Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Runaways at CBGB's and Palladium, 1976-78

FFotos (c) Robert Barry Francos

I was interested in seeing the “Queens of Noise” (as opposed to the noise of Queens) when they played in New York City for the first time, in 1976. The five barely-post-adolescent The Runaways were scheduled to play CBGB. Their self-titled album was rocking, but was still a more pop version of what Suzi Quatro was doing – which was rock on out like the boys.

Before compromising her credibility by appearing as Leather, Pinky Tuscadero’s twice-thigh-slapping-and-pointing sister on Happy Days, Suzi was a guiding force and prime inspiration in woman-led rock. She was cute and she could pound her ax, growl, and “rock hard” with the best. When I saw her open for Alice Cooper at Madison Square Garden, I went out and bought a few of her LPs.

[Joan Jett, The Runaways, CBGB's, 1978]
The Runaways, as envisioned and “created” by mentor Kim Fowley, were a group of valley girls (well, at the time, any teenage female from LA was a valley girl to any self-respecting New Yorker) who could fill the fantasies of teenage heavy music boys (and some horny old coots). The music press couldn’t get enough of the band in the late 1970s, covering them in several magazines, including People, Rock Scene, Trouser Press, Crawdaddy, and Who Put the Bomp (where I first read about them).

The album started off with the instant classic tease, “Cherry Bomb” (“Hello daddy, hello mom/I’m your ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!”: see video below), which was written by co-member and guitarist Joan Jett (aged 16 – the ages were duly and helpfully noted on the album cover), ground out by fellow guitarist Lita Ford (oldest at 17), and accompanied by drummer Sandy West (16) and bassist Jackie Fox (16). Sung with a smugness that befit the lyrics was Cherie Currie (16), who had a penchant for wearing a widow corset and bustier on-stage, and swinging the microphone through her legs. While no other song on the album could hold up to “Cherry Bomb,” the music piqued our interest. Bernie Kugel and I knew that they would be interesting to see live, as a media event in its own right. We had wondered how much of the sound was studio, and how much of it was the Runaways. With Kim Fowley backing them, it seemed a valid question, him being known for media manipulation, and I don’t mean that in a necessarily negative way; he’s a showman much like Malcolm McLauren, or more likely akin to how David F. Friedman was to films.

[Lita Ford, The Runaways, CBGB's, 1978]
When we arrived at CBGB’s, early as usual, there was a line just starting. We were near the front, fortunately. Seems the record execs had set this show up as an industry showcase, so the place was packed with lots of suits (if you can imagine them in 1976 CBGB) who were more interested in either the free drinks, the shmooz-factor, or the possibility of seeing some cute young rock chicks. As always, we were there for the both the music and the joy of being at this historic concert.

When the management finally got around to acknowledging and letting in the relatively long line of fans, there was only room enough left for about a dozen or so of us. Despite being near the front, we were at a table way towards the back of the club, against the brick wall opposite the bar. Luckily, with the tiny stage being on the same side, we had some possibility of a view. This was more than a year before I would have my camera, so I have no photos of the event. We both stood on our chairs and leaned against the wall. The waitresses were too busy with the execs to have time to abuse us. The concert was everything we had hoped it would be – a good old rock’n’roll show.

A year or so later, the Runaways were big hits in Japan and their second album, Queens of Noise, had been released. This collection was quite a bit more “glossy” on the production end than the first, again with a few memorable songs, like “Road to Ruin,” and the title cut. The band played at the Palladium (nee the Academy of Music), a much larger venue, opening for the Ramones on January 7, 1978.

[The Runaways, Palladium, 1978]
Our seats were pretty far back, and the gig was great for a theater show, One of things I remember the most about this concert was an incident involving the intermission. As the lights went down after the Runaways finished their set and we waited for the Ramones, suddenly the intermission music started, which was the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The audience became suddenly very tensely quiet, waiting… When it became clear it was really Beethoven’s Fifth, and not the dreadful Walter Murphy travesty, "A Fifth of Beethoven," the audience gave a huge sigh of relief and the conversations started once again. We were punks, but we were not ignorant masochists.

The third and last time I saw the Runaways play New York, they were again at CBGB’s. Cherie Currie had already left the band (as did bassist Jackie Fox, who was replaced with Vicki Blue) and Joan Jett rose up the ranks as the lead, giving Lita Ford more of a chance to show off her metal-influenced guitarwork. They were quite competent, which did not surprise me, since Joan had been handling some of the songs even while Cherie was in the band. This time, near the new stage on the right side of the club, Alan Abramowitz and I sat by the speaker on the right.

Opening for the Runaways was a Toronto-based band, the B-Girls. I had their single, “Fun at the Beach,” b/w “B-Girls” (on the Bomp! label) and enjoyed it, so it made sense to go to the show. The B-Girls had attitude, but they were a good surf/pop/rock’n’roll style band.

The Runaways, too young and immature at the time to grow more formidable as a whole, drifted apart and some became famous names with their own careers. Cherie Currie released a couple of decent but not overly strong albums with her twin sister, Marie (though their song, “Since You’ve Been Gone” is a standard listen for me), came clean about her drug use on some daytime talk show, probably in 1989 when she released her autobiography for the first time.

[Cherie Currie, Chiller Theater, 1999]
The last time I saw her in person was in May of 1999 at the Chiller Theatre Horror and Model Convention in Secaucus, New Jersey, where she was, I’m guessing, still trying to break into B-movies (as she’d already appeared in Parasite – which was also one of Demi Moore’s early flicks – and Foxes, co-starring Scott Baio and Jodie Foster; her character dies in both...anyone looking for an omen?). She looked buffed and was signing autographs (for money) at a table next to Neal Smith and Michael Bruce from the Alice Cooper Band. She smiled pleasantly for my request for taking a picture of her, and when I mentioned that I had seen her play CBGB’s about 23 years earlier (at that time), she became very cold and distant, and gave me a “who gives a fuck, fan-boy?” look. I said thank you for the snap, and beat a hasty retreat. Brrrrr..


  1. I was also at the 76 show at CB's and don't remember it being a suit showcase but that could also be a result of it being over 30 year ago.. I wasn't quite 16 yet and had been going to Max's and CB's for the better part of a year at that point. Something to note is that they played on the old CB's stage which was on the left hand side of the room and the bathrooms were still upstairs along with a pool table if my memory serves me. I ran into Lita in the bathroom before the show (or maybe it was another night and she was just there) and she was very friendly. A photo in New York Rocker of the show captures the room from a little way back and I am in it (only my back however...) Great time to be in NYC.

  2. Yes, the stage was on the left and VERY small. The back of it was actually closer than the front of the stage when it moved to the right (in front of the steam pipes). My memory is waiting outside for a really long time, watching people go into the club, and they they let us in, and some got in, but the majority of those waiting did not. It was a fun show, and it was worth the wait, and being all the way near the back. I haven't seen the picture, but if you can see the left wall, if there are two guys standing on chairs against it, that was us. Lita came across as totally open and happy to be there. Though I didn not talk to her directly, her being nice does not surprise me in the least! Thanks for the response, Beth. Heck, I probably saw you there a few times back then and didn't even know it. My first show at CBs was Talking Heads opening for the Ramones, on 6/20/75, around the same time as you.

  3. Thank you for sharing these short stories. Although I'm not quite sure what you think about the band and their concerts...

    And btw, thanks for the movie spoiler! --'

  4. Considering their ages at the time, they were a pretty hard rockin' band and fun to watch play. Lita and Joan dominated the sides of the stage, Jackie swayed but held her ground, and Cherie was a personable front person. By the time they came to NYC, she had her moves down and was not self-conscious. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves. We enjoyed the music and the band.

    As for the spoiler, well, the film was the spoiler for the article as it was published 5 years before the picture was released. 8)