A Runaways success LMU’s Evelyn McDonnell wrote the book on rock’s most notorious all-girl group

By Michael Aushenker

Joan Jett on Santa Monica Pier in 1978 Photo by Jenny Lens

Joan Jett on Santa Monica Pier in 1978 Photo by Jenny Lens

Loyola Marymount University closes out its Faculty Pub Night discussion series with a bang — or rather, a cherry bomb — on Tuesday with Evelyn McDonnell, author of the band biography “Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways.”

The book captures the wild ride of the all-female rock band that’s best remembered for its anthem “Cherry Bomb” and a cover of The Troggs’ lascivious 1966 hit “Wild Thing.”

The Runaways’ brief but fiery existence from 1975 to 1979 is an epic coming-of-age tale, as McDonnell calls it, of a prefab group of teenage girls assembled by rock svengali Kit Fowler that quickly disintegrated into “narcotic abuse, clashing egos and the dog-eat-dog undercurrents of Hollywood stardom.” The book is billed as “a cautionary tale of what can happen to girls on the cusp of womanhood who dare to put themselves in alluring but dangerous positions.”

McDonnell is signing copies of her book that are sold at the event, co-sponsored by campus radio station KXLU. Upset, an all-female group including Patty Schemel of Hole, will perform after the signing.

It was the early 1990s explosion of feminist Riot Grrrl groups like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney that led McDonnell to look back to the formation of the first real all-female glam rock band, which became the launch pad for successful solo careers by Runaways Joan Jett and Lita Ford.

The Runaways “were stigmatized from the beginning and not taken seriously by the media or radio or the public,” McDonnell said. “They are more notorious than they are famous.”

“Cherry Bomb” didn’t sell well in the United States, but the Runaways spurred a loyal fandom in Japan, Australia and parts of Europe — even as contemporaries such as the Slits and the Raincoats were dismissive, said McDonnell, an assistant professor of journalism and new media at LMU.

Midcareer, the Runaways embarked on a North American tour with celebrated New York proto-punk act The Ramones, co-headlining and alternating lead billing.

“They got paid the same. In some reviews, people preferred the Runaways over the Ramones,” McDonnell said. Nevertheless, the experience became “a very hard tour for both bands, trying to break punk in the heartland.”

On Jan. 27, 1978, the Runaways opened for the Ramones at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

Santa Monica-based photographer Jenny Lens, who attended the show, photographed Jett during an after-party on the Santa Monica Pier.

“She was having more fun on the Santa Monica Pier party than most anyone else,” Lens recalled.

McDonnell, who in February discussed “Queens of Noise” during an author series at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, traces the Runaways glam rock scene as “the seeds for punk and metal,” adding that Jett produced the first Germs record around the time the Runaways were getting burnt out.

The Runaways were also the subject of a 2010 indie film based on lead vocalist Cherie Currie’s memoir “Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway,” which featured “Twilight” star Kristen Stewart as Jett and Dakota Fanning as Currie. McDonnell, who focused her initial research on drummer Sandy West, enjoyed the movie but doesn’t feel it captured the full story.

Even though pioneer English punks the Sex Pistols were also a prefab band, carefully casted by controlling manager Malcolm McLaren, “no one really questions [the Sex Pistols’] authenticity the way they do the Runaways’,” McDonnell continued. “It’s an extremely masculine field.”

The Runaways paved the way for bands like The Go-Gos and The Bangles to make it big in pop, but disbanded too early to break in the mainstream.

“If the Runaways had stayed together and made it into the MTV age, it would’ve been another story,” McDonnell said.

Evelyn McDonnell signs “Queens of Noise” from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at LMU’s William H. Hannon Library. The event is free, but RSVP at lmu.libcal.com.