Los Angeles in the 1970's: The rock 'n' roll world of the Sunset Strip, freewheeling use of chemical substances and female students banned from playing "masculine" instruments in the school band. Evelyn McDonnell's new biography, "Queens of Noise: The Real Story of The Runaways," offers a new take on the journey of five L.A. strangers on the cusp of womanhood merging together to form the first teenage all-girl hard-rock band.
The five women, including rhythm guitarist Joan Jett and drummer Sandy West, delivered music driven by teenage desire, frustration and rebellion. With provocative lyrics and a rambunctious attitude, The Runaways were determined to prove they could share the same level of success as their male counterparts, aspiring to be the female answer to Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. Despite enjoying little commercial success in their short four years together, The Runaways indisputably helped carve the path for a slew of all-female American rock bands, including The Go-Go's, L7 and The Donnas.
From the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll world of the Sunset Strip to the subvert sexism and misogyny endured by the band members, the multilayered biography presents the cultural context of '70s Los Angeles in vivid detail. McDonnell captures the essence of the framework through a comprehensive analysis of the enigmatic city, paralleling English architecture scholar, Reynor Banham, who praises it as a place of "paradise" with a nurturing "sandy bosom" to that of American novelist, Peter Plagen, who describes L.A. as a city with "all ideas and no principals" and "all flesh and no soul."
Drawing on interviews with surviving members and band associates, as well as the unpublished memoir of the late Sandy West, McDonnell, an accomplished music critic, offers a balanced and unique insight into the journey of the band from their inorganic inception, to their peak of fame in Japan and ultimate breakup in 1979. The eccentric and controversial mastermind behind The Runaways, L.A. music producer Kim Fowley, also holds a strong presence in the narrative, though ultimately is portrayed as an elusive figure resembling both the liberation and exploitation of young women.
McDonnell's extensively researched work offers a candid insight into the euphoric, liberating (and sometimes perilous) rock 'n' roll scene of the '70s. "Queens of Noise" effectively captures the tumultuous history of The Runaways and aptly places their journey in musical, feminist and cultural history.