“Calling all metalheads, down at the bottom, down in the well, down in the dirt…” - Speed Metal
It was pretty tough watching Kim Fowley die these past couple years. A wicked-grinned showman to the end, he documented his fitful and ultimately futile battle with bladder cancer publicly, on social media, often posting gruesome pics from his hospital bed, clad only in a hospital gown, wasted, emaciated, almost gone. Granted, he was usually flanked by a hot 22 year old (or two), but still, it was an ignoble end to one of rock’s greatest supervillains. It was finally over on January 15th. Kim ‘Lord of Garbage’ Fowley died, aged 75. Thus far, this perpetual Rock N’ Roll Frankenstein has not resurrected.
I miss him already. Fowley was, among other things, a fantastic songwriter. He released a couple dozen gonzo solo records stretching from the late 60’s to just a few months ago, packed wall-to-wall with potential hits and fantastic flops. He co-wrote songs for everyone from The Byrds and the Seeds to Kiss and Alice Cooper. He discovered Slade (sorta), published one of Motley Crue’s first songs, produced Blue Cheer, and generally had his bony fingers jammed firmly into whatever interesting thing was happening in rock music for 50 years.
And he did it all while spouting off the craziest bullshit ever. Fowley interviews were always littered with the most amazing quotes, stuff like “There’s a fine line between a lawsuit and an orgasm”, and “Rock n Roll is a nuclear blast of reality in a mundane world where no one is allowed to be magnificent.” And he never apologized for anything, even when he probably should have. There will never be another Kim Fowley. Rock n roll will feel ordinary without him.
Of course, Fowley’s most high-profile project was the Runaways, the teenage all-girl band he formed in 1975 after meeting a fifteen year old Joan Jett. The Runaways spawned the careers of Jett, Lita Ford and Cherie Curie, and inspired legions of girls to pick up guitars and rock out themselves. They recorded the 1976 sorta-hit Cherrybomb, toured the world, released a handful of pretty good albums, and became huge stars in Japan, years before any of the members were even legally allowed to drink or vote. There are books, documentaries and even a half-cocked Hollywood bio-pic about The Runaways, and in every version, Fowley is essentially portrayed as an opportunistic pig of a man, sexually and financially exploiting unwary teenage girls for money, fame, and kicks.
And that’s gotta be at least half-true. I mean, he never really denied much of it. But the one thing that is for certain is that the Runaways would not have existed were it not for Fowley. He was the psychopathic Svengali behind the operation, co-writing many of their songs, producing their albums, booking their tours, and relentlessly promoting his young discoveries. But was it his band? That’s the question we really had to ask ourselves in 1987, when he attempted to pull a fast one on us. And the answer, if our indifference was any indication, was no.
Realistically, the studio career of the Runaways as we know them ended in 1978 with And Now…The Runaways, itself a half-baked hodge-podge of covers (Beatles, Slade) and originals that purposely slighted Jett, who was already phasing herself out of the band. The Runaways broke up in the spring of ‘79 largely because of creative differences. Jett wanted to pursue glam and pop, Lita Ford wanted to play heavy metal. So that’s what they did.
But ten years later, in 1987, a new Runaways album, Young and Fast, suddenly hit the bins. Perhaps the first sign that something was amiss is that there was no picture of the band on the cover. That’s because there were no Runaways on this album. Gayle Welch was a thirteen year old from New Zealand who sent a demo of bubble-gummy new wave song, Day of Age, to infamous LA DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, who played it relentlessly on his Rodney on the ROQ show and featured it on his ROTR III compilation album in 1982. Fowley heard it and was so impressed he decided to resurrect the Runaways around Welch. The resulting studio sessions actually employed five different vocalists and just about every slumming rocker in town, including future second-wave Guns-er Gilby Clarke. I mean, Welch is supposed to be the Joan Jett of the whole affair, and she’s barely on it. I can’t even imagine the madness that went on with making this album. It was released in 1987 and after some momentary confusion – Ford and Jett both had flourishing careers and were clearly not involved – everybody shrugged and moved on. And for good reason.
Even if this was made by 13 year olds – and it wasn’t - Young and Fast is an awful album. Sometimes it’s a fun kind of awful, like on the hilarious, Plasmatics-y glam-slammer Speed Metal (which it mostly certainly is not) or the not-metal-at-all power-popper Heavy Metal Nights (metal was big at the time, Fowley figured all the shout-outs would move some units), or the tuneless teenage punk of Scars. But most of the time, it’s just plain old awful, from the tepid wanna-be single I Wanna Run With the Bad Boys to the saccharine girl-group redux Afraid of the Dark. Given everything we knew about Fowley, it’s no surprise he would attempt a hoodwink like this – he did own the band’s name, after all – but without a Joan or a Lita, Young and Fast just sounded old and tired. Still, as far as rock n’ roll rip-offs go, it’s pretty audacious. No original or even previous members involved? No problem. I mean, Jesus, Kim. Even Foghat still has the drummer in the band.
**Next: Subway suicide: Sweet Pain **