The opening of I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll – an international smash for Joan Jett & The Blackhearts in 1982, topping the US singles chart for eight weeks – is among rock music’s simplest but most memorable guitar riffs. But uncertainty surrounds the identity of the song’s true composers.
Former Runaways guitarist Joan Jett had first heard the song seven years before she had a hit with it, when the London-based US/UK group The Arrows performed it on their TV series Arrows. In the four decades since Jett all but made I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll her own, many compilations have erroneously credited the song as a Jett original.
In fact it was written by Arrows lead singer/bassist Alan Merrill and guitarist Jake Hooker, with the guidance of RAK Records hitmaker Mickie Most. Adding to the confusion, it is also sometimes attributed to Allan Sachs and Jerry Mamberg, the real names of its writers, Merrill and Hooker.
“We’d had three singles out, of which two [Touch Too Much and My Last Night With You] were hits,” Merrill told us in 2013. “Mickie requested that we write a rousing, three-chord anthem in the vein of Summertime Blues or Wild Thing. Oh, and it needed a huge riff and infectious chorus but the verse had to be melodic. He commissioned it like you would a tailor.”
A first attempt, Shake Me, got the thumbs-down from producer Most, but eventually Merrill dreamed up its famous chorus. “We were in England, so I thought it should have said: ‘Put another coin in the jukebox baby.’ But Mickie replied: ‘No, make it ‘dime’, because you’re American.’”
The chorus was followed by the song’s distinctive verse, music and breakdown. “It was basically about two kids meeting at a disco and fancying each other,” Merrill explained, chuckling: “In my arrogance, I believed it would be successful for The Arrows, and its reference to a jukebox was my own private joke.”
Merrill later described I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll as a “knee-jerk reaction” to the Rolling Stones’ It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (But I Like It). “That’s true,” he confirmed. “I knew Jagger socially but I felt their song was an apology [for the Stones] to his wealthy friends.”
In February 1975, Most used I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll as a B-side to Broken Down Heart, a song by an outside writer of Smokie/Racey fame called Roger Ferris. Six weeks after it flopped, the producer’s wife Christina proposed re-cutting the song at Abbey Road studios and flipping it over. The ploy brought The Arrows their TV show when Granada’s Muriel Young heard it but, amazingly, the song still didn’t take off.
“Mickey was winding down his career as a producer, and the single was woefully underpromoted,” explained Merrill, feeling that it deserved top-three status at the very least. A legal dispute between their management and RAK only worsened publicity matters. “All we needed was a Top Of The Pops, but we didn’t get one BBC radio airplay and no television whatsoever.”
But for Joan Jett’s intervention, that would have been that. With The Arrows’ recordings having completely dried up, the group folded acrimoniously in 1977, despite Bill Wyman trying in vain to secure them a deal with Atlantic Records.
Alan Merrill met Joan Jett several times. “I was playing with Meat Loaf in around 1978 and lived on the same street as her office. She told me about sending a roadie out to buy the single [after seeing us perform it on TV] when she was touring the UK with The Runaways.”
In a spooky twist of fate, Jett’s first attempt to record the song using a band that featured former Sex Pistols members Steve Jones and Paul Cook took place in the same London studio as Merrill worked with producer James Guthrie (Pink Floyd) on an album for his next project, Runner.
He was a member of Rick Derringer’s band when Jett’s second version of the song (the Jones/Cook take wasn’t released till 1993) took off. Their paths crossed again on tour in Florida. “I Love Rock ‘N’ Rollwas climbing the charts and Joan gave me a hug. We discussed the strong possibility that it would become a hit,”
Merrill recalled fondly, in 2013. “I told her she was an honorary Arrow because she looked like one of us. I always fancied her, and we developed a loose friendship. Since then she has played a large part in my life and I in hers, whether she admits it or not.”
Merrill was frustrated that Jett (who declined to be interviewed for this story) seemed to foster a perception that she wrote the song. A popular YouTube clip shows her failing to correct an interviewer who assumes she did. And in the 2010 biopic The Runaways, the song apparently tumbles from the ceiling of her bedroom and into the head of Kristen Stewart, who portrays Jett with great visual accuracy.
“The myths being spun just flabbergast me, especially that one,” he sighed. “As the film’s executive producers, Joan and Kenny Laguna [her manager] had a free hand to portray that scenario in any way they liked.”
Despite the above, Merrill was proud that a song he co-wrote has become a household favourite. “I didn’t get rich on I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll until it was covered by Britney Spears [in 2002],” he revealed. “However, my vision coming true was great.”
Alan Merrill passed away in 2020. But throughout his years of playing live with The Arrows, he couldn’t get away without reprising I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll. “I don’t tire of it, because I never sing a song the same way twice,” he said, laughing. “I’ve had a very strange career, and that’s reflected in my show.”