Graded on the Curve:
Joan Jett,
Bad Reputation

Celebrating Joan Jett during her birthday week.Ed.

Joan Jett’s 1979 debut LP is one of rock music’s most joyful readymades–an utterly endearing romp through rock history from hoary old standards (“Wooly Bully”) to bubblegum pop to Gary Glitter to the buzzsaw sound of the Ramones, Bad Reputation is a veritable vinyl jukebox you’ll never get tired of tossing dimes into.

On Bad Reputation–original title Joan Jett--the runaway Runaway dares to wear her heart on her sleeve by pledging allegiance to the songs that made her who she is; this is Joan Jett’s Self Portrait, and with the exception of her too-stiff-by-half take on the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” she does her personal canon proud. Not only does she prove she’s the true successor to Gary Glitter (and by association her glam role model Suzi Quatro), she demonstrates conclusively that she’s her own gurl by contributing a couple of songs that (with the exception of the punk-tinged title track) blend seamlessly in with their esteemed company.

Jett (the Blackhearts were still in the future) chose her producers wisely. Top guys Kenny Laguna and Ritchie Cordell (Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook also lent a hand) were both proud Super K Productions alumni working under immortal bubblegum producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeffrey Katz, and they brought their many years of throwaway pop songcraft to the table. Remember that version of Led Zep’s “Stairway to Heaven” set to the lyrics of the theme song from Gilligan’s Island? You can thank Laguna for it. And Cordell is the guy who bequeathed us both “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Mony Mony.”

I could go into all kinds of philosophical digressions about Jett’s reactionary backwards-looking worldview but I’m too busy bashing my head to her positively infectious takes on Glitter classics “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)” and “Doing Alright with the Boys.” Jett hangs on to that big, bad Glitter sound (dig that tribal thump thump thump!) but takes both songs to Glamtastic new heights by making Glitter (no wallflower for sure) sound positively enervated; she doesn’t sing ‘em, she shouts ‘em, bringing an unprecedented amount of bad attitude to the table. Message to Glam Rock: You’re not dead until Joan Jett says you are!

The LP opener (and title track) sticks out by virtue of sheer sonic propulsion; “Bad Reputation” is a tip of the old cap to Joan’s punk contemporaries, not her Glam Bam Bubblegum predecessors. It’s a whiplash “I don’t give a damn” and one of the sleaziest songs to come out of 1979, and I feel obliged to thank Marty Joe Kupersmith (whoever he is) for helping Jett write it.

But as much as I love “Bad Reputation” (and I intend to make it the godmother of my next (first) child), the fun doesn’t really begin until Jett turns her attention to Joey “Yummy Yummy Yummy” Levine’s “Make Believe.” Jett is tailor-made for Levine’s brand of Bubble Yum readymades, and she shows she’s got what it takes by going from Juicy Fruit sweet (on the verses) to tuff (on the choruses) and back again.

“You Don’t Know What You’ve Got” fits in so well between “Make Believe” and John “At the Hop” Medora’s “You Don’t Own Me” you’d never guess Jett had a hand in writing it; I can practically see the 1910 Fruitgum Company lip-synching it on American Bandstand. As for “You Don’t Own Me,” it opens with Jett vamping to some pretty piano before bursting into glorious girl group quadrophonic sound, and what makes it even more of a gas is that two former Sex Pistols are playing on it. And the fun continues (right down to the unexpected electric piano) on Jett’s gritty take on Charlie Karp and Artie “Under the Boardwalk” Resnick’s “Too Bad on Your Birthday.” This one’s a straight ahead boogie and boasts one angry cowbell as well as some ferocious guitar, and Joan’s snide tone lets you know she’s not really feeling all that sorry for you, birthday boy.

“Let Me Go” is another swoon-worthy Jett original that sounds right at home amongst Bad Reputation’s oldies, and comes complete with tubular bells by one Commander Goonwaddle; it kinda reminds me of the Ramones, as do some of Jett’s other tributes to bubbliciousness. Jett also co-wrote “Jezebel,” which comes at you like KISS without that useless appendage called Gene Simmons and has that mighty Gary Glitter feel to say nothing of some so-bad-it’s great sax squeal. And she wrote the primal hard-rocker “Don’t Abuse Me,” on which Sex Pistol Steve plays some ferocious axe, all by her own damn self. Which leaves us with Jett’s cover of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ “Wooly Bully,” which works right down to its gaucho impressions and Joan’s impassioned screams. And Laguna’s turn on the piano proves he’s not just a true rock’n’roll primitive but a punk in the truest sense of the word.

Bad Reputation does great one better by being fun, and the fun never stops. On it suburban Philadelphia’s forgotten girl simply can’t repress herself, and her high spirits are infectious. When it comes to rock’n’roll trash I’ll stand this baby up against the best, including the New York Dolls. Jett would go on to record a whole lot of really cool records with the Blackhearts, but I think she hit her peak on this solo venture. She’s groovin’ on the oldies, digging on slimy old Gary Glitter, and in general getting her rocks off like a good gurl should, and you can hear it right down to your knees.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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