Monday, August 31, 2015

Book Review: Queens of Noise by Evelyn McDonnell

Queens of Noise: The Real Story of The Runaways

Written by: Evelyn McDonnell

Published: 2013

Synopsis: In four years the teenage members of the Runaways did what no other group of female rock musicians before them could: they released four albums for a major label and toured the world. The Runaways busted down doors for every girl band that followed. Joan Jett, Sandy West, Cherrie Currie, lead guitarist Lita Ford, and bassists Jackie Fox and Vicky Blue were pre-punk bandits, fostering revolution girl style decades before that became a riot grrrl catchphrase.

The story of the Runaways has never been told in its entirety. Drawing on interviews with most of this seminal rock band’s former members as well as controversial manager Kim Fowley, Queens of Noise will look beyond the lurid voyeuristic appeal of a sex-drugs-rock ’n’ roll saga to give the band its place in musical, feminist, and cultural history. (Via Goodreads)

I have well and truly dropped the blogger ball this month. I have been extremely busy with uni work and life stuff, but it's sad to see so few posts up on my blog! So here is a quick review to add another post to my meager blog offerings.

Where to start? I came across this book when Jackie Fox (first bassist of the Runaways) made headlines the other month accusing their manager of raping her while she was in the band. I had long been a fan of the music of The Runaways, but outside of knowing that they were teenagers and hugely influential on future female bands I really didn't know much about their formation or the scandals that followed them pretty much from the start. Jackie Fox's statement, and the subsequent fallout from her other bandmates, led me on a wikipedia binge which ended with a visit to Goodreads. The main reason I decided on Queens of Noise over one of the autobiographies is that I hoped it'd be a broader look at the band, rather than prescribing to a certain person's memories and perspectives. Given how many fights and court cases this band has fought since the 1970s, I just don't know how much weight those autobiographies can be given.

Unfortunately that wasn't what I got. Generally speaking, I didn't get any insights in this book that I couldn't find on wikipedia or fan websites. It covered the highs and lows of the band, but it didn't really introduce any new perspectives or stories. McDonnell may have been backed against a wall, so to speak, because it seems from the interviews included in the book that she didn't really get access to all of the band and the ones willing to talk were the ones who have always been willing to talk. In terms of this complaint, if you haven't really read anything about this band then I don't think the content will be a problem. It's comprehensive and it covers a lot, from their lives before the band to their careers afterwards. If you have, like me, done some internet searches on the band then don't expect too much from this book.

Another issue I had was the quality of the writing. McDonnell has had a lengthy career as a journalist but when I started reading this I turned to my mum and said "this reads like someone's Masters thesis". Low and behold, that's exactly what this book was. I've read a lot of book which have begun as a Masters or PhD thesis, but the successful transitions are the ones which eliminate the unnecessary academic framework. McDonnell frames the formation of the band around academic discussion on Los Angeles in the 1970s in terms of "four ecologies"*. It's quite interesting stuff but it's introduced early in the book and then never really adds any real context or depth to the girls' stories. Does it really help for a music fan to know that certain girls grew up in "autopia" or "surfurbia"? This broad academic framework has a very specific purpose in academia, but this isn't a book advertised to music academics, it's a book for fans of the Runaways. And considering how often McDonnell refers to the biopic starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, it's clearly a book created for young new fans of the band who want to know more about the real life women who inspired the film.

But outside of the academic framework at the start of the book, the writing is pretty sub-par.There is a lot of groan-worthy, overly descriptive language typical of a feature article:
"Laying down the chinka-chinka guitar rhythms of the band's dirty rock sound, Joan Jett is already Joan Jett: a cute but dark-eyed tomboy in a custom, red catsuit - gymnast meets race-car driver - and, of course, boots. She has outlined her Cleopatra eyes in dark liner and sings with the sexy bravado of one who was once painfully shy"
This is sandwiched between McDonnell's most overused stylistic choices, 'to' comparisons:
"To this day, he speaks a sort of tourette's jive that's a crucial link in the lineage from the Beats to Jack Bruce to Tom Waits to Wildman Fisher to David lee Roth to Perry Farrell"
What does this mean? What exactly is she comparing? The way they speak? Were they all influenced by Kim Fowley (who this quite is about) and how he spoke? Was he influenced by them? To comparisons are fine in moderation, but they are incredibly overused in this book. It just ends up reading as lady and as though she's wanting to prove her credentials, "look at all these things I know! Seven degrees of musical Kevin Bacon!" The final straw, for me, is that McDowell doesn't view this story objectively. Her person opinions on events that occurred and people that were involved came through so strongly. When discussing a somewhat controversial interview that music manager Danny Sugarman conducted with the Runaways McDonnell writes:
"Sugarman was a shitty writer and drug addict who thought he was a rock star and died married to Fawn Hall of Iran-Contra infamy"
Look, his article was garbage and lewd but there's a way to say that without bringing your own personal opinions on the guy into the story. And what does it matter if he was a drug addict - so was just about everyone in the Runaways!

But perhaps the biggest straw for me is the sympathy McDowell has for Fowley, the man who Jackie Fox accused of raping her. Throughout the book there are interviews with crew, journalists and musicians who say that Fowley was a creep and aggressive and abusive towards the girls. While I don't think it was McDowell's responsibility to address all of the rumours, especially when there was conflicting stories or a lack of evidence, but she follows so many of these moments of criticism with some really gross explanations for why Fowley isn't so bad. I.e. it was the 1970s and tonnes of men had sex with underage girls. Heck, Roman Polanksi "got busted" for having sex with an underage girl**. Or modern society has a different definition for what constitutes predatory behaviour. Or he was a freak, and was an easy target because of this. It just comes across as so apologetic, especially since she failed to be objective throughout the book, like she'd met him and liked him and didn't want to face the idea that he wasn't the charming and weird guy in a salmon coloured suit she envisioned.

So at the end of the day this book just didn't deliver what I was hoping for. It'd be fine for a complete Runaways novice or younger reader as it reads pretty well in spite of my issues with style and it does cover the details about the formation of the band, career highlights and band fights. It does paint some interesting pictures of the 1970s L.A music scene, but these are too few and far between for my liking. A resounding meh, from start to finish.

*It's based in architectual and cultural studies stuff. 

**This upset me the most. She didn't address that he was arrested and found guilty of raping a child before fleeing the country. She simply mentioned he was "busted". ugggggghhhh


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