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Teenage Kicks with The Runaways

As is often the way with female bands, people did their best to make The Runaways invisible. In most docos about 70s rock'n'roll, this kick-arse LA band is conspicuous by its absence.

In book after book about the punk era, amid the lionising of every two-bit band that ever pounded out three fast chords with a sneer, there's no mention of The Runaways hitting the stage with The Ramones at CBGB, or rampaging around London with the Sex Pistols and The Damned.

They did stadium tours with Cheap Trick, Van Halen, Blondie. Their live shows sparked Beatlemania levels of hysteria in Japan. In 1977, the only foreign bands that sold more albums there were Abba, Led Zeppelin and Kiss. Who knew? Well, me, actually, because I'm a fan.

 

Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Jackie Fox, Sandy West. What a splendid racket they made. Rough and raw, vibrating with insolent energy and burgeoning teenage lust, gift wrapped in distorted power chords, the hybrid punk-metal noise they hammered out was unprecedented in a female band.

Even so, The Runaways remain obscure. They float like ghosts through the back corridors of rock 'n' roll, for one simple reason: they were five teenage girls.

I mean, we're talking 15, 16 years old. And like I say, girls. They must have been a novelty band, right?

"Many people have suggested that over the years," says Cherie Currie, who joined as lead singer in 1975, when she was just 15. "But we were very serious about what we were doing. A lot of people overlook that, but hey- that's their problem, right?"

Once famously described as "the lost daughter of Iggy Pop and Brigitte Bardot", Currie is playing shows in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch between May 20 – 22.

She's touring with her own band, but it will be Runaways fans hollering along when she delivers such immortal lines as "Hello daddy, hello mom… I'm a ch- ch- ch- ch- cherry bomb!"

The Runaways released four studio albums and a live record before falling apart in 1979. Four decades on from their briefly flaring career, the band still polarises critics. Were they girl-power ground-breakers or misogynist marketing gimmick?

Certainly, sleazeball manager Kim Fowley manufactured a lurid jailbait image to help sell their records, but should that detract from the fact that they were genuine pioneers: five teenage girls playing their own instruments, bashing out hard rock tunes about drinking, partying and adolescent sexual desire?

Were they strong female role models or merely male fantasies made flesh? As one writer in the UK's Sunday Times noted, "the received wisdom that The Runaways carved out new territory for female musicians is hard to justify – it's doubtful that the predominantly male audience who flocked to see the 16-year-old Currie in her undies picked up any feminist subtext."

Currie snorts when I read her the quote. "Listen, we only wore outfits like that when we sang Cherry Bomb, and that was my idea! We were teenage girls in a male-dominated business where you had people like David Bowie or Alice Cooper putting on really theatrical shows with multiple costume changes. We wanted to do that, too, but we had a budget of zero, so when we played Cherry Bomb, we'd change into something different."

That whole underage underwear thing people got so steamed up about lasted a sum total of three minutes in every show. "The rest of the time, we were in jumpsuits that weren't revealing in any way. Please! When you consider what girls wear on TV today, the stuff we wore was child's play!"

The band members all worshipped different idols. Lita Ford listened to non-stop Deep Purple. Fox emulated Gene Simmons of Kiss. John Jett had a Suzi Quatro obsession, while West modelled her drum style on Roger Taylor of Queen. And Currie? She wanted to be David Bowie.

"Oh, yeah, absolutely. And all these different influences are right there in our music, but even so, people insisted on labelling us 'punk' in the US. Really, we were just a hard rock'n'roll band, but we came out around the same time and got lumped in. We toured the UK early on and it was chaos! Lemme tell you- in London, they had real punk. I was just a kid, so it was kinda scary!"

Just a kid, indeed. Fowley exploited their youth as a marketing ploy. There was that teen rebel/broken home band name, a host of wilfully provocative press shots, and he co-wrote provocative lyrics designed to titillate male fans.

A music industry hustler of long standing, Fowley died in January last year following a colourful career that even involved working with local pop bands The Crocodiles and Street Talk here in New Zealand. Failed love brought him to our shores in January, 1979.

"I had an ill-fated marriage to an 18-year-old girl when I was 39 years old," he told Marty Duda in a 2001 radio interview. "I had honeymoon tickets that you buy six months early and get a discount, but there was no wife by the time December came around, so I went alone. I had a lovely time, and New Zealand is my favourite country outside America."

The New Zealand connection got weirder still. When The Runaways fell apart in 1979, Fowley owned the name. In 1987, he tried to extract a few more dollars from the band's cold corpse, forming a bogus Runaways with no original members.

The lead singer was aspiring country singer Gayle Welch, from Kaitaia. Backed by slick session players and a "new wave" drum machine, an album named Young And Fast was released. It stank to high heaven.

But it's Fowley's earlier behaviour as band manager that made him infamous. Now an entertainment lawyer, former guitarist Jackie Fox claims Fowley once drugged her with Qualuudes until she couldn't move or speak and raped her while Currie and Jett were in the room. Currie and Jett say they have no such recollection.

But everyone in the band is united in one key memory. The way they tell it, the entire band was backstage when Fowley brought in a young groupie and had sex with her in front of them as a sort of sex education class, insisting they "watch and learn."

"Yeah, that's true, but he really regretted it later," says Currie. "He knew he'd made a big mistake doing that, but that was 40 years ago. Kim did some unforgivable things, but he changed over time, and I looked after him here at my house during his final days, making new memories to replace some of those painful older ones. I don't want to make excuses for him, but the 70s was a totally different era, you know? Different things were acceptable back then."

Ah, yes. The seventies. Sex. Drugs. Rock'n'roll, obviously. Currie had her fill of all three, she says, but it was the middle one that almost sent her to an early grave after she became addicted to freebasing cocaine.

"Drugs were all around us in those days, and often given to us by people who were supposed to take care of us. I'm glad I got out of the band when I did because some of the other girls turned to heroin, but I continued down the road with cocaine and it was ruining my life."

Currie left the band in 1977, fearing for her own safety. "We weren't getting along. Really, we were emotionally and physically immature, there was constant bickering between me and Lita. At our last photo shoot, she kicked the door in! I was tired and scared, and couldn't take the abuse anymore. Also, Jackie had a nervous breakdown in Japan and cut up her arms, and we'd replaced her with Vicki Blue. It was getting too weird, so it was time for me to go."

For a glossy, idealised version of the band's brief flash and crash, there's The Runaways feature film from 2010, based on Currie's 1979 memoir Neon Angel and starring Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart as Currie and Jett.

For a more accurate portrayal, your best bet is Edgeplay, a doco made by late-era Runaways bassist Vicki Blue. With extensive interviews and live footage, the band's heyday is well covered, as is the aftermath.

Former members talk frankly of how little money they saw, even at the height of their fame. After the split, co-founder Sandy West was reduced to laabouring jobs and straight-up thuggery: she describes breaking someone's arm to get them to repay a loan. Several jail terms followed before West died young at 47.

Currie, however, survived, after a rocky patch when she first left the band. "I made a few movies (including 1980 film, Foxes, with Jodie Foster) and solo records, but I really needed to get off drugs, so I got a job in a mall right across from a record store! Runaways fans would come in and go 'Oh my God! What are you doing here?', and I'd say 'What does it look like? I'm working!' Really, I just wanted a taste of what it was like to be normal."

Currie went on to become a counsellor for drug addicted teenagers and a personal fitness trainer, and marriedAirplane!/ That 70s Show actor Robert Hays. Now divorced, she has a son, Jake, who's now 25 with a musical career of his own.

Friendly but direct, a straight-talker with a working class "valley girl" accent, Currie comes across as a tough cookie who has survived a lot. Even today, you wouldn't want to make her mad. She just might have a chainsaw in her hands.

"I became a chainsaw artist 15 years ago. I had a little gallery, but I had to close it down when The Runaways movie came out because I knew I'd have people coming up there and tapping me on the shoulder to sign old albums while I had a running saw in my hands! Now I mostly make commissions. I've carved for doctors, lawyers, major corporations. Most of them just find me through my website (www.ChainsawChick.com ) and have no idea I've had this previous life in The Runaways."

That previous life was a long time ago, but Currie's still doing everything she can to stop The Runaways becoming invisible. In a few week's time, she'll be down here, singing songs that made a very different sort of sense when she first sang them at age 15.

"Yeah, and you know what? Those songs still have the same power as they did when I first sang them. Your age is all mental, really. I'm 56 now and I still wear the same size clothes I wore in my 20s, and I sing better than ever. Regardless of era, this music stands on its own, and people that come to the New Zealand shows will see that. The Runaways only held together a couple years, but now fans get to see live on stage what they've only heard on those old records we made, back when we were really just kids."

Cherie Currie and band play Auckland's Kings Arms on Friday May 20, Wellington's Bodega on Saturday May 21 and Christchurch's Churchill's on Sunday May 22. Tickets via Ticketmaster / NZTix.