Joan Jett on stage in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2014.
With classic singles like "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and "Bad Reputation," Joan Jett established a brand of punkish hard rock & roll that would inspire millions of barroom singalongs and influence a generation of female rockers. Jett was one of the most surprising success stories of the 1980s. The latter-day leader of the all-female teenage hard-rock group the Runaways, Jett could barely get a U.S. deal for her first solo album at the beginning of 1981. But one year later her second solo LP, I Love Rock 'N' Roll, had a Number One single with its title track and went platinum. Jett couldn't maintain that level of mainstream pop success, but she's continued recording and touring to a significant fanbase well into the 21st Century.
Born Joan Larkin on September 22, 1960, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, her family moved to Baltimore when she was in grade school and to Southern California when she was 14. That Christmas she got her first guitar. Her initial and continuing inspiration was the British early-Seventies glitter-pop of T. Rex, Gary Glitter, Slade, David Bowie, and Suzi Quatro, whose tough stance Jett most closely emulated. At 15 she met producer Kim Fowley at Hollywood's Starwood Club and became part of his group, the Runaways. The band gave its last show New Year's Eve 1978 in San Francisco.
In spring 1979 Jett was in England trying to get a solo project going. While there she cut three songs with ex-Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones, two of which came out as a single in Holland only. Back on the West Coast, Jett produced the debut album by early L.A. punk band the Germs and acted in a movie based on the Runaways (with actresses playing the rest of the band) called We're All Crazy Now (its title taken from a Slade song). The movie was never released, but while working on it Jett met Kenny Laguna (producer of Jonathan Richman, Greg Kihn, and the Steve Gibbons Band) and Ritchie Cordell (bubblegum legend who cowrote Tommy James and the Shondells' "I Think We're Alone Now" and "Mony Mony").
Jett fell ill and spent six weeks in the hospital suffering from pneumonia and a heart-valve infection. She then assembled a solo debut, with Laguna and Cordell producing, using the Jones-Cook British tracks plus guest musicians Sean Tyla and Blondie's Clem Burke and Frank Infante. As Joan Jett, the album came out in Europe only. It was rejected by every major label in the U.S., and finally Laguna put out the LP himself. After much positive U.S. press, the album was picked up by Boardwalk in January 1981 and renamed Bad Reputation. Although its title track eventually became an early pop-punk anthem, the album didn't sell well.
After a year of touring with her band the Blackhearts, Jett's second album, even harder-rocking than the first, came out in December 1981, an included a version of "Little Drummer Boy" on the pre-Christmas editions. It immediately bolted up the chart, aided by a remake of a B side by the Arrows, the pop-metal title song "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," which hit Number One in early 1982. Jett reached the Top 20 twice more that year with a pair of covers, Tommy James' "Crimson and Clover" (Number Seven) and Gary Glitter's "Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)" (Number 20).
Jett's popularity has been sporadic ever since. The followup to I Love Rock 'n' Roll went gold but contained only the Top Forty "Fake Friends"; by the time of 1988's Up Your Alley, Jett's career appeared all but finished. The previous year, her foray into film (Light of Day, the story of a struggling rock & roll band, starring Michael J. Fox) had fared poorly at the box office, and even her version of the title song, penned by Bruce Springsteen, failed to break the Top 30. But the platinum Up Your Alley put Jett's gritty, unadorned hard rock back on the chart with "I Hate Myself for Loving You" (Number 8, 1988) and "Little Liar" (Number 19, 1988). Then came another dry spell, broken only by yet another cover tune: AC/DC's vengeful "Dirty Deeds" (Number 36, 1990).
In 1992 Jett left Epic Records for Warner Bros. At a time when she was verging on becoming a punk anachronism, she was frequently cited as an archetype of the so-called Riot Grrrl movement of women-led punk bands. She produced a single for Bikini Kill, whose singer Kathleen Hanna then cowrote four songs on Jett's 1994 album, Pure and Simple. Despite that album's positive reviews, Jett wasn't able to keep the momentum going. She released a live disc with the Gits (a punk band whose singer, Mia Zapata, had been murdered) under the moniker Evil Stig and continued to associate with the indie-rock scene, but her own output since Pure and Simple has been slim. In addition to a pair of compilations, there have been only 1999's R-rated Fetish (a mix of old, rare, and new songs mostly focusing on sex), 2004's Naked (released in Japan only with Jett on the cover, topless, with the title written to obscure her breasts) and Sinner (2006), which repackaged Naked with a different cover and some different tracks for U.S. audiences. The 2001 EP Unfinished Business collects five sports-related songs, including a version of "Love Is All Around" (the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show).
In 1999 she and the Blackhearts performed for allied troops in the Balkans. At the end of 2000 Jett joined the Broadway cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, playing Columbia and Usherette. She has continued to tour and perform, sometimes sharing bills with veteran acts including Alice Cooper, Motorhead and Aerosmith. She's also continued working with indie rockers; she sang on the 2006 Peaches album Impeach My Bush. Jett was an executive producer of the 2010 biopic The Runaways, starring Kristen Stewart as a young Jett and Dakota Fanning as her friend and Runaways band mate Cherie Currie.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this story.