From the second they hit the popular consciousness, the Runaways were buried neck-deep in controversy. Were they Monkees-style pop puppets or the hard-rocking real deal? Did they represent an aggressive tough-chick style of feminism or were they just playing into male fantasies? Were they passionate about rock or was they riding a wave of hype to become stars? Once all the controversy is stripped away, one thing is obvious: the Runaways recorded one of the greatest hard-rock debut albums of all time.
The Runaways comes out of the corner swinging on the opening cut. “Cherry Bomb” is the group’s anthem, a declaration of emancipated, man-eating sex appeal that remains as bracing and powerful as it was in 1976. Lead vocalist Cherie Currie sings it like she means it, affecting a husky-throated style that glides from a lascivious alto-croon to an assertive rebel yell. Joan Jett and Lita Ford keep the song’s assault rolling forward with chugging riffs while the rhythm section of Jackie Fox and Sandy West give the song an unstoppable stomp-beat. Whether or not it’s a male fantasy doesn’t matter. It’ll roll right over you before you have the chance to register your objections.
The rest of the album continues in a similarly hard-charging style: “You Drive Me Wild” features Jett taking the mic for a swinging bit of blues-boogie sleaze worthy of AC/DC and “American Nights” rides its stutter-riffed melody into hard rock nirvana, particularly during the “everybody – wanna party” sing-along section. The ladies also knock out a charming cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll”: they strip down the central riff until it reaches a hard-rock assertiveness, rebuild it around a cowbell-spiked beat and add in a call-and-response element to the “it’s all right” chorus.
In true hard-rocker style, there are no ballads to speak of on this album. The closest the group gets to anything mellow is “Lovers,” a song that offsets its tough verses with a sleekly-harmonized chorus that shows off the pop hooks lurking beneath the heavy guitars. The group also work in a personal element on “Is It Day Or Night,” where the lyrics hint at the weariness felt during the rare quiet moments of their hard-driving lifestyle, and “Secrets,” where their tough delivery is revealed to be a mask for secretly sensitive dreamers who make up the group.
However, the real killer on The Runaways is its epic final track, the amazing “Dead End Justice.” This seven-minute garage-rock operetta features Currie and Jett pushing their thespian skills to the limit as they act out the teen version of a women-in-prison movie. The plotline has Currie getting sent to juvie in the opening minutes, where she meets a veteran tough essayed by Jett and the two plot an escape that represents the “justice” of the title. The end result is a delightfully hard-boiled affair that sounds like Alice Cooper circa School’s Out recording a soundtrack for Born Innocent.
The Runaways furthers benefits from a focused, consistent sound. The guitars are heavy enough to keep with contemporary fare, with Ford and Jett showing the knack for tough little riffs that would fuel their subsequent solo careers. It’s also worth noting that West is a fantastic drummer, a real can-basher who keeps the album rolling ever-forward with energetic, unpretentious and occasionally quite inventive drumming (favorite bit: the Burundi-goes-glam fill that opens “Lovers” and acts as its anchor). Currie and Jett’s vocals have a surprisingly level of authority, confidently mixing in playful elements of the feminine to offset their overall assertive approach. Finally, Kim Fowley’s no-frills production is exactly what the album needs, giving it a nice sense of immediacy that matches the urgency of the tunes and delivery.
In short, The Runaways is a killer from start to finish and a rare case where the hype is actually the truth. If the idea of girls with guitars thrills you, this album is an essential purchase.