Woman Who Kick Ass – Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Woman Who Kick Ass

Welcome to 1980. That’s what you will find etched in the deadwax of the re-release of Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation. We all kind of take Joan Jett’s status as a leading asskicker of rock and roll for granted now but this album wasn’t a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination. Recorded independently after the breakup of The Runaways, before she put together the Blackhearts, Joan had backup from some major musicians in the industry. Still even with The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and Paul Cook, Blondie’s Clem Burke and Frank Infante, Joan couldn’t find a major label that would release it. So Joan and the producer, Kenny Lagunda, funded the pressing themselves. It started out titled Joan Jett and was sold at concerts. Since it sold well they re-released it as Bad Reputation, a shot at the folks who held Joan in low esteem for her membership in The Runaways.

The album has covers of classics like Wooly Bully, Shout, and You Don’t Own Me, which are tributes to the music that influenced Joan’s style but at the same time she makes completely them her own. For example, with Gary Glitter’s (which considering what we know about Gary, makes the song seriously creepy in retrospect) Do You Wanna Touch Me, from a different artist is a come-on, Joan makes it into a challenge. Consent is not only required but you had better decide on a safe word before you get started. Then there are her original songs, like Don’t Abuse Me, that lays out the rules and makes it clear who the hell who the top is in the relationship.

The vinyl really does take you back to 1980. You know this was mixed for analog and as a limited pressing. It takes the slightly tinny sound that comes on the CD version away and gives Joan’s voice more of a growl (not that she needs it but damn it is sweet). Once again like so many vinyl albums it’s not as loud as the CD recording but that means you can crank it up without any distortion. The title track is perfect for turning up to 11 in order to let the neighbors who watch Fox TV against your bedroom wall at 50 decibels that they really need to cool that shit. Joan Jett broke barriers and was able to take control of her future. Bad Reputation was the risk she took and it paid off.

One of things Joan learned was that going to the major labels was a waste of time so she started her own Blackheart Records with Kenny Lugunda. Not only did she get to control her music but she was able to produce other artists who deserved attention. My favorites are the Dollyrots, Girl in a Coma, and The Eyeliners, three great all female or female fronted punk bands. As soon as I get vinyl for their albums I’ll have a column on them, or I just might do one without it. They are really worth talking about. Blackheart records did rap as well, releasing albums by Big Daddy Kane and Professor Griff. Joan Jett has gone toe to toe with an industry that has a way of chewing up artists and spitting them out. She has made it work for her, on her terms.

It was the next album that put Joan Jett on the map, I Love Rock ‘n Roll. The title song was first recorded by the British band Arrows in 1975 Joan did what she does best, made it her own. It went #1 and took over MTV. People who had never heard of The Runaways were wondering where this amazing rocker had come from. The album sold 10 million copies and mine went the way of all the rest of my vinyl so I had to get the repressing that was done a few years ago. This is the 2009 release so it has extra songs on it that my version didn’t; You Don’t Know What You Got, Summertime Blues, and Nag. It has both Little Drummer Boy and Oh Woe Is Me, there were two pressings of the original one that had the first, then after Christmas where they used the second.

The album blows the door off both for intensity and style. This is Joan’s first album fronting her own band and it’s clear she is in charge. No matter if she is doing covers or original material every song is hers and nobody is going to say otherwise. Songs like You’re Too Possessive gave a soundtrack to anyone who was being property rather than respected.

The MND had a small quibble with sound quality on the pressing that I thought I should pass along. He said that the LP was a bit noisy which is easy to fix but that on track 7 (Bits and Pieces) there is some tape damage so the drum solo goes out of phase and the last notes drop out. He is the Master of the Needle Drop so he was able to sync it back and I’m not sure if most folk would notice but just a heads up. One of the things I want to make clear is that I’m not an expert on vinyl by any stretch of the imagination. I love it, I love music, and I have friends who are deep into the arcane magic of audio but me, I’m strictly a hedge wizard.

This is going to be a hard segue but bear with me. To talk about musicians who take control of their music, who do what they want regardless and are major game changers in the industry there is one name that will come up more often than any other, Kate Bush. When everybody from Big Boi from Outkast to Courtney Love talk about what an influence she had on them, you know Kate Bush is no ordinary musician. She has made ten albums in a career that started when she was 19 with The Kick Inside.  Granted, not many people are lucky enough to have David Gilmore of Pink Floyd like your work so much that he would clean up your first audition tapes so that a record company would take notice.

From The Kick Inside album came Wuthering Heights, which was the first self-written #1 hit for a woman in England. She only made it to #85 in the US for 1979 but Kate has never been what you might call a great fit for commercial American radio. EMI wanted to make James and the Cold Gun the first release but Kate fought to have it be Wuthering Heights. Even on the first album she did her best to control what she saw as her work. Ever the perfectionist, Kate went back and in 1986 re-recorded Wuthering Heights on her album The Whole Story because she felt the song needed more mature vocals than she could do when it was first recorded.

Kate Bush is one of the artists who I have most of their work on vinyl. Ever since my little brother gave me The Dreaming as a un-birthday present and I discovered the song Suspended in Gaffa, I’ve been hooked. That album got a lot of play at my house and I’m still looking for the vinyl to replace the one I had to give up. As I said before The Kick Inside might have provided her first big hit but Hounds of Love was the album that showed how Kate learned to work the industry.  EMI had controlled who she worked with on the first album, bringing in studio musicians and producers. They also rushed her into making Lionheart something she regretted.

By the time she made Hounds of Love her fifth album, even with the relative lack of success for The Dreaming before that (some people have no taste) she had complete control.  She even had her own studio built near her home rather than pay the high fees for rental. In order to avoid the criticism that she couldn’t make a salable album, she did radio friendly songs like Running Up The Hill and The Big Sky on the A side of the album. Then on the flip side is seven interconnecting songs to make one piece about a man treading water at night, reviewing his life as a way to keep from falling asleep and drowning. It’s such a wonderful balancing act that not many artists could get away with. This was how she handled the rest of her albums. Doing just enough to be commercially viable, keeping total control over her work and making the songs she wanted.

One word you can’t use in describing Kate’s music is simple. It runs up and down the scale, has multiple layers with instruments that aren’t usually heard including the didgeridoo and the balalaika, and she was one of the early adapters of the synthesizer. Her song topics are not from the usual sources either, everything from Viet Nam documentaries for the intense Pull Out the Pin to Hammer Horror about the famous horror production company. Listening to her music takes a bit of commitment, it’s not really background sound which is why she is perfect for vinyl. When you are putting an album on most of the time you are doing it for the express purpose of taking that music in, of absorbing it. If you like music that is complex, that doesn’t leave you in the same place you were in before no matter how many times you listen to it, might I recommend Kate Bush on vinyl.

Kate also makes extraordinary videos for her songs, many of which use her training in dance, and martial arts to full advantage.  The MND insisted that I mention one in particular and I have to agree. Not only is it prescient but its dark as hell. The song is Deeper Understanding from her Director’s Cut album and you can see the short here. Oh, yeah, it stars Robbie Coltrain.

Another woman who has stood up to the industry and done things her way is Ani DiFranco. She started her own production company Righteous Babe Records when she was eighteen and has released more than 20 albums. An activist, a poet, a folk singer, and an asskicker, Ani DiFranco is top of the list. Slamming into the college music scene in 1990 she quickly gained a major fan base. Her albums moved from small, independent record shops to the major stores in just a matter of years.  She has had eight Grammy nominations and one win along with multiple other awards including the Woodie Guthrie Award for her work towards social change.  All of this with only having one album Living In Clip go gold.

No matter how good the albums before or after, the work that leads you to an artist tends to be the one you hold in your heart. For me it will always be Dilate. I know that Ani doesn’t identify with many of the songs off this album anymore but it is still my go-to when I’m looking for a fix. So when I decided I wanted to get Ani on vinyl, Dilate was my choice. The first thing that surprised me when I got it directly from Righteous Babe Records, was there were two discs. They had decided not to squeeze the eleven songs onto one disc, rather by expanding the groves they made it so there was no chance of skipping or audio problems. The lyrics are printed on a great black and white poster of Ani, so there’s that.

The most important question, how does it sound? I listened to every song in digital and analog. Dilate is the closest Ani comes to straight up punk with Outta Me, Onto You. The analog version keeps that raw energy but it brings her voice forward and makes the guitar cut like the razor in Un Chien Andalou. I’m a sucker for Amazing Grace, maybe because the first time I heard it there was bagpipes. Ani’s version balances wonderfully on analog and has a depth that isn’t on the CD. Joyful Girl starts with just her voice and her guitar each one so crisp, so clear, building than falling back. Analog gives the sound the space to do it in and when the chorus comes  to back her it brings chills. There isn’t a song on this album that doesn’t benefit from being in analog. Yes, I will order the vinyl for Not A Pretty Girl and Which Side Are You On when I can but right now having Dilate is beautiful.

Let’s wrap with a quote from Ani , “Some people wear their heart up on their sleeve. I wear mine underneath my right pant leg strapped to my boot.” Strong, independent woman offer something to music that goes beyond the just the sound. They put that fierce perspective, that willingness to go places no one else will, and yes, that ability to kick ass into every song. They are my favorite kind of artist and having them on vinyl gives those voices just that extra edge.

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Peter Hill

About Peter Hill

Hunter of vinyl, lover of music, drinker of Guinness, causer of trouble and pounder of keyboard.

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