Lita Ford

by Dan MacIntosh

The term "pioneering artist" gets thrown around a lot in the music business, but Lita Ford is one woman that clearly lives up to the title. She began her career in The Runaways, an all-girl, pre-punk Southern California band that also launched Joan Jett.

Ford was one of the first legitimate hard rocking women, respected for her musical chops, as much as she was admired for her looks, which made her the most famous pin-up in metal. Jett hit it big just a few years after her Runaway days, but it took Lita a little longer: her breakthrough came in 1988 with the hit single "Kiss Me Deadly" and the duet with the prince of darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne, on the rock ballad "Close My Eyes Forever."

In 2012, Ford released the autobiographical album, Living Like a Runaway, and the following year she returned with The Bitch is Back... Live, a concert album overview of her many career highlights.

Ford, who's never run away from anything, took time to talk about her unique rock & roll life.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): On your new live album you cover "The Bitch Is Back," which is an Elton John song.

Lita Ford: Well, it's really a Lita song now. When you record something, you have to own it. In other words, you have to make it your own, even though you didn't write it. And the way we made it a Lita song is we made it heavier on the guitars, instead of – as Elton John probably would have done – made it more piano-orientated. So this song is more of a rocker than the Elton John version. And it works. It's appropriate for me, coming back into the music industry.

Songfacts: Was it your idea to record it?

Lita: Yeah. I heard it on the radio one day and I went "Uh! That's it! Why didn't I think of that?" So I said to Gary Hoey, who was producing the album, "Let's do 'The Bitch Is Back.'" We both looked at each other and went, "Hmm. You know what we're taking on, don't you? This is a serious song, written by a serious artist – Elton John. We have to make it as great as we possibly can and we can't fuck this up in any way or shape or form."

Gary Hoey, in addition to being a record producer, is also an esteemed rock guitarist. His first brush with fame was when he auditioned to become Ozzy Osbourne's guitarist in 1987, but lost out to Zakk Wylde. He later went on to score the Endless Summer II soundtrack and cover War's "Low Rider." He also played the tunes you hear on the California Screamin' roller coaster at Disney's California Adventure.
So we really focused on getting the right guitar sound and making sure we had the proper horn section. That was an ordeal because this happened right when Clarence Clemons died, and he was one of the people that I had called, and he had just passed away. I thought, 'Oh my god! If I would have called last week, he would have been on the song.' But we were blessed. We ended up using The Uptown Horns section who happened to have been right around the corner from us while we were recording. It's the weirdest thing because we were recording in the middle of nowhere. When we called them up they said, "Oh, we'll be back in New York on this day and this day," and I said, "Well, where are you now?" And they said, "We're in New Hampshire." And I said, "Well, wait a minute; we're in New Hampshire. You're seven minutes away from us. Screw New York! You're right around the corner." It was just meant to be.

Songfacts: Let's talk about some of your hits. With "Kiss Me Deadly," there's some mystery that surrounds the writer of that song, Mick Smiley. Who is he, and how did you encounter him?

Lita: Mick Smiley is a writer who Mike Chapman, who produced the album, had brought to the table. At the time, the song was very slow. The vocal range was low. I said, "Well, this song is okay. But why don't you just speed it up and raise the vocal." We were able to transpose it into a Lita song. We just owned it. We rearranged the song and it worked.

You know, you gotta try things. It's either gonna work or it's not. Because with "Kiss Me Deadly" being from another writer, we weren't sure about it, so we gave it a shot and it kicked ass.

Songfacts: As a songwriter, is there any frustration that your biggest hit is something you didn't write?

Mike Chapman, who produced the Lita album, was the right man for the job. One of the most prolific songwriter/producers of the '70s and '80s, he had a knack for churning out songs that were somehow both edgy and slick, especially for female artists. Chapman wrote the Pat Benatar hit Love Is A Battlefield, and was both writer and producer on Suzi Quatro's Devil Gate Drive.
Lita: Not at all. I don't give a shit who writes the song. To me, a good song is a good song. Good songs are really hard to find, and it doesn't necessarily matter if you wrote it or not. Do the royalties go in your pocket? No. The royalties will go in Mick Smiley's pocket, but there's other mechanical and other royalties that go along with it, like airplay. You always reap the benefits somehow in some way or shape or form.

Songfacts: Did it change your life to have a hit like that?

Lita: Oh sure, it absolutely did. The bad part about it is I had just lost my father. He had just passed away from brain cancer. It was awful. It took me twelve years in the music industry before I had a hit record; "Kiss Me Deadly" was my first hit record and my father wasn't there to see it. So, that sucked. A really good thing happened at the same time a really bad thing happened.

Songfacts: Is it a song that you like? Do you enjoy singing it each night?

Lita: Oh yeah, it never gets old. You look at bands like the Rolling Stones, these other bands they think, "How can I sing that song again?" It's like, really? "Jumpin' Jack Flash" again. Really, what it is, the fans and the audience gets to ya and makes it special and makes it different each night that you perform it.

The Runaways were the brainchild of producer Kim Fowley, who envisioned an all-girl group with attitude (and a certain nymphette appeal) who could really rock. After tagging Joan Jett for the Keith Richards role, he found Lita in an audition and lead singer Cherie Currie hanging out at a disco. With Jackie Fox on bass and Sandy West on drums, they released their first (self-titled) album in 1976 when Lita was just 17.

Fowley hyped the band ("It's as important as the Magna Carta," he said of their debut album), but didn't coddle them. The group toured Europe, spoke freely to the press (Jett once complained that she couldn't get cigarettes because she wasn't 18), and played every note.

The girls also had a role in the songwriting - Joan Jett is listed as a composer on many of their songs (including "Cherry Bomb," along with Fowley), and Lita's name shows up in the writers credits on two tracks from their second album, Waitin' for the Night. The title track lists Jett, Fowley, and lyricist Kari Krome, but Lita says her name should be there too.
Songfacts: Let's go back in time a little bit to The Runaways and how you wrote songs with them. That was a band with a lot of strong writers, a lot of strong performers; what was the method to writing songs for that band?

Lita: Originally, it started with Kim Fowley. Kim Fowley was pretty much the method behind that madness. Kim would come up with an idea. He would point at Joan and he would say, 'Joan! Joan play this.' [mimics the sound of a guitar riff] Joan would pick up her guitar and she would try and mimic whatever he was humming at the time. Kim was a musical genius. He still is. There's a genius crossed with insanity.

Songfacts: But you wrote songs for the band. Are there any that stand out as favorites?

Lita: There's one I composed that I didn't get credit for. It was a typo on the record. It was "Waitin' for the Night." That one just kind of ticked me off because it doesn't say Lita Ford on it. I wrote "Waitin' for the Night," and if you listen to it, it is not a riff you would hear Joan Jett play, so you know it's a Lita song.

Songfacts: As far as the songs you've written, what are the ones that mean the most to you?

Lita: In the Lita albums they do. In The Runaways, no. The songs that are most personal to me would be "Mother," of course. And the song "Living like a Runaway." That's new.

Songfacts: What inspired the song "Mother"?

Lita: My children.

Songfacts: You have two sons, right?

Lita: I have two sons.

Songfacts: You took time off to really focus on motherhood. I'll bet you wouldn't trade that experience for the world.

Lita: No, I wouldn't. I love my sons more than anything. I mean, I would stop rock & roll for my kids. If I had to, I would. They come first. I know any parent can understand and agree with me on this.

Songfacts: I certainly agree as a parent.

Lita: "Mother" was a very special song. It was touchy and it had to be recorded right, just the whole nine yards. It was a very hard song to write and put together. You want to get the words right and everything.

And "Lisa" was a song I wrote for my mother. It's almost like between "Lisa" and "Mother," my life came full circle.

Songfacts: In the short time that we've spoken you've spoken a lot about family. You must have really had that instilled in you from a young age how important family is.

Lita: I had a wonderful family. I think I was one of the only girls in The Runaways – and I don't mean to put down anybody in The Runaways – but I think I was the only girl in The Runaways who did have a solid family. Other girls in The Runaways had families that were divorced or maybe had one parent that had passed away and the other parent remarried. My parents were the only ones that were literally till death do us part. They stayed together and loved each other.

Songfacts: It seems like as a Runaway, you were the least likely to actually run away.

Lita: [laughter] Yeah, yeah. There's no way. My parents were my buddies.

Songfacts: Let's wind things up by talking about a couple more of your hits. On the live album, you do "Hungry" and that's really kind of a blunt song. Did you have somebody in mind when you wrote that?

Lita: No. "Hungry for your sex"? No. It's just a song. [sings] "Sweet sweet thing wanna feel the sting of your sex." Yeah, it's pretty cool.

Songfacts: You didn't have some hot guy in mind when you were writing that?

Lita: Unfortunately, no. Probably many hot guys.

Songfacts: What are your proudest moments as a songwriter?

Lita: I think Living like a Runaway, the album itself is the best album I've ever written.

Songfacts: And it's autobiographical, so you're just talking about your life, right?

Lita: It really is. It's the name of my book that's coming out. It brushes over my old band, as well as what I'm doing today. It has a double meaning, you know?

Songfacts: It seems like you're in a really good place now. Would you say these are good days?

Lita: Definitely. I thank God for these days.

November 13, 2013
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • Paul from Central OhioLovely Lita meter maid....sound familiar?
  • Tim Barrett from OahuLove Miss Lita! Great interview Dan!
  • Jessica from FloridaGreat interview! I agree with her that Living Like A Runaway is her best album. It's AMAZING. Love Lita and looking forward to her book!
see more comments

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