Singer-guitarist Joan Jett blazed a trail for women in rock with a three-decade career devoted to high-voltage, glam-inspired music like "I Love Rock 'n Roll," "Bad Reputation" and "I Hate Myself for Loving You." She rose to fame in the mid-1970s as bassist for the Runaways, a teenaged girl glam act assembled by notorious impresario Kim Fowley that drew more notice for its jail bait image than for amped-up tracks like "Cherry Bomb." When the group imploded in 1980, Jett released a self-titled solo LP on her own label, Blackheart Records, which earned a contract with Neil Bogart's Boardwalk Records. She quickly established herself as a fervent devotee of '60s garage punk and '70s glitter rock, which she proselytized through such hook-heavy originals as "I Love Rock 'n Roll" and covers of Gary Glitter's "Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)." Jett's grip on the pop charts loosened in the mid-1980s, though she made a well-regarded acting debut in Paul Schrader's "Light of Day" (1987), which also brought her a Top 40 hit with Bruce Springsteen's title track. She rebounded briefly in the early 1990s with the high-gloss hit "I Hate Myself for Loving You" before serving as godmother to the riot grrl movement, whom she embraced with critically acclaimed collaborations with alt-rock acts like Bikini Kill and the Gits. Joan Jett's fiercely independent attitude and belief in the gospel of three-rock chord rock-n-roll made her one of the most celebrated women in pop music history, culminating with her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the 2014 class.
Born Joan Marie Larkin on Sept. 22, 1958 in Wynnewood, PA, Joan Jett spent much of her adolescence in transit, moving with her family to Rockville, MD when she was in grade school before finally settling in West Covina, CA when she was 14 years old. Jett found solace and inspiration in the British glam rock scene of the late '60s and early '70s, as well as the American expatriate rocker Suzi Quatro, whose tough, leather-clad stage presence had a significant influence on Jett. By her mid-teens, Jett was leading her own band while hobnobbing with many of her idols on the Sunset Strip club scene in Los Angeles. During this period, she also met the notorious songwriter-producer Kim Fowley, who made her a part of his all-girl glam-punk act, the Runaways. Fowley's influence in the record industry, as well as the group's image - teenaged girls singing about wild times while clad in revealing outfits - helped to land a recording contract with Mercury in 1976. However, neither the mainstream media nor the burgeoning punk scene appeared ready or willing to accept the Runaways, who recorded three albums and one bona fide FM radio favorite in "Cherry Bomb" to little acclaim or chart position. They found a more willing audience in Japan, where their albums topped the charts. But by 1977, disagreements about money and direction severed ties between Fowley and the Runaways, who subsequently fell apart within a year's time.
In 1979, Jett produced GI, the first and only record by the legendary L.A. punk act the Germs, while attempting to launch her solo career. She traveled to England to record a trio of songs with ex-Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook that failed to generate much interest outside of Holland. Upon her return to Los Angeles, she fulfilled a contractual obligation to appear in a musical comedy called "We're All Crazy Now," which was intended as a movie vehicle for the Runaways but featured actresses playing her long-departed bandmates. The film was never released, though scenes later turned up in the indescribable cult movie "DuBeat-Eo" (1979). But the project helped to introduce Jett to Kenny Laguna, a former member of Tommy James and the Shondells who had gone on to write and produce songs for Jonathan Richman, Edwin Starr, Bow Wow Wow and others. The pair soon began writing songs for her self-titled solo debut, which was rejected by dozens of labels, prompting Jett and Laguna to form their own independent label, Blackheart Records. Months of relentless touring with a new backing trio called the Blackhearts led to considerable buzz for Jett and the album, which was soon picked up for re-release under the title Bad Reputation by former Casablanca Records chief Neil Bogart's new imprint, Boardwalk Records. The album reached No. 51 on the Billboard 200 on the strength of its lineup of hook-heavy, high-octane originals like the title track and covers of Gary Glitter's "Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)," the Isley Brothers' "Shout" and Sam and the Shondells' "Hanky Panky."
Flush with the unexpected success of her debut, Jett soon returned to the studio to record her sophomore album, I Love Rock-n-Roll (1981), which became her most successful release to date. Its lead single, a cover of an obscure B-side by the British band the Arrows called "I Love Rock 'n Roll," which topped the Billboard singles chart for seven weeks, while its follow-up, a cover of Tommy James' "Crimson and Clover," reached No. 7 on the same chart. The popularity of the album sent many fans in search of her debut release, which helped to make her cover of Glitter's "Touch Me" a Top 20 hit in the summer of 1982. However, both of her subsequent releases - 1983's Album and Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth (1984) - were considered disappointments, with only a cover of Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People" from Album approaching hit single status. Jett rebounded in 1987 with "Light of Day," the Bruce Springsteen-penned title track from Paul Schrader's film of the same name, which also marked Jett's dramatic acting debut as a young unmarried mother who played in a Cleveland bar band with her brother (Michael J. Fox). The single reached No. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100, but her follow-up album, Good Fun, stalled upon release in 1986.
Jett and Laguna adopted a more polished, radio-friendly tone for her next album, Up Your Alley (1987), which featured the monster chart hit "I Hate Myself for Loving You." The single, which featured former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, reached No. 8 on the Billboard chart, which helped to provide Jett with her second platinum album. But again, her fortunes took a tumble with The Hit List (1990), a collection of covers that generated a minor hit with Jett's take on AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," though her version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" was a huge success in Europe and South America. Notorious (1991) faired even worse, failing to find any place on the charts, despite an abundance of collaborations with bona fide hit makers Desmond Child and Diane Warren, as well as Paul Westerberg of the Replacements.
In the early '90s, Jett's historical status as one of the first women to enjoy chart hits as an independent hard rock artist drew praise from a new generation of female-fronted or all-female alternative rock acts like Hole, L7 and Bikini Kill, who were key figures in the "riot grrrl" movement. Jett's 1994 album Pure and Simple (1994) featured songwriting collaborations with Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna and Donita Sparks of L7, which in turn generated some of her most positive reviews in years. She returned the favor by producing the New Radio (1994) EP for Bikini Kill and collaborating with the Gits, a critically acclaimed Seattle act that made headlines when its lead singer, Mia Zapata, was murdered in 1993. Jett was heavily involved in bringing the case, which remained unsolved for over a decade, to the attention of national press, while also raising funds to help the investigation by recorded Evil Stig (1995) with the surviving members of the band. She also devoted much of the late '90s and early 2000s to producing other bands, including The Eyeliners and The Vacancies. She closed out the '90s with a compilation album, Fetish, which included one new song, the industrial metal-tinged title track, which raised eyebrows for its sexually graphic lyrical content. In 2000, she briefly returned to acting, making her Broadway debut in a revival of "The Rocky Horror Show" in the role of Columbia.
Jett and the Blackhearts celebrated their 25th anniversary as performers with a sold-out performance in 2005, shortly before the release of her first new album of original material in the United States in over a decade. Sinner (2006) featured a number of tracks featured on a 2004 LP, Naked, which had been released only in Japan, and hewed closer to the more punk-driven efforts of her early career. Jett remained remarkably active in the years that followed, enjoying high-profile live tours with Motörhead, Aerosmith and Green Day. In 2010, she served as executive producer for "The Runaways," a feature film based on Cherie Currie's memoir, Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway and starring Kristen Stewart as Jett. The film generated a modest box office return and generally positive critical reviews. Jett's commitment to the picture stood in direct contrast to her overwhelmingly negative response to "Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways" (2005), a more unvarnished look at the group by one of its founding members, Victory Tischler-Blue. In 2014, Jett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a year after the release of the Blackhearts' tenth studio album, Unvarnished, which featured the single "Any Weather," co-written by Jett and longtime fan Dave Grohl.
By Paul Gaita
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Producer (Feature Film)
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Formed The Runaways with drummer Sandy West and bassist Micki Steele (a future member of The Bangles), later adding guitarist Lita Ford and singer Cherie Currie
Debut album <i>The Runaways</i> features signature track "Cherry Bomb"
The Runaways split amid arguments about musical direction
Jett produces the debut album by legendary Los Angeles punk band The Germs, <i>(GI)</i>
Releases self-titled debut solo album; reissued in 1981 as <i>Bad Reputation</i> under her new band name Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
"I Love Rock 'n' Roll" tops the Billboard Hot 100 for seven consecutive weeks
Makes her acting debut in the Michael J. Fox drama "Light of Day"
Appears in the Broadway revival of "The Rocky Horror Show" in the role of Columbia
Reunited with band for a sold out 25th anniversary concert