Though coarse stomps like “Bad Reputation” and “Cherry Bomb” have established Joan Jett as an eternal teen rebel who loves rock & roll for its simple beat and insolent stance, she has grown into a multidimensional songwriter. Like the masters she honors in her music, Jett has lasted long enough to contribute to rock history, paving the way for impenitent rockers like the Georgia Satellites and Joanna Dean. On Up Your Alley, her sixth album since leaving the Runaways, Jett tries to fill the gaps left by the inactivity of the Pretenders and the Rolling Stones. And she nearly succeeds.
“With the music loud/Your life gets better somehow,” Jett sings on “Play That Song Again,” the album’s last track. A steadfast hard-rock acolyte, Jett usually uncovers something new within the three-chord tradition. In her continuing series of revealing covers, she follows “Tulane,” a generic Chuck Berry composition, with an inspired reading of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the Stooges’ 1969 depiction of puppy love gone rabid; the juxtaposition suggests a historical and thematic link that only a sharp-eyed fan would notice. She cites yet another hero on “Ridin’ with James Dean,” although, significantly, Jett reproaches the actor for his early death; in her mind, rebels should have a cause, even if it’s only rock & roll.
The Blackhearts’ sound is shaped by guitarist Ricky Byrd, the band’s only constant member, who prefers force to grace and distorted chords to virtuoso solos. Without compromising the songs, he and Jett vary them with a few trusty hard-rock tricks and some guest musicians. The Uptown Horns double the album’s grittiness, and former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor bolsters the crunch of “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” a perfect summer single.
Maybe if Jett didn’t look and act like a cover girl for Outlaw Biker, tough-talking tracks like “Little Liar” and “Back It Up” would be recognized for their underlying strength and dignity, and Jett would get more recognition for her reliability. Although she didn’t blossom until 1984’s Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth, Jett is one of rock’s few contemporary women — both serious and trashy, tough and tender. In this decade, Chrissie Hynde, Joan Armatrading and Annie Lennox are the only other women who have confounded rock stereotypes as successfully and interestingly as Joan has. And certainly no one else has done it at such a volume.