"People thought The Runaways were cute until they realised we were serious - and then they started calling us names": Joan Jett on the first girl rock band, her love of leather and nearly joining the army

Joan Jett headshot, 2006
Joan Jett in 2006 (Image credit: J. Strauss via Getty Images)

Joan Jett formed legendary femme rock architects The Runaways in 1976, but didn’t find mainstream chart success until taking centre stage with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts in 1980. Two years later her emphatic transformation of the unassuming Arrows B-side I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll into a rabble-rousing power-glam anthem provided her with a US chart-topper for seven weeks straight. In 2006, having been embraced by a whole new generation as a riot grrl icon, Jett released her supremely salacious Sinner album. And she spoke to Classic Rock.

Before The Runaways, female rock bands simply didn’t exist. Prior to forming the band, where did you think your guitar playing would take you? 

I didn’t really think about it. I was just living in the moment. And, being a teenager, I was pretty naive to the workings of the music business. I was just listening to my Bowie and T. Rex records, trying to learn how to play guitar and dreaming about the possibility of being in a band. It wasn’t until my family moved to California that I thought I could actually make it come true. 

In The Runaways were you alone in your enthusiasm for punk, which always seemed to set you apart from the rest of the band? 

Yeah, pretty much. I was the one into the punk rock scene, while the other girls had different tastes, but they didn’t begrudge me my tastes and I didn’t begrudge them theirs. Lita [Ford, guitarist] and Sandy [Fox, drummer] liked heavier music, which I didn’t have a problem with because I liked some of that too. 

What effect did this embrace of punk have on your solo career? 

A lot of people found the black leather and pins that I wore very threatening, so while the other girls got record deals when The Runaways broke up I was the only one that didn’t. The UK got The Runaways, but in America people were oblivious. What we were doing was so far out front of everything else that was going on. Just to see girls playing rock’n’roll was threatening. But times have changed, and girls can’t be threatening in that way any more.

Your solo debut Bad Reputation, in 1981, set a template for the ballsy, sassy frontwoman in rock. Why do you think rock’n’roll took so long to get truly emancipated? 

I don’t know, because rock’n’roll should speak for reform, breaking rules and not following tradition. Maybe the rules that were set that a guy could do his thing while a girl could never be anything more than a backing singer came from the phallic nature of the guitar. But rock’n’roll stands for raw sexuality, and that’s threatening to some people. They were terrified of Elvis’s swivelling hips, that Chuck Berry might grab their teenage daughters, and so girls with guitars in their hands, singing about sex, was threatening to them too. 

At the start of The Runaways people thought it was cute, until they realised we were serious, and then they started calling us names: cunts and whores and dykes. They go right for your self-esteem, and girls need their self esteem more than guys do. I think that’s why more girls don’t do this; they figure it’s not worth taking a beating all their life just to play music. 

You’ve always shown a fondness for S&M style, so is this stylish quirk purely sartorial, or are you a closet dominatrix? 

I’m not a closet dominatrix. I’m way out in the open. I just like the style – the black leather and metal buckles. It’s just what I’ve been comfortable with since I was a kid. I used to hang out in an S&M-themed store that sold latex and leather clothes, and get T-shirts and accessories there. Maybe it’s just for a bit of protection too. Sometimes a hard exterior hides a soft inside. 

You weren’t involved in the last Runaways movie, so what can you tell us about the forthcoming Neon Angels [eventually released in 2010 as The Runaways] movie? 

I didn’t want to get involved in a Jerry Springer-esque exposé. If you put a camera in front of any band you’re going to find fights and arguments. I want a movie about what The Runaways did, what we achieved, the people we inspired. So Neon Angels is still being written. It’s not just going to be a chronological history, the writers are meeting with the band and people that knew and worked with us to flesh out the whole story.

Why do you love glam’n’glitter rock’n’roll? 

When I hear a guitar that growls in a certain way, it hits me right in the crotch and I have to play it. Gary Glitter, The Sweet, Suzi Quatro, that whole time period; the prominent drums, heavily echoed hand-claps. There’s something about that sound that goes right through me and makes me crazy. 

You play a lot of gigs for the troops. Why do you feel such an affinity with the armed services? 

After The Runaways broke up and I wasn’t in good shape, I was partying too much and pretty lost. I was devastated that this thing that I loved so much was over, so I briefly considered joining a branch of the military. I needed to get straightened out. I didn’t know what to do with myself. 

My life took a different course and I didn’t have to go that route, but I realised then that a lot of people that join the military don’t do it because they want to fight a war, they do it for a lot of reasons – to get an education, to get out of a life that they’re not too happy with. They’re just regular people doing a dangerous job, and they’re rock’n’roll fans, so that’s why I do it. 

Did the riot grrl movement have any effect on the make-up of your audience? 

We’ve always had such a diverse crowd, from little kids, people in their 70s and everything in between. Punk rockers, yuppies, stand-up, working-class people, it just spans every walk of life. But the riot grrl movement did open a lot of girls’ eyes to The Runaways and what I’m doing, so hopefully that continues.

You’ve previously managed to draw a veil over your private life. The song Crimson And Clover may have blurred the public’s perception of your sexuality, but more recently Androgynous, A.C.D.C. and tabloid splashes with Carmen Electra have cast you as quite the predatory female. 

Predatory female… That’s funny. Our music has always been a little edgy in that way. Sometimes people pick up on it and sometimes they don’t. It hits you in the crotch and makes you move in a sexy way, but playing rock’n’roll doesn’t necessarily denote a sexual predator.

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts are currently touring the US with Alanis Morisette. This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 113, published in December 2007.

Ian Fortnam

Classic Rock’s Reviews Editor for the last 20 years, Ian stapled his first fanzine in 1977. Since misspending his youth by way of ‘research’ his work has also appeared in such publications as Metal Hammer, Prog, NME, Uncut, Kerrang!, VOX, The Face, The Guardian, Total Guitar, Guitarist, Electronic Sound, Record Collector and across the internet. Permanently buried under mountains of recorded media, ears ringing from a lifetime of gigs, he enjoys nothing more than recreationally throttling a guitar and following a baptism of punk fire has played in bands for 45 years, releasing recordings via Esoteric Antenna and Cleopatra Records.