This is the 42nd post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
The Arrows were a rock band that featured Alan Merrill on bass and vocals, Jake Hooker on guitar, and Paul Varley on drums. The band had hits in 1974 and 1975 with “Touch Too Much” and “My Last Night With You,” which charted in the UK at Number 8 and Number 25, respectively.
But the band’s most recognizable song was “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” recorded in 1975. Produced by Mickie Most of RAK Records, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” was originally a B-side to The Arrows’ “Broken Down Heart.” Most’s wife, Christina Hayes, persuaded him to re-release the song as an A-side on subsequent pressings.
The A-side version of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” landed The Arrows an appeared on the TV show “45,” which was produced by Muriel Young. She enjoyed the band so much that she offered The Arrows its own TV show. “Arrows” ran in the UK in 1976 and 1977.
During that time, Joan Jett was touring England as part of The Runaways. She happened to catch an episode of “Arrows,” during which she saw the band perform “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” When The Runaways broke up, Jett began work on her own solo album. In the sessions for that album, she recorded a version of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” with Paul Cook and Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols. It was released as a B-side to her cover of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.”
Jett’s first album was released in 1980 as “Joan Jett,” but re-released in 1981 as “Bed Reputation.” The version of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” she had recorded with Jones and Cook didn’t make it onto the album, but “You Don’t Own Me” did.
But a polished version did end up on her next record, the first one she released with her new backing band, The Blackhearts. Released in the fall of 1981, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” became Jett’s best-selling album, in part because of the title track. The song reached Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 while also reaching Number One in Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden.
“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” was one of a handful of covers on the album, appearing alongside versions of The Dave Clark Five’s “Bits and Pieces,” Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover,” and “Little Drummer Boy.”
Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” changed the gender dynamics of the song, as she made it about a woman picking up a young guy rather than a guy picking up a young girl. The age reference — “must have been about seventeen” — speaks only about the song’s subject, not the narrator. Jett was 23 when her version was released in 1981, and Merrill would have been about 24 when The Arrows’ version came out in 1975.
Weird Al Yankovic recorded a parody of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” called “I Love Rocky Road” for his self-titled debut album, which was released in 1983.
In a 2014 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Yankovic explained how the song directly influenced the trajectory of his career:
Going into my first album, I realized I actually should be getting permission for this stuff, so when we approached the songwriters of ‘I Love Rock and Roll’ to do my parody ‘I Love Rocky Road,’ [original member of The Arrows] Jake Hooker said, ‘Well, that sounds like a great idea, and by the way I happen to manage Rick Derringer, and I think Rick would be really interested in being part of this project.’ I met with Rick, and I was a big fan of his, and I was honored and flattered that he wanted to work with me, and he ended up producing my first six albums.
Christian punk band Ghoti Hook recorded a sped-up “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” for its 1998 covers album, “Songs We Didn’t Write.” It seemed weird that a song with the lyric “Can I take you home where we can be alone?” appeared on the same album as a cover of a Michael W. Smith song, but then again, there have been stranger combinations on cover albums.
Britney Spears recorded a cover of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” for her third album, 2001’s “Britney,” and released it as that album’s fourth single in the spring of 2002. Produced by R&B/hip-hop producer Rodney Jerkins, the track featured record scratches and drumbeats over the familiar riff. About a minute and 45 seconds in, Spears added a line about rock ‘n’ roll soothing her soul. But other than that, the record scratches, and the drumbeats, her cover seemed pretty similar to the versions by Jett and The Arrows. It felt like more of a remake than a reinvention or reinterpretation.
Spears’ cover of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” reached the top 20 in more than a dozen countries, including the UK, where it peaked at 13. It later appeared in her 2002 film, “Crossroads,” as her character Lucy performed it in a karaoke bar. And if you look hard enough, you’ll recognize that one of her friends was played by Taryn Manning, who later became Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett in “Orange Is The New Black.”
In an interview in 2002, Spears said it was her idea to use that song in the movie:
There’s a karaoke scene in the movie and they said, “We need a song for you to sing.” And actually I sing “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” all the time in karaoke, so it just made sense for me to do that song. I wanted [producer Rodney Jerkins] to come in and redo the track and make it really funky. I just love the song. I love Pat Benatar, and I just think she’s amazing. It’s like she’s a rock ‘n’ roll chick and she’s just having a good time and it’s a very empowering song.
So she got Joan Jett and Pat Benatar mixed up. We’ll forgive her for that. We think.
(OK, the jury is still out on whether we will let that slip.)
Bluegrass/rock band Hayseed Dixie covered “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” for its 2002 album, “A Hillbilly Tribute to Mountain Love.” The album was 90 percent covers: the tenth track, “I’m Keeping Your Poop,” was an original by band member John Wheeler. The cover worked because the band was dedicated to the premise, and because it’s obvious from Wheeler’s vocals that he’s an imp and a smartass who’s probably fun to hang out with in person. I mean, you have to be a certain level of smartass to write “I’m Keeping Your Poop.”
Synthpop trio Queen of Japan recorded a chopppy, sample-heavy “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” for its 2002 album, “Headrush.” Vocally, it was similar to Jett’s and Spears’ versions, but the background track sounded like Frankensteined patchwork of remixed sounds, beeps, and bloops.
Korean actress and singer Lee Da-hae recorded a version of the song, singing it in Korean except for the words “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The version sounded like Spears’, in that it was slick and produced, but the background track was more layered, and thus, more interesting.
In 2008, producer Alex Gaudino and DJ Jason Rooney released a version of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” that inserted electronic samples in between “I love rock ‘n’ roll/So put another dime in the jukebox, baby,” which had the effect of sounding like a remix of the chorus rather than a cover of the song. The Gaudino/Rooney version peaked at Number 10 in Belgium.
Miley Cyrus has performed the song on tours, particularly earlier in her career when the slight twang in her voice was more noticeable.
At least once, she performed it in a medley with Jett’s “Bad Reputation” and The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” in Rio…
..and she got to play a similar medley with Jett herself on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2011. “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” was not one of the songs in that mix, but it’s worth seeing, particularly to watch Oprah’s reactions in the crowd.
1n 2010, glam metal/rock band L.A. Guns released a covers album called “Covered in Guns,” featuring covers of Kiss, Def Leppard, and AC/DC, among others. The band’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” sounded faithful to Jett’s version, with singer Phil Lewis approximating a Billy Squier sound. For metalheads and anal retentive types like myself, it’s worth pointing out that in 2010, there were two versions of L.A. Guns, as band founder Tracii Guns had split with his own incarnation of the band.
Justin Mauriello, formerly the lead singer of the bands Zebrahead and Darling Thieves, released a covers album in 2010 called “Justin Sings The Hits.” It was pretty pretty faithful to the Jett version, sounding more like a loud karaoke version than a reinterpretation or reimagining, per se.
Japanese rock band L’Arc~en~Ciel (French for “The Rainbow”) added guitars and some speed to its version of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which was later featured in a Pepsi commercial. This version, while not adding much new, sounded refreshingly fun, in part because it sounded like the band members were enjoying themselves.
As evidenced by these covers, the version with the most longevity and influence has been Jett’s. Which makes sense: she had the biggest hit with it, and that’s the version most people know. It makes sense that most of the covers will be faithful to hers.
But there are two versions that are perhaps too faithful to her sexy, swagger-laden version.
And that’s because those versions were performed by children.
Forever Young was a project similar to Kidz Bop in that it featured kids singing contemporary songs. Forever Young’s self-titled 2003 album featured a version of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” that had some of the same scratches and beats as the Spears version. But never mind the backing track, let’s not gloss over the fact that this song featured kids singing:
He smiled so I got up and’ asked for his name
That don’t matter, he said,
‘Cause it’s all the same
Said can I take you home where we can be alone
And on top of that, the kids put extra emphasis on “alone,” so that it sounded like “aloooooooooone.” In other words, Forever Young took a song that was already kinda sleazy, but made it creepy and uncomfortable.
Similarly, pop group Girl Authority comprised nine girls, ranging in ages 8 to 13. As such, the group’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” that appeared on its 2006 self-titled album was just as creepy as the Forever Young cover. When Kidz Bop does covers, it sometimes changes the lyrics to not be so “adult,” but what made the Girl Authority and Forever Young versions so uncomfortable were that the lyrics were kept as is. That’s also what made the children’s versions of “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off” so creepy.
So, yeah, the song is creepy when sung by kids. But to dismiss the song as merely a tune about picking up seventeen-year-olds and loving rock music is to ignore Merrill’s motives behind the song. He’s said he wanted it to be a “song within a song.”
In an interview with Songfacts, Merrill explained that the song was “a knee-jerk response” to The Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll”:
I remember watching it on Top of the Pops. I’d met Mick Jagger socially a few times, and I knew he was hanging around with Prince Rupert Lowenstein and people like that: jet setters. I almost felt like “It’s Only Rock and Roll” was an apology to those jet-set princes and princesses that he was hanging around with, the aristocracy, you know. That was my interpretation as a young man: Okay, I love rock and roll. And then, where do you go with that? You have to write a three-chord song with a lick that people remember, and it has to build. So I had the chorus, which to me sounded like a hit. And I thought, I’ll do something really unusual. I’ll write it that this is a song separate from the verse. So the actual chorus is something that’s coming out of a jukebox, and the two kids in the disco who are flirting are hearing this song that’s a hit. It felt like “The Twilight Zone.” I was so sure “I Love Rock and Roll” was gonna be a hit for the Arrows that I thought, “Well, when we have a hit with it, it’s gonna be a hit within a hit. A fictional hit coming out of the chorus with the kids singing it as their favorite song in the verse of the song.” Follow?
Sort of, maybe? I mean, I think I follow? I mean, did you know that? That the song was meant to be a song about a song? A song within a song? Because if I hadn’t read that, I would still think it was about picking up seventeen-year-olds and liking rock music. Which isn’t deep, per se, but then again, consider that in past installments of this series, we’ve reviewed songs that rhyme non sequitur French words or that merely repeat the phrase “tighten up.” And those songs didn’t seem any cheaper to me.
I am willing to bet I’m not the only one who didn’t get that this song was supposed to be about a song. And I don’t think failing to understand that has hampered anyone’s enjoyment of the song. Nor do I think the people who thought the song was only OK at best will now think, “Oh man, this is genius!”
Sometimes — maybe the majority of the time? — the songwriter’s intentions are irrelevant to how the audience perceives the song. And that’s OK.