'Queens of Noise': How the Runaways opened doors for women rockers

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In the mid-1970s a hard rock group of teenage girls known as the Runaways was making history. Unfortunately, at the time, very few people knew it existed. If not for the later success of members Joan Jett and Lita Ford it's possible the band may have been completely forgotten.

At a time when women performers were primarily lead vocalists or backup singers the Runaways proved that girls with guitars could rock as hard as the boys. They kicked down the doors of opportunity for every female rock star since. From today's perspective it is difficult to comprehend the total cultural context of what they accomplished.

By Evelyn McDonnell
DaCapo Press ($25.99)

This is where "Queens of Noise: The Real Story of The Runaways" succeeds. Ms. McDonnell traces the story of the band as a rock biography, with all of the expected touch points of the members' careers.

She interviewed all of the major players and dug deep into the archival information to present a complete picture of the historical record. But she goes far beyond recounting events. She presents a historiography of the Runaways, placing them within the specific cultural context of the '70s.

She discusses the geography of Los Angeles and how this contributed to the way teenagers interacted at the time. She addresses the exploitation of underage girls by the music industry as well as how the girls themselves felt empowered by what they were doing.

Ms. McDonnell looks at the history of Hollywood and the Sunset Strip, of pop music and rock and roll, of the influence of second wave feminism and how these elements came together at this specific time in a way that allowed the Runaways to happen.

Their story has been given a lot of attention in the past few years. Lead singer Cherie Currie was brutally honest about some very personal experiences (her drug abuse and experiences with rape), in her autobiography "Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway."

But her account is colored by her specific memories and prejudices and a certain amount of mythologizing. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Self-mythology is part of what every performer (and every person, really) does. Her professed biggest hero and influence, David Bowie, has based an entire career on this idea.

"Neon Angel" was used as the basis for the 2010 movie "The Runaways," written and directed by Floria Sigismondi. While the movie covers, in general, the history of the band, it is much more successful in further mythologizing them.

It focuses on Ms. Currie and Ms. Jett nearly to the exclusion of the other members of the band. Ms. Ford and drummer Sandy West are reduced to one note background characters while the bassist in the movie is an entirely fictional character used as a composite of several women who played bass in the band.

Former bass player Vicki Blue produced the documentary "Edgeplay" in 2005. She interviewed everyone involved except Ms. Jett. The film is well done and moving. The scenes with Ms. West are particularly heartbreaking. But like Ms. Currie's book this, too, is told from the viewpoint of an insider, and while various points of view are presented a lot of the history boils down to a "he said, she said" feud among the various personalities.

Ms. McDonnell cuts through the mythology and personal memories to find the larger story. She looks beyond the labels without losing their significance. The Runaways were exploited teenage girls. They were revolutionaries who changed history, strong women who followed their dreams.

They were vulnerable girls who were overwhelmed by sex, drugs and rock and roll. They were rock stars. They were, in their time, failures. They were all of these things. Ms. McDonnell is aware of the mythology that surrounds this band without ever losing sight of the real people involved. She gives them back their humanity while maintaining their status as legends.


Wayne Wise is a freelance writer and novelist living in Lawrenceville: tetroc@gmail.com. www.wayne-wise.com.


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