"I’ve had ribs broken from getting hit by stuff – all because they didn’t want to see a girl playing a guitar"
Seven Decades Live – a multimedia concert-cum-documentary show – tells the 70-year story of the impact of three models of guitar on music, featuring a band performing tracks from the likes of The Clash, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. Who better to appear in a pre-recorded narration for it than the Queen of Rock herself, Joan Jett?
Storming her way into rock’s locker room with her proto-punk glam-rock band The Runaways, which she co-founded in 1975, Jett defied preconceptions that the guitar was merely a mascot to masculinity. When that group imploded and the likes of ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (a song originally performed by American teenyboppers The Arrows) and ‘Bad Reputation’ were rejected by 23 different labels, she set up her own – Blackheart Records, making her the first female artist to own and operate an independent imprint. Kristen Stewart has played her in a biopic, she’s worked with big-name fanboy/girls like Dave Grohl, Peaches and Kathleen Hanna, while BFF Miley Cyrus hailed her as an inspirational “badass babe” and claimed she “wanted to have sex” with Jett the first time they met and smoked pot together. NME caught up with the iconic pioneer for a quick chat.
What appealed to you about narrating Seven Decades Live, Joan?
“My friend Bill Curbishley is the producer and creator of it. I’ve known Bill a long time. If it wasn’t for him, ‘Bad Reputation’, my first album after The Runaways, probably wouldn’t have been made [Curbishley, then managing The Who, put up the money to record it]. And then who knows what would have happened? He asked if I would be interested in narrating this. Anything Bill’s involved in is top of the line, and it’s about guitars and rock and roll, so I was honoured to be asked and more than happy to do it.”
The show tells the story of music’s history through the Gibson Les Paul, the Fender Stratocaster and Fender Telecaster. What’s been your relationship with those guitars?
“I’m a Gibson girl. My first real guitar was a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe Blonde. When I first strapped it on, I felt so powerful. It connects right through the crotch. I’ve always used Gibsons because the people I looked up to in the beginning – Marc Bolan and Jimmy Page – were playing Les Pauls.”
Which guitarists have inspired you?
“At the start, I was listening to a lot of British Glitter music, Bowie and T. Rex. I had no desire to be a lead guitarist, I wanted to be a rhythm guitarist and gravitated towards a lot of Black Sabbath ‘cos they had big, fat, slow chords I could keep up with. Songs like ‘Iron Man’ or ‘Sweet Leaf’ were easy to learn how to play.”
You appear on the new Blondie single, ‘Doom Or Destiny’. How did that come about?
“I’ve known Blondie since The Runaways days. We met probably in ’76, and Blondie would come to LA, and stay in town for a couple of weeks to do gigs in other parts of California and other states, so we became friends and we’d hang out. Chris Stein [Blondie guitarist] always had a camera in his hand, so any pictures from that time were probably taken by him. I definitely looked up to Debbie Harry. She always seemed to have it together – very poised and collected, and for me, I was always nervous, apprehensive and shy. This is probably the wrong business to be in if you’re shy – but I tend to find a lot of performers are. Anyway, we’d been friends for years and with this record [‘Pollinator’], they had something for me to do and I was more than happy to sing on it. We’re shooting a video in the next week.”
Miley Cyrus helped induct you into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2015 and you’ve developed a friendship. What things do you connect over?
“God, everything! I find Miley, at least in my experience, to be very down-to-earth, easy to talk to and intelligent, so while music is the obvious thing we bonded over, there are other things that are important to her and me – the environment, and animals and the treatment of them.”
At the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, Miley said her boobs made Paul McCartney uncomfortable. Can you relate to the criticism she receives for pushing boundaries?
“People are only ever shocked if the idea comes from the woman herself. If there’s, say, a male producer of a fictional all-girl singing group and he tells the girls, ‘You’ve got to wear sexy dresses and no short hair’ and they do it, you don’t find a lot of criticism directed at those groups regarding how they look and what they’re wearing or its relationship to the music. Yet if it’s coming from someone who owns their own self and it was their own idea – i.e. Miley or me, where it’s coming from the woman – people are threatened. If the direction isn’t coming from a guy, then the women are demeaned. I found that to be the case when The Runaways started. When people thought it was not real, they thought it was cute and funny, but as soon as they realised we wanted to make records, we were going to go on tour, we wanted to be stars, then the nasty names started coming. If people feel threatened by it, then women get criticised for what they’re doing.”
Which bands were the most supportive of you coming up and who were the douchiest and most misogynistic?
“When The Runaways came to England for the first time, we opened for Motörhead who were very supportive of the band – which people might think is weird – right up until Lemmy’s passing [in 2015]. We stayed in touch right until his death, and were very good friends for all those years. We rose up with Cheap Trick, and were in Japan at the same time they made their hit live album [1978’s ‘Cheap Trick at Budokan’], and have remained friends ever since. I don’t want to take any shots at the guy-bands who were not too nice to us as some of them have since apologised and made amends. But I will say, people were intense, man! They’d throw bottles and batteries at us. I’ve had my head split open. I’ve had ribs broken from getting hit by stuff – all because they didn’t want to see a girl playing a guitar. The most humiliating was opening for The Scorpions in Italy or Spain, where the audience worked up the most disgusting loogies. They spat at me for half an hour, and it was dripping off me, but I wouldn’t leave the stage – which is what they wanted. It was horrible and disgusting, and afterwards offstage, I just cried. It was worse than being hit by a bottle. But it just made me stronger. And hopefully it’s a lesson for women in bands – someone’s been through worse, so get out there and achieve your dreams.”
Are you working on new music?
“Yes, we’re going to be writing and recording very soon. Early in the next year, we’ll have something out.”
After The Runaways broke up, you briefly considered enlisting in the military, and you’re a firm supporter of the troops. What do you make of President Trump’s proposed ban on allowing transgender people to serve?
“It’s ridiculous! It’s ridiculous of them to be focussing on this when it was not an issue in the first place. Transgender troops serve all over the world with minimal issues, and this is obviously just a political move by our guy over here.”
Seven Decades Live takes place at London’s Clapham Grand, October 10-12