With her biopic The Runaways slated to go into limited released March 19, it makes sense that Joan Jett, subject and executive producer of the film, would drop a greatest hits package the week before. Perhaps drawing attention from kids interested in the film thanks to its casting of Twilight star Kristen Stewart, it is, in a way, more of a soundtrack to the movie than the actual, official soundtrack ever could be. To that end, the compilation mixes selections from Jett’s time with The Runaways and as a solo artist with The Blackhearts, spreading 21 tracks over two CDs. Even without the film, Jett was due for another evaluation. If the Stooges were the pre-eminent proto-punks, then the Runaways were the proto-riot grrrls, perhaps the proto-girl rock band. Before Paramore, Discount, Hole, Bikini Kill, or Sleater-Kinney, there were the Runaways.
While the combined running time is only 65 minutes, breaking up the songs over two discs helps recreate the feel of vinyl. Two records come wrapped in miniature LP sleeves; the case is cardboard. Liner notes are brief – click here to get more depth – leaving the listener to let the riff-tastic music explain Jett’s legacy without hyperbole.
In theory, opening the collection with four Runaways songs that Jett rerecorded during her solo career should be a bad idea. “Beat It 2008,” “Shout at the Devil ’97” and many more diminished returns attest to this warning. So it’s a welcome surprise that Jett’s updates A) rock and B) blend in nicely with the rest of her remastered catalogue. Her voice has held up incredibly well, as 2009 versions of “You Drive Me Wild,” “School Days” and “Love is Pain” reveal. Slightly less impressive is a 1984 recreation of “Cherry Bomb.” The ’80s were a bad decade for drums, and this version includes some awkward, shuffling auxiliary percussion halfway through that nearly disrupts the song. The first time I heard it, I thought my copy was skipping. Good thing it’s an insanely catchy glam rock number.
There are four Jett songs I expect everyone to know: “Cherry Bomb” (no excuse now that The Runaways trailer is out), “Bad Reputation” (It was the Freaks and Geeks theme song!), “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got” (Jawbreaker covered it, and I never miss an opportunity to big up Blake Schwarzenbach) and “I Love Rock N’ Roll” (because it’s ubiquitous). All of them are included on the first disc and they all rock. “Bad Reputation” is a delicious slice of rebellion, while “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got” extends the same “fuck you” attitude to an ex-lover. The songs often jump the line between punk (“I Want You”) and hard rock (“(I’m Gonna) Run Away”), although the last track, a cover of “Crimson and Clover,” switches from balladry to peppy anthem at will. At a half-hour, the first disc is a tightly assembled mix.
Given that the first disc covers all of Jett’s best known songs, there’s a slight “best/rest” divide between the two CDs. Tunes like “The French Song,” with its butchered French chorus, and “Fake Friends,” a lesser riff rock tune, fall far behind the first disc’s quality. There are some winners spread around – opener “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)” is a tough come-on, while “Backlash,” which Jett co-wrote with The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, bops along well enough. I kind of lied earlier when I said that all the Jett songs I expected people to know were on the first disc. The Blackhearts covered the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song for ESPN, and it became so popular that the band recorded a commercial version for radio. It’s kind of a cop out, but it’s also a really bouncy, fun song, and it erases the disappointment of “Activity Grrrl,” a directionless riot grrrl tune Jett wrote with Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. The final two songs, covers of the Replacements’ “Androgynous” and Sweet’s “A.C.D.C.”, mess with gender roles in the catchiest of ways.
Perhaps more so than the upcoming film could, Greatest Hits asserts Jett’s place in the punk canon. She’s been self-releasing records, including this one, for 30 years. She continues to find new audiences – male and female – that identify with her brand of rock ‘n’ roll. While Greatest Hits isn’t perfect, it’s more than enough to earn her more converts.