On The Download: Joan Jett & The Blackhearts ‘Greatest Hits’

The buzz was high. The day took forever. Recess had a little extra energy. Suddenly, the low growl of school buses pulling up out front. Chatter grew loud, trash talking started. Why? It was roller skating day, the field trip that sent every 5th and 6th grader into overdrive. For me, it meant an extra cool shirt and jean jacket, a lot of pre-planning as I had to lock up my girl for the slow skate and a lot of mental practice so I could show off my new moves when the DJ blasted the coolest roller skating song ever, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

I had no idea that Jett was a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, a rebel bad girl that growled back at anyone who said that sex, drugs and her “love” for rock ‘n’ roll were for men only (growling loudest at the first and third of the three). But that didn’t and doesn’t make her music suffer at all. Thirty years later, Jett’s attitude and feminist voice has never wavered. She’s like the rock in “rock ‘n’ roll”. And her story hits the big screen last week with “The Runaways.” Executive produced by Jett, the film tells the story of the ‘70s all girl punk band that put a 15-year-old Jett on the map. “The Runaways” is getting strong reviews and marks a deserved mainstream resurgence for Jett, a resurgence helped a good deal by the “Twilight” teen phenom, who everyone teenage kid follows-- Kristen Stewart, who plays Jett.

At times called the “godmother of punk,” it may surprise the casual music fan or first time Jett fan that Joan and her music live in the same punk rock lineage as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Social D and Rancid and on the same lineage branch as The Ramones and The Clash. Coinciding with the release of “The Runaways” film, Joan Jett and The Blackhearts have released a greatest hits package, “Joan Jett and the Blackhearts: Greatest Hits,” a package that clearly and firmly displays why Jett belongs alongside such aforementioned greats.

Jett has garnered eight platinum and gold discs and nine top 40 singles over her 30-year career. The two-disc set sticks to her biggest hits and serves them in pretty much chronological order of when they were written (not necessarily when released), a decision that works particularly well here for it reveals Jett’s steadfast strength in keeping to her gritty love for punk attitude, rock ‘n’ roll riffs and feminist ideals. However, the first four tracks, written while Jett was in The Runaways, were re-recorded by Jett (three of them specifically for the film) and thus the disc starts off a bit clunky and sadly loses a slight sense of power and authenticity. Basically, the reason you buy a greatest hits package is to hear the original cuts. With all due respect to The Blackhearts (there are songs post Blackhearts on here too), I don’t think it does Jett any justice by not putting the originals on here. As I have already discussed, these were major songs that became major influences, songs that spit right in the face of male driven punk rock. Lets hear ‘em.

But moving on… and nevertheless, the 1984 re-recording of The Runaways first and biggest hit “Cherry Bomb” kicks off the disc. Jett and The Blackhearts’ version snarls more than the original, which, in true punk fashion, was co-written on the spot for Cherie Currie to sing when she tried out for The Runaways back in 1976. And the chorus…“Hello world, I am your wild girl. Ch ch ch cherry Bomb” sounds great coming out of Jett’s mouth, as it could single handedly sum up Jett’s entire career. “You Drive Me Wild,” one of the recently re-recorded tracks, has a great, gritty, dirty bar band swing to it. While, one of the standout tracks on disc one is “Bad Reputation.” A fan favorite forever, you may recognize it from such TV shows as “Freaks and Geeks” and “American Chopper.” The guys in Social Distortion may or may not want you to know their sound is an awful lot like this song… Actually, if they haven’t covered it, they probably should. Its energy is still absolutely infectious…and I find myself, this week, playing this song over and over again in the car. “I Want You” is the only new track included in the set and you will be happy it’s here! Recorded in 1979, right in the middle of the hardcore punk movement, the song has blistering attitude. It’s relentless.

Regardless of the fact that “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” is forever linked to my roller skating memories, the song is firmly set in the pantheon of the rock ‘n’ roll anthem elite. I still can’t figure out how a song with handclapping sounds so raw. I am “loving” it all over again…minus the skates. Disc one ends with Jett & The Blackhearts cover of The Shondell’s classic “Crimson and Clover,” one of their biggest hits. Essentially recorded live back in 1981, it captures the same heart and mood of the original. To interject again with the personal, “C and C” was the best song Joan performed when I saw her open for Robert Plant in the late ‘80s. Having floor seats, I still remember vividly looking up and around the Worcester Centrum, watching the lighters burn and listening to the early crowd sing along from beginning to end.

“The French Song” on Disc 2 — I wonder what came first — the name or the content, which is about a menage a trios. The chorus sung in French translates to “I love to make love, especially with three.” Joan…right in your face, where she likes to be. I wonder how many people have sung the chorus without knowing what he or she is saying? Bruce Springsteen wrote “Light of Day” with Joan in mind. A bar stomping number perfectly suited for the “Light of Day” film, in which Joan co-starred along with Michael J Fox. Good single; Fun film (just ignore the parts where Fox sings).

I cant get out of my head Faith Hill singing a revised version of “I hate myself for loving you” at the top of every Sunday Night Football game, and I wish I could. Not that its bad, but, in what happens all too often nowadays, the new version has commercialized a great single until the point of nauseam. As for Joan’s version, “I hate myself” is about as good as you can get of a mix between her in-your-face attitude and her catchy, commercial taste. Only “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” does it better, and they are both cut from the same dirty, rock ‘n’ roll cloth. If you didn’t know already, Joan originally wanted to call it “I hate myself ‘cause I can’t get laid.”

If you love Paul Westerberg you will love “Backlash.” He wrote this with Jett and you can hear his alternative sound — the young aspiring angst…the future wide open…us against them. “Love is all around”…what can be more fitting than Joan putting her spin on the iconic Mary Tyler Moore theme song? There may be nothing better than taking a known classic and adding loud, heavy guitars to it! I just put it on and listened to it again

As we near the end of Side 2, we get “Androgynous — a true Paul Westerberg cover and an important comment on human rights. For this song, Joan’s growl is gone, and I love the song for this reason. The major chords and the happy sing-a-long melody mirror the lyrics and attitude, and the song’s human rights argument: Nothing is wrong with any of the topics at hand.

With Jett’s strong feminist ideals always at the forefront, the collection could have appropriately ended on either of the last two tracks mentioned, but Joan instead leaves us with a cover of The Sweet’s rockin’ “a.c.d.c,” reminding us all that at the end of the day Joan Jett is number one — a down and dirty punk rocker. However, this greatest hits package shows us all in clear…and fun (!) form that she is an impressively important one.

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