THE RUNAWAYS – Neon Angels On The Road To Ruin 1976-1978

In the early 1970s, the rock world was dominated by men. Some of them wore androgynous outfits and lipstick, but guitar driven music was largely a male scene. There were exceptions, of course: Suzi Quatro – a musician for whom the idea of gender was less rigid – had hits on both sides of the Atlantic; the Wilson sisters scored great success with Heart; Fanny pioneered the “all female band”, and the rarely mentioned Birtha weren’t far behind.

The arrival of The Runaways in the mid 70s came like a lightning bolt. Here were five teenage girls, ready to make a huge noise and ready to flaunt a bucket’s worth of sexuality. Ostensibly a package deal put together by Kim Fowley, The Runaways weren’t just a girl band; they could really rock, and by straddling a sound somewhere between trashy hard rock and proto-punk, their brand of noise really struck a chord with the era. They were pioneers. Without them, there would be no Donnas, and possibly no Babes In Toyland or L7.

Outside of Japan, The Runaways’ success was relatively short-lived, but the band recorded four studio albums in a little over two years, and although each one was a case of diminishing returns, this almost complete box set from Cherry Red shows how the band didn’t completely burn out. Even by the time of 1978’s ‘…And Now The Runaways’, Joan Jett’s command of a riff was obvious, and the band’s mix of punk and proto-metal still had a reasonable amount of power. ‘Neon Queens On The Road To Ruin’ presents The Runaways for better or worse, and is a five disc set that’s everything a fan could ever want.

Predictably, the self titled debut LP (Mercury Records, 1976) is the strongest of the four studio discs, and by leading off with the over-familiar ‘Cherry Bomb’, its proto-punk power smashes the listener between the ears with a genuine immediacy. That single’s two and a half minute blast contains all of the ingredients that would make the band a fast burning success. The main riff is loaded with a sharp edge where classic rock meets the nascent punk that would soon explode; Cherie Currie’s vocals teeter between a grubby teenaged sexiness and simmering anger, and the sexual overtone of the lyric certainly brings out any implied sleaze. If her point is at first missed, Currie’s there at the track’s peak, faking an orgasm, and baiting the American moral core. In addition, Sandy West’s simple yet crashy drum part really feeds into a great garage rock tradition, before Lita Ford’s metal edged guitar solo suggests there are even rockier things on the horizon.

Another standout ‘Is It Day Or Night?’ makes a much bigger feature of the bass. Credited to Jackie Fox (but in reality played by studio hand Nigel Harrison), its bottom end latches onto a massive, swaggering, glam infused groove, over which the rest of the band explodes. The twin guitars of Jett and Ford give the band a genuine oomph, and Currie throws out an even bigger sultry croon, which is juxtaposed by some ragged gang vocals delivering the main hook. Even more so than ‘Cherry Bomb’, this is very much a track that would inspire future acts like The Donnas. Scratch below the surface, though, and like before, you’ll find something that’s much better than first appearances suggest. The repetitious riff really captures the double team of Jett and Ford in good form, and Sandy West’s drumming continues to have a real punch.

A cover of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’ is treated fairly respectfully but amped up massively, taking Lou Reed’s jangling number into the realms of rough and ready rock ‘n’ roll – a smart move considering the song’s subject matter – providing another great vehicle for a world of grubby guitars. It’s the kind of cover that sounds like a Runaways original, assuming you didn’t know better, sharing some brilliantly natural vocals and a relentless cowbell. Those looking for something as catchy as ‘Cherry Bomb’ get their wish via the brilliant ‘American Nights’, a full scale rocker that occasionally sounds like a garage based take on Andy Scott’s noisier Sweet material, crossed with the Dictactors. In perfect Runaways fashion, the tough riff is counterbalanced by a really radio-friendly hook, and – in a surprise twist – features an uplifting piano solo, before West pulls out the cowbell once more and punches through the wall of guitars with a less than subtle clonk.

On top of all that good stuff, ‘You Drive Me Wild’ still plays like the ultimate bar-room stomper. A tune where Runaways take the core of Foghat, amp up the guitars and apply a much sleazier feel, it’s one of the great deep cuts, capturing the contrast of Currie’s confident croon and Jett backing up with some ample shouting. On the chunky ‘Thunder’, Jett’s muscular rhythm guitar cuts through to the fore, creating a taut sound that’s ideal for the enthusiastic gang vocals that cling onto the simplest of hooks, yet manage to make such a throwaway mood seem more exciting than it perhaps deserves. It’s only really with the last track, ‘Dead End Justice’ that the debut album falters. As before, it’s musically solid – the rougher production gives the bass and guitar an even bigger presence; Jett’s teenage sneer contrasts brilliantly with Currie’s moodier style, and Ford’s searing lead guitar presents some of her best playing – but the lyrical content grates. The pantomime set up depicting teenage runaways who get looked up in “juvie” and are subsequently beaten makes for grim listening. Whilst most of the debut is trashy but well meaning, this track screams out, as if Kim Fowley’s weird exploitation and fantasy set up has gone into overdrive. Still, as uncomfortable as this might seem to a more modern ear, it doesn’t spoil and otherwise superb album.

A few months after ‘The Runaways’ hit record store shelves, the band found themselves back in the studio. The hastily recorded follow up, ‘Queens of Noise’ was released in January ’77, and although it doesn’t feature any immediate classics in the vein of ‘Cherry Bomb’, it has a lot going for it. The first thing that’s notable if playing the album back to back with the debut is that it features a very different sound. The production values aren’t necessarily bigger, but the vocals much higher in the mix, which really benefits the harmony driven title cut, where teenage yelps are placed confidently against a glam metal groove that Ford really sells, and ‘Hollywood’, a number that clings onto a glam core, but pushes the band as far towards 70s pop as they’d ever get.

The boosted vocals mean that a few of the guitar parts aren’t as sharp as before, and in comparison with the debut, the drums are disappointingly flat. That said, if you’re able to make it past the iffy sound, ‘Queens of Noise’ has its charm, and despite such a short time between albums, it shows the band really branching out, stylistically. ‘Heart Beat’ explores AOR balladry, driven by warm bass and shimmering guitars, intercut with a hard rock hook that’s far more mature than anything on the debut. In many ways, it sounds like a nod towards Currie’s first post-Runaways release – the excellent ‘Messin’ With The Boys’ album, recorded with twin sister Marie – but in other ways, it still sounds like The Runaways due to some unfussy gang vocals and Ford’s fiery guitar. Ford takes an even bigger role on ‘Johnny Guitar’, a lengthy blues workout where she indulges in a world of moody lead work, which would be impressive if it didn’t sound as if the master tape had been cleaned with a wet sponge, and ‘Take It Or Leave It’ is a meaty garage rocker with a blues rock tone that sounds like a jam between The Groundhogs and some stroppy teenagers. If it weren’t clear enough before that ‘Queens of Noise’ had designs on being more than a carbon copy of its predecessor, this track hits that home with the subtlety of a mallet.

Jett’s Kiss-tastic ‘I Love Playin’ With Fire’ still sounds like one of the era’s best trashy anthems – all shouty refrains and chunky riffs – and ‘Neon Angels’ is a no-frills head-nodder where Ford and Jett lock grooves to bring a 70s riff that’s a match for any of the era’s beards, before it all explodes into a garage rock frenzy allowing Jett to reach peak wail. One of the album’s other highlights comes with ‘Midnight Music’ where a couple of typical Runaways riffs are peppered with a clean, ringing guitar that’s a step forward the debut. The number also features a vocal that occasionally makes Currie sound like the young Ann Wilson in a mood – a sure fire hint that she had a much better voice than some of this material needed, or deserved – and, eventually, there’s a 60s tinged middle eight which makes good on Ford’s clean guitar work from the intro. It’ll never rival ‘Cherry Bomb’ in the classic stakes, but it definitely gives a good insight into how, behind the image and the bluster, this band could genuinely play.

By the time The Runaways returned to the studio to record ‘Waiting For The Night’ in August ’77 – their third record in approximately fifteen months – they were a different band. Lead vocalist Cherie had departed to pursue other projects, and bassist Jackie Fox – who had actually played on ‘Queens of Noise’ – had been replaced by Victory “Vicki Blue” Tischler-Blue, leaving Jett to take the reins. Although credited on the sleeve, Vicki didn’t play on the album (all bass parts are supposedly the work of one Sal Maida, brought in at Fowley’s request), but despite this re-jigged band, it isn’t a bad record at all. In some ways, it’s better than the slicker ‘Queens of Noise’.

Naturally, Jett, with all of her attitude and bombast, wasn’t about to take the job of lead vocalist/frontperson lightly, and although she’s often the real force behind the performances, it’s still very much a Runaways album, stylistically speaking. At its best, material like ‘Wasted’ plays up the teenage debauchery via a party hard lyric; a busy bassline adds a complex groove under some rough rhythm guitar, and Ford’s love of a rawer guitar sound is easily a match for any Girlschool tunes just over the horizon. ‘School Days’ whips up some fine hard rock that’s perfect for Jett’s reckless yelping, with the rhythm guitars turned up to eleven, whilst the guesting bassline applies enough melody to make the rawness stick, and ‘Trash Can Murders’ applies an almost glam-esque glee to some fast paced garage rock, hinting at a love for New York Dolls, especially in the way Ford’s overdriven approach never seems so far away from Sylvain Sylvain’s classic proto-punk sound. With more than enough loose gang vocals to back up one of the album’s best riffs, this knockabout rocker is easily one of the band’s strongest “unknown” tracks.

A standout cut, ‘Little Sister’ reinstates the chugging tones of ‘Cherry Bomb’ – not always as obvious on the bulk of the previous album – and Jett’s charming, off-key tones present themselves as a future echo of The Donnas more than ever. Her longer notes wail and waver as if they’re never sure where to go, but nevertheless, still convey an attitude that Currie perfected on the debut, and Ford drops in with a fine guitar solo that adds a metallic edge to the rough around the edges garage rock. There’s even time for some great melodic fare, too: the title cut introduces clean guitar work and a slow groove that’s derived from Led Zeppelin’s ‘Thank You’ (well, Zep “borrowed” from all and sundry, so it’s only fair), and beefs something familiar with a crashier chorus where the twin guitars hit upon a meaty sound. The vocals aren’t good (to put it mildly) but there’s still much to love here, especially West’s drumming, which manages to be restrained throughout, yet carry a weighty groove. By the time Ford steps in with a squealer of a solo, from a musical perspective, this could be one of the band’s most underrated tunes.

With ‘Don’t Go Away’ revisiting the tone of the debut but turning up the volume, and ‘Gotta Go Out’ sounding like a raw tribute to the legendary Marc Bolan (whose death would occur just three days after release), ‘Waitin’ For The Night’ ensures great listening. Even without any cast iron classics and an AWOL Cherie, it shows the band were far from done. With that in mind, it’s interesting how much 1979’s long awaited follow up, ‘…And Now The Runaways’ (originally released in the UK by Cherry Red Records, but unreleased in the US until ’81), sounds like a band about to throw in the towel. That said, even this slightly tired Runaways could still deliver a few classic tracks.

‘Saturday Nite Special’ really hits the mark with its blend of shouty vocals and hefty bass grooves, setting up a moodier sounding Runaways. The guitars are used so sparingly it becomes really ominous, but between a truly chunky sound and one of Jett’s better vocals, it immediately has plenty of force. When Lita makes a late appearance for a guitar solo, her tones are augmented by a very melodic twin lead sound, further accenting a very retro feel, even for the era. Equally good, ‘Right Now’ plays like a smoother ‘Cherry Bomb’, with the expected jagged riffs are tempered by gang harmonies and weird keyboard noises derived from an organ that sounds as if it belongs at the end of a pier. Even at this late stage in the game, the lyrics aren’t shy in flaunting a sexual element, and you’ll have heard it all before, but the combo of sneering and fat bass sounds makes it a decent addition to the band’s catalogue of songs. ‘My Buddy & Me’ places one of Joan’s brattiest deliveries over a Steve Jones inspired guitar part, and without losing the heart of the original Runaways sound, is able to show how in sync with parts of the UK punk scene these girls were, and providing a great contrast, the set highlight ‘Little Lost Girls’ works a huge 70s rock arrangement where a wall of guitars are joined by swirling keys and a grandiosity derived from Boston. Admittedly, it sounds really scrappy compared to Tom Schulz’s best efforts, and Joan’s vocal is really misjudged, but there’s some fine music here. Barely two years earlier, the idea that a Runaways recording would be dominated by massive pomp-laden keyboards was unthinkable, and yet, here it is…and it sort of works.

If there’s any indication that The Runaways were already on borrowed time, it’s the fact that three cover tunes on a ten song album is at least one too many, even in the hands of a band that weren’t considered high art. Written by Steve Jones and later recorded by Sex Pistols, Guns N’ Roses and Shonen Knife, ‘Black Leather’ actually got its first outing on this Runaways LP. It’s perfect for Joan, in that its speedy garage rock riffs have an edge that suits her natural voice, and the punk-ish drive that sits at the heart of the song allows her to shout without ever sounding like she’s trying too hard. With the kind of riff that would also allow Ford to add plenty of musical muscle, it sounds like the perfect successor to their early work, and played loudly, it really shows why this hit and miss band continue to be loved. An amped up ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’ works just as well, showcasing a youthful voice against a punchy bass and bar-room piano, taking the Slade anthem forward and hinting at the burgeoning hard rock sound that Jett would take to chart success in the 80s. Less fortunate is a slowed down version of The Beatles’ ‘Eight Days A Week’ which neither suits a sultry approach or being left in the hands of average singers. The bassline, played by Jett, is similar to that of ‘Saturday Nite Special’ in that it shares a pleasingly big sound throughout, but it isn’t enough to save face. Fact is, you can’t really mess with the classics…

It’s fair to say that, overall, ‘And Now…’ isn’t necessarily the kind of album you should spend money on as a stand alone purchase – even its handful of good tracks won’t necessarily lead to long term enjoyment – but bundled with other great stuff in a box such as this, you’re likely to pull the disc out once in a while to crank ‘Black Leather’ and ‘My Buddy & Me’, and marvel at the audacity of ‘Little Lost Girls’. There are bands with worse final albums, of course, but this shows why Joan, especially, was more than ready to move onto new projects.

This set also includes the ‘Live In Japan’ release, recorded on the ‘Queens of Noise’ tour for good measure. In the live setting, the band’s rougher elements really come to the surface, but with exciting renditions of ‘Cherry Bomb’ (featuring some really far away sounding backing vocals), ‘American Nights’, ‘You Drive Me Wild’ and the rousing Jett original ‘C’mon’ augmented by a rowdy ‘Wild Thing’ and an outing for Lou Reed’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, it’s often a fun listen. Nobody ever claimed it to be ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ or ‘Hot August Night’ in the live album stakes, but it’s a decent document of the era, recorded in front of the most loyal crowd.

Over the years, the lines between The Runaways being pioneers and a gang of teenage girls who were possibly exploited have become rather blurred. That shouldn’t weaken any enjoyment of any of the music within ‘Neon Queens’, of course, and when the music’s great, it’s still great. Naturally, long standing Runaways fans will own everything in this set already. It’s nicely packaged, but there’s little need to re-buy the material for the benefit of a box. It’s the curious who have the most to gain here: the should-be fans who’ve never made it past hearing ‘Cherry Bomb’ and ‘Is It Day Or Night?’ on compilations, and those who’ve endured the uneasy biopic starring Kristin Stewart and perhaps considered picking up an album. For those less enlightened ears, ‘Neon Queens’ is the ultimate crash course. There are a lot of rough diamonds here and no rare of unreleased material included, but that doesn’t stop it being the essential Runaways purchase.

Buy the box set here: Neon Angels On The Road To Ruin 1976-1978

July-September 2023