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Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo

While Debbie Harry and Joan Jett get credit for creating the tough rock-woman persona in the late ’70s and early ’80s, this Brooklyn-born hitmaker is often unfairly removed from that category. Maybe it was because she sold more records than them or wasn’t as hip with the punk and indie crowds. Nevertheless, she and her hubby, guitarist/co-writer Neil Giraldo, persevere–though they’re unlikely to get Hall of Fame credentials for the above reasons. Perhaps she just needs better commercial tie-ins–though with titles such as “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “Love is a Battlefield,” it ain’t gonna be easy.

Mon., July 11, 8 p.m.; Tue., July 12, 8 p.m., 2011

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The Coathangers Have No Time for Your Rules

There are unwritten rules for girl bands. One of them is that if you are to be taken seriously, you must play seriously and play down your gender as well—there’s a polarity between musicianliness and girliness. Some women abide by it, others twist themselves to work around it, others reject it outright; most all bear the psychic weight regardless. But the Atlanta quartet the Coathangers aren’t so much fuck-the-rules as they are wholly heedless of them—and they cackle at us for expecting anything otherwise.

The band’s third album, Larceny and Old Lace (Suicide Squeeze), is an aggressive, playful, girly shambles. It’d be easy to think that the band’s ideas are merely visceral or instinctual, that Larceny sputters with beginners’ spirit. But repeated listens make it obvious that the Coathangers are conscious of what they are rejecting. These girls came of age in the pop eon of Britney (a Disney-dreamed singing and dancing virgin slut doll crafted for maximum appeal), American Idol (where quotidian pretty voices were the norm), and indie girls getting over on well-considered pairings of naïveté and cuteness. In response, they offer up lewd jokes and invitations to come “nestle” in their “boobies,” all sung in voices that could easily cause a headache with prolonged exposure. These are smart girls thrilling themselves with how bad they can be.

Though there is really only one acceptable archetype for the “bad girl” in rock ‘n’ roll, and it begins and ends with Joan Jett (Courtney Love is another, though she doesn’t usually get filed under “acceptable”), the Coathangers present us with another option: The obstinate girl who doesn’t give a shit about anything but her good time, though she’s delighted that you think she’s a little scary. The heinous brat whine possessed by two of the band’s three singers—guitarist Crook Kid Coathanger and bassist Minnie Coathanger—is the singsong of the tattle tale, nasal, sharp, and relentless, the unmistakable voice of the antiheroine in a florid musical who’s definitely gonna do something bad to get back at you.

Larceny and Old Lace is rich in un-love songs—they sing of love that’s free of sticky romance (“I like it when you stray/’Cause I don’t want you everyday/Hey, I like you/Go away” they sing on “Go Away”), and sometimes a little stalky (“Call to Nothing,” “Trailer Park Boneyard”). “My Baby” comes on as innocently as any Taylor Swiftian pledge of eternal fealty (“I like to watch you while you sleep/While you’re standing close, I find it even hard to breathe”) before veering toward creepy adoration (“I comb my hair the way you do to be closer to you/My baby”) and then careening into a grotesquerie, one that reveals how underneath those hopeful, doe-eyed teengirl sentiments lurks a desperate girl who can’t live without someone else.

As refreshing as the band’s rejection of feminine ideals is, the thing that makes them really worth listening to is the fact that, despite being tagged as garage/post-punk/grrrl-somethings, they aren’t reviving anything. They are a nothing-fancy good-time band—you know, like some local living-room-only geniuses whose “Louie Louie” variations, brimming with single entendres and pockmarked by hilarious banter, feel like God’s true pleasure message when you are just drunk enough. Those bands are usually cover bands or season-long side projects, not make-a-record, buy-a-van type bands—but the Coathangers have lofted that sound from its low station and made a summer fun record that preserves the perfect crash of wasted youth.

Righteous dilettantes, the Coathangers’ songs are simple and jarring—they’re irreverent towards melody and their hooks jut at odd angles. They favor single-string runs and maxing out at two and three chords. Their solos do not blaze; they go neener-neener-neener-neener, and therein lies the liberation. The Coathangers’ abject rejection of finesse or the idea that you must—as they say in bandmate-wanted ads—”have pro gear and pro attitude” is what ultimately thrills. They are giving glory to the amateur.

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Vonda Shepard

For the Gen X return of Blue Suede’s “Hooked on a Feeling,” two culprits are to blame. Reservoir Dogs, we know, but Ally McBeal chanteuse Vonda Shepard is another story. The New York-based singer languished in obscurity for years, losing a part as Michael J. Fox’s sister to Joan Jett and a duet with Peter Cetera to Amy Grant, until David E. Kelley recruited her to sing the Bacharach ballads and Dusty Springfield singles at McBeal and the firm’s trusty after-hours piano bar, often summing up their emotional landscape in song. Tonight, she’ll tackle yours with her signature hit “Searching My Soul.” Somewhere, Robert Downey Jr. is warming up.

Fri., May 14, 8 p.m., 2010

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The Best Girl Band Movies Ever

Before The Runaways, there was . . . Spice World. Movies have been honoring, exploiting, or completely botching the appeal of XX bands for years. Below, a guide to cinema’s (mostly fictional) all-femme ensembles from the past four decades.

1970

Interracial psychedelic-soul trio the Kelly Affair change their name to the Carrie Nations at the insistence of new manager Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Supposedly modeled on Phil Spector, Z-Man bears an uncanny resemblance to lecherous Runaways’ manager Kim Fowley.

1982

In the same year that Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” would reach No. 1 on the charts, barely adolescent Diane Lane and Laura Dern—two-thirds of the eponymous proto-riot-grrrl trio in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains—inspire their band’s followers not to put out.

1988

Four teen ladies—including Justine Bateman and Julia Roberts in her first major screen role—and a dude keyboard player form Jennie Lee and the Mystery and cover Eddie Cochran in Satisfaction.

1997

All dressed up like a Union Jack, Sporty, Scary, Posh, Baby, and Ginger star in Spice World, their version of A Hard Day’s Night; “girl power” translates as the right to dress like a streetwalker.

2001

Rachael Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson, and Tara Reid don long tails and ears for hats in Josie and the Pussycats, the live-action adaptation of the Hanna-Barbera TV cartoon that ran from 1970 through ’72, whose neat, sweet, groovy theme song remains one of the small screen’s funkiest.

2003

In late-’80s L.A., Clam Dandy leader Gina Gershon hopes her quartet can make it big before she turns 40 in Prey for Rock & Roll; the film’s same-sexing scenes give equal weight to talking through feelings and dildo action.

2004

Speaking of lavender leanings, Cherie Currie acknowledges getting it on with both Joan Jett and drummer Sandy West in the documentary Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways, directed by the group’s post–Jackie Fox bassist, Vicki Blue; Jett refused to appear in the film.

2006

The big-screen adaptation of the 1981 Broadway smash loosely based on the Supremes finds Beyoncé Knowles, the Diana Ross analogue of Destiny’s Child, playing another Ross simulacrum in Dreamgirls. Sandy West dies of lung cancer.

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Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart in The Runaways

There’s an obvious stunt element to the casting of The Runaways: a punked-up, barely legal Kristen Stewart and a still underage, barely dressed Dakota Fanning begging for street cred by playing dress-up as, respectively, Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, front girls of the oversexed ’70s-era teen proto-punk sensation, the Runaways. Watch sweet little Dakota strut around in a corset! Look at the chick from Twilight, kissing girls and snorting massive amounts of coke! But under the stylish direction of Floria Sigismondi, what may be a stunt is also a movie worth taking seriously.

The film opens in 1975, in a dystopic L.A. floating between the Manson murders and the Polanski rape case. Brought together by charismatic weirdo/record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), the girls develop a “product” based on “women’s libido” in place of women’s lib. Cherie and Joan become fast friends, drinking vile blends of liquor-cabinet pilfered booze under a decaying Hollywood sign, Joan the tomboy Clyde to Cherie’s glam Bonnie. With “I want an orgasm!” as their Fowley-dictated rallying cry, the pushing-16-year-olds sell the notion that they’re full of cum; young and dumb, it takes them awhile to figure out the dark side of hawking their sexual curiosity.

Jett is the first to wise up. When the band turns on Cherie for submitting to a solo soft-core photo shoot, it’s because Joan understands that unless they set the terms of their own sexual empowerment, and its commoditization, then what’s reallyhappening is exploitation. “You could say ‘No,’ ” she tells Cherie. It’s a shock to the blonde; it’s also the thesis of the film.

Jett’s unique blend of allure and threat, apathy and determination, gets a mumbling hyper-naturalized take from Stewart—more Brando than Bella Swan. Her performance is largely internal—risky, considering that the built-in audience that probably made the Twilight star appealing to producers might not know what to make of the actress playing a character with so much going on in her head. Fanning tacks the other way, bravely embracing the physicality of her role, but unable to nail its emotional complexities. (In other words: Stewart’s performance makes you forget the baggage of the actresses’ personal celebrity; Fanning’s foregrounds it.)

The girl-on-girl kiss at the center of the film shocks for the simple fact that it’s not gratuitous. Cherie and Joan’s attraction is less about sex than natural teenage emulation—they want to be each other more than they want to be together—and its consummation, like all of The Runaways‘ most vivid sequences, allows Sigismondi to show off her music-video-honed knack for creating deep wells of feeling without dialogue.

Sigismondi gets the most mood out of chiaroscuro lighting, invisibly elliptic editing, and well-chosen source cues, but actually saying something is harder. All that artsy, abstracted imagery is painted over the skeleton of a predictable rock movie—wide-eyed rise leads to free-fall, which leads to rebirth and redemption—and that’s fine. In The Runaways‘ first hour, there’s a guttural pleasure to be had in riding waves of rock-movie cliché spiked with socio-sexual commentary. The movie is at its best when working through the contradictions of teen sex-for-sale, when it’s both turn-on and creep-out. And Sigismondi’s nearly avant-garde visual choices elevate what would be junk food into something more. It’s only when she abandons the expected rock biopic forward motion that the film runs into trouble.

The Runaways didn’t sing slow songs, and after having taken so much tonal inspiration from the music itself, Sigismondi falters in trying to choke the film down to contemplative ballad-speed. After defining Cherie and Joan as two halves of the same whole, Sigismondi loses her way when the girls’ personal problems tear them apart. As the director tries to follow each on her quest to move on without the other, sloggy crosscutting ensues. Joan gradually adopts a modicum of self-control, ditches the druggy hangers-on, and gets to work smoking and mumbling vague snatches of potential lyrics in the bath—while Cherie spirals through drunken public meltdowns and beyond into the ultimate embarrassment: a straight job. This drowsy spell snaps when Jett is apparently struck by divine inspiration to cover “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” while jumping up and down on a bed in her panties. Sigismondi returns to the rock cliché that fueled the best stretches of The Runaways, but junks the visual daring and feminist questioning. It’s sexy, but, in the end, skin-deep.

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JOAN JETTS IN TRAINING

Joan Jett amped up the rocker chick in us gals when her raspy chords declared she loved rock ‘n’ roll, and tonight’s Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, Third Annual Rock ‘n’ Roll Auction will electrify us no differently. Hosted by the king of showbiz, Murray Hill, the benefit supports programs that mentor young girls through music—giving them the opportunity to learn how to play instruments, form bands, write songs, and find boys who’ll hold their gear for them (hey, it beats selling cookies!). Performances include the strong soulful tunes of Me’Shell Ndegéocello, the folksy Erin McKeown, and indie hippie chick Jennifer O’Connor, with a live auction of kick-ass guitars autographed by Kimya Dawson, Joan Jett, and Savvy & Mandy, to name a few. Other prizes include an eco-friendly gift pack and tickets to The Ronnie Spector Christmas Party, The Colbert Report, and the WNBA. Add in the funky door prizes and drink specials, and you might “put another dime in the jukebox, baby.”

Wed., Dec. 3, 6 p.m., 2008

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Rock Band 2 Turns It Up To. . . Ugh, You Know the Rest

This summer, the drummer from Joan Jett and the Blackhearts threw a drumstick at my face.

To be fair, that’s what drummers do—even fill-in, faux-Blackhearts from Joan Jett’s new live band (at a county fair near you). After defensively swiping the stick out of the air, inches from my eye, a way-too-enthusiastic girl next to me asked, “Oh man! What are you going to DO with it?” The answer was easy: stab and poke my way out of the crowd, run home and use it to play Rock Band 2. Because being known as the guy who eagerly caught a thrown souvenir from Joan Jett’s session band is definitely more embarrassing than wailing on plastic drums in my front room.

Yes, I believe Rock Band 2—the astonishing, must-have sequel to the blockbuster original—has finally crossed this threshold: playing in a fake rock band with your friends is officially cooler than being in a real band. Making it in a real rock band is incredibly hard work, and at the end of that hard work, no one truly appreciates your skill but your mother. Then, one day, you’re just some guy playing 20 year old songs during Budweiser’s local Summer Stage series. So why not fake it ’til you don’t make it?

You know the Rock Band drill at this point. Up to four friends—with plastic guitar, bass, drums and microphone in hand—can slog their way through a massive setlist of hits from AC/DC (their first music game appearance) to ZZ Top. Colored buttons correspond with on-screen “notes,” and missing too many gets you booed offstage. Shred, rinse, repeat. So why’s it deserve an encore?

A music game’s setlist used to make or break the purchase, but thanks to the advent of downloadable content, it’s a moot point. For the few among you who don’t like Rock Band 2’s 80+ included songs (who can argue with “Eye of the Tiger” and Duran Duran?), all of the original Rock Band’s downloadable content is also playable. And because you can rip every track over from Rock Band 1—making the re-sell value of the first game approximately $3—there’s no reason not to pick up the first game on the cheap and add it to your song arsenal. The series promises 500 songs by the Holiday season. Whose holiday? Hopefully the one that celebrates Festivus in October.

It seems unremarkable at first, but Rock Band 2’s gameplay simply fixes all the problems from the original without monkeying with what worked. However, to anyone who had to play Garbage’s ear-gouging “I Think I’m Paranoid” multiple times in Rock Band to advance, the flexible build-your-own setlist option during World Tour is a godsend. Also, instead of your band’s lineup being locked in for the duration of the game, you can add friends, tour alone and kick troubled members out of the band. That’s great news for Scott Weiland’s friends, who can finally move past the first level.

Those annoyed that their living room is piling up with expensive plastic instruments can rest easy: Rock Band 2 is compatible with your old Rock Band gear. Though after you try out the improved (read: quieter, sturdier and more responsive) wireless guitar and drums, you’ll smash your old controllers Keith Moon-style. Bonus: the new equipment will be compatible with the upcoming Guitar Hero: World Tour, thanks to a landmark company agreement that, in my mind, surpasses the fall of the Berlin Wall.

You wanted a built-in Drum Training mode? You got it. A “No Fail Mode” so your little cousins, or grandfather, can join in the fun? It’s here too. More customization and online play options? Done and done. A Phil Collins and Huey Lewis marathon song set? Well…no. Unfortunately, they’ve gotta leave some awesomeness for the next game.

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Security Joan

Joan Jett’s put so many dimes in so many jukeboxes, baby, it’s no wonder her music sounds like living history. On this month’s Sinner (Blackheart), her first original studio album in more than a decade, the only indication that the music wasn’t recorded in the early ’80s—or, for that matter, the mid ’70s, when Jett ran away with the Runaways—is the occasional reference to our current geopolitical shitstorm. ” ‘No child left behind’? Wake up, people!” she sneers over a palm-muted guitar chug in “Riddles,” before passing the mic to Donald Rumsfeld, who describes via soundbite the difference between “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.”

That neoclassical bent does nothing to lessen the fact that Sinner rips, and it did even less to blunt the impact of Jett’s show with the Blackhearts at CBGB, part of a pre–Warped Tour Big Apple blitz that also included gigs at the Bowery Ballroom, Southpaw, and NorthSix. In fact, musical progress would only have hurt her, since the sold-out throng—haggard old-school punks, young queercore scenesters, a handful of yuppies tapping on their Treos—were present to relive past glories, not revel in new ones.

Yet the show didn’t feel like a cynical nostalgia trip. Waging heroic battle against CB’s shitty sound and shittier sight lines, the bikini-topped singer tapped into an ancient vein of garage-rock energy, highlighting the music’s universality rather than its familiarity. Well, there was some familiarity: Timeworn covers of “Roadrunner,” “Crimson and Clover,” and the Mary Tyler Moore theme padded out the 21-song set, which included but didn’t climax with an obligatory “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” But when the band closed with Sly Stone’s “Everyday People,” Jett’s message was clear—she purposefully keeps this music open for whoever might find room in it for his or herself. Like a jukebox, it puts out what you put in.

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Metal Love and Canadian Complexes Turned Against Themselves

A name synhomonymic with “this blows” is forbidding enough without liner notes like “shows what happens when you have too much time on your hands,” “average talent,” and “WARNING: Not for the politically correct!” Worse yet, “contains Copy Control technology” that may cause “playback problems” on “car CD players,” when cars are where Helix (who belonged on the pre-recorded cassette format) most sounded like an actual professional band. The Kitchener, Ontario (motto: “173 Miles From Napanee”), Fela & Kanada 70 have gone through 25 members. Onetime bassist Mike Uzelac found God and was last seen wandering the streets in 1983 “in Detroit,” but Helix got their Rumours in 1984 with Walkin’ the Razor’s Edge, the last time anybody used a fucking apostrophe properly. “Rock You” was covered by Sum 41 on the Fubar soundtrack, which is like if Skye Sweetnam did “Love Is a Battlefield” in 13 Going on 30. They chased Amy with “Heavy Metal Love” (a paean to Joan Jett with Judas Priest music) and chased Amis with Bob Halligan Jr. Previously unavailable tracks include a Tom Jones cover, the turning Japanoize “I Wanna Be Stoned,” and “S.E.X. Rated,” which takes reactionary objectification to an extreme that’s probably been banned in their native country by some Supreme Court ruling. As accurate a reflection of life outside the Defense Perimeter as you’ll find.

Willamena, who are from some place down in the lower 48, turn the Northern superiority complex against itself with devastating results in “Rock-n-Roll.” Dead-on Tragically Sloan cryogenic-retardation vocals interrupt mantric repetitions of “keep it simple” and “it’s just gon’ be a damn good time” with Coupland references like “I really Doug that loud guitar” over a not very loud guitar. Also, this is the worst possible time to channel the Michael Stanley Band, gas prices being what they are. Then again, it’s worse outside the Perimeter, where (as I’ll be first on record to predict) we’re looking at $8 a gallon by Christmas.

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Paradise Garbage

It’s tempting to imagine that Kenny Laguna invented the lifework he chronicles in the songs and liner notes of Laguna Tunes, that this parade of detritus—Tony Orlando before Dawn, Sissy Spacek singing the soundtrack to an Andy Warhol film, Bill Medley between the Righteous Brothers and his 1980s blip—is some kind of Nabokovian ploy concocted six months ago in a New York studio. But it isn’t a sham, exactly, just an unprecedented distillation of a phantasmic realm: the world of shameless bubblegum, where balladeers rejected pathos as bathos that wasn’t trying hard enough, studio groups were invented at the drop of a hat, and anything could be stuck on the B side.

Laguna, later the keyboardist and producer for Joan Jett, broke in as a teenage wunderkind, backing the Shangri-Las and others at concerts staged by New York’s main AM station, and conjuring 45s whenever he could line up a song, singer, and label. Stranded in California by Tommy James, he befriended Beserkeley, home to Jonathan Richman (not included, though Laguna produced him) among other crazies; on this compilation, Beserkeley’s Zep-suppressed radio cult staple “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island” finally gets a legit issuing. When punk hit, La-guna fit right in, recognizing grubby hustlers underneath all the hype. Besides Jett, he helmed Malcolm McLaren’s version of teenybop: Bow Wow Wow, represented by the still greasy rape fantasy “Louis Quatorze.” The latest tracks here are a 1997 Cole Porter cover by Jett and Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin and a 1985 Jett session with the Beach Boys and Darlene Love. For a career arc, quite a wingspan.

The latter song’s called “Good Music,” pretty funny given Laguna’s spaghetti-on-the-wall aesthetic. But the CD might convince you that that isn’t a sham, either, or that it’s the founding sham of rock and roll. There’s an August Darnell-penned disco tune about trying to get into Studio 54—everyone in Lagunaland is trying to get an in somewhere—and its even better B side: the saga of how many labels said no to the A side before Eddie O’, who’d go on to found Salt-N-Pepa’s Next Plateau, said yes. The version of “Dancin’ in the Moonlight” that King Harvest stole (“once again, ‘we was robbed’ “). An instrumental B side for Wind that became a British chart topper in 1970 after the BBC didn’t know which side to play. Any number of baritones trying to make like Neil Diamond. And endless covers, by ersatz ensembles like Moose and the Pelicans, because “rock and roll is going to set you free.” Think they’re kidding? Look at them!

You could draw cynical conclusions from this album: that pop never changes, just the shtick of those trying to cash in; that the only difference between a song on a Rhino compilation and one in somebody’s attic is a million spins on the radio. The truth is, Laguna and his pals, even Joan Jett, had a hard time mustering the self-importance to become historic figures. So they drifted around, with the result a record that keeps finding the same sweet spot, whether the inspiration is the Brill Building, Motown, longhair AM, or the Ramones. I find myself singing “Sudden Death” by Anders, Laguna, and Ginsberg, which tries so hard to top Procol Harum it ends up anticipating Tom Petty. Rock isn’t just trash. But that’s one of the things it is, and weirdly enough, the folks cutting demos in the garbage can are often the truest believers.