Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Runaways—
Live In Japan


Released 1977 on Mercury
The Seth Man, October 2004ce
“The Runaways are everything that’s great about teenage girls.” - Lisa Francher, 16 (“Bomp!” magazine, 1976)

Adding to the above statement, The Runaways were also everything great about rock’n’roll: for all these young dudesses had a warrior spirit passed onto them by Detroit steam queen, Suzi Quatro as they proceeded to blaze a singular trail like no other all-female rock’n’roll group had before them. And by virtue of being pioneers, The Runaways unfortunately took the spear many, many times over. At the beginning of their career, they were unfortunately pandered to a variety of sexist attitudes and fantasies but they also managed to take it head on. And informed by their producer/manager/mentor/maniac Kim Fowley’s exhaustive knowledge, experience and connections in the music biz, they were also able to clear a path by meeting their obstacles upfront while squaring off on the front lines of rock’n’roll.

With the band’s age range a mere 16-17 years at the time of their 1976 debut album, I often think how strange and exhilarating it must have been to have proven yourself in a male dominated field to the world -- and yourself -- as an adolescent female at that time. Damn.

Fowley later stated his aim with The Runaways was ‘combustion and controversy’ and he exceeded his expectations on both counts several times over. I’m not prepared or interested in lowering the tone of The Runaways’ triumphant rock’n’roll noise by repeating all the arguments regarding the various rumours; the angles and roles Fowley cast them in; how contemporary media identified them or even how they’re been name-checked by countless bands for the past three decades as influences on their sound, attitude and/or decision to form a band. And I’m not gonna judge The Runaways by their gender but by their rock’n’roll because it’s the one thing about them that often takes a back seat to the strong remonstrations and accusations of behind-the-scenes exploitation, sexism, this-ism, thati-sm. What I see when I look at The Runaways is a band that before they even cleared high school were already touring England, Japan and Cleveland as a rock’n’roll band instead of attending high school pep rallies, babysitting the neighbour’s brats or hanging on the telephone drinking Diet Tab. So I bow down low with respect for these five Queens of Noise cos they brought on the noize and brought it on in the most Rock way as anyone did in that twilight American era lodged uneasily between glam and punk.

The Japanese-only release of “Live In Japan” would in retrospect cap off the career of The Runaways’ best-known lineup comprised of Cherie Currie (vocals), Joan Jett (rhythm guitar, vocals), Lita Ford (lead guitar), Jackie Fox (bass, vocals) and Sandy West (drums, vocals.) And “Live In Japan” captured their glam-punk-metal-happening-all-at-once barnstorming in what may very well be their best and certainly, their most exciting album. It’s where the production captured the performance and set it centre-stage, and if “Live In Japan” had seen an American release instead of Japan only, it would’ve laid to rest all the ill-founded doubts and rumours of their abilities for this blistering live rock’n’roll album shows The Runaways cutting loose in front of an audience that came not to ogle or criticise but to rock’n’roll. And “Live In Japan” proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that The Runaways could (and did) prove it live all night long as a consistent and energising unit. Recorded at the Tokyo Koseinenkin Kaikan and the Shibuya Kokaido on June 5, 6 and 12, 1977, this album was the second of three(!) LPs the girls would release that year, flanked fore and aft by “Queens Of Noise” and “Waiting For The Night.” But unlike these last named albums there were no additives or overdubs at all: only rock’n’roll.

Starting up the proceedings is the title track from their most recent album, “Queens Of Noise” and here it’s rendered perfectly. The ridiculously metallic drum sound and overtly clean and stiff production of the studio version are whisked away and replaced by a far looser and naturally-paced performance that braaangs up a slow paced opener to warm up the crowd for what is to follow. Another track from the “Queens Of Noise” album, “California Paradise” is once again revved up to far livelier paces than its studio counterpart as the first of many Lita Ford very metal guitar solos blaze away over the coda. The tempo steps up a notch further with “All Right You Guys,” a track soon to be recorded by the Fowley-produced Venus & The Razorblades. The Runaways give it a blistering workout, urged on by Sandy West’s excellent dropping of consistent drum fills and the even rhythm guitar sections laid down by Ms. Jett. “Wild Thing” was one of the first tracks tackled when The Runaways were a trio comprised of Joan Jett, Sandy West and short-lived bassist, Micki Steele (later Michael Steele of The Bangles) and here Sandy doubles on vocals and drums on this grinding cover of the evergreen punk classic while Lita Ford twists up a pretzel logic guitar solo with gigantic heat.

The rarity of a song with no Fowley writing credits appears with “Gettin’ Hot,” a slow tempo’d, heavy metal grind-out and a wasted, rollicking bash out with “Purple Haze” detailing written by Jackie Fox and Lita Ford. There were no previous studio recordings made of this track, which is a pity as it allows Ms. Ford to truly unleash in the east on oversized Hamer Standard guitar with all the wood to match her Amazonian stature. She then whips out a solo that is truly “Maiden Japan,” dig? In other words, it’s very Blackmore and VERY metal. Yay-uuuuuh! The Velvet Underground’s “Rock And Roll” is next up, and is by no means a straight rendition of the “Loaded” classic as it’s re-arranged around Jett’s trademark gutsy rhythm guitar with a solid beat and power chords galore.

The second side opens with the hijacked “Spirit In The Sky”-toned riffing of “You Drive Me Wild” from their debut album. After another searing solo from Lita, Jett moans higher and higher for a complete chorus in this call-and-response sex boogie bash out, and in turn it drives the audience just as wild. They then slam headlong into the autobiographical “Neon Angels On The Road To Ruin.” Opening with the familiar line of “No one here gets out alive,” it’s followed by one of dénouement, “Pushing power into overdrive” because this is exactly what happens when Ms. Lita Ford overhauls the track with a splendidly razing, metallic solo.

“I Wanna Be Where The Boys Are” is the second Venus & The Razorblades song to get The Runaways treatment and it dwarves the original by miles. Jett takes over the lead vocals and the track is instantly transformed into a highly explosive charge, signaling where the album gets floored pedal to the metal and it will remain stuck at this velocity for the album's duration. “I am the bitch with the hot guitar!/I am the air, the sun and the stars!” (Or is it: “I am the L.A. Sonic Star”? Never mind; I prefer the Japanese translation’s far more universal sentiment) roars Jett as her rhythm guitar gnarily mashes up while Ford’s solo is a skittering, streaking sister across the rock’n’roll sky that is both metal and mental all at once. Followed by Jett’s perfectly executed white cat heat scream, it’s a killer track and I wish they’d landed this bomber on their first album. With ensuing hysteria from the crowd, “Cherry Bomb” starts up and for this audience it was truly a moment worth living in forever, as this song went to number 1 in the Japanese singles charts long enough to knock “Hotel California” down into the #2 position. Plus, it’s the “My Generation” for teenage girls with its stuttering title and overall defiance to match. Cherie Currie vocally steps out, strutting her stuff in (judging by the gatefold of the album) corset, panties and stockings with a delivery at once vicious and sweet (especially on the line “Have ya/Grab ya/till you’re SORE!”) then switching to that particularly withering teen bitch sarcastic tone with “Hello, DADDY... /Hello, MOM...” that I remember ALL too well coming from my older sister's mouth during her more trying times in high school. “Hello world, I’m your wild girl!” Ms. Currie flaunts as Ms. Ford sticks in another short, spiky and Sabbath-y solo. They then dive directly into their reckless rock’n’roll PAR-TAY anthem, “American Nights.” Alright! Since the studio version is one of the highest peaks of their entire career, live this is a veritable Mount Everest to that version’s K2 cos it’s transformed into a smoking, driving and penetrating rocker. Unlike their previous version from their first album, there’s no overdubbed piano to wince at or ignore and since they’d been playing it live for over a year it’s far leaner, meaner and totally knocked into shape. Plus, Cherie sings the word “strange” in her best staggered Bowie-Cockney manner so it’s dynamite all around. Everyone is equally firing on all cylinders at once, and Lita easily finds many places to insert yet another small but killer guitar run so that when she finally lands her main solo, it’s as though in sweet payoff for all those years of worshipping at the shrine of Blackmore. Jett’s guitar buzzsaws through it all thickly and deftly and as always: with perfect rhythm and unflagging insistence.

There’s a small break, and obviously they’ve returned to the stage for the encore. After a goofball “Ach Du Lieber Augustin” intro/breakdown vamp the girls slam into high with “C’mon” as a delirious farewell to their Japanese fans. One of Joan Jett’s finest songs ever, it’s got The Pistols’ “Liar” downstroke rhythm guitar down and combined with those fantastically soaring vocal harmonies it’s more metal than punk/punk than metal, totally teenage lament ‘77 and “Crazy 100%!” all over. Cherie Currie is sonorously bansheeing out the title, letting it run on near Lydon-like while straddling between smoothly cooing and sneering tough as nails as though deep with regret while remaining strong simultaneously. And for the last time, Lita Ford unleashes a blistering solo and the band continues their paces directed by Jett’s rhythmic heat and... It’s over.

The Runaways were once just teenage rock’n’roll dreamers: listening to their Purple, Queen and Aerosmith albums in their rooms, strumming their guitars or whacking the drum set out in their parents’ garage and never imagining they’d very soon be onstage somewhere in Asia making their noise for legions of adoring fans. Or the young Cherie Currie attending a Bowie concert at the Santa Monica Auditorium, not knowing that in a few short years it would be HER up there. And to think it would all be nothing but a long-forgotten and unfulfilled fantasy if not for a series of chance meetings, a lot of persistence and a little bit of luck while putting up with the sort of hassles many grown-ups would’ve balked at outright.

Come to think of it, what is rock’n’roll itself but a fantasy? It’s not tangible; it’s fleeting as hell and you only know it when you are touched by it or when you finally reach it in a quickly flashing moment as it hits you with the thought ‘THIS is it, I want nothing more and I want this moment to last forever and I don’t even know what it is.’ And for years before it hits, it consistently makes the blood pump a little harder, the heart beat a little faster and makes your life itself becomes a little lighter as you reach out again and again for that one experience of instantaneous and sublime wonder because it fulfills and fills you with completeness in one lightning flash. It’s called rock’n’roll. And The Runaways were everything great about rock’n’roll.

Ladies, you truly Rocked.


Note:
OK, I admit it: Lita Ford is my fav. Not only because she was an Amazonian, pre-metal teenage queen from beyond but just for her run-on, bucking bronco soloing on “Johnny Guitar” off “Queens Of Noise” she wins hands down. It’s so completely ahead of the curve and out there, it kills me every time, and when she lets that one groan uncontrollably slip...it kills me all over again.