By Jeremy Hallock
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By Observer Staff
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Joan Jett is rockin' and rollin', or at least it sounds that way over her crackly cell phone. It sounds like she's rockin' and rollin' all over the back of a car, as she's headed out of Manhattan on a hurried, bumpy ride to the airport. But Jett's pounded a few rocky roads while blazing on a relatively straight line.
"I think I've been really consistent and not varied that much, and some criticize me for it," Jett says during our brief conversation. "I like three-chord progressions...to me it's freedom to follow this path. I like rock 'n' roll—which is different from 'rock'—and I think it implies sexuality. I've always been more on the sexy than cerebral side, though with this record lyrically we've gotten broader."
It seems like a fine distinction, thin as an apostrophe, that separates the rock and the roll. But to Jett—and many cultural, nay, rock critics—it's a point to strangulate almost as fervently as a punk does a guitar neck. "Rock 'n' roll" has electric blues, boogie-woogie and jump bands as its precursors—acts as immediate as the gospel choirs that once sang of boats rockin' and rollin' on the way to the Lord. "Rock" of the '60s and especially '70s, however, lost some of that raw R&B momentum to exploring tricks in recording studios. Jett, for one, has never hesitated to take it back to the essence. Since 1976 she has belted live and direct numbers for audience after audience.
In the '70s, Jett played streetwise six-string in Los Angeles' all-female jailbait rockers the Runaways. As we talk, it becomes obvious she feels the group has yet to receive its due respect. When discussing the value of New York's departed Lower East Side punk mecca, CBGB, talk turns to what other '70s icons should get their due. And with acid in her voice, Jett quickly spits that the Runaways deserve a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Too sexualized and intimidating for American radio but surprisingly big in Japan, the Runaways would commit one classic, "Cherry Bomb," and an attitude to tape. With songs including "I Love Playing With Fire" and "Take It or Leave It," the Runaways ran concurrently to punk and sparked the strut you can hear in Los Angeles' Sunset Strip metal scene of the '80s. And Seiji of Japanese garage punks Guitar Wolf was supposedly so taken with Jett that not only did he prize a guitar signed by her, he often wore T-shirts with the slogan "I Love Rock 'N' Roll" (the title of Jett's signature song). The band even described its sound as "Jett rock 'n' roll."
As for Jett's post-Runaways sound, it initially pulled equal parts from glam rock's stadium-size come-ons, punk's confrontational sneers and early rock 'n' roll's driving directness. On solo albums Bad Reputation and I Love Rock 'n' Roll, both from 1981, Jett and her longtime backing band, the Blackhearts, attacked covers from these genres. They drew the lines of influence through the Isley Brothers' rave-up "Shout," Tommy James & the Shondells' psychedelic classic "Crimson and Clover," Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" and Gary Glitter's "Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)," among others. An oddly not well-known fact: "I Love Rock 'N' Roll" is also a cover of a British group called the Arrows.
"I may only do rock 'n' roll, but I've never held rock 'n' roll to be one thing," she says. "It's not about only the simplest tempo and instruments; rock doesn't have to be fast and punk doesn't have to be screaming."
Perhaps it's that fiercely independent voice that is Jett's most rock 'n' roll facet. Most of the early rock 'n' roll was part rockabilly as well as R&B. The muddle of sex talk and spiritual tradition was considered only for hicks and highway roadhouses, so many artists were released independently. Jett was also marginalized after going solo, so released her own albums on Blackheart Records, including 2006's Sinner (much of which is culled from a 2004 Japanese release but is still her first album of original material in America in more than a decade).
Operating outside the "rock industry," Jett explored her continuous thread of feminism, found in songs from the Runaways to her 1981 cover of Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me" and through the tuff grrrl 'n' grit productions of Sinner. The latter album includes songs of acceptance ("A.C.D.C.," "Naked") and some unabashed activism ("Riddles," "Change the World"). Jett curled her lip around these and others on the Warped Tour through the summer, cementing her outsider-icon status with a new generation.
Jett fits with Warped because she is both pop and punk. Despite all this talk of rock, there is no questioning pop's place. Jett's even flirted with the charts once or twice. But her pure riff roots are too firmly ingrained to deny for long. Jett's music does not intrinsically kick ass because it is rock 'n' roll, it kicks ass because it does both rock and roll. And Jett's rock wouldn't keep rolling without a little sin.