In 1990, Joan Jett released a covers album called The Hit List, in which she recorded songs by such artists as ZZ Top, The Doors, AC/DC, and The Kinks. But in its way, her most commercially successful album I Love Rock ‘N Roll is nearly a covers album too, and a much more interesting one. Notably, both the big singles from the album — the title track and “Crimson And Clover” — are cover songs that Jett electrifies with her unique style.
When I wrote about Aretha Franklin, I mentioned how she changes the words around on some of the songs she covers, which fundamentally changes their meaning. Jett’s lyrical alterations, though powerful, were far less drastic. Her cover versions changed the meaning of the songs based much more on her style and simply who she is. She wasn’t the first female badass in rock, but she was certainly the first one to top the charts — the song “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” was #1 for no less than seven weeks in 1982.
Thus “Crimson And Clover”, which was a hippy-trippy bit of psychedelic fluff when performed by Tommy James and The Shondells in 1968, becomes in Jett’s hands a confident and muscular seduction ballad. Moreover, she doesn’t change the words, which means that this throbbing come-on is sung by a woman about a woman — pretty transgressive for a Top 10 song in 1982. Jett claims that she didn’t change the words in order to preserve the rhyme, which certainly makes sense, but doesn’t alter the fact that she didn’t have to cover the song at all — she chose to do so and therefore sang this siren call of lust about another woman. There’s an additional bit of mischief in there, as Jett blurs her pronunciation enough to turn the line “My mind’s such a sweet thing / I wanna do everything” into “I’m not such a sweet thing / I wanna do everything.” The song’s video locks in that meaning as Jett shakes her head and widens her expressive eyes at just the right times.
As breathtaking as “Crimson And Clover” is, the real juggernaut on the album is the title track. Unlike “Crimson”, Jett’s cover doesn’t change very much from the original, a UK non-hit by a group called The Arrows, which Jett stumbled across on British TV while on tour with her first band The Runaways. The dirty glam-rock vibe gets polished just a little bit, but the handclaps and the giddily impudent attitude survive totally intact in Jett’s version. The difference, again, is that in her version, it’s a tough and nervy woman telling the story. Unlike in “Crimson” she does change the pronouns to make it a heterosexual expression, but the song still flips the script on gender roles by putting Jett’s character firmly in the role of the sexual aggressor. “I could tell it wouldn’t be long / ‘Til he was with me, YEAH ME” — that “YEAH ME” takes on a totally different light when sung by a woman. Also, where The Arrows fill a crucial space in the riff with a guitar effect, Jett fills it with a scream, one of the most compelling screams in rock.
“I Love Rock ‘N Roll” is a thesis statement for the album, and the rest of the covers go on to prove it. Where Tommy James and the Shondells represent the late 1960s, she reaches out to a much earlier era with her cover of a doo-wop song called “Nag” by one-hit wonders The Halos. But that original feels leaden and silly next to Jett’s version, which is sped up and spiked with adrenaline attitude. She also rearranges the vocal parts so that she takes most of the lead, but one of the Blackhearts pipes in with the actual nagging comments (“Run down to the butcher shop and buy me a roast!”), in the style of “Summertime Blues” — which was also covered for this album and released as a b-side. These interjections underline the new gender politics that inhabit her cover, highlighting the fact that this female leader of an otherwise-male band will brook no domineering behavior from any man. “Hey you, get outta here!” she shouts in an ominous tone.
To hit the era between “Nag” and “Crimson”, Jett covers “Bits And Pieces”, a hard-driving stomp by the Dave Clark Five. The original has a party vibe thanks to a trilling saxophone in the background, but Jett’s cover is, again, faster and spikier, replacing the original’s resigned frustration with a fierce, punky anger. Finally, she brings in the 1970s by covering her own song from the Runaways era, “You’re Too Possessive.” The difference between these versions serves as a statement of Jett’s changing identity from the 70s to the 80s. Where the Runaways sounded about halfway between Humble Pie and the Sex Pistols, Jett’s version with the Blackhearts is slicker, more melodic, more mature, and once again, faster. It’s the difference between a girl’s song and a woman’s song, and when she sings “I ain’t your wife!” this time it packs a bigger punch.
I don’t mean to give short shrift to the original songs on this album — they’re great, but for me on this listen they mostly felt like they were spackling the gaps and cracks between the towering covers. In fact, songs like “(I’m Gonna) Run Away” feel like ironic meta-commentary on Jett’s own career as a former Runaway and current rock and roll disciple, further underpinning her covers project.
There’s a theme here. She’s taking her childhood and young-adulthood, pushing its limits, finding new space to own the power she possesses in such abundance. She is out to kick ass on this album, and she succeeds magnificently. She turned in great performances and great songs before and after this album, but even if this was the only thing she’d ever done, she’d still have earned her place in the rock pantheon.