When it comes to music, some artists are trailblazers, some are hitmakers, and some serve as inspirations to subsequent generations. Once in a while, an artist comes along that manages to combine all of that, but rarely do they do it with the longevity and pure rock power of Joan Jett. With a career that stretches back more than 45 years, she’s been a bandmate, a songwriter, a producer, a frontwoman, a label founder, an actress, and a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. 40 years ago this week, Jett and her band, The Blackhearts, dropped the seminal album I Love Rock ‘n Roll; their titular cover of a tune by The Arrows has never gone away, becoming one of the most popular songs ever recorded. We have more than four decades of proof that Jett indeed loves rock, but here are five reasons we love her.
1. She’s a Runaway
Born Joan Marie Larkin, Jett started playing guitar at 13. After a family move to L.A. County, she began to find a musical scene that suited her, and adopted her stage name. In 1975, she co-founded The Runaways, an all-female rock band that would include fellow future solo star Lita Ford and future Bangle Michael (Micki) Steele. Their self-titled 1976 debut scored them opening gigs with acts like Van Halen and Cheap Trick, putting them right in the center of that decade’s boom of new rock bands. However, they gravitated more toward the punk movement of the time, becoming friends with both American and U.K. acts like The Ramones and The Damned. With rotating membership and battles over music direction within the band, The Runaways had stopped running by 1979 after four albums and a live release. Nevertheless, the band would be remembered as a huge influence on the female-fronted bands that followed, including The Go-Gos and L7. A 2010 feature film, The Runaways, told the story of the group; Jett was an executive producer and was played by Kristen Stewart.
2. She Co-Founded Her Own Label.
After The Runaways, Jett teamed up with producer Kenny Laguna. In 1980, Jett recorded her solo debut, Joan Jett, which would later be retitled Bad Reputation. The record got released in Europe that May, but Jett and Laguna got turned down by a whopping 23 labels as they shopped it in the States. Frustrated but empowered by punk’s DIY aesthetic, Jett and Laguna founded their own label, Blackheart Records, and put the album out themselves. Though the duo initially only sold the album at Jett’s shows, it made enough of an impact that Boardwalk Records picked up distribution. The album got decent reviews and would be primed for chart success after Jett’s ascent the following year; it hit the Top 100 chart in the wake of I Love Rock ‘n Roll. As for Blackheart Records, it’s still rocking today; Jett’s albums have always been released via the label (occasionally in partnership with other distributors) and they’ve carried acts like L7, rapper Big Daddy Kane, and Metal Church.
3. She Loves Rock and Roll.
For her second album, Jett assembled the first version of her ongoing backing band, The Blackhearts. It included guitarist Ricky Byrd, bassist Gary Ryan, and drummer Lee Crystal. This line-up would last through a good chunk of the 1980s and, along with Laguna and Jett, would be the members officially inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. Recorded through of the summer of 1981, I Love Rock ‘n Roll released 40 years ago this week. The title single hit stores and radio a couple of weeks later and exploded. The video hit heavy rotation on fledgling MTV as the song rocketed up the charts. It would hold the #1 spot for seven straight weeks in the U.S. in the spring of 1982 and reach #1 in ten other countries; it was the #3 song of the year for 1982 in the U.S. and remains on Billboard’s all-time Hot 100. The album managed to hit #2 on its own chart. The single has been heaped with critical acclaim, including places on both Billboard’s and Rolling Stones’ lists of the Greatest Songs of All Time and enshrinement in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
4. She Never Stops.
Jett has continued to write, record, and tour for more than four decades. In 1988, Jett co-wrote her other biggest song, “I Hate Myself for Loving You” with Desmond Child, known for his work with everyone from Bon Jovi to Kelly Clarkson. Though the song peaked at #8, it stayed in the Hot 100 six weeks longer than “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” did. And, of course, it was adapted into “Waiting All Day for Sunday Night,” the opening theme for NBC’s long-running Sunday Night Football (that is, of course, Jett on guitar). During this period, Jett also played Michael J. Fox’s sister and fellow musician in Light of Day, performing the title track written by Bruce Springsteen, and co-wrote Alice Cooper’s hit “House of Fire.”
5. She’s Both Icon and Inspiration.
When alternative rock erupted into the mainstream in the 1990s, dozens of artists cited Jett as an influence. In particular, the “Riot Grrrl movement” of female-fronted punk bands acknowledged her, earning the nickname “The Original Riot Grrrl.” Other titles heaped on Jett include “The Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “The Godmother of Punk.” As she never stops touring, Jett has had the opportunity to play alongside many of the acts that she’s influenced. When Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, the surviving members called upon Jett to perform their anthem, “Smells Like Spirit,” with them at the induction. Equally at home in just about any subgenre of rock, Jett has hoisted her familiar Gibson Melody Maker guitar on tours with acts as diverse as Green Day and Alice Cooper. She has her own fashion line from Hot Topic, her own comic books based on her songs from Z2, and an official Barbie doll from Mattel in her honor.
From bands to solo work, from label founder to musical statesperson, few artists cut the same striking figure in music history as Joan Jett. Tough and independent and seemingly tireless, she has continued on while some of her contemporaries have fallen by the wayside, and lasted long enough to play alongside artists that got into music because of her. At this writing, Jett and the Blackhearts are booked on a package tour for most of 2022 with Poison, Def Leppard, and Mötley Crüe before returning to headlining gigs next fall. She obviously loves her work, which is, of course, rock and roll, and we will never hate ourselves for loving her.
Featured image: Randy Miramontez / Shutterstock
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