In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
A hard, deliberate snare roll. A sudden, thunderous power chord. A drum beat that sounds like a stadium full of football fans stomping in unison. And then a voice — strong, androgynous, raspy, distant. She’s got some kind of accent — “me” becomes “maaaay” — but you can’t really tell what accent it’s supposed to be. “Saw him dancing there by the record machine,” she sings. She sounds both bored and annoyed about this particular 17-year-old, but she takes him home anyway.
The level of swagger on “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” is out of control. The song is so thuddingly simple, so elemental, that it could easily turn hokey and ridiculous. Instead, the opposite happens. The song already sounds totemic by the time it hits the first chorus. Joan Jett uses the song to put the full force of her tough-kid charisma on display. She makes a simple statement of musical preference sound like a rallying cry, a statement of religious truth, a come-on. She makes rock ‘n’ roll sound like something worth loving.
Joan Jett is a couple of years younger than rock ‘n’ roll itself. (The #1 song on the day of her birth: the Elegants’ “Little Star.”) Joan Marie Larkin was born outside Philadelphia, and she grew up mostly in the Maryland suburbs of DC. She’s a big enough Baltimore Orioles fan that she dedicated her first solo album to the team. (I love this.) When she was a teenager, she and her family moved to California’s Inland Empire, and she haunted LA’s glam-rock clubs. She changed her name to Joan Jett when her parents divorced. And then she became a Runaway.
The Runaways, the fabled all-girl LA proto-punk band, came together in 1975 under the tutelage of manager and “Alley Oop” co-producer Kim Fowley. All the members of the band were teenagers, and all of them except Jett were blonde. When they released their self-titled debut album in 1976, Fowley printed all of the band members’ ages right next to their name, for emphasis. (Jett was billed as being 16, though she was really two years older.) Jett wasn’t the leader of the band, at least at first; Cherie Currie had that role. Eventually, though, Jett basically took over as frontwoman and, often, songwriter.
The Runaways inspired a whole lot of women, but they never really became much of a commercial success. Even “Cherry Bomb,” their now-immortal 1976 debut single, didn’t chart in the US. The Runaways fired Fowley in 1977 and then broke up in 1979. The members of the group went on to different levels of success. Guitarist Lita Ford peaked at #8 with the 1989 Ozzy Osbourne duet “Close My Eyes Forever.” (It’s a 4.) As a member of the Bangles, original bassist Micki Steele will eventually appear in this column.
After the Runaways broke up, Jett produced the Germs’ (GI) album and tried to figure out how to launch her solo career. Jett was contractually obligated to act in a Runaways movie called We’re All Crazee Now!, starring alongside three women who had not been in the Runaways. The movie never got finished, but while Jett was working on it, she met Kenny Laguna, a former bubblegum-pop writer and Tommy James And The Shondells keyboard player. Laguna became Jett’s manager and producer, and Jett moved in with Laguna and his wife in Long Beach, New York.
Jett and Laguna rounded up some boys from LA’s punk scene to form the Blackhearts, Jett’s new backing band, and they devised a whole new sound for Jett: Simple choruses, enormous gleaming guitar crunch, monster drums. That sound drew on both glam and bubblegum; bubble-glam star Suzi Quatro was a particular inspiration. But the sound also had a connection to the punk rock and new wave that Jett, with the Runaways, had helped to inspire. Jett and Laguna figured out that Jett was great at singing cover songs, especially covers of old rock ‘n’ roll songs that necessarily sounded different if a tough young woman was the one singing them.
After recording Jett’s self-titled solo debut in 1980, Jett and Laguna shopped the LP around to dozens of labels. None of them would release it. So Laguna put up his daughter’s college fund, and Jett and Laguna formed their own label, Blackheart Records, to release it. They pressed up their own records, selling them out of the trunk of Laguna’s car after shows. Eventually, the former Casablanca head Neil Bogart was impressed enough to sign Jett to his new label Boardwalk Records, and he re-released that self-titled debut as Bad Reputation. None of its singles charted, but Jett knew she had a hit on her hands.
While touring with the Runaways, Jett had seen a band called the Arrows play a song called “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” on British TV. The Arrows were, as far as I can tell, a sort of teenybopper glam group, and their UK success was short-lived. Two members of the Arrows, the American Alan Merrill and the British Jake Hooker, are the credited co-writers of “I Love Rock ‘N Roll,” and both later claimed that they’d written the song themselves. To hear them tell it, “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” was a reaction to the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It)” — which, to Merrill and Hooker, was insufficiently dedicated to rock ‘n’ roll. Both Merrill and Hooker are dead now. Hooker died in 2014, at 61, and Merrill, 69, died of coronavirus earlier this year.
The Arrows first released “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” as a B-side to their 1975 single “Broken Down Heart.” Later, they made it an A-side. But neither “Broken Down Heart” nor “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” made the British charts. The song was officially a flop. So it’s lucky for everyone involved that Jett heard the song when she did. Jett tried to convince the Runaways to cover the song, but the rest of the band wasn’t into it. While working on her solo debut in 1979, Jett recorded a pretty sloppy version of the song with former Sex Pistols members Steve Jones and Paul Cook backing her up. She released that version as the B-side to her cover of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” Nobody much noticed.
But nobody could ignore the version of “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” that Jett released at the beginning of 1982. In every form, “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” is a big, mean bastard of a song. But that final Joan Jett version cranks it up by stripping it down. There’s nothing extraneous or showy about the record. Drummer Lee Crystal almost never plays fills, leaving oceans of negative space. Guitarist Ricky Byrd plays a solo so short that you only barely have time to register the fact that there’s a guitar solo happening. The song doesn’t even have a bridge, and it ends with the title phrase repeated over and over, transformed into something like a soccer chant.
“I Love Rock ‘N Roll” has a hell of a hook, but the hook doesn’t sound right when anyone other than Joan Jett is singing it. The song is, at least on some level, about sex. Jett, flipping the genders of the Arrows’ original, struts up to a 17-year-old boy, picks him up, and takes him home. (On other covers of old songs, Jett refuses to switch genders. She’s always been private about her sexuality.) The boy seems to already be singing along to “I Love Rock ‘N Roll.” Maybe he, like Jett, was into the Arrows version.
Jett doesn’t sound horny or desperate. She sounds confident. It’s a foregone conclusion that this kid is coming home with her. If anything, she sounds like she’s into herself, with justification. The owww! that she lets out after the chorus functions like a James Brown grunt. It’s Jett letting us know that she’s bad, that she knows she’s bad.
Jett has said that she wanted to let the labels and radio stations know that she wasn’t a punk rocker, that she was just a rocker. But coming right between the disco and synthpop revolutions, “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” works as a statement of nostalgic defiance. The Arrows used the word “dime” on their original song because it sounded more American. By 1982, jukeboxes didn’t even take dimes anymore, so the song implicitly refers back to rock ‘n’ roll’s mythic checkerboard-diner past. But rock ‘n’ roll had never had a figure like Joan Jett, a rock-star woman with a snarl and a strut that pronounced. It’s conservative and progressive at the same time.
In the video, which got heavy early-MTV airplay, Jett walks into a bar, chewing gum, looking vaguely pissed off. The boy she picks up looks pissed off, too. The crowd that gathers to sing the chorus looks pissed off. Nobody looks like they’re having fun. Maybe they’d already internalized all the old rock ‘n’ roll lessons on how to look cool. It works. They look cool as hell. (Jett didn’t like the way she looked in the video’s red leather jumpsuit, so the version that played on MTV was in black and white. For whatever reason, the version on YouTube now is the colorized version that was released years later.)
Jett didn’t make a whole lot of big hits after “I Love Rock ‘N Roll.” Her follow-up single was an absolutely transcendent cover of “Crimson And Clover,” the 1969 chart-topper from Laguna’s old associates Tommy James And The Shondells. Jett’s take on “Crimson And Clover,” released later in 1982, peaked at #7. (It’s a 10.) After that, Jett and the Blackhearts only scored one more top-10 single: 1988’s “I Hate Myself For Loving You,” which peaked at #8. (It’s an 8.)
But Joan Jett has had a hell of a career anyway. She’s done cool things. Jett acted alongside Michael J. Fox in Paul Schrader’s 1987 film Light Of Day. She produced Bikini Kill’s “New Radio” b/w “Rebel Girl” single and Circus Lupus’ “Pop Man” b/w “Pressure Point” single. The first time I saw Fugazi, Jett was standing at the side of the stage, watching, and Guy Picciotto was wearing a Runaways shirt. Also, Jett led the surviving members of Nirvana when they played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony in 2014, and she and the Blackhearts were themselves inducted a year later. (“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana’s highest-charting single, peaked at #6. It’s a 10.)
Jett remains an absolutely stomp-ass live act, a massive cross-generational inspiration, and a fun person to have around. She’s the best. It’s amazing, in retrospect, that she ever had such a long-running #1 single. But it also seems inevitable. After all, people love rock ‘n’ roll.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Weird Al” Yankovic’s video for “I Love Rocky Road,” his 1983 parody of “I Love Rock ‘N Roll”:
(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single is 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” a parody of a song that will end up in this column. “White & Nerdy” peaked at #9, and it’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” soundtracking a horny, stylized workout montage in the 1983 blockbuster Flashdance:
(The Flashdance soundtrack will eventually have its impact on this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2003 movie Crossroads where Britney Spears sings her “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” cover at a way-too-packed karaoke bar:
(Britney Spears will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: For 50 Cent’s 2005 Nate Dogg/Mobb Deep collab “Have A Party,” producer Fredwreck built the beat from a sample of the “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” drums. Here’s the video:
(“Have A Party” did not chart. Mobb Deep never had a top-10 hit as lead artists. Their highest-charting single, the 2002 112 collab “Hey Luv (Anything)” peaked at #58 — one spot higher than the foundational 1994 classic “Shook Ones (Part II).” Mobb Deep did, however, guest on 50 Cent’s 2005 single “Outta Control (Remix),” which peaked at #6. It’s a 6. Nate Dogg never had a top-10 single as a lead artist, either. His highest-charting single, the 1998 Warren G collab “Nobody Does It Better,” peaked at #18. But as a guest hook-singer, Nate Dogg will eventually appear in this column. 50 Cent will be in this column, too.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2019, the British YouTuber who calls himself LadBaby had the Christmas #1 in the UK with “I Love Sausage Rolls,” a parody of “I Love Rock ‘N Roll.” Here’s the video:
THE NUMBER TWOS: The Go-Go’s’ dizzy new-wave sugar rush “We Got The Beat” peaked at #2 behind “I Love Rock ‘N Roll.” (This must’ve felt like a truly golden era for new-wave women from the Los Angeles punk scene — right down to the Germs connections — making frothy, exciting pop songs.) “We Got The Beat.” does the watusi, it just gives us a chance, and it’s a 10:
(The Go-Go’s won’t appear in this column, but frontwoman Belinda Carlisle will.)