April 2, 2022By Lisa R

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts “ChangeUp” With New Acoustic Album

Joan Jett has just accomplished another huge milestone in her career. I know that might sound a bit impossible, considering that the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame icon has pretty much seen and done it all, However, there has been this one thing that’s been looming over her list of accomplishments and feats: an unplugged album. In her 40+ year career,

Jett has never released an acoustic album or single, with her former band the Runaways, or with her current band, The Blackhearts. This might seem odd to an outsider looking in, considering how wildly popular the unplugged trend was and that pretty much every cool rock band and all of the legends were releasing unplugged material. However, for a seasoned fan who’s followed her career for any length of time, “we’re not surprised” would be the general consensus if asked.

Joan Jett Is Not A Fan Of Change

Jett has always been very methodical when it comes to following a routine with her live performances. I suspect the same goes for her in the studio.  Having seen her about 30+ times throughout my life, I’ve rarely seen her deviate from the same live show routine. She plays the same songs, repeats the same banter in between those songs, and even uses the same warm-up music before taking the stage. Maybe it has something to do with her being a Virgo and being resistant to changing up a routine-especially when that routine works and is producing good results.

Changing her core sound has never happened. Kenny and Joan came up with a musical formula that blended power pop rock with three-chord punk-influenced anthems. They’ve never deviated from this formula, unlike other classic rock bands who have experimented with different sounds, as the Stones did with disco. That would never happen with Jett. I get the overwhelming feeling that unless shit is really going wrong, there is almost no need to evaluate or re-formulate their well-oiled system. That’s not to say that Joan Jett is robotic or dutiful in her approach to making music, as much as it speaks to her being the consummate, consistent and reliable professional. She does what she does because it works.

I get the feeling that changes throw Jett off, especially big ones like changing up her signature sound. I imagine that she practically lost her damn mind over the last big change she experienced, which was when her long-time drummer, Thommy Price. recently left the band. Even though we never saw her sweat it, I bet the transition to the new drummer was a bit uncomfortable and unnerving for the ever-consistent and solid Jett. 

Jett Has Always Been Resistant To Music Industry Trends

Let’s face it-Jett has built an entire legacy and brand from playing electric guitars, not acoustic ones. And her live show has an established format that has proven to entertain the masses, night after night, so “why fix what isn’t broken” is a mentality that I can understand. Jett and her long-time manager and producer, Kenny Laguna are old-school when it comes to the music business. When they first launched Blackheart Records, they sold vinyl records out of the trunk of Kenny’s Cadillac. Kenny, himself cut his teeth in the music industry under the tutelage of Morris Levy, an infamous no-nonsense mobster who was also the mastermind behind the independent label movement and Roulette Records. I believe this ” old-school mentality” plays into a lot of their business decisions, including being resistant to trends and changes within their own organization and musical direction. 

Jett was even reluctant to allow Spotify to stream her catalog. That took years in the making to happen, and again, I wasn’t surprised at all. Why would they want to be paid a fraction of a penny when her biggest records were still doing strong numbers as both digital downloads and physical copies? Even though streaming her music would make her more accessible to legions of new listeners, being totally accessible was never really Joan or Kenny’s thing. So you see, Jett has always been resistant to adopting trends, even if there was an unplugged movement going on and all the cool bands were dropping acoustic projects. Jett continued to hold out.

My instincts tell me that it’s quite possible that she may have felt a bit insecure about how people would react to her (voice) in such a raw, stripped-down, and vulnerable state. I think her guitar gave her an extra sense of bravado when singing. Being stripped of her electric guitar while singing probably felt a lot like being completely naked in front of a crowd full of gawkers.

Whatever fears she may or may have, she’s over them because she just dropped an entire 25 track new album of acoustic hits spanning the decades of her career. The 25-track effort contains acoustic re-imaginings of some of her biggest hits. 

ChangeUp is Jett’s first album in 9 years

Though Jett remains a touring workhorse, releasing new music clearly isn’t the main focus these days. The last new single she released was over three years ago and ChangeUp is her first non-compilation album in nine years, but it features no new songs. Instead, it has birthed new acoustic treatments on 25 tracks from Jett’s back catalog, including live favorites such as ‘Cherry Bomb’, ‘Crimson and Clover’, and ‘Bad Reputation’. Oddly, enough, noticeably missing from the album are two of her biggest hits, “I Love Rock “N’ Roll”, and “I Hate Myself For Loving You”.  Maybe Jett doesn’t own the masters for those tracks and it was a business decision, rather than a creative one to leave them off of the album because it simply doesn’t make any sense. Either way, this release marks a big day for Jett fans who have especially been longing for her songs to go unplugged for decades.

Jett seems to have finally evolved to feeling secure enough that her “tough-girl, electric-guitars-only” brand and raspy vocals won’t be compromised by the change-up to baring her naked, acoustic soul (and voice) for all to hear. Doing things that make you uncomfortable and that even scare the crap out of you is what true strength and confidence look like- qualities that have propelled Jett forward her entire career. Now, let’s get into what confidence and strength sound like. Here are our picks for the biggest standout tracks from ChangeUp.

1. "Victim of Circumstance"

“Victim of Circumstance” is a crowd favorite during Jett’s live shows. It’s a raucous, rowdy anthem with vulnerable lyrics and a hooky sing-along chorus that never fails to inspire a sea of fist-pumping hands in the air. The acoustic treatment on this number actually changed the melody of the song into something new and different. The chords are the same and the lyrics are the same but there’s a discernable new melody here and for that, it’s a standout on ChangeUp,

"Really gets you down when you don't belong, and' everyone around says you growed up wrong, but why do they resent it, I ain't doin' anything, they say that I'm demented an' I never could sing"

— Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, Victim of Circumstance

2. "Oh Woe Is Me"

What makes this track stand out are the enthusiastic hand-claps that layer it beginning at the second verse. Hand-claps are a staple in Joan Jett’s signature sound but were missing from the original, electric version of this song when it was released in 1981 as a B-side to “Crimson and Clover” off of her classic, I Love Rock’N’Roll album.  What we get with the unplugged version is a bluesy, and upbeat re-make of a B-side single that deserves a second listen by radio and a permanent spot in her live set. 

"What happened to my heroes, they seemed to disappear, the idols keep on singin', but they don't sound sincere"

— Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, "Oh Woe Is Me"

3. "You Drive Me Wild"

Penned by Jett as a teenager during her time with her all-girl rock band, The Runaways, the electric version of this is a forward-driving blues-rock progression with heavy bass and Jett’s signature snarls and raspy vocals scattered throughout. The acoustic version is slowed down a bit, revealing those blues chord progressions to be even more pronounced and thick and Jett’s vocals fully capable of standing out on their own without the shield of her electric Melody Maker. For some reason, it’s never been a consistent stable in her live shows, instead only being sprinkled in periodically over the years, like some kind of sugary treat for the ears.

"You're on my mind always my one desire, lets get together and build us a fire, make me tremble make me shake, pleasin' each other rockin' till daybreak, you drive me wild..."

— Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, You Drive Me Wild

4. "Long Time"

This is one of those tracks that took on a new life with its acoustic treatment. The electric version is a revved-up power punk-pop rock anthem that clocks in at about 3 minutes. It’s fast, furious, and to the point. Acoustically, it’s a whole new song that has been slowed down to a foot-stomping twangy rockabilly joint. Jett’s vocals are still raspy and roar at the right times, but they’re also vulnerable and weave fluently, allowing her to hit the peaks of the song’s melodies without missing a note. 

"It's nice of you to say, we can still be friends, but what I need the most, is never gonna be again, sure I always knew we were worlds apart, but that don't help the sadness in my heart"

— Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, "Long Time"

5."Love Is Pain"

“Love Is Pain” is one of the biggest crowd favorites in Jett’s live set. Even though this song was never a hit commercially, the song resonates with her live audience just as much, if not more, than some of her biggest hits. The electric version of this song is an absolute anthem, almost ethereal with a sacred vibe. I know that sounds weird, especially knowing that the song’s lyrics allude to S&M, but when the entire audience is chanting, “We are not to blame, to know that love is pain, and we are not ashamed to say that love is pain and we’ll do it again..” followed by a resounding and sustained chord strum, then with a “crash” and “bang” on the cymbals for effect-one can not help but to be emotionally transported to a higher, almost transcendent state of mind as a result of chanting the universal truth that love is pain, Even though I have always replaced the S&M imagery with  Christ willingly suffering crucifixion for all of mankind, as my higher truth that love is indeed pain, the song still takes you to the same place acoustically or in its electric glory. This one is a banger in any form. 

" I love to make you wait, you take the bait, I know you hate and love me too, we are not to blame, for seeing love is pain, an' we are not ashamed, to say that love is pain, an' we'll do it again..."

— Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, Love is Pain

6."I Love Playing With Fire"

 The acoustic version of this song births a new sound that can be described as “galloping” in the background, thanks to the bongo-playing that’s been substituted for a full drum set that the electric version offers. This is another one of those rootsy blues-soaked numbers that get revealed as its core sound when stripped back. She rarely performs this song live which in my opinion, should be fucking illegal considering how epic this song is in any form-acoustic or electric.

"My heart is achin' to see you play, and I can't wait, till another day, the way you shake me, is really hot, you know how to use, what you got that's why. I love playin' with fire..."

— Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, "I Love Playing With Fire"

7."Frusrated"

I imagine this track is going to be a favorite with Joan’s long-time core audience, especially if you were into her as a kid when Album came out. Back then, there was no internet or Genius lyric finder for looking up lyrics. We had to listen to the song over and over again, on our record players, while trying to drown out the wall of sound from the guitars in order to discern every lyric. The acoustic version of this track eliminates that problem much to the chagrin of my 13-yr old self. The rootsy blues influences of this song are really prominent -especially with the addition of that swangin’ blues harp that explodes all over this track.  

"Cause they see what they want to see, an' no one ever knows that I'm lonely, I've got rockets in my sockets, but I got no place to go, an' in my dreams I find, my one and only, then I wake up in the morning, and reality really blows."

— Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, Frustrated

8."I'm Gonna Run Away"

This is another deep cut from Jett’s classic, I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll album released in late 1981. Although this song never became a hit on radio or a staple in her live set, it sure as hell deserves to be. I went through my rebellious “I’m gonna run away and join the circus” phase, any time my parent tried to ground me. I can’t tell you how many times I sang this sound out loud in my bedroom while on punishment. You would think it would bring back bad memories but no-not at all. I had a kick-ass stereo in my room. Turned out being banished to my room for a day or two was a retreat to where I could be left alone to pelt out Joan Jett songs at the top of my lungs, without the awkwardness of getting caught singing badly by my parent. This is pure nostalgic fun. 

"We're fakin' it, it's time to admit it, you make me feel, like an idiot all the time, there's nothin' left for me to do..no, so...I'm gonna runaway"

— Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, "I'm Gonna Run Away"

All in all, ChangeUp is an absolute treat for any serious rock n roll fan, but especially for the old-school Jett fan that grew up on her early material. Other notable stand-out tracks are “Fake Friends”, “Cherry Bomb” and “I Want You”. The classics are there too, like “Bad Reputation” and “Crimson and Clover” but those songs have received so much attention both live and on the radio over the years, that I wanted to give her lesser-known and rarely played hits their due respect.  An unplugged acoustic album is long overdue as far as I’m concerned but still, I’m grateful that Jett made the album at all, even if she did make us wait no less than 35+ years for it. Here’s hoping that it inspires her to do an unplugged tour coming to a city near me soon.

In the interim, you can catch Joan Jett & The Blackhearts (and Kenny, too!) on a very electric tour doing one-off dates along with a stadium tour this summer with Def Leppard, Motley Crue, and Poison, You can get tickets and her full itinerary here.

Listen to ChangeUp on Spotify

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