How Joan Jett Started the Runaways at 15 and Faced Down Every Barrier for Women in Rock and Roll

These are dark days for everyone who cares about equality. After decades of painful progress and some hard-won victories for women in the U.S., the guardians of patriarchy seem hellbent on undoing modernity and setting the clock back decades to keep power. The misogynistic spectacle is nauseating. One remedy, Rebecca Traister recommends in her new book of the same name, is to get “good and mad.” The voices of women resisting the current wave of political attacks can guide righteous outrage in constructive directions, and we can learn much from women who pushed past the same barriers in the past through sheer force of will.

Women like Joan Jett, who, in a recent interview with Courtney Smith at Refinery 29 expressed her thoughts on the challenges of the present (“I think it’s still very much the same as it was many years ago”). Her advice: conquer fear.

“People count on you being fearful,” she says, “as a woman or whoever you are and whatever you want to do. They count on that fear to keep them from forging ahead and figuring that out. It’s definitely fear-inducing, and it’s not a fear you want to face. But it is doable.” The rock icon director Kevin Kerslake (who has just released a Jett documentary) calls a “feminist manifesto in the flesh” should know.

Jett herself expresses some discomfort with the label of feminism (“I’m for people being what they want to be”), but her career has served for decades as a model for women seizing power in the music industry, and she’s never had any patience with sexist discrimination. She “wanted to be a rocker ever since she got a hold of a guitar, even though she was told girls don’t play rock and roll. That didn’t stop her from forming The Runaways despite the sexist roadblocks the band faced.” So goes the description for Marc Maron’s recent interview with Jett on his WTF podcast. The ugliness women in rock faced in the 70s is depressingly familiar. Before she even learned to play, Jett was told by a guitar teacher, “girls don’t play rock and roll.”

Undaunted, she quit lessons, taught herself, and learned her favorite songs (Free’s “Alright Now” topped the list). Then, when her family moved to L.A., she sought out other like minds to form an all-girl rock band. With no examples to look to, Jett figured it out on her own, finding a club that played glam rock for teenagers and finding her people. At fifteen years old, without songs or a demo tape, she called producer Kim Fowley, then started assembling the Runaways, starting with drummer Sandy West, then, after playing as a trio with Micki Steele, recruiting lead guitarist Lita Ford, bassist Jackie Fox, and singer Cherie Currie. “We went in the studio right away,” she tells Maron.

The Runaways were “trying to express ourselves the way we knew how,” Jett says in her interview with Smith. “Not much different from what the Rolling Stones were doing. We didn’t want barriers put up on what we were allowed to sing about, say, or play.” By 1976, they were signed to Mercury Records, releasing their debut album, and touring with Cheap Trick, Van Halen, Talking Heads, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The following year, they released Queens of Noise and quickly became associated with punk. American critics savaged the band, and they faced violence and sneering condescension at home but were beloved superstars in Japan (see them play “Cherry Bomb” live in Japan at the top).

When Curry left The Runaways that year, Jett took over as the lead singer, and when the band broke up in 1979, she put herself back together, moved to New York, created her own label after a couple dozen rejections, and formed The Blackhearts. An unstoppable musical force, Jett still plays and tours and still refuses to back down for anyone, even though, she tells Smith, “on some level, it can be easier not to fight and to go along. That’s what women have to decide: do you want to go along, and maybe your life will be a little bit more comfortable if you don’t make waves?”

Her advice is as straightforward as her path has been rocky—“stand up for yourself… You’ve got to resist that. Find someone to support you…. We’re still fighting the same issues that I was discussing years ago. There’s a thing on a loop about what girls can achieve. When they come up, you’ve got to challenge those assumptions at every turn.” If anyone’s earned the right to give advice like that to young musicians, it’s Joan Jett. Check out the trailer for her new documentary Bad Reputation just above.

Related Content:

Four Female Punk Bands That Changed Women’s Role in Rock

Chrissie Hynde’s 10 Pieces of Advice for “Chick Rockers” (1994)

33 Songs That Document the History of Feminist Punk (1975-2015): A Playlist Curated by Pitchfork

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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