980. After being rejected by more than 20 major labels in the US, Jett and her producer started their own label using his daughter’s college fund, selling the album out of the trunk of a Cadillac. As with all rock ‘n’ roll folklore, the gamble paid off and Joan shot to stardom as the frontwoman of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Her cover of “I love Rock ‘n’ Roll” made it to #1 on the US charts.
Since then she has also dabbled in acting and continues to play and produce music. She is a vegan, campaigns for gay marriage and recently served as Executive Producer on a biopic about The Runaways. After 35 years in music Jett knows a thing or two about being in the industry. Her words of wisdom? “If there’s something you want to do, don’t let other people dictate your life. Make your own mistakes, have your own victories.” Well, that and “Girls have got balls. They’re just a little higher up, that’s all.”
Here’s Joan covering ACDC’s “Dirty Deeds”.
Photography: Getty Images.