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Originally published Sunday, July 21, 2013 at 5:05 AM

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Sex, drugs and rocky times of an all-female ’70s band

A new book about the ’70s all-girl group the Runaways sets the record straight on this controversial, pioneering band.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways”

Evelyn McDonnell

Da Capo Press, $25.99

Author Evelyn McDonnell previously coedited (with former Seattle journalist Ann Powers) the anthology “Rock She Wrote: Women Write about Rock, Pop, and Rap.” Now she turns to the daunting task of unraveling the tumultuous history of the all-female hard rock band the Runaways.

Aside from their signature song, “Cherry Bomb,” the Runaways enjoyed little commercial success during the brief period they were together (about four years in the mid- to late ’70s), but have since been hailed as a key inspiration by everyone from Northwest riot grrrl band Bikini Kill — Runaways guitarist Joan Jett produced BK’s best single, “Rebel Girl” — to Miley Cyrus, who called Jett one of her “greatest inspirations.”

Jett, of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” fame, was most successful at launching a solo career; guitarist Lita Ford and singer Cherie Currie also enjoyed a measure of solo success.

Though the band members (nine altogether, in the revolving lineup) cite their time in the group as one of the highlights of their lives, McDonnell reveals how difficult it was to be a Runaway.

As bassist Jackie Fox explains, “The thing that gets lost in the aura that surrounds the Runaways now is how big a joke we were considered back in the ’70s.”

“People were too threatened by it,” Jett tells McDonnell. “Guys wanted to [have sex with] us and girls didn’t know what to make of us.”

The Runaways’ youth, emphasized by their jailbait-tinged band name, also made it easy for critics to discount them. Creem magazine bluntly stated, “These [girls] suck.” Positive comments weren’t much better. Rock magazine praised the group for looking “like real girls — the kind you’ve wanted to get your hot sticky hands on since you turned 12.”

McDonnell makes the case that attitudes of this kind helped stunt the group’s progress. The freewheeling atmosphere of the ’70s that made substance abuse de rigueur also led to severe addiction for more than one Runaway. There were also persistent rumors of abuse by their controversial manager, Kim Fowley. McDonnell sorts through numerous contradictory accounts of a shocking allegation that Fowley had sex with a drunk young woman in front of the band members as a means of “educating” them about sex.

Currie first mentioned the incident in her memoir; in “Queens of Noise,” Fowley staunchly denies it; drummer Sandy West wrote in her own unpublished memoir that the incident did happen, while Jett says she has no memory of it.

Even today, all-female bands (as opposed to vocal groups) are something of an anomaly, common in the realm of indie rock, but rarely cracking the Top 40. (The last band to do so was the Bangles, whose bassist Micki Steele was briefly in the Runaways.) But the Runaways’ legacy as trailblazers who opened the doors for other female artists is assured. “Queens of Noise” is the definitive account of their pioneering career.

Gillian G. Gaar:

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