July 15, 2007 – Kelly Johnson (Girlschool) who was born on June 20, 1958 and educated at Edmonton County School, Enfield, North London, was the epitome of a rock chick. She started playing piano in her father’s footsteps, when five years old and switched to guitar at twelve and played bass and piano in various schoolbands.
Johnston first discovered music while a pupil at Edmonton County School in North London. Already writing and playing her own material, in the mid-1970s, Johnson fell in with her future band-mates – bassist Enid Williams and guitarist Kim McAuliffe, who, along with Deirdre Cartright and Kathy Valentine, had formed the prototype for Girlschool, Painted Lady. Touring the local pub circuit, lead guitarists came and went until Johnson joined in 1978. With Denise Dufort taking over on drums at the same time, this was the classic, most enduring Girlschool line-up, surviving until 1982.
Strutting out of the late 1970s New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Girlschool may have been considered a novelty act by some sexist elements. The name change to Girlschool was a smart move, because, while undoubtedly taking advantage of their gender in an arena where only American band The Runaways, featuring Joan Jett, were ploughing a similar furrow, Girlschool attracted record company interest from the off. They recorded their debut single, Take It All Away, in December 1978. It was released by the tiny City records in 1979. This gained Girlschool attention, and they were signed up as tour support to Motorhead, the fast-rocking trio founded by former Hawkwind bassist, Lemmy. Girlschool quickly became the headliners’ label-mates at Bronze Records.
After two singles, Girl school’s first chart entry for Bronze, Race With The Devil, peaked at number 49 in 1980, and their debut album, Demolition, released the same year, reached number 28. It was a record, shared with Motorhead, however, that would see the band hit the big time. An inspired wheeze by Bronze boss Gerry Bron, The St Valentine’s Day massacre EP, released in 1981, saw each band cover two of the other’s songs. Such homages are commonplace today, though then the novelty of fame by association paid off handsomely, with the record entering the UK singles chart at number five, and resulting in major features on the band in the music press.
The 1981 Hit And Run album reached a similar peak, while the title track, released as a single, made it to number 32, and a follow up, C’mon Let’s Go, reached number 42. This resulted in sell-out shows at Hammersmith Odeon, tours with Black Sabbath, Rush and Uriah Heep, and a headline slot at the Reading Festival.
By 1982, however, the NWOBHM bubble had burst, and Girlschool’s popularity waned, with the single Don’t Call It Love album only scraping in at 58, though the band’s third album, Screaming Blue Murder, reached a respectable 27 in 1982, and the band toured America, sharing bills alongside Iron Maiden, Deep Purple, The Scorpions and Blue Oyster Cult. After a hiatus caused by in-band friction, Girlschool returned with new bassist Gil Weston replacing Williams, though by the time a fourth album, Play Dirty, produced by Slade’s Noddy Holder and Jim Lea, was released in 1983, interest in the band had waned, and the album struggled to reach number 66.
Johnson left Girlschool in 1984. While the band released three more albums in the 1980s and continued touring and recording in various line-ups, including a period under the name She Devils, with Toyah Wilcox joining as lead vocalist, Johnson moved to Los Angeles, where she lived with Runaways bassist Vicki Blue.
Though Johnson stayed in America for 10 years, attempts to pursue a solo career were unsuccessful, as was a proposal to form a new group with original Painted Lady member, Kathy Valentine, who’d found fame with another all-female band, The Go-Gos, with Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin. Moving away from music for awhile, Johnson learned sign language, and worked with the deaf.
As guitarist she held her own musically in a rock world dominated by machismo. She provided both a strong visual focus for the band with her tall figure and blonde hair and an excellent musical contribution with her trenchant guitar playing. Rock guitarist Jeff Beck was quoted as saying he “couldn’t believe it was a girl playing”, a remark described by the DJ John Peel as the most sexist comment he had ever heard. Conversely, Lemmy of Motörhead declared about Kelly Johnson that “the nights that she was really on, she was as good as Jeff Beck”.
The pull of rock’n’roll was too strong to keep Johnson away from her guitar for long, and in 1993 she returned to the UK to resume her role as lead guitarist of a Girlschool made up of three-quarters of the classic line-up. Johnson toured with the band for seven years, appearing on a live album, while her final recordings appeared on 2001’s 21st anniversary release, Not That Innocent.
Kelly Johnson had left touring with the band the previous year after a diagnosis of spine cancer that would end the career of one distinctive rock goddess on July 15, 2007 at age 49.