Joan Jett's trademark brand of rock & roll is simple, direct, and very effective. Using a stripped-down combination of glam rock stomp, bubblegum hooks, and punk power driven home by her raspy, heartfelt vocals, she is equally at home cranking out three-chord rockers as she is breaking hearts with tear-streaked ballads. Starting with her first band in the mid-'70s, the heavy metal-meets-punk Runaways, through her hit-making days in the '80s with the Blackhearts -- when her record flew off the shelves with the classic single "I Love Rock 'n Roll" -- right up until her unexpected revival in the '90s that coincided with grunge and riot grrrl and resulted in 1990's gritty Pure and Simple LP, she never changed her approach too much. No matter what setting she found herself in, the defiant sneer stayed plastered on her face, the low-slung guitar kept cranking out the power chords, and her rock & roll heart stayed true. In between side jobs in the movies, running a label (Blackheart Records), producing other artists, and spending most of the year on the road, occasionally the planets would align and another great album would emerge, like 2013's back-to-basics Unvarnished or 2022's acoustic guitar-led Changeup.
Jett was born in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania in 1958; her family moved to the Los Angeles area when she was 12 years old. By the time she was 15, she had formed her first band and was performing around town. After catching one of their shows, music business gadfly Kim Fowley signed on as their manager. Soon, he renamed the all-female group the Runaways and helped them get a contract with Mercury Records. Their sound straddled the hard rock and punk scenes of the late '70s, which meant that they never found much more than moderate success in either camp during their career. They came up with one timeless classic single, 1976's "Cherry Bomb, which was co-written by Jett, and the four albums they released between 1976 and 1978 were influential. They did manage to gain fame in Japan; their 1977 album Live in Japan reached Gold status there. Jett's reputation as a no-nonsense rocker earned her a job as producer of Los Angeles punks the Germs' first record, (GI). Due to musical differences, the Runaways broke up in 1979 and Jett headed to England to get her solo career going.
Once there, she recorded three songs with the Sex Pistols' Paul Cook and Steve Jones; then, after working on an ill-fated, contractually obligated Runaways movie that never got off the ground, she met producer Kenny Laguna. With his background in bubblegum and power pop, he was a perfect foil for Jett and the pair concocted a sound that met at the intersection of punk and bubblegum pairing snarling vocals, loud guitars, and huge hooks. They recorded an album with the help of producer Ritchie Cordell at the Who's Rampart Studio, then began shopping it around to labels. Ariola issued the album in Europe, but no U.S. label was interested. They formed Blackheart Records and released the self-titled LP in 1980. Riding a wave of good reviews, the album had impressive enough sales that Boardwalk Records reissued it under the title Bad Reputation, then watched it top out at number 51 on the Billboard album charts.
Looking to be the leader of a band instead of a solo artist, Jett formed the Blackhearts soon after recording her debut. After some early lineup shifts, the group consolidated around guitarist Ricky Byrd, bassist Gary Ryan, and drummer Lee Crystal. This was the band that recorded the 1981 single "I Love Rock 'n' Roll." Originally the B-side of a single by the glam rock group the Arrows, the song was an enormous success, spending seven weeks at number one in the spring of 1982 and earning timeless classic status. The album of the same name was a collection of tracks that fine-tuned Jett's approach to perfection, balancing the punch of punk with the good cheer of pop in a way that connected with listeners around the globe. It reached the number two spot on the U.S. Billboard album chart, and topped it in Canada and New Zealand. Another single from the record, a version of Tommy James & the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover," went Top Ten in the U.S. and became an AOR staple. After spending time touring the world, the band returned to the studio riding a wave of success and recorded Album. Breaking from the convention begun on her first two albums, the 1983 release featured fewer cover songs and a heavier overall sound. The band returned in 1984 with Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth, a record with a similar mix of covers and originals, including an updated take on "Cherry Bomb." This was the first album where Laguna was joined in the producer's role by Thom Panunzio, who became a trusted part of Jett's team thereafter. It was also the last album for Ryan and Crystal, who were replaced by Kasim Sulton and Thommy Price respectively. The same basic format remained in place for the 1986 album Good Music, though it also made room for guest appearances by the Beach Boys and the Sugarhill Gang.
Though Good Music didn't reach the upper echelon of the charts, Jett's star was still bright enough that she was cast in Paul Schrader's 1987 film Light of Day, playing Michael J. Fox's hard-rocking sibling. The film's title track found Jett back in the Top 40, a place she returned to with "I Hate Myself for Loving You," a rollicking track co-written with Desmond Child. It was taken from 1988's Up Your Alley, which ended up as her second platinum record. She followed it up with 1990's all-covers album The Hit List and 1991's Notorious, which surprised fans with a slick, ballad-heavy approach. After time spent focusing on producing, she came roaring back with 1994's Pure and Simple, which was released at a time when a new generation of female rockers came of age and everyone from hard alternative rockers like L7 to the minimalist riot grrrl punk rockers like Bikini Kill claimed Jett and the Runaways as influences. She embraced the new generation, and members of both those bands, as well as Babes in Toyland, joined her on the record. As a consequence, Pure and Simple received more press and positive reviews than any of her albums since the mid-'80s.
Digging more deeply into the punk rock aspect of her sound, Jett recorded the live album Evilstig with the remaining members of the Gits, a Seattle band whose lead singer, Mia Zapata, was raped and murdered in 1993. Jett reunited with the Blackhearts for the 1999 album Fetish, which explored sexuality with a newfound frankness, then spent time on the road and made guest appearances on records by Marky Ramone, the Eyeliners, and Peaches as well as hosting a show on Little Steven's Underground Garage satellite radio network. Back in the studio, she returned to her hard rock roots on 2004's Naked, which was reissued in 2006 with a slightly different track order as Sinner. The next few years were spent touring with spots on the Warped Tour and as an opening act for bands like Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, and Green Day. She had a Barbie doll based on her in 2009 and was heavily involved with the 2010 movie The Runaways, serving as executive producer. When Jett returned with a new album, it was with touring guitarist Dougie Needles, longtime drummer Thommy Price, and even longer-time associate Kenny Laguna all on board. 2013's Unvarnished represented a stunning return to form of the Blackhearts' early days and featured a song produced and co-written with Dave Grohl. That connection with Grohl led to Jett singing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with the remaining members of Nirvana during their 2014 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The next year Jett herself was inducted into the Hall of Fame, playing a set that featured Grohl, Miley Cyrus, Tommy James, and original Blackheart Lee Crystal. The 2018 film Bad Reputation further documented Jett's place in the rock & roll firmament and, ever the road dog, she continued playing with an updated lineup of the Blackhearts, headlining shows and performing as part of package tours, while also continuing to run Blackheart Records, the label she founded with Laguna in 1980. She returned to the studio to contribute a version of the T. Rex song "Jeepster" for the 2020 tribute to Marc Bolan called Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex, appeared on Miley Cyrus's Plastic Hearts album, and produced rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson's 2021 record Encore. Late that year, after getting off the road, she and the Blackhearts sat down to record a batch of songs from her long career on acoustic guitars. Titled Changeup, the album was released in March of 2022 on Blackheart, after which the band headed out on a series of dates with Mötley Crue and Def Leppard.