Years later, artist proves she still loves rock 'n roll

May 28, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Joan Jett loves rock 'n roll - her way. Although her career has dipped and peaked several times over the past 30 years, the influential musician refuses to alter her stripped approach. Trends, fads, record-label politics be damned.

"Musically for me, there isn't much of an evolution," the artist says. "I still play three-chord rock 'n roll. That's what I do."

In the 24 years since Jett's stomping signature, "I Love Rock 'n Roll," topped the pop charts for eight weeks, she has become an iconic figure for generations of female rockers. An uncompromising artist with an entrepreneurial spirit, she founded Blackheart Records in 1981 after 28 major and minor labels rejected her. She has since amassed eight gold and platinum albums and nine Top 40 hits.

However, a decade has passed since Jett's last major release, Pure and Simple, issued by Warner Bros. in 1994. Although in that time she has toured here and there, done some acting and even hosted a Sirius radio show, the rocker's profile has been relatively low.

But that's about to change this summer as Jett, 47, performs alongside established and burgeoning acts half her age on the national Vans Warped Tour, which stops at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia on June 15. Today, at the same venue, the veteran artist will share the main stage with celebrated garage-rock band the Strokes (and others) at HFStival.

"It's like a homecoming for me," says Jett, who lived in Rockville in the late '60s and early '70s. The musician is calling from New York City. "I've lost my accent, but I'm still a Maryland girl. With HFStival and the Warped Tour, I don't think it's that strange to play for young fans. Our fan base spans from kids to people in their 50s and 60s who just want to rock out."

The high-profile touring will help build momentum for her first album in a decade, Sinner, which will be released by Blackheart Records on June 6.

"With a title like that, the release date, 6-6-06, seems appropriate, huh?" Jett says with a throaty chuckle.

Good timing

To celebrate her label's 25th anniversary, the singer-songwriter-guitarist will remaster and reissue her early '80s recordings, the bulk of which has been out of print since 2000.

Jett couldn't have picked a better a time to resurface. Snarly punk aesthetics and visceral, straight-no-chaser musicianship (elements that have always emboldened the artist's work) have turned bands like the Killers, the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs into critical darlings and strong sellers.

"It's a great time for the music I've been doing," Jett says. "Being a fan of guitar-based music, it's great for me to get out there and absorb all these new bands. I grew up listening to Minor Threat, AC/DC and all that, so that's all a part of my music."

The artist's love for rock was sparked in the early '70s, around the time her family moved to Los Angeles. At age 15, the former Joan Larkin formed her first band, the Runaways, which recorded for Mercury during the mid-'70s. At the time, though, the all-female group was dismissed by critics as a gimmick: a quintet of camera-ready, teenage girls with attitude to spare, churning out loud, hard rock on instruments they were just learning to play. The Runaways' most memorable hit was the 1976 rebel-girl anthem, "Cherry Bomb," written by Jett.

After the quintet disbanded in 1979, the musician immediately embarked on a solo career, independently releasing her self-titled debut in 1980, which she co-produced with manager Kenny Laguna. The next year, Boardwalk Records reissued the album under the title Bad Reputation. Between that release and 1981's I Love Rock `N Roll, Jett formed the Blackhearts with guitarist Ricky Byrd, bassist Gary Ryan and drummer Lee Crystal.

In the middle of the decade, Jett's recording career dipped a bit as popular tastes turned to more heavily produced, synthesized sounds. By the end of the '80s, though, the Philadelphia-born rocker was back in the Top 10 again with "I Hate Myself for Loving You." The start of the '90s was another slow period for Jett as grunge and hip-hop took over airwaves. However, by the middle of the decade, with the emergence of no-nonsense female rock acts like L7 and Bikini Kill, Jett was acknowledged as a figurehead in the "riot grrrl" punk movement.

"I play what's honest," she says, "but it's always nice when your work is recognized by others."

Broader scope

On Sinner, produced by the performer and longtime partner Laguna, Jett's music is as powerful as ever. But this time, she has stretched her lyrical scope more. "In the past," Jett says, "the songs were about [being] in and out of relationships, sex, love, and some of the [new] songs are still about those things. But Sinner expands lyrically into other issues like politics and social issues. I wondered, though, how do you do that and not be dogmatic or preachy?"

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