Born September 22, 1960, in Philadephia, Pa. Addresses: c/o Epic Records, 51 W. 52nd St., New York, NY.
Many people in the rock establishment felt that Joan Jett's musical career was finished after the Runaways, the group in which she got her start, disbanded when Jett was just nineteen years old. But the raucous young singer/guitarist proved her critics wrong by launching a solo career and developing into "one of rock's most contemporary women--both serious and trashy, tough and tender," in the words of Rolling Stone contributor Rob Tannenbaum, who adds, "In this decade, Chrissie Hynde, Joan Armatrading, and Annie Lennox are the only other women who have confronted rock stereotypes as successfully and interestingly as Joan has."
Jett's family moved from the East Coast to Southern California when she was fourteen, and that same year, she was given her first guitar as a Christmas gift. She loved the British glamour rockers T. Rex, Slade, Sweet, and Gary Glitter, but her most important inspiration was Suzi Quatro, whose tough-girl stance she sought to imitate. She got her chance to act out her fantasies at the age of fifteen, when she met producer-manager Kim Fowley. He had come up with the idea for the Runaways after meeting Kari Krome, a thirteen-year-old lyrist with a repertoire of songs about sex. Krome asked Jett, an acquaintance of hers, to join the group Fowley was forming. Sandy West, Lita Ford, Cherie Currie and Jackie Fox were soon recruited through newspaper advertisments, and Fowley won them a contract with Mercury.
"They were presented as five hot, tough high-school-age girls out for sex and fun (a fairly novel idea in pre-punk days)," according to the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll. In May 1976, their debut album, entitled simply The Runaways, was released. Their lack of musical experience was painfully evident on the album, however. With their amateurish playing, "the stigma of Fowley-as-Svengali, and a blantantly sexual presentation--lead singer Cherie Currie wore lingerie onstage--they often seemed more like tease objects than real musicians." Conflicts within the band caused Currie and Fox to quit in mid-1977, and Jett, who already wrote most of the group's material, took over Currie's role as lead singer. The Runaways became immensely popular in Japan, where three of their records went gold, but they continued to be largely ignored in their own country, where they were dismissed as "jailbait rockers." Some of the only favorable notices they ever received in the United States came after they served as the opening act for the Ramones' 1978 tour. The Runaways played their last gig in San Francisco, on New Year's Eve, 1978. After that, Jett, who felt that they were turning too much in the direction of heavy metal, quit the group, which collapsed shortly thereafter.
In the spring of 1979, Jett went to England to try to establish a solo career, but with little result. She cut three songs with former Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones, but the songs were released only in Holland. Returning to Los Angeles, she produced an album for a punk group known as the Germs, then played the lead in the film We're All Crazy Now, which was loosely based on the Runaways. Although the film was never released, it proved to be very important to Jett's career, for while working on it, she met record producer Kenny Laguna and producer-writer Ritchie Cordell. Laguna had worked with a variety of groups, from the Archies to the Steve Gibbons Band; Cordell was a bubblegum legend who had co-written the Shondells' "I Think We're Alone Now" and "Mony Mony." The two men offered to help Jett with her career, but their plans were delayed when she was diagnosed as having a heart-valve infection and pneumonia, which kept her hospitalized for six weeks.
By 1980, Jett had recovered and began putting together her solo album, with Laguna and Cordell producing. The completed product, entitled Joan Jett, featured the songs she'd cut earlier with Paul Cook and Steve Jones, as well as new material. Released exclusively in Europe, it was enthusiastically praised by U.S. reviewers, but in spite of all the good press, it was rejected by every American record company. Laguna finally retitled the album Bad Reputation and brought it out independently in January 1981, but it didn't sell. Undaunted, Jett assembled a new band, the Blackhearts, and recorded an album that rocked even harder than her first. Joan Jett and the Blackheart shot up the charts, thanks to the popularity of the single "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," a remake of an old Arrows tune that became a number-one hit. Another single, "Crimson and Clover," also reached the top ten, and Jett's version of "Little Drummer Boy," included on pre-Christmas editions, further boosted the album's popularity. Later albums such as Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth solidified Jett's position as the queen of good-natured, hard-driving rock.
Reviewing one of Jett's more recent offerings, Up Your Alley, Rob Tannenbaum commented in Rolling Stone: "Though coarse stomps like 'Bad Reputation' and 'Cherry Bomb' have established Joan Jett as an eternal teen rebel who loves rock and roll for its simple beat and insolent stance, she has grown into a multidimensional songwriter....Maybe if Jett didn't look and act like a cover girl for Outlaw Biker, tough-talking tracks like 'Little Liar' and 'Back It Up' would be recognized for their underlying strength and dignity and Jett would get more recognition for her reliability."
In 1987, Jett appeared with Michael J. Fox in Paul Schrader's film Light of Day. In it, she plays Patti Rasnick, the daughter of a working-class Cleveland family, who breaks free of her oppressively moralistic upbringing by becoming the leader of the Barbusters, a rowdy band that plays in rundown taverns. The film received mixed notices, but most reviewers concurred that Jett was the best thing in it. "Jett provides the movie's fire," asserted David Ansen in Newsweek. "She doesn't have a professional actor's technical finesse. But she has something more important: a riveting tough-girl charisma and blunt emotional honesty....she connects with the audience in a primal way." Richard Corliss of Time magazine also noted Jett's powerful performance. "Try watching someone else when she's on screen," he challenged. "It can't be done."
by Joan Goldsworthy
Joan Jett's Career
Singer, guitarist, and songwriter; founding member of the Runaways, 1975-78; solo artist, 1980--. Actress in film Light of Day, 1987.
- Joan Jett Blackheart, 1980, rereleased as Bad Reputation Epic, 1981.
- Joan Jett and the Blackhearts Epic, 1981.
- Album Epic, 1983.
- Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth Epic, 1984.
- Good Music Epic, 1986.
- Up Your Alley Epic, 1988.
- LPs; with the Runaways
- The Runaways Mercury, 1976.
- Queens of Noise Mercury, 1977.
- Waitin' for the Night Mercury, 1979.
- And Now the Runaways! Mercury, 1979 (released in the United States as Little Lost Girls Rhino, 1981).
- Best of the Runaways Mercury, 1982.
- Laing, Dave, and Phil Hardy, Encyclopedia of Rock, McDonald, 1987.
- Miller, Jim, editor, Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1983.
- Ms., July 1985.
- Newsweek, February 9, 1987.
- New York, March 2, 1987.
- People, December 1, 1986.
- Rolling Stone, August 11, 1988.
- Time, February 9, 1987.