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How The Rolling Stones inspired a classic Joan Jett song

‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ was one of the biggest hits of the 1980s, most famously associated with the rendition by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. The song has been certified platinum and was even inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2016. However, the song has a complex history, beginning as an Arrows original composition first released in 1975 on Rak Records. Lead singer and bassist Alan Merrill wrote both the lyrics and music; however, credit is also given to fellow member Jake Hooker as a way to settle a debt.

The track was originally released as an Arrows B-side, though it was quickly re-recorded and released, this time as an A-side, with ‘Broken Down Heart’ becoming the ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ B-side. Although Arrows gained much success, even landing their own show on Granada Television (now known as ITV), it wasn’t until Joan Jett performed the song that it became the massive hit we recognise today. Merrill had much faith in the song at the time of writing, stating that “I had the chorus, which to me sounded like a hit. And I thought, I’ll do something really unusual. I’ll write it that this is a song separate from the verse.” Little did he know that his song would indeed become a big hit, but only when recorded by someone else.

Whilst touring with The Runaways in England, Joan Jett happened to watch the Arrows perform the track on their TV show of the same name. Taking to the song, she recorded a cover of it in 1979 alongside two Sex Pistols members: Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Their version was released as the B-side to the Joan Jett and the Blackhearts cover of ‘You Don’t Own Me.’ Yet, in 1981, Jett re-recorded ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ with the Blackhearts. This is the version that gained lots of popularity, rising to the number one spot in the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks.

Since the early eighties, the song has been praised worldwide, frequently making its way into ‘the greatest songs of all time’ lists from the likes of Rolling Stone, Q, and Billboard. The song name also became the title of the Blackhearts’ second studio album, which was comprised of many other cover tracks, such as ‘Crimson and Clover’ by Tommy James and the Shondells and ‘Nag’ by the Halos. Despite the success of this album, which shifted ten million copies, this is mainly due to the popularity of the ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ single, which has remained the band’s most commercial hit.

The anthemic hit has since been covered by pop icon Britney Spears and even adapted into a comedy (if you can call it that) charity single called ‘I Love Sausage Rolls’ by Ladbaby. Yet the recognisable tune ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ has a much lesser known origin. In an interview with Songfacts, original writer Merrill discussed how the song came to fruition. He describes the track as a “knee-jerk response to The Rolling Stones’ ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It).’” The Rolling Stone’s song, released in 1974, was the lead single for the band’s album of the same name. Co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the track reached number ten in the UK Singles chart and number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 – much lower than Jett’s cover of Merrill’s response to the track.

Merrill continued by saying, “I remember watching it on Top of the Pops. I’d met Mick Jagger socially a few times, and I knew he was hanging around with Prince Rupert Lowenstein and people like that — jet setters. I almost felt like ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll’ was an apology to those jet-set princes and princesses that he was hanging around with — the aristocracy, you know. That was my interpretation as a young man: ‘OK, I love rock ‘n’ roll.’” However, according to Jagger, “the idea of the song has to do with our public persona at the time. I was getting a bit tired of people having a go, all that, ‘oh, it’s not as good as their last one’ business. The single sleeve had a picture of me with a pen digging into me as if it were a sword. It was a lighthearted, anti-journalistic sort of thing.”