It’s hard to be a symbol; it’s even harder to be a teenager. Yet somehow the Runaways made both look easy — and over-the-top fun — for a few years in the bacchanalian L.A. rock scene of the mid-1970s. Sadly, both symbols and teens tend to age out.
“Queens of Noise,” Evelyn McDonnell’s new history of the band, thrusts us into a nearly unrecognizable Los Angeles. Female students aren’t allowed to play drums in school bands, everyone is taking Quaaludes, and lecherous music-industry types are sleeping with minors without compunction. And out in the parking lot of the Rainbow Bar & Grill is a giant in a peach suit and kabuki makeup, looking for teenagers to round out his girl version of the Rolling Stones.
The highlight reel of the “bubblegum-glam” band can be found in the recent biopic “The Runaways,” starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. “Svengali” Kim Fowley brings together the sexy, scrappy teens who record five albums in three years, before burning out in a haze of hostility and rotating bass players. Going deeper, “Queens of Noise” offers the Runaways something they had always desired: to be taken seriously. Through meticulous research and a stylistic approach that swings between academic and aggressively candid, McDonnell gives these pioneering girls the third dimension they deserve.
McDonnell relates the Runaways’ story from Joan Jett’s first bus ride to Sandy West’s rec room, through the final fan-club letter announcing the breakup. We see the band’s short shelf life in exacting detail, informed by extensive interviews with key players (most of the surviving Runaways, Fowley, a selection of managers, friends and family) who provide their often-conflicting commentaries. Chapters focus on an individual band member or the leg of a specific tour, but along the way, McDonnell illuminates the state of music journalism in 1976, the pop-culture mania of Japanese fans, how poor lawyering can lead to ludicrous management contracts, and why the Sunset Strip was such a perfect location for rock reinvention.
Underrated or overrated, geniuses or hacks, sex kittens or toughs, the Runaways were a magnet for projection. An accomplished music critic, McDonnell rewrites the “widespread narrative [that] denies the women agency in their own life-story and simplistically demonizes Fowley.” In fact, Fowley, the band’s architect and prime schemer, emerges as an enigmatic figure whose words would be delightful to quote here if I could find a sentence not bursting with profanity.
McDonnell attempts to place them in a range of cultural contexts with varying levels of success. At times, the book becomes mired in making connections between the life cycle of a teenage rock band and esoteric critical theory. An early chapter brings the band members together from their various Southland suburbs by using a lengthy application of Reyner Banham’s four ecologies of the L.A. landscape. Fowley’s manipulation of the Runaways’ image calls forth Adorno and the Frankfurt School; bass player Jackie Fox’s desire to be a “rock ‘n’ roll pig” becomes a discussion of Bahktin’s interpretation of Rabelais’ “carnivalesque.” These digressions do not add much meaning and interrupt what is otherwise an intelligent and germane cultural history.
When it suited them, the Runaways refused to be the pliant objects of men’s fantasies — whether the label’s vision of a girl gold mine, their male fans’ obsession with sex-loving, instrument-wielding jailbait, or Kim Fowley’s dreams of fame and fortune. By treating each of the musicians as an individual finding her place in a rapidly changing world, “Queens of Noise” provides a multilayered consideration of the Runaways, who “could play like the boys, without once pretending they weren’t girls.”
Daley is a writer who lives in L.A.
Queens of Noise
The Real Story of the Runaways
Da Capo Press: 360 pp., $25.99