By Jim Jerome
August 30, 1976 12:00 PM

Take five girls, the oldest one 17, with true roots known only to their hairdresser. Give them a suggestive title, and send them out on a tour of joints they’d be too young to enter as customers. That’s the rock group the Runaways. For critics who disparage the imitative din of the band’s debut LP, The Runaways, the girls’ artistic virtues are best summed up by their own description of themselves: “The Queens of Noise.” “Maybe this is a gimmick,” admits drummer Sandy West, “but we play real rock.”

If not a gimmick, it is at least a master plot of Kim Fowley, the self-described “Street Howard Hughes.” Fowley is a veteran L.A. record producer-composer who previously collaborated on gold hits for the likes of the Byrds and Alice Cooper. Figuring it was time to rezone the archmacho or at least androgyne youth rock market, he auditioned giggly girls from Greater L.A. who might pass for itinerant punks. Fowley knew guitarist Joan Jett, then met West on the Sunset Strip. Next came lead guitarist Lita Ford—on a steer from two rock fanzine writers. By last winter the group had grown to five, with Cherie Currie (she met Jett in Schwab’s drugstore) and Jackie Fox, who blew a shot at lead guitar but taught herself bass.

After countless shakedown gigs in living rooms, shopping malls and parking lots, Fowley’s fillies finally landed a six-figure deal with Mercury Records, thanks in part to an endorsement from Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. Now, the Runaways are on a two-month tour but hardly living up to the hype of their name. “None of us has left home,” confesses lead singer Currie, 16. “We’re all close to our families, and we wouldn’t be out there if we didn’t have their support.”

The ersatz rebels call home at least twice a week, drink nothing harder than Dr Pepper, and the only pills they pop are multivitamins. They stay close to their male road crew, who double as chaperons and bodyguards to bounce boy groupies from dressing rooms and hotel corridors. In defense of their pubescent assailants, the Runaways’ lyrics (“I’m gettin’ so hot/ I’m cookin’ like an oven”) do not exactly discourage prurient interest.

However onerous, touring beats the scholarly life. “It’s boring being a teenager,” says Jett. “Ya go to school, come home, watch TV, eat dinner, then whattaya do? School is the real ordeal.” Actually Jett and Fox, a former student government officer, both have earned high school equivalency certificates. Last spring West and Ford commuted about 125 miles daily between the rehearsal studio and their L.A. classrooms. Ford graduated from high school, and West may tutor this fall with a welfare caseworker. Only Currie dropped out. In the 10th grade she decided, “No way they could teach me what I needed to get this act together.”

What she is learning isn’t taught in school. She still has nightmares about the time “I reached down among these screaming guys and suddenly hands were all over me. Joan came over, swung her ax and got them down.” Sighs Currie: “I just froze. I wanted to go home.”