Neon angels

On Aug.12, 1975, the Runaways played their first gig — at Back Door Man fanzine founder Phast Phreddie Patterson's parents' house in north Torrance, Calif. I was there.

So were the rest of the original Back Door Man staffers, a whole lotta other South Bay earthdogs, and a few adventurous souls who were willing to make the drive down from Hollywood or wherever (notably Kim Fowley, Rodney Bingenheimer, and ex-CREEM writer, Detroiter Ben Edmonds, doing A&R for Capitol Records at that time).

The Runaways — then consisting of drummer Sandy West, guitarist Joan Jett, and bassist-vocalist Micki Steele (who later became Bangles bassist Michael Steele) — set up in one corner of the sunken living room and played a brief set that included two Troggs covers: "Wild Thing" and "Come Now" — which Joan introduced as "This is a song about fucking!" — and I'm not sure what else 'cause we were all high as Dumbo's crows. And Papalordgod only knows how 'n' why the Torrance police didn't show up and shut it down. ...

Good times. Well, in truth, the Runaways were extremely raw, but it was somethin' to do on a Friday night in those dark ages before "punk rock" arrived, the local rock scene revived, and ... you kids don't know how lucky you are these days — now get off my lawn.

But the Runaways story begins, when — as documented in the fourth issue of Back Door Man — Kim Fowley met a then-14-year-old Kari Krome at an Alice Cooper party at the Hollywood Palladium. She was a lyricist who wanted an all-girl rock band to do her songs, so Kim started "putting the word to the street" (i.e., the parking lot of the Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Sunset Strip after 2 a.m. closing time) to that effect.

Fowley originally wanted to call the group Venus & the Razorblades. (He'd eventually use this for another band, whose members would include Danielle Faye — sister of BDM staffer D.D. Faye. Danielle was Fowley's first choice for a bass player, but she didn't want to leave the Zippers, the Carson-based band whose leader, Bob Willingham, was her then-boyfriend. The Zippers' drummer was former Imperial Dogs sticksman Bill Willett; Danielle and Willingham would later write "All Right You Guys," which the Runaways recorded on their Japanese live album.)

So after rounding up West, Jett and Steele (who was originally supposed to be solely the lead singer), Fowley found a bassist named Genny through some Suzi Quatro fan club and flew her out from Cleveland. She was very young and tried hard, but it didn't work out. Phast, D.D. and I watched Fowley put this lineup through its paces at a rehearsal studio on San Vincente and Santa Monica Boulevard. We were also in Kim's apartment when — after reading aloud his "translation" of a story about runaway girls from a French porno newspaper — he convinced the band to call themselves the Runaways.

D.D. Faye tracked down Lita Ford — who'd been playing bass in some San Pedro/Long Beach-based outfit, but was actually an aspiring lead guitarist — and brought her to Fowley. Two days later, the band was deemed ready to make their debut at that party at Phast's pholks. But before they did, metalhead Ford — unhappy with the band's pop-glam direction — walked out.

On Sept. 28-29 — two weeks after their debut — the Runaways opened for another Fowley project, the Hollywood Stars, at the Whisky-a-Go-Go. (And while I remember teaching Joan the rap backstage between sets that she'd use in "Born to Be Bad" — and in the grand blues tradition — it was just a re-working of John Lee Hooker's Detroit-recorded 1948 hit "Boogie Chillen'.")

Sensing something might be happening here, Ford immediately rejoined the Runaways. After an Oct. 13 gig opening for the Ratz (some of whom, with Detroiter and future Knack leader Doug Fieger, would wind up in the Sunset Bombers) at the Starwood, the Runaways didn't play Hollywood for months.

I remember going to see 'em play a former movie theatre in Laguna Beach on Oct. 30 'cause we'd already driven all the way down to Huntington Beach to see a reading by Charles Bukowski at the Golden Bear (Bob Lind of "Elusive Butterfly" fame was the opening act!) and 'cause we didn't think Bukowski was anywhere near as funny as Kim Fowley and 'cause the night was still young and 'cause we didn't have anywhere else to go, that's just what we did.

Somewhere around this time, they added a bassist named Peggy Foster and Steele was replaced by Cherie Curie, whom Fowley found after a scouting trip to a teenagers-only (no adult customers allowed!) glam-rock disco called the Sugar Shack in west San Fernando Valley. (As Rodney Bingenheimer once noted: "All kinds of talent at the Sugar Shack. ...")

The first time I saw Cherie front the band was sometime during Christmas week when Phast, D.D., me and BDM staffer Tom Gardner went to see 'em play Wild Man Sam's, located in a strip mall in Garden Grove. I remember Currie showing up with this guy who had one of those circular David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust things on his forehead. (We'd later learn he was Hernando Courtwright — whose father owned the posh Beverly Wilshire hotel — and who's now a successful artist manager and Internet mogul.)

Next thing we know, Jackie Fox is the new bassist. And what's now known as the "Fab Five" version of the Runaways returned to the Starwood, opening for the New Order — whose members included (ex-Stooges) Ron Asheton and Jimmy Recca, Dennis Thompson (ex-MC5), and fellow Detroit expatriates Ray Gunn and Dave Gilbert, who'd later front the Rockets.

Shortly thereafter, the Runaways got signed to Mercury Records. The April 1976 issue of BDM had a news item about this, accompanied by a picture of the Fab Five + Kari Krome with all of 'em ('cept Jackie and Kari) giving the photographer the finger. The story also mentioned they'd recently opened for the Tubes at the Golden West ballroom in Norwalk and there's also that now-famous shot of Joan Jett and Led Zepplin's Robert Plant (wearing a Runaways T-shirt) backstage at the Starwood.

It's also worth noting that BDM #12 (July-August 1977) contained Lester Bangs' famous "Back Door Men & Women in Bondage" — a masturbatory fantasy about now-deceased Blue Öyster Cult lyricist Helen Wheels and Cherie Curie that's since resurfaced in Main Lines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste, the second collection of Bangs' work.

And that BDM #13 (November-December 1977) included Phast Phreddie's "The Runaways — Face Shifting," which — along with a photo of the Fab Five with Vicki Blue's face superimposed over Fox's and Currie's face completely cut out — recapped their career to then-date.

And ... the 15th and final issue of BDM (July-August 1978) featured a column by O.G. staffer Bob Meyers, where — inspired by shots of Lita Ford long jumping on the recently televised "Rock and Roll Sports Classic" — he invented an entire day's worth of programming (commercials and all) so TV could "finally represent the lunacy of rock in the pre-packaged half-hour segments of nonsense and vapid silliness that your cathode tube is known for."

The last time I saw Fox was way back when she was doing radio promotion for Ariola Records, who'd recently hired me to be their "house punk" — where she never gave even the slightest indication that she'd wind up attending Harvard Law School alongside Barack Obama. ...

And the last time I saw Jett was when she and manager Kenny Laguna made a promotional visit to trade magazine Radio & Records on behalf of "I Love Rock and Roll." I've always liked her — she's got a great ear for hooks — and just like the girl in the lyrics to Lou Reed's "Rock and Roll," which the Runaways always used to cover and, in fact, learned off Phast Phreddie's copy of the Detroit featuring Mitch Ryder LP (and which my old band, the Imperial Dogs, used to do back in 1973 when we were calling ourselves White Light), "her life was saved by rock and roll."

Don Waller is an honorary Detroiter. Write to [email protected]
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