Singer, songwriter, producer. Born Joan Larkin on September 22, 1960, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. One of the top women in rock, Joan Jett had a string of hits during the 1980s and 1990s. Her passion for music began early, and she received her first guitar at the age of 14.
Moving to southern California, Jett began frequenting a popular youth club known as Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco. There, she found inspiration from the glam rock stars of the day. “I learned to scream from Marc Bolan of T. Rex,” Jett explained to Esquire.
Jett started her musical career as a teenager, forming her first serious band, the Runaways, at the age of 15. The final line-up included Jett on guitar and vocals; Sandy West on drums; Cherie Currie on lead vocals; Jackie Fox on bass guitar; and Lita Ford on guitar. The band was ahead of its time in many ways, with its hard-rock sound emerging during an era when disco music was king. They also felt dismissed by audiences and critics because of their young age and their gender; the public didn’t seem to know what to do with five girls who sang about sex, rebelling, and partying. The musicians’ fashion choices also alienated them from mainstream fans; Currie chose to wear lingerie on stage, and Jett often appeared in her trademark red, leather jumpsuit.
In 1976, the Runaways released their first self-titled album, which failed to impress critics and music buyers alike. Still, the song “Cherry Bomb,” with its rebellious and raw edge, which Jett wrote with friend Kim Fowley, became a punk hit. The following year, the Runaways released their sophomore effort, Queens of Noise, which featured such tracks as “Born to Be Bad” and “Neon Angels.” While the album performed poorly in the U.S., the Runaways received a warm welcome in Japan, scoring three gold records there.
After Currie and Fox left in mid-1977, Jett emerged as the group’s lead singer. She was already a powerful force behind the scenes, writing most of the Runaways’ songs. The band struggled through two more albums before they were dropped from their record label. The group called it quits in 1979. “When the Runaways broke up, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. A breakup is like losing a very good friend. It’s like a death,” Jett later explained to Esquire.
Deciding to pursue a solo career, Jett spent some time in England working with Paul Cook and Steve Jones, both former members of the legendary punk band the Sex Pistols. She then returned to Los Angeles where she worked as a producer for the first album of the L.A. punk band the Germs. She also tried acting, appearing in a film based on the story of the Runaways entitled We’re All Crazy Now. Around this time, Jett met producer Kenny Laguna and songwriter Ritchie Cordell. Both men helped her with her first solo album.
Jett tried to get a record label to distribute her new album, but she was rejected by 23 different companies. Out of frustration, she and Laguna founded Blackheart Records in 1980. In making the record, she got help from an unlikely source—rock supergroup the Who. Laguna was friends with the band members and their manager, and they let Jett use their recording facilities. She later told Rolling Stone magazine that “We wouldn’t have been able to make the record if they hadn’t helped us. They basically let us record what became Bad Reputation and [said], ‘Pay us when you can.'”
At first, Jett and Laguna printed and distributed the record themselves, selling copies at Jett’s shows. The record then was picked up by Boardwalk Records and re-released as Bad Reputation. Her rock-pop sound, however, didn’t quite catch on. Not one to give up, Jett toured with her band, the Blackhearts, and put together another album. I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll became a huge hit, driven in large part to the title track, which hit the top of the pop charts in early 1982. She had two more hit singles that year with her version of Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover” and Gary Glitter’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah).”
Building on her newfound fame, Jett released Album in 1983, but it failed to match her earlier success. It featured the top 40 single, “Fake Friends,” and a cover of Sly and the Family Stones’ hit “Everyday People.” Her next effort, 1984’s Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth, offered listeners her remake of “Cherry Bomb,” but it did not fare well on the charts.
Jett again tried acting with a role in Light of Day with Michael J. Fox. The film failed with critics and at the box office, but she had a minor hit with the theme song, a Bruce Springsteen cover. Just when it looked like her career was in decline, Jett returned to the charts in 1988 with two hits, “I Hate Myself for Loving You” and “Little Liar” from her Up Your Alley album.
In 1990, Jett released a collection of cover songs, The Hit List, which included the minor hit “Dirty Deeds,” originally performed by AC/DC. Two more albums followed with little commercial success. She did, however, receive a lot of positive reviews for 1994’s Pure and Simple. The title came from her style of music. “Our music is still pure and simple basic rock,” she told Guitar Player. “We never stopped playing three-chord rock and roll.”
Outside of her own music, Jett worked as a producer for groups such as Bikini Kill and L7, along with several other female-led rock bands that drew inspiration from Jett and the punk-glam rock sound of the Runaways. She also recorded with the surviving members of the Seattle punk band the Gits as Evil Stig.
In 1999, Jett released Fetish, which featured a mix of old and new material. She took a long break between full studio efforts as she faced difficulties with her record company. Her next full studio album was 2004’s Naked, quickly followed by 2006’s Sinner, both of which she released through her own record label. Sinner marked a change in direction for Jett. The song “Riddles” was her first political song, which she wrote as “a commentary on the state of our country,” she explained in Interview magazine.
While mainstream hits have eluded her in recent years, Jett continues to tour extensively and plays a variety of gigs. “I love playing fairs. I think they’re great, because you get out and you see America. We always have wonderful, very boisterous crowds. You see families; you see lots of kids. And it’s great,” she said.
Jett has also taken an active part in signing bands to her record label. “We made Blackheart Records what we wanted it to be,” Jett said. “It’s a place where girls can feel comfortable to be—both in a work environment and on an artistic level.” Current acts with Blackheart include Girl in a Coma and the Dollyrots.
In the film world, Jett has played an important role in the biopic The Runaways, a film based on Cherie Currie’s biography Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story. She served as an executive producer on the project, and assisted actress Kristen Stewart with her portrayal of Jett. Jett gave the actress audio tapes from when she was 14 years old, which were meant to help Stewart capture Jett’s distinct accent—”a combination of Maryland–East Coast–Philadelphia slang,” Jett said. The two also spent a lot of time together. “I was there to be a resource for Kristen. She watched me a lot—the way I spoke . . . the way I moved in space, everything,” she explained.
Away from work, Jett devotes much of her time to social causes. She is active with Farm Sanctuary, an animal protection organization. Jett is also a vegetarian, but says her “goal is to be vegan. It helps the animals and the earth.”