The Runaways - Dead End Justice
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Justice is something the Runaways never got. Despite launching Joan Jett and Lita Ford, being called seminal by dozens of better-respected all-female bands since, and possibly aiding singer Cherie Currie in pursuing a career as a chainsaw carver, the actually-quite-nifty '70s girl band never got out from under the weight of their perceived Big Sin: they were a gimmick, a bit of eye-and-brainstem candy svengalied into existence to push buttons. Part of this misconception can be blamed on sexism—what could girls with guitars be but props?—but some of the blame must fall on the Runaways themselves.
In many ways this most nakedly manipulated of bands pulled their own strings. Producer Kim Fowley nudged together Joan Jett and drummer Sandy West—both 16—but only because they asked; he probably did see the potential in simultaneously empowering chicks and titillating dudes, but it was hard to miss. Hiring another teenager, Lita Ford, as lead guitarist seems less like branding when you actually hear Lita Ford: her spacious growls mesh so seamlessly with the band's foggy-neon sound you can imagine a dozen twentysomethings auditioned and turned away.
No, the Runaways were never under the shadowy thumb of some genius; their talent, their music, and their image were their own, and so was their great flaw: so beholden was the band to the idea of being bad girls that they were never confident you believed them. Debut album The Runaways, which hooks you with the deservedly canonized "Cherry Bomb,” doesn't reel you in but continues to strut in exactly the same way for eight more songs. Those eight have their pleasures (particularly "Blackmail,” which commences with one of the mid-'70s' better screams and allows Ford and hired bassist Nigel Harrison the sexiest interactions on the album), but it isn't until the record's last seven minutes that the Runaways escape the orbit of their collective persona—not by breaking away but by diving in.
At first, "Dead End Justice" doesn't break at all from the album's template. Indeed, it seems to protest too much: Cherie Currie lets us know she looks real hot in her tight jeans; Joan Jett says that in her mother's opinion she's going straight to hell. The album's titillating anthropology goes so far here that it becomes moralizing: when Currie and Jett wail about "dead-end kids in the danger zone" the danger zone's a less joyous place than Kenny Loggins would later find it. Only the unusually propulsive chug Lita Ford lays under her bandmates' boasting foreshadows what's to come, when at the two-minute mark the song grows so frantic it and its singers appear to faint. Currie and Jett wake to find themselves in juvie; "Dead End Justice" wakes to find itself a musical.
The ensuing five minutes are so peculiar it's easy to dismiss them as camp. The Runaways' fuzzy, overloaded hard rock is replaced by a sharp, spare drumbeat; when Currie tries to dress things up by casting herself as a future song-and-dance girl "who never had a chance," Jett hilariously undercuts the development by sneering, "You don't sing and dance in juvie, honey." The aspiring-singer motif thus abandoned, Currie and Jett circle each other as the band quitely shores up the sonic set, twining bass around the drumbeat and still hinting of drama to come. Finally it does, when the two girls, now friends, attempt an escape; Cherie, the weaker of the two, worries she's too tired to go on. Joan's ensuing pep talk is cut short when her partner sustains a vague and apparently immobilizing injury to her ankle. Cherie insists that Joan go on without her; Joan can't leave Cherie; the background tattoo intensifies; Cherie tells Joan to save herself. Then, just as the drums rumble back into hard-rock formation and Lita Ford takes up her axe, Joan Jett gasps "Oh my God." Hers are the last words on the album.
Again: almost camp. But the Runaways' refusal to pull faces for "Dead End Justice"'s seven minutes elevates it to the realm of great album closers, marks it as the best song on the band's debut, and erects scaffolding for the looser, more dynamic songs on the superior Queens of Noise. The enforced delinquency that suffocates most of The Runaways is redeemed at the last moment by the band's sheer enthusiasm for it, and Currie and Jett's one-note personas are replaced by something far trickier than "vulnerability": a shaded, habitable toughness. They still don't need you, or Mom, or anyone, but they twist their ankles and go back for their friends; they stop being cartoons and finally become the awesome girls advertised. It's a bizarre, tumultuous exception of a song, and were these girls the pawns they've been cast as it's a good bet The Runaways would have ended a track earlier, the band still imprisoned, unable to perform. You don't sing and dance in juvie.