If the Rolling Stones hadn’t started hanging out with jet-setters, Alan Merrill would never have bothered writing “I Love Rock ’n Roll”. Merill was the frontman of Arrows, a strictly second-tier band signed to British producer Mickie Most’s hit factory, RAK Records, and he had been observing the Stones’ slide into decadence, summed up, he thought, by their 1974 single “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll (But I Like It)”. “I almost felt like [it] was an apology to those jet set princes and princesses that he was hanging around with,” Merrill later told Songfacts magazine. He decided to write a defence of the music he loved.
The song was about two kids at the disco, flirting with each other, when a song comes on that neither can resist. The verses are the kids, the chorus is meant to be the song they’re hearing. You wouldn’t know that, though, because “I Love Rock ’n Roll” was not a song that lent itself to interpretation or close listening. It was all about two things: its brutish riff, one so simple it’s hard to believe no one had thought of it before, and its terrace-yob singalongability (“She was with me! YEAH WITH ME!”). Those elements are so overpowering it is hard to notice anything else: it was simply the most efficient means of delivering as much adrenaline as possible in the shortest possible time.
Mickie Most didn’t notice that: he stuck it on the B-side of a ballad called “Broken Down Heart” in 1975. What saved the song for posterity was Most’s wife, who persuaded him to flip the sides. It wasn’t enough to make the song a hit, but it got Arrows on to TV, and the producer Muriel Young decided to give them their own ITV series. A year later, Joan Jett was touring the UK with her band The Runaways, when she happened to catch Arrows performing “I Love Rock ’n Roll” on their show, and realised the song was perfectly suited to her.
She first recorded the song in 1979, backed by Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols — and again the song was wasted as a B-side. She had another bash two years later, backed by her new band The Blackhearts, and this time the world paid attention. Jett’s version is all but identical to Arrows’ — the guitar solo is different, the descending guitar line that punctuates the riff is double tracked earlier in the song, but that’s it — and that’s as it should be, for Merrill had created something unimprovable.
Jett’s cover was No 1 for seven weeks in the US in 1982, and a No 4 hit in the UK, but it didn’t stop there. The sheer cliff faces of the riff — huge rock walls of guitar — were made for sampling, and “I Love Rock ’n Roll” started to crop up in hip-hop, chopped up into slabs of noise on the Beastie Boys’ “Time to Get Ill” and Schoolly D’s “I Don’t Like Rock’n’Roll”; its drumbeat, a dinosaur stomp, was used on 50 Cent’s “Have a Party”.
But “I Love Rock ’n Roll” had been a pop hit, and it was revisited most thoroughly by pop stars. The instant gratification it offered meant it was perfectly suited to the teenpop market, and the riff was so simple it could be used as the backing for almost any vocal line. The boy band Five offered their own terrace chant on “Everybody Get Up”; Tila Tequila went breathily over the top on “Pop Rox”. But, like custard, it was a simple recipe that could be ruined. The R&B producer Rodney Jerkins oversaw Britney Spears’ version in 2002, and turned the riff from a monolith into a molehill; Spears’ vocal was devoid of the required raunch. She didn’t sound like she loved rock ’n roll so much as had heard rumours of its existence.
Joan Jett, though, has had a whole career in the shadow of that one song. For all that she was in one of the first all-female rock bands, and has spent more than 40 years making rock music, the single thing everyone knows about her is that she sang “I Love Rock ’n Roll”. Perhaps Alan Merrill wishes the same fate had befallen him.
We are interested to hear from our readers. What are your memories of ‘I Love Rock ’n Roll’?
For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs, go to ft.com/life-of-a-song.
‘The Life of a Song: The fascinating stories behind 50 of the world’s best-loved songs’, edited by David Cheal and Jan Dalley, is published by Brewer’s