Joan Jett: The Godmother of Pop-Punk

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Music Features Joan Jett
Joan Jett: The Godmother of Pop-Punk

One of the highlights on Green Day’s recent career-reviving album, Father of All Motherfuckers, is the song “Oh Yeah!” which takes its title, its earworm chorus and its sizzling guitar riff from the 1980 track “Do You Wanna Touch Me? (Oh Yeah)” by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong wrote new verses to vent his disdain for social-media narcissism, but the chorus’s shotgun marriage of melodic hook and slam-bang beat remains irresistible.

If they wanted to climb out of their 21st-century slump of straining-for-meaning concept albums, Green Day couldn’t have adopted a better role model than Jett. She understood better than anyone that if you’re going to strip rock ’n’ roll down to its 4/4 basics, you’d better add a catchy sweetener. Otherwise you’re going to sound merely mechanical, even if you get as loud as Jett’s hard-rock peers in the ’80s or as fast as Green Day’s punk peers in the ’90s.

Fortunately, both Armstrong and Jett have a rare gift for inventing—or borrowing—four-bar phrases that are familiar enough to feel comfortable, new enough to feel memorable and rhythmic enough to be heard in the hips as well as the ears. This is a different gift than that of, say, Paul McCartney or Taylor Swift, who can spin out a melody that stays interesting over 32 bars. This is distilling all the tuneful pleasure in a song into a few lines that can be pounded home without ever losing their appeal.

This was a talent that Green Day demonstrated on their brilliant first three albums for Reprise (1994’s Dookie, 1995’s Insomniac and 1997’s Nimrod). It’s a skill they foolishly laid aside for their overblown and overrated rock opera American Idiot and its hapless sequel, 21st Century Breakdown. It’s a knack they’ve recovered on The Father of All Motherfuckers.

For the new record, the trio of Armstrong, drummer Tre Cool and bassist Mike Dirnt (together since 1991) slow the tempos a bit to put them more in Jett’s ballpark and thus reveal her influence as never before. Most of the record bolsters a Blackhearts’ stomp with high-pitched vocals, handclaps and sparkles of electronica enhancing the hooks. Former glam-rocker Butch Walker was the co-producer, and he nudged the sound in Jett’s direction.

Armstrong’s lyrics are still those of a mallrat cynic (“I am a kid of a bad education,” he sings on “Oh Yeah!” “The shooting star of a lowered expectation”), but the verbal pessimism is countered by the musical optimism of the choruses. On the title track and first single, for example, he invites a would-be lover to join him “in a bed of blood and money.” The words are purposefully off-putting, but the rave-up music is powerfully seductive.

The second single, “Ready, Aim, Fire,” begins with the line, “Kick the dog when the whistle blows,” but the chorus is so galvanizing that the National Hockey League adopted it for a national broadcast. Much of the album is compellingly danceable, even if Armstrong describes himself as “crawling across the dance floor; I think I lost my phone.”

That comes from “Meet Me on the Roof,” a song so giddily happy sounding that it justifies to its similarity to “Up on the Roof,” the song that Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote for the Drifters. “Stab You in the Heart” borrows its intro from the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” and its bass line from the Beatles’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” The handclaps from Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” are all over Green Day’s “Graffitia.” So much for punk purity.

Green Day is not the only California band channeling Jett in 2020. On the duo’s new album, Always Tomorrow, Best Coast sounds more like Jett than ever. Bethany Cosentino’s soprano has often resembled her role models, and the guitar riffs cooked up by her and bandmate Bobb Bruno often had a Blackhearts quality. Like Jett and Armstrong, Cosentino has a rare instinct for contagious melodies, but she hasn’t always appreciated her own strengths.

Too often she has allowed what she’d like to be interfere with what she is. Too often her ambitions to be a Laurel Canyon poet like Joni Mitchell or a rebel rocker like Chrissie Hynde detached her distilled hooks from the song’s groove and thus diluted their impact. Perhaps those same ambitions led to the insecurities and drug-and-alcohol problems she discussed in Lizzie Manno’s interview in Paste earlier this year. In any case, getting sober has enabled her to focus on her best assets, and now those hooks are locked, Jett-like, into the rhythm of each song.

You can hear that on “Everything Has Changed,” the story of her new-found sobriety. Built atop the double-eighth-note-and-pause riff of Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” “Everything Has Changed” uses that stop-and-go rhythm to build tension around memories of living on whiskey and tears. Finally the song breaks open with the release of the sing-along chorus: “Everything has changed; I like it this way…. I’d like for it to stay this way.” The pitch of Cosentino’s voice rises with her mood in the chorus—and then rises some more on the bridge, as she declares, happy in an upper octave, “If you could only feel the way I feel.”

“Different Light” is a guitar rave-up in the style of Jett’s “Bad Reputation” (itself a rewrite of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”). The album’s first single, “For the First Time” lapses into Cosentino’s old bad habit of stuffing in so many words that the vocal is disconnected from the drums and bass. Much better is a song about “Wreckage,” which pares back the language (about past self-damage and present self-preservation) so every syllable lands on a beat. The rhythm reinforces the melody; the tune reinforces the beat, and both reinforce the words. “Rollercoaster,” “Master of My Own Mind” and “Make It Last” all benefit from a like leanness of language and a similar bonding of punch and vocal notes.

This sound never goes out of style. Because it’s reduced to basics, there’s no fashion of the moment left to make it sound dated. The physical thrill of the beat never gets tiresome, because the emotional thrill of the tune offers something else. And vice versa. And the two elements aren’t merely placed side by side but welded together.

It took Jett a while to find this sound. She made three albums as the lead guitarist in the Runaways, a band of five teenage girls assembled by Svengali Kim Fowley and marketed as jailbait, and two more albums as the group’s lead singer. On New Year’s Day, 1979, she was a 20 year old with a controversial past and an uncertain future. She spent the next year with producer/songwriter Kenny Laguna and various versions of the Blackhearts and toured the world without a record deal on the strength of her notoriety as a Runaway.

She spent that year honing her sound and three cornerstones of her solo-career-to-be appeared on her 1980, self-released solo debut, Joan Jett (later reissued as Bad Reputation): two originals (“Bad Reputation” and “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got”) and a remake of Gary Glitter’s 1973 U.K. glam-rock hit, “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah).” The original version suffered from Glitter’s rather wooden performance and the clunky production, but the song was so good that it was a hit anyway. Jett was never wooden, Laguna never clunky, and the remake had a loosey-goosey grandeur that made every listener’s fingers itchy to touch someone.

Listen to Joan Jett perform at the Ritz on New Year’s Eve 1981:

Years later, in 1999, Glitter was convicted for child pornography and child sexual abuse, which confused everyone’s feelings about the song. A cover version by Gwyneth Paltrow for the TV series Glee was withdrawn from the soundtrack album when it was pointed out how much money Glitter would make in songwriting royalties. His songs largely vanished from the internet. When Green Day realized the same thing, they announced they would donate the royalties from their version to the International Justice Mission and to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Jett was also in the news recently when Alan Merrill, the co-writer of “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” died of the coronavirus on March 20. Merrill and his songwriting partner Jake Hooker were American musicians leading the British glam-rock band the Arrows. Jett heard them perform the song on their weekly TV show while the Runaways were in England in 1976. Jett eventually unleased the full potential of that song just as she had with “Do You Want To Touch Me.”

These past associations make it easy to think of Jett as a party girl stomping her way through party songs. But as she evolved, she became a lot more than that. The resistance she got to being a female bandleader in a hard-rock world dominated by men—and often chauvinist men—gave her feminist instincts, which led her to other political causes.

By 1992, she’d become so intrigued by the riot grrrl movement that she checked out Bikini Kill at a New York club date in 1992. Jett was so impressed by the band’s aggressive rhythms and catchy riffs that she hung around after the show to meet the young musicians backstage. She was astonished to learn that the band’s lead singer Kathleen Hanna was a big fan of Jett’s first band, the Runaways.

“It was kind of embarrassing,” Jett told me in 1995, “because I wasn’t sure they’d even heard of me. I don’t want to be up on a pedestal. If I or the Runaways inspired any women to pick up a guitar and start a band, that’s great. But if there were women who hated the Runaways so much that they said, ‘I can do better than that’ and started a band, that would be just as great.”

Hanna asked Jett to produce a three-song EP for Bikini Kill, so Jett flew out to Seattle and found herself immersed in that city’s fertile yet tragedy-plagued alternative-rock scene. Jett was so inspired by the experience that she wrote a song called “Activity Grrrl” for her next album, 1994’s Pure and Simple (Blackheart/Warner Bros.), her best album in a decade. The record included four songs co-written by Hanna plus musical contributions from Hanna, Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland and Donita Sparks and Jennifer Finch of L7.

One of the Jett-Hanna songs, “Go Home,” was inspired by the previous fall’s rape and murder of Mia Zapata, a member of the Seattle riot grrrl band, the Gits. In the video, shot in film-noir black-and-white, Jett played a woman who leaves a rock club late at night and walks a few blocks to the subway, only to realize she’s being stalked by a man. It climaxes with the man assaulting her in an empty subway car even as Jett is screaming “No! No! No!” on the soundtrack over crashing guitar chords. In the end, Jett knees the would-be rapist in the groin and gets away safely.

Jett agreed to play a few songs with the surviving Gits at a Seattle benefit concert to raise money to hire a private investigator to search for Zapata’s killer. Rehearsals went so well that Jett decided to play a whole set with the Gits. The set went so well at the benefit that it was expanded into full length album, composed of both studio and live cuts.

The album was called Evil Stig, which is Gits Live spelled backwards, to deflect attention away from Jett and keep the focus on Zapata. The recording included nine songs co-written by Zapata and the Gits, two from Jett’s Pure and Simple, a new song co-written by Jett and the surviving Gits, and a remake of Jett’s famous arrangement of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover.”

Despite its impromptu origins, the collaboration reflected the best-possible combination of the Gits’ punk-rock energy with Jett’s sure pop instincts. The Gits’ staccato, Ramones-like riffing stripped all the arena-rock bombast from Jett’s performances, and her big, attractive voice put across the melodies and words of the songs as few punk-rockers could. It may well have been the peak of Jett’s astonishing career, a career that’s still underrated, even as she continues to inspire a new generation from Green Day to Best Coast.

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