Written by: Sabrina TVBand
Today The Runaways, the first all-female rock band, are highly respected. Widely acknowledged as the progenitors of the riot grrrl movement, and known for being Joan Jett and Lita Ford’s first band, The Runaways stand tall in the annals of music history. But in the 70's they were, at best, a cult favorite.
The second Runaways album, 1977’s Queens of Noise, is their strongest release. In its time it only reached #172 on the Billboard 200, but it’s plain to see that contemporary audiences didn’t recognize greatness when it was right in front of them. Every Runaways album has at least two or three solid cuts, but I don’t think it’s possible to make a compelling argument that Queens of Noise isn’t the best one, even if it doesn’t have "Cherry Bomb." This is by far their most consistent and enjoyable collection of songs.
Queens of Noise opens weak with a title track written by outside songwriter Billy Bizeau. Lyrically the song is unfortunate and a bit embarrassing [“We’re the queens of noise! Come and get it boys!”], Joan Jett hadn’t fully developed as a vocalist yet, and the song is not particularly interesting musically. But it does capture the Runaways image, as imagined by manager / manipulator / sleaz-o Kim Fowley quite well, evoking Switchblade Sister-esque girl gangs [“I can smash your head all over this town”] and other exploitation drive-in fare.
"Take It or Leave It" is the first strong cut on the album. It was written by Joan Jett, who would also do lead vocal duties [she sings as many songs as soon-to-be-ousted lead vocalist Cherie Currie on this album]. "Take It or Leave It" would be the first in a series of songs Joan Jett has written and / or performed warning people not to get emotionally attached after sleeping with her. It features a great solo from lead guitarist Lita Ford, who is a solid presence on this album. Considering how many Runaways songs Jett has re-recorded as a solo artist, I’m surprised she’s never revisited this one.
"Midnight Music" is the first Cherie Currie song. The song opens with some truly nuclear sounding direct-into-mixer guitar tones. The entire song is sickly sweet and corny. If tracks like "Take It or Leave It," "Cherry Bomb," and "I Love Playin’ With Fire" represent one side of the Runaways coin, the tough and aggressive side of legend, this is the other, less marketed side; unintentionally campy, often charming, and usually funny. Some Runaways songs are both at the same time. None of this is necessarily bad; it’s all part of the soup.
"Born To Be Bad," the next track, is another song from that second side of the Runaways coin. Featuring a rare clean Joan Jett vocal without much growling, it has a spoken section where Jett details a phone call to her mother [“Mom, I just called to tell ya I joined a rock and roll band, and, uh, I won’t be coming home no more . . . because I was BORN! TO BE BAD!”]. The song is memorable, even if it’s not exactly good; the gem here is a Lita Ford guitar solo.
"Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin" is the most metal Runaways song. Most Runaways songs feature Lita Ford in a supporting capacity, but this is one of the few songs the band did based around her musical sensibilities. Cherie Currie’s performance is clearly modeled after high pitched Rob Halford or Ian Gillian vocals, but despite having a much higher voice she sounds like she's struggling during the verses. Jett and Ford riff through this song expertly, and bassist Jackie Fox probably does her best work on the album here. This is easily the best Lita Ford Runaways song.
Continuing this winning streak is "I Love Playin’ with Fire," one of the two or three best Runaways songs, and one of Joan Jett’s best songs in general. The ascending riff adds so much drama to this song about teenage lust. It’s filled with great hooks and riffs, and it has a songwriter-ly edge because it feels so thoughtfully constructed. The surprising thing is that it was apparently written within the space of about 30 minutes. "I Love Playin’ with Fire" would later be re-recorded by Joan Jett after she went solo. It’s hard to say which version is better; this original version has Lita Ford's incredible lead work, and the female backing vocals. But the Blackhearts version has a better vocal performance from Joan Jett and a tighter performance from her band, sans the lead guitar. They’re both incredible.
"California Paradise" is another one of the best Runaways songs. The drums here are even more processed than usual, sounding oddly industrial in timbre. Cherie Currie’s singing usually isn’t great, too overstuffed with weird inflections and attempts at swaggering, but her unusual instincts fall into place brilliantly here. The music has an oddly dark and minor sound in places that feels incredibly inspired, adding a sinister edge to what could’ve been a very one-dimensional song about the California summer.
"Hollywood" is the end of the hot streak. It was a weird choice to place the two California songs right next to each other. Joan Jett was still learning how to be a vocalist at this point in her career, and she sometimes sounds like a completely different person from song to song. The big hook in this song is quite strong, but Jett’s lead vocal is quite bad. "Hollywood" isn’t as good as the best tracks on Queens of Noise, but if you look at The Runaways songbook on a macro level it’s still firmly in the B tier.
"Heartbeat," the last good song on Queens of Noise, is like a version of "Midnight Music" with more real substance than humorous camp. There’s still camp here, though. "Heatbeat" has a chorus that feels like it’s from a PSA about traffic lights [“STOP! LOOK! LISTEN!”] The excellent guitar work contrasts clean and crunched tones, and Lita Ford manages to fit in some tasteful lead work.
The album closer, "Johnny Guitar," is interminable. It’s easily the all-time worst Runaways song, and I’ve never been able to listen to the entire thing from start to finish. It's a deeply embarrassing lead guitar showcase for Lita Ford, obviously improvised almost entirely, with monotonous and basic accompaniment. Lita Ford was an incredible lead guitarist, but she hadn’t learned how to fill a void like this yet. For some reason the entire track sounds like it was recorded underwater. It's very clearly something that was included to appease Ford, because there's a much stronger cut from the Queens of Noise sessions, C'mon, that was not included in favor of this.
Queens of Noise is a great album, sometimes for the reasons that great albums are usually great, and sometimes for different reasons. The production on the album is strange, largely because of the drums. The drum sound isn’t bad, but it’s heavily treated in a way that’s pretty unusual for an album from 1977. A bunch of the guitar parts are recorded directly into the mixer. The general sonic quality ranges from “good” to “surprisingly bad." Albums from the 70's rarely sounded like this.
The true strength of Queens of Noise is that nothing about this album is phoned in. This is a snapshot of a band that’s fully invested, hungry for glory, and ready to take over the world. Later albums would be marred by worse production, internal conflicts, dodgy timekeeping from drummer Sandy West, and an increasingly audible feeling of exhaustion. But Queens of Noise is different; there is no filler on this album. Everything is done with passion. Everything is earnest, sometimes painfully so.
Queens of Noise was the pinnacle for The Runaways. Even if only half of the album’s songs are something I’d put only a playlist, it’s difficult for me to not view this as essential listening. As an object, it’s beautiful, a campy, riffy delight that evokes movies like Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Freeway. It’s ambitious in ways that are palpable during even the album’s weakest moments. Queens of Noise captures all of the promise of The Runaways.
Except for "Johnny Guitar."
The Runaways - Queens of Noise was released January 1977 via Mercury Records
If you want a quick list of the essential Runaways songs that aren’t on Queens of Noise, here you go:
"Wasted" - Solid, heavy, and riffy.
"Dead End Justice" - The Runaways at their most ambitious and most campy. A prog epic?
"School Days" - Probably better than the later Joan Jett re-recording.
"You’re Too Possessive" - Joan Jett’s later re-recording is better.
"Cherry Bomb" - On par with Joan Jett’s re-recording.
"You Drive Me Wild" - Another one where the re-recording is better.
"Rock and Roll" - Good cover of the Mitch Ryder cover of the Velvet Underground original. The Live in Japan version is better than the one from the debut.
"C’mon" - Nice pop-rock song. Notably better than "Johnny Guitar."
"Saturday Night Special" - Funny and well written song. The Runaways doing deliberate camp.
"Takeover" - Bizarre song about the Soviet Union covertly attacking America with a weather machine; the best-worst Runaways song.
We provide thoughtful reviews of music that wakes us from slumber. Written by a highfalutin peasantry.