How the Runaways’ Debut Overcame Everything to Find Greatness
The Runaways released their self-titled debut album on June 1, 1976, and rock 'n' roll was never the same. The LP contains "Cherry Bomb," the group's best-known song, and it established the group — which then featured vocalist Cherie Currie, vocalists/guitarists Joan Jett and Lita Ford, bassist/vocalist Jackie Fox and drummer Sandy West — as a hard rock band with which to be reckoned.
By all accounts, The Runaways' genesis was quick. Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways revealed that the group nabbed a record deal in early 1976 on the strength of "a single rehearsal. They did not record a demo tape; they did not play live." (The Runaways had actually been playing shows; however, they were simply keeping a low profile.) Their deal was part of a two-tier contract that also involved the quintet inking a deal with late manager Kim Fowley for things such as songwriting, publishing and recording.
Fowley's controlling nature permeates the Runaways. He produced the LP and co-wrote most of the songs. "The girls didn't understand why the first album worked," Fowley said in Queens of Noise. "It worked because I wrote most of the songs with somebody. … Everyone's first album is always the one where they don't question authority. Rock 'n' roll was a dictatorship. … Somebody has to say this is how we're going to do it."
That attitude extended to musical decisions. He hired Blondie's Nigel Harrison to play bass on the album, rather than newer member Fox. "I think Kim just wasn't sure that he'd be able to get something out of me because I was so new, and he wasn't willing to take the chance because it was not a big recording budget, and hey — every cent he spent was money he didn't get to keep," she said in Queens of Noise. "I don't think Kim cared about making the best possible record."
Watch the Runaways Perform 'Cherry Bomb'
Still, this ugly display of power didn't suppress the musical talents of the Runaways' instrumentalists. The Jett-penned "You Drive Me Wild" gives Suzi Quatro a run for the glam-rock money. "Thunder," meanwhile, has the bluesy swing of the Rolling Stones, as does a cover of Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll." And the Judas Priest-goes-pop firecracker "American Nights" is a shoulda-been anthem on par with "Cherry Bomb."
The album ends with "Dead End Justice," which chugs along like a Thin Lizzy-esque hard-rock snarl (sample lyrics: "thrills and pills and acting smart") before veering off into a narrative of youthful destruction and delinquency told by Currie and Jett. The latter's confidence matches West and Ford's brash performances note for note.
Label Mercury Records touted the Runaways as "the new Stooges," which was another apt (and flattering) description. In the wake of the record's release, the band went on their first U.S. tour, which had its high points (a packed, frenzied Cleveland Agora show) and low ones (indifferent crowds). Today, their debut endures as a testament to the power of teenage girls — and continues to influence younger generations in no small part because Jett, Ford and Currie still consider "Cherry Bomb" an essential part of their live sets.