“Joan Jett doesn’t play rock ’n’ roll,” I wrote two years back, reviewing her SXSW showcase for The Austin Chronicle. “She is rock ’n’ roll.”
It’s true. The individual born Joan Marie Larkin in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, embodies the music and spirit better than anyone this side of Keith Richards. As Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong put it in Magnolia Pictures’ 2018 documentary Bad Reputation, “There’s just those rare times where you feel like someone was put on the planet to show you what rock ’n’ roll music is. Could be Bowie, could be Kurt Cobain. It’s definitely Joan Jett.” Yet, the moment she went to her first guitar lessons after her parents got her a Sears & Roebuck electric six-string for Christmas, her instructor informed her, “Girls don’t play rock ’n’ roll.”
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The fuck, they don’t. And Jett demolished more walls than anyone, paving the path every woman with a guitar has traveled since.
“I was so into this idea of girls being able to play rock ’n’ roll...as well as boys will, and [that it] would be so cool and sexy because it had never been done,” Jett remarked in the documentary of her founding glam act the Runaways. Instead, for her troubles, she was assigned epithets beginning with the letters S, W and C. “I’ve been hurt. I’ve had my head split open by a beer bottle, a rib cracked by getting a battery thrown at me… Just because I’m a girl.
“Tell me I can’t do something and you’ll make sure I’m gonna be doing it,” she concluded.
She had the last laugh after the Runaways disbanded at the tail end of the ‘70s. She went solo, backed by the Blackhearts, working clubs up and down the East Coast for three years, selling her first album out the trunk of manager Kenny Laguna’s Cadillac at her shows when no major label would touch her. Soon, her mix of glam, punk and bubblegum crashed into the charts via a remake of obscure Brit-glam B-side “I Love Rock ‘N Roll,” topping Billboard’s Hot 100 for seven weeks in 1982. Yes, like the Clash and Blondie, Jett brought punk into the mainstream a good 12 years before Green Day made Dookie.
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Jett broke boundaries. She reset all standards. She didn’t “play pretty good for a girl.” She played great. Period. And made it so that future generations would never have to hear that insult again. But she didn’t do it just for women. Her influence transcends gender, sexuality and even musical genres. As proof, Alternative Press presents 10 directions in which Joan Jett’s influence has spread.
The Runaways’ effect on early L.A. punk was total and catalytic. They were a local example of a rebellious young rock ’n’ roll act doing exactly what they wanted, despite enormous opposition. As Blondie’s Debbie Harry put it in Bad Reputation, “They were young, they were hot and their music spoke about who they were and their generation. It was heartfelt and mentally correct.” And at the center was teenage Jett, who’d left for a U.K. tour hanging on to glam’s last pair of stacked heels, returning in a leather jacket, safety pins and a homemade Sex Pistols T-shirt.
But no L.A. punk band reflected the influence of the Runaways more than the Germs, the destructo-glam outfit centered around self-immolating poetic brat Darby Crash and his guitarist pal Pat Smear. “They were male groupies lurking for the Runaways,” manager Kim Fowley claimed in Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen’s definitive L.A. punk history We Got The Neutron Bomb. “We thought the Ramones were a throwback to the long-haired denim ‘70s thing,” Smear stated one page later. “[Crash] and I were much more into the Runaways. We thought if they could do it, there was no reason why we could do it, too.” And the Germs made that influence manifest in hiring Jett to produce their sole LP, (GI). “She didn’t engineer,” drummer Don Bolles said in Bad Reputation. “But she had a great sensibility. She was like, ‘Uh, I think you gotta tune the guitar, Pat.’ We needed someone with ears and...a rock ’n’ roll heart in there, helping us make a good album. And she did that, by gosh! She knew how to get us to do the things.” It remains an early hardcore hallmark.
“One of the earliest scenes that we were interested in was the L.A. punk scene,” acknowledged those bands’ major player Ian MacKaye in Bad Reputation. “Then the Germs album came out, and that album was hugely significant for us. And Joan had produced it: ‘Oh, wait a minute! That’s the ‘I Love Rock ‘N Roll’ person! That’s crazy that she produced this record!’” Certainly, Minor Threat owed something to glam’s fat-bottomed beats, as did Jett, the Runaways and the Germs. And it would be MacKaye who would get Jett hip to Bikini Kill when she attended an early ‘90s Fugazi gig. He handed her their demo tape, Kathleen Hanna’s number scrawled on the label. Jett called Hanna the next day.
The Orange County punk stalwarts opened shows for the Blackhearts when leader Mike Ness was still abusing Aqua Net and dunking his face in a vat of mascara before walking onstage. His Gibson SG bore a prominent JJATBH sticker on early Social Distortion anthology Mainliner: Wreckage From The Past. Jett’s stripped-down glam-punk racket had to have affected Ness and crew. He features through Bad Reputation, offering such expert color commentary as, “Oh, I’m sure she had to go through a lot of, ‘I can play guitar just as good as you can, motherfucker. Just because I’m a girl, don’t think I can’t play.’”
This one seems about as obvious as a 500 lb. gorilla sitting in a petunia patch. If Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner, Jennifer Finch and Dee Plakas couldn’t recite every single Runaways and Jett record’s matrix numbers? Then they did a really good job of pretending they did. That ballsy rock ’n’ roll drive, the middle-finger attitude—that’s all prime Jett, right there. The spiritual debt was certainly repaid when Jett co-wrote tracks with Sparks for her 1994 LP, Pure And Simple. L7 also backed Jett for a Rock For Choice benefit and signed to her Blackheart Records in 2019, issuing a cover of her “Fake Friends” last year with her singing.
Kathleen Hanna, lynchpin for riot grrrl’s greatest band, is interviewed at length in Bad Reputation. With good reason: Neither the riot grrrl movement nor Bikini Kill would have been possible without Jett. Hanna spoke of her first exposure to Jett via her hit cover of Tommy James And The Shondells’ “Crimson And Clover,” with the “she/her” pronouns unchanged: “‘You can really sing a song about caring about another girl?’ ’Cause my friendships were so important to me at that age that I was like, ‘Somebody gets me!’” Hanna would write her version of such a song in “Rebel Girl.” The best version of the Bikini Kill anthem was produced by Jett for a 1993 single, featuring her crunchy rhythm guitar. “She really understood where we were coming from,” Hanna says. “She kinda was the cement that kept a lot of things going for some of the feminist bands in the ‘90s, definitely for me. She changed my whole career path and taught me how to record a record.”
Of course, the band frequently credited with bringing punk rock to the mainstream owe something to the woman who actually accomplished that 12 years before. Armstrong features almost as much as Hanna in Bad Reputation, offering enlightened perspectives: “If you listen to the Runaways, those are badass rock songs, and they kick the shit outta almost everything else that was out at that time.” “‘I Love Rock ‘N Roll?’ Of course, I love rock ’n’ roll! I’m in! I kinda wanted to be the guy version of that. She has been a part of not only her own music that she’s produced but some of the greatest punk music that’s ever been put out.” She’s even been a part of some of Green Day’s music, on the occasions she’s joined them onstage, such as this appearance at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Armstrong’s movie Geezer.
The charismatic frontperson for London punk-blues duo the Kills and Jack White’s prog-garage outfit the Dead Weather couldn’t owe more to Jett if she was in a Runaways tribute act called the Cherry Bombs. It’s mostly the attitude, audible in last year’s solo single “Rise.” Alison Mosshart verbalizes it in Bad Reputation: “I think that’s impossible to miss. I wouldn’t know how to get Joan’s sound because I’m not technical in that way. But the attitude, I can hop on right away, and that’s something I want in my head and my heart when I’m going out there to do that thing that’s so scary in front of all those people.”
The Distillers/Brody Dalle
“City Of Angels”:
Nirvana w/ Joan Jett & Brody Dalle - “All Apologies” at CalJam ‘18:
Another obvious one. How can you miss it? The defiant woman scrubbing solid rhythm guitar, playing stripped-down punk ‘n’ roll with a sharp lyrical eye for Hollywood’s underbelly? That could be the Runaways, Joan Jett And The Blackhearts or the Distillers’ brilliant “City Of Angels.” There’s no way Brody Dalle wasn’t heavily influenced by Jett. It’s especially audible in her melodic, growly alto. Dalle also likely sold as many guitars to a generation of young women as Jett continues to. Student and teacher met at latest when Dalle played bass for Nirvana on “All Apologies” at Cal Jam ‘18, Jett deputizing for Cobain.
Laura Jane Grace
Against Me!’s mainspring first encountered Jett when their bands played the 2006 Warped Tour: “Joan Jett’s a real rock star, and we’re all just wannabe rock stars,” she joked in Bad Reputation. Laura Jane Grace learned valuable life lessons from the veteran: “Your motivations in order to survive doing something like that can’t be fame and fortune. It has to be the overall package of, ‘I’m going to be good at every single element of this or work at every single element of it.’ As a younger musician at the time, those were the people I wanted to learn from.” When Grace came out as transgender in 2012, Jett offered her support. Grace would co-write “Soulmates To Strangers” for Jett’s 2013 Unvarnished album. She joins the Blackhearts for this live performance at 2014’s APMAs at 7:00, after presenting our first Icon Award to Jett.
“Anytime anybody comes to one of my shows and they leave saying, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ The explanation is, ‘She listened to a lot of Joan Jett growing up,’” Miley Cyrus quipped during her joint Super Bowl appearance with Jett. “She made the rules just so she could break ‘em. And they’re very fun to break!” Cyrus has been paying her tithes longer than their recent “Bad Karma” duet. They first met on a 2011 Oprah episode to perform a medley of Jett’s standards, an occasion repeated many times over the years. Four years later, Cyrus inducted Jett into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.