SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Return to Cherie Currie
The Runaways: Rock 'n' roll saviors of '70s
Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic

Sunday, March 14, 2010


The release of the new movie "The Runaways," about the seminal all-girl band, takes me back to the mid-1970s, when there was lots of talk going around about the future of rock 'n' roll.

Rock stars were getting old - turning 30, even 35 - and the art form was getting bloated, taking on commercial and inauthentic contours that folks today take for granted in pop music but that people back then saw coming and did not like. Then, in the summer of 1976, came the Runaways' self-titled first album. They were a Los Angeles band of five girls, ages 16 and 17. They were put together by a veteran record producer, Kim Fowley, but they weren't the Monkees. They could play, and they wrote most of their own songs.

I don't remember the first time I ever heard the Rolling Stones, the Who or Led Zeppelin. But I vividly remember the first time I heard the Runaways. I was alone in the house, in my parents' living room. I put the needle down on the album's first track, "Cherry Bomb," and inside of a minute I was jumping around yelling, "Rock is saved!"

Almost a generation later, I admit that it's funny to think that I once thought rock 'n' roll needed saving or that I cared so much whether it got saved or not. But the memory of that visceral blast - the excited feeling that a genuinely teenage expression was coming through the music and lyrics - has not faded one bit. Somebody, finally, was saying what it was like to be a teenager in the 1970s. And to make it even better, these were girls saying it.

Lines such as "Down the street, I'm the girl next door/ I'm the fox you've been waiting for" - or "Hello Daddy, hello Mom, I'm your ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch cherry bomb!" - spoke of middle-class rebellion of girls like the ones I knew, who lived in the suburbs in families with two parents. But they were wild.

It's important to make a distinction here. In 1976, the incredible satisfaction of hearing lead singer Cherie Currie belt out, "I'll give you something to live for/ Have you and grab you, 'til you're sore!" in "Cherry Bomb" was not that it was sexy. There was a sexual element to it, sure, just as there was to hearing Joan Jett feign an orgasm on the album's next track, "You Drive Me Wild."

But, no, it was not a turn-on. The kick was something else - the pleasure of hearing people finally talking about what was going on. Years from now, if scholars want to know what it was really like to be young in the 1970s, they'll look in a lot of wrong places. They should start by listening to the Runaways' first album.

For that matter, do you know any 50-year-old women? Do you want to know what they were thinking and feeling and going through when they were teenagers? Again, listen to that first album. It is rough and not always articulate, and the girls are struggling to express themselves around their own limitations and an era's creative conventions. But they get their points across.

In fact, better than any other band, the Runaways capture the excitement and the ugliness of teenage life in that era, the feeling of sexual promise and the sense of dislocation, the incredible heat and the scalding coldness of it all.

The band's original members were Jett, the leader and principal songwriter, who played rhythm guitar and sang some of the songs; Currie, a very good singer, with an unexpectedly low voice; Lita Ford, a terrific guitarist who went on to have a respectable heavy-metal career; bassist Jackie Fox; and drummer Sandy West.

Just as the new movie "The Runaways" concentrates mainly on Currie (played by Dakota Fanning) and Jett (Kristen Stewart), the band's chemistry derived mainly from the contrast and collaboration of those two very different young women. Jett was raw, Currie refined. Jett looked like a biker, Currie like a porcelain doll. Jett was punk before anyone called it punk, while Currie had a sometimes-unaccountable affection for sappy ballads. But as with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, the combination worked.

Better yet, unlike some of the above duos, the girls actually liked and got along with each other. But Currie was ambivalent about life as a performer - she just didn't want it bad enough - while Jett understood the opportunity and clung to it like a lifeline. When Currie left the band, the Runaways were never the same, though Jett went on to a great solo career just a few years later. Currie made a couple of albums and a movie, then drifted out of the business.

Whenever I hear the Runaways, I think of what might have been if Currie and Jett had stuck together. But I'm glad for what's there, too. In addition to the first album, there are good songs on the second album, "Queens of Noise" (though the title track is weak) and also on "Waitin' for the Night," the first and best of the albums released after Currie's departure.

But the band's apotheosis was without doubt its 1977 live album, "Live in Japan," made with the original five members.

To me, that's the real sound. Not "Saturday Night Fever." Not Blondie. Not even the Ramones.

"Runaways: Live in Japan" is the sound of the 1970s. {sbox}

The Runaways (R) opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.

To see a trailer for "The Runaways," go to therunaways.com.

To hear the original Runaways, go to YouTube.com.