By Eleni P. Austin
Joan Jett has been making music for nearly 40 years, and she remains at the top of her game. Jett was born Joan Marie Larkin in 1958, she grew up in Pennsylvania and Maryland. She learned the rudiments of guitar and by the time her family relocated to Los Angeles, Jett was obsessed with Rock & Roll.
It was the early ‘70s, Glam and Glitter Rock was a huge inspiration for Jett. She immediately found a home at Rodney’s English Disco on the Sunset Strip. As the scene was flourishing, Hollywood provocateur/Svengali, Kim Fowley decided to form an all-girl rock band. Jett was recruited for rhythm guitar, and along with Cherie Curie, Lita Ford, Sandy West and Jackie Fox, they formed The Runaways.
Between 1975 and 1979, the Runaways gained local popularity in Los Angeles, but achieved superstardom in Japan. Fowley’s dictatorial management style, coupled with the usual growing pains and a relentless touring schedule, guaranteed the band’s quick implosion.
Joan Jett persevered. First, she produced the Germs’ seminal debut, G.I., then she hooked up with Kenny Laguna. Laguna originally played keyboards for Tommy James And the Shondells, but he quickly moved behind the scenes as an in-house producer/songwriter for Buddah Records.
Jett relocated to England to begin her solo career. Almost immediately, she realized she worked better in a group setting, so she returned to L.A. and began auditioning players for her band The Blackhearts.
Once the line-up was set, they recorded their debut, “I Love Rock n Roll.” Released in 1981, the title track was a cover of an obscure song by The Arrows. By spring of 1982, the song shot to number one on the Billboard charts. A star was born.
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts stayed at the top of the charts throughout the 80s. On MTV, their brand of boisterous rock & roll sandwiched comfortably between Michael Jackson and Men At Work. By 1987, Joan Jett was co-starring with Michael J. Fox in the Paul Schrader film, “Light Of Day.”
Jett remained relevant throughout the ‘90s. Embraced by the Riot Grrrl movement, Jett was revered as their Punk Patron Saint. She collaborated with the Gits, as well as members of Babes In Toyland, L7 and Bikini Kill.
In the 2000s, Jett continued her frenetic pace, touring and acting. She also produced other artists and had her own radio show on Sirius XM.
By 2010 she had co-produced “The Runaways,” a film which chronicled the band’s rocky career. Kristen Stewart (of “Twilight” fame), gave a credible performance as a teenage Joan Jett.
For all her activity, Jett has never been prolific. She has only recorded 10 studio albums. The last one, Sinner, came out in 2006. So it’s wonderful to announce Joan Jett & The Blackhearts are back with Unvarnished.
The album kicks into gear with “Any Weather (606 Version),” a collaboration between Jett and Foo Fighting renaissance man Dave Grohl. Powered by an insistent handclap rhythm, jangling piano runs and downstroke guitar riffs, the lyrics pay homage to a longstanding relationship.
Both “Soulmates To Strangers” and “Bad As We Can Be” explore the intricacies of modern love. The former is co-written by Laura Jane Grace, transgender frontwoman for the Punk band Against Me! On this mid-tempo rocker, slingshot riffs connect with a thudding beat. The lyrics bemoan the stagnation of a relationship… “Our love was invincible, then the cracks started to unglue like me and you/We were fated to be together, we were fated to be apart/We were soulmates and then we were strangers.
On the latter, Jett flips the script, succumbing to the power of physical attraction. A pummeling backbeat pushes against muscular riff-age that soars over the instrumental bridge. Jett’s come-on is uninhibited…”I’m no good for you and you’re no good for me, let’s be as bad as we can be, you and me.”
Jett has come a long way from three chord mantras like “I Love Rock n Roll. Three songs, “Hard To Grow Up”, “Fragile” and “Different” illustrate her growth as a songwriter and musician.
“Hard To Grow Up” blends circuitous, sinewy riffs with a steady rhythm. The lyrics are sharp and introspective..“I wake up feeling crazy, keep losing people-just lost my mom-So difficult to fathom, that they’re gone/I could go out and party, but nothing kills my pain-so helpless and there’s no one I can blame.” At the end of the track, Jett poignantly wonders “how does it end, this story my friend?”
“Fragile” is also a mordant meditation on mortality. Cloaked in tilting, windmill riffs and a galloping beat, Jett offers this philosophical couplet…”I’m at the point in life now I think about my own mortality and how it all works out/ I lived the best I could, I see myself and wonder was it good enough.” Salted in the mix are a sweet string section and wah-wah guitar.
Finally, a tick-tock beat, accented by cowbell, collides with down n dirty guitar licks on “Different.” The lyrics are a rallying cry for individuality…”Age is not in years it sits between your ears, you see you’re different/ It’s fun to break the mold and see it take a hold and now you’re different.” On the instrumental break the guitar locks into a hypnotic, kaleidoscopic groove as the tune grinds to a hiccup-y close.
Of course, Jett’s forte is stripped down anthems accented by overpowering hooks. She delivers on the album’s best tracks, “T.M.I.” and “Reality Mentality.” Anchored by a chunky backbeat, rumbling bass lines and strafing guitar, “T.M.I.” recalls the bubblegum crunch of The Sweet and the Ramones.
Jett’s lyrics offer a smart-ass take on social media… “Don’t need to know just what you’re up to, who you eat or what you screw/ Type away your privacy, don’t you care about your dignity, sharing all indignities/You make the scene to be seen.”
“Reality Mentality” is a trenchant take on celebrity. Candy coated guitar licks wash over a stomping martial cadence as Jett offers cautionary words…”It’s getting sticky out there, now it’s buyer beware/ Star machinery is employed, say hey enjoy the this show of schadenfreude.”
Unvarnished closes with the sweetly baroque “Everybody Needs A Hero.” Jett’s tomboyish rasp takes on a tender tone as she gently croons. Holding out for a hero, (not in a strident, Bonnie Tyler way), she seems to be channeling Nico, Marianne Faithfull and Nick Drake. A surprisingly wistful conclusion to a great album.
There have been myriad personnel changes since the the 80s, but the current Blackhearts line-up has been together for several years. Guitarist Dougie Needles, drummer Thommy Price, Kenny Laguna handling keys and bassist Acey Slide offer an adroit support system for Jett.
Unvarnished is a triumphant return for Jett, an accomplished effort from a Punk pioneer.