“Big in Japan” was, for a long time, the pre-cursor to a band being wholly unlistenable. The idea that a group who didn’t sell very well in the US or UK, therefore, would sell well in Japan was an easy association to make in the 20th century. The country had taken to rock and roll in a big way over the years and by the late seventies Japanese consumers weren’t content with the big names and bright lights music had to offer. They wanted the weird and wonderful artists most of all. One such band was The Runaways.
On the face of it, The Runaways should have been a band that dominated the charts on both side of the Atlantic. With Joan Jett in tow, accompanied by a plethora of fearsome punk rock tunes, the band gained a ferocious reputation as the female side of the movement. Today, that feels incredibly antiquated but in the seventie sit was celebrated.
The Runaways were a curious version of punk rock, unlike their contemporaries the band were conceived with a plan. While other bands had formed via an intense urge to create and shake up the scene, Joan Jett and Sandy West first created the band with a view on world domination. The pair had originally met through mutual friend Kim Fowley who had exchanged numbers between them. After their initial meeting, Fowley would help the duo fill the other positions in the band. Two decades later he said, “I didn’t put the Runaways together, I had an idea, they had ideas, we all met, there was combustion and out of five different versions of that group came the five girls who were the ones that people liked.”
Starting their life as a trio with singer/bassist Micki Steele, The Runaways soon began taking on the party and club circuit around their native Los Angeles, playing parties at the drop of a hat. Soon they added lead guitarist Lita Ford, who had originally auditioned for the bass spot. Steele lost their place in the group fairly quickly, replaced by local bassist Peggy Foster, who then left after just one month. Lead singer Cherie Currie was found and recruited in a local teen nightclub called the Sugar Shack, followed by Jackie Fox (who had originally auditioned for the lead guitar spot) on bass.
The band were set up to take on the world and were quickly lumped in with the other punk rock bands of the time, having already established themselves on the West Coast punk scene. They gained a heap of admirers for their unadulterated performances and delivering the kind of spanking punk rock tunes that were beginning to envelop the world. But, despite their local success and the appreciation of their New York counterparts like Ramones, Dead Boys and so on, The Runaways never really cracked their native America.
Instead, they focused their attention on the UK and the Japanese market. While the UK had its own share of incredible punk acts, Japan proved a fertile ground for up and coming new bands. With cities full of audiences waiting to see American punk bands, the opportunity to tour the country couldn’t come soon enough for The Runaways. They made their way to the island in 1977 and, below, we have the footage of one of their full performances.
It’s a serious set too. The band are on fire as they rip through songs like ‘Wild Thing’, ‘Queens of Noise’ and ‘Rock N Roll’ without a second thought. The group are welcomed like a second dose of Beatlemania and never really given the space to breathe once. The crowd are cloying and desperate for their songs, making this one of those performances that will keep you captivated for years after watching it.
It’s the kind of show that makes it utterly baffling that The Runaways never truly took off.