Twisted Steel & Sex Appeal

Posted in Rock 'n' Roll, Sludge in the Seventies at 2:17 pm by George Smith

A lot of people are not even aware of the Runaways,” Jett said of the all-girl teenage band. “This will introduce them. They can go back to the music and hear for themselves.” — UPI

Fair enough.

About ten people were in Pasadena’s Laemmle 7 on Firday afternoon when DD went to see the first showing of “The Runaways.”

Almost everyone was younger than your host but none seemed disappointed by the pic.

The Runaways were always obscure. The only reason most big city newspaper pop writers know of them now is because they’ve seen Joan Jett.

Surprisingly, writer Sia Michel couldn’t even get the punch line in Creem’s infamous review of the band’s ’76 debut into a recent New York Times feature on the movie:

“These bitches suck,” courtesy of Rick Johnson. “Their vocals recapitulate the history of minor mouth pain …” it was added.

In 1976 The Runaways was a raw and underproduced record at a time when many hard rock LPs were rapidly escalating in terms of overproduction and bloat.

It was virtually perfect, tonally, for what was delivered. By modern standards of sex appeal, and what’s delivered in The Runaways movie trailer, 1976 photos of the girls in the band on the back cover were even gamey looking.

One of my favorite parts of the original record is “Dead End Justice” — a short skit which has appeal if you like a bare parable about bad girls breaking out of SoCal juvie and one of ’em going down on the jailbreak. The extended ‘act’ part of it is cut out of the version of the movie although the re-enactment keeps the grimace-worthy lyric: “He beat me with a board, it felt just like a sword.”

Everyone scream!

“Cherry Bomb,” “American Nights,” “You Drive Me Wild” and “Is It Day or Night” are other stellar tunes on it. They work off good hooky riffs and and have a brutality that wasn’t on a lot of hard rock records that year.

If you want an acting experience from The Runaways movie, only Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley, the band’s artistic director, producer and manager, delivers one. He’s the movie’s villain, a piece of shouting and gesticulating twisted steel, overbearing show business and glam rock fashion.

At one point, the actress playing Cherie Currie’s twin sister, Marie, comments on his sleazy character: “I heard he even has a jacket made of dog fur.”

That made me laugh.

By any standard, Fowley must be delighted with the way he is portrayed. Near the end of the movie, Shannon plays him in gay pinkish suit and lipstick, crossing his legs suddenly as an exasperated elegant woman might while making a point. He steals whatever scene he’s in.

As executive producer, Joan Jett did Fowley a solid favor.

In the mid-Seventies Fowley indeed was a colorfully arch and oily side presence in rock magazines, when either pushing the Runaways or aggressively promoting related nobodies like the Hollywood Stars or Venus & the Razorblades. (Inspirational lyric: “Let ’em eat cake, I’ll eat dog food!” from, logically, a song called “Dog Food.”)

The movie writes out bassist Jackie Fox for on legal CYA-ism, omits Kari Krome and pre-Bangles Micki Steele and pretty much skips the entire US experience outside of one introductory tour in favor of going to Japan, where the band was met with hysteria.

It’s worth noting this was around the initial discovery of the curious fact that all American hard rock bands were met with Beatles-like hysteria in the land of the rising sun — something which was cannily employed as a morale builder for major label acts down on their luck.

From start to finish, the music in The Runaways is great. Although there’s nothing really new on the CD except for a couple Runaways tunes sung by Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart, it will — by default — be one of my favorites this year. And that’s because nobody performs hard rock like it anymore.

Except Joan Jett, which doesn’t really count for the purposes of this post.

How does Dakota Fanning do as Cherie Currie?

She pulls off what’s required but she’s not Currie. Too delicate and willowy to be very convincing. Instead of looking bigger than life, astonishingly unnerving and a bit sweaty in the infamous corset, as did Currie, Fanning looks like a second-tier lingerie model.

Many will still recall Currie as the glammy and loose but doomed girl in Foxes, which still runs semi-regularly on cable. One always had the feeling she wasn’t acting, except for the part at the end where she died by misadventure.

Since ample footage of Fanning and Currie are on YouTube, don’t take my word for it.

After Queens of Noise, their second album, the Runaways were basically dead in the US market. Much poorer hard rock bands were routinely better treated.

Currie would leave and two more records would be delivered in a bit of extended going through the motions. A live album, recorded in Japan, which was quite good, wasn’t even released domestically. Which only showed the record label was interested in cutting losses.

“Cherry Bomb” from the movie.

Note big difference between Fanning and archival footage of Currie in Japan, singing “California Paradise.” The Runaways stomp and boogie as good as the guys. And like any truly decent hard rock band, they weren’t afraid to risk being taken for fools.

Kim Fowley’s “International Heroes” from 1973, the poor man’s “All The Young Dudes.”

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