Joan Jett -Happy Birthday!

On Joan Jett’s 60th birthday, let’s work backwards, shall we?

Image result for joan jett poster
Picture by Chuck Sperry

Joan Jett is the much respected Queen of Rock n Roll. Her leatherclad image with black-lined eyes is shorthand for ‘no-nonsense 3-chord rockstar’. And it says ‘don’t mess with me’. Her recent activities have combined music, running her own record label, acting, political causes and involvement as icon and mentor to the post-Riot Grrrl music scene.

Back in 1994, Jett released a song and later, a video, to try and catch the rapist and murderer of Mia Zapata, who was the lead singer of Seattle-based punk band. In 2004, the perpetrator was convicted. Jett has continued to speak out for human and animal causes she believes in.

Prior to that, Joan Jett had been doing intermittent tours, films, co-productions – all the kind of thing you can do years after your initial success. But a whole new 1990s generation apparently found out about Joan Jett on the one hand because of Riot Grrrl and on the other hand because of a Beavis and Butthead episode where they watch a video clip of her in 1984.

It was back then that Joan Jett recorded a version of the Gary Glitter hit ‘Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah).  It was a possibly misguided choice (due to Gary Glitter’s conviction as a sex offender) as part of the ‘Bad Reputation’ album, which included some of the backing instruments being played by the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and Paul Cook, and Blondie’s Clem Burke and Frank Infante. It seemed her career was solid, and her reputation as a rock-loving serious musician was established. In 1981, ‘I Love Rock n Roll’ – a Joan Jett and the Blackhearts cover of a 1975 song by The Arrows was released. It subsequently went on to become number 56 in the Billboard song of all time list. Jett was still very much a poster-girl:

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Joan Jett poster featuring a difficult chord – is it a D minor suspended thingy?

Now let’s go right back to the initial period of fame, with The Runaways. Joan’s love of rock, of the punk attitude and determination to be a success in that business are clear from the outset. But in the mid 70’s, the scene was different – especially for women.

The launch of The Runaways (Jett’s first band) was largely down to the dealings and manipulations of manager Kim Fowley. He was then a 35-year old who had been drug-running aged 13 for his father and working in the sex industry and music industry for years. Fowley had a 13-year old girlfriend (Kari Krome) who wrote lyrics but lacked the singing skills, prompting him to put an all-girl band together. Some of the members were found through advertising and auditioning; Jett was introduced by Kari Krome to Fowley as she was already trying to put together a serious all-female rock band. Although Fowley’s promotional skills gained  a good amount of attention for the band, he also apparently took advantage of his position with some of the younger girls he worked with.

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The music and image that goes back over 40 years is part-Joan and part-male music industry construct. Joan can sing and shout about taking the initiative with sex and being as she wants to be, but when it’s a teen boy’s fantasy gazing at his Joan Jett poster, she isn’t really in control. And I think that she knows it now.

I’ve written the story backwards because I like the older Joan Jett so much more. Happy birthday, Joan from punkgirldiaries – stick around; be yourself!

“Back then everyone was waiting for us to take our clothes off…….. Today women are making sexual statements all over the place: Women bands are taking their tops off and writing slogans on themselves, whatever. When we were playing, there was no support – moral or otherwise. It was us against the world.”   Rolling Stone interview

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