Why I Love “I Love Rock ‘N Roll”
I first heard Joan Jett sing “I love Rock ‘n Roll” in the late winter/early spring of 1982. For the last few years I had a portable turntable and a couple of Beatles albums; I loved the music, but around the time I turned eleven I was looking for more. I knew there was something else out there, I had heard of KISS from my older cousin, and there were kids in the halls of school wearing Van Halen t-shirts. Those kids with their black t-shirts and ripped jeans represented cool to me. I knew I was missing out on something big and bad, and I wanted in. My allowance was somewhere around two dollars a week and there was no way my parents would buy me the rock records I craved or the sartorial trappings associated with them. I had to get my hands on a radio and fast. There was an old monophonic transistor radio with a broken plug in the garage, and I convinced my dad to help me fix it. That, as the saying goes, was the beginning of the end.
The epiphany came one afternoon after school before my parents came home from work. I was tuned in to Q107, a D.C. top forty station, and somewhere in between songs by Devo, Styx, and the like, the pounding drums and crunching guitars of the intro to “I love Rock and Roll” hit me like a ton of bricks. I was hooked, even though I didn’t know who Joan Jett was, she was singing directly to me. I was the one standing there by the record machine, and I wished I had a pocket full of change so I could “put another dime in the jukebox, Baby!” This was the music I was looking for: loud, rebellious and fun. My musical tastes have expanded dramatically over the last twenty-seven years, but when it comes to straight forward rock, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts have always been my central reference point. I got my hands on a copy of I Love Rock n Roll sometime in late 82 or early 83, and since then I have never been without the album in one format or another.
The significance of I Love Rock n Roll as part of my musical coming of age makes more sense now, after studying the history of rock and roll. In many ways Joan Jett’s seminal album of the same name represents a homage to the rock and roll that preceded her. There is a direct lineage from the music of Joan Jett & The Blackhearts back to the early years of rock and roll. In the mid 1950s Chuck Berry taught us that all you need are drums, bass, and guitar. Add in some distortion, some screaming vocals invoking the power of rock and roll, turn up the volume, and let it rip. That was Berry’s formula, and it is Joan Jett & The Blackhearts formula, simple, pure, and powerful. The music and attitude of Joan Jett & The Blackhearts is also directly influenced by Elvis’ sneer, you can almost hear it, and Little Richard’s flamboyance.
Joan Jett’s first rock group, Runaways, five teenage rockers blasting out three chord rock, and The Blackhearts owe a direct debt to the girl groups and garage rock of the early sixties. Girl groups like the Shirelles and the Crystals broke down the gender barrier in rock. The music may have been over-produced pop, but it established the iconography of girl groups as a viable and respectable sub-genre of rock. Not just Joan Jett and the Runaways, but the Go-Gos, the Bangles, and multitudinous other girl groups and rock bands fronted by women were following the trail blazed by the girl groups of the early sixties. The influence of the garage bands of the early 60s on the sound of the Runaways and The Blackhearts is undeniable. Just like the Kingsmen, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, and ? and the Mysterians, Joan Jett and The Blackhearts sprang from an era of overblown production to reclaim rock for the masses. None of the 60s garage bands were virtuosic musicians and neither are Jett and The Blackhearts but they can, did, and still do one thing really well – they rock. Just like Louie Louie and Wooly Bully all you need to play “I Love Rock and Roll” are a few instruments, some amps, a place to play them loud, and lots of attitude.
Joan Jett and The Blackhearts were also influenced by the glam bands of the 1970s. No one can watch Jett strut her stuff on stage in her black leather clad androgynous glory without thinking back to David Bowie and Gary Glitter. If guys can dress up like girls why can’t girls dress up like guys? But the music of Joan Jett and The Blackhearts does not have the artifice of glam; it is straightforward rock. And this points to the power of I Love Rock ‘n Roll, Jett took what she needed from the 50s, 60s, and 70s and left the pomposity to prog-rock and heavy metal.
“I Love Rock ‘n Roll” is what rock and roll is all about. Sure it is derivative, but it is also moving forward. Can you even imagine bands like L7, Bikini Kill, and the Breeders making it, without Joan Jett coming first? Jett put the riot in riot girls, she showed a new generation that girls can rock. If not for her, women in rock would have been restricted to the pop of Madonna and En Vogue, and for that I am truly thankful.
“I Love Rock ‘n Roll” represents everything I love about rock music, it is three chords of simplistic beauty. Loud and rebellious but fun at the same time, it remains timeless both in its nod to the past and influence on the future of rock music. Like a stripped down, souped up Rocket 88, I Love Rock ‘n Roll will always be my vehicle of choice when the rubber meets the road on the rock and roll highway.
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