1975–1978: Painted Lady
In 1975, school friends and neighbours from Wandsworth, South London, Kim McAuliffe (rhythm guitar, vocals) and Dinah Enid Williams (bass, vocals) formed an all-girl rock cover band called Painted Lady, together with Tina Gayle on drums. Deirdre Cartwright joined the new band on lead guitar, Val Lloyd replaced Gayle on drums and they started playing the local pub scene. "The reason we were all girls was we couldn’t find any blokes who wanted to play with us! This was the natural thing to do", McAuliffe explained to Gary Graff in 1997 about the all-female composition of the band.
Cartwright, who was older and more musically experienced than the other members, left in 1977 to form the band Tour De Force and then followed different professional opportunities in the music business; she is now a renowned jazz guitarist. Her place in the band was briefly taken by visiting American Kathy Valentine, who approached the band through an advertisement in the British music newspaper Melody Maker. When Valentine returned to the United States in 1978 to form the Textones and later join The Go-Go's as bass player, Painted Lady broke up. However, McAuliffe and Williams were still willing to pursue a musical career to escape their day jobs in a bank and a bakery; they reformed the band, recruiting lead guitarist Kelly Johnson and drummer Denise Dufort in April 1978. The new line-up changed their name to Girlschool—taking it from "Girls' School", the B-side of the hit single "Mull of Kintyre" (1977) by Paul McCartney and Wings— and immediately hit the road, touring small venues in France, Ireland and Great Britain.
Girlschool original line-up: Kim McAuliffe, Enid Williams, Kelly Johnson, Denise Dufort (1981)
In December 1978, Girlschool released their first single, "Take It All Away", on the independent record label City Records, owned by Phil Scott, a friend of the band. The single had some radio airplay and circulated in the underground scene; it came to the hearing of Ian Kilmister, commonly known as Lemmy, leader of the British rock band Motörhead, who wanted to meet the band. He, together with Motörhead and Hawkwind manager Doug Smith, went to see the band performing live and offered them a support slot on Motörhead’s Overkill tour in the spring of 1979. This was the start of an enduring relationship between the two bands. After the tour and a few other shows supporting Welsh band Budgie, Doug Smith became the manager of Girlschool and obtained an audition with the British label Bronze Records, at the time home of Uriah Heep, Motörhead and Juicy Lucy. Bronze’s owner Gerry Bron himself attended the audition; he was impressed by Girlschool's stage presence and musicianship, offering them a contract with his label in December 1979.
I went to an early rehearsal and was surprised how well (Girlschool) played their instruments – how terribly chauvinistic of me. None of them were particularly good looking, although from a distance Kelly Johnson looked like that Charlie’s Angels
' actress, Farrah Fawcett
, but there was something about them...
The British rock movement known as the new wave of British heavy metal (frequently abbreviated as NWOBHM), which started in the late 1970s and broke in the mainstream in the early 1980s, was just exploding in the United Kingdom and the band gained the support of a strong label at exactly the right time to exploit the moment and form a solid fan base.
The band entered the recording studio with experienced producer Vic Maile in April 1980. Vic Maile had been working as live sound engineer for many important acts, like The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Kinks and Jimi Hendrix, producing also the first two seminal albums of Dr. Feelgood and a few punk bands in the late 1970s. He captured the raw but powerful sound of Girlschool in ten short songs, with lead vocals shared by Williams, McAuliffe and Johnson. Girlschool released their debut album, Demolition, in June 1980, alongside the singles "Emergency", "Nothing to Lose" and "Race with the Devil". Demolition reached No.28 in the UK Album Chart in July 1980.
In the same period, albums and singles from Judas Priest, Saxon, Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Motörhead and other bands of the NWOBHM reached high positions in the UK charts, while the same bands did tours and concerts all over Europe. Girlschool participated in this frenzied touring activity, travelling in Great Britain and visiting Europe both as headliner act and as support to label mates Uriah Heep and Motörhead. On 20 August, Girlschool and Motörhead were filmed performing live at the Nottingham Theatre Royal for the Rockstage programme, broadcast by the ATV station on 4 April 1981. In this period, the band was subjected to intense media coverage by music magazines, radio and TV, interested in the novelty of a successful British all-female metal band. The barrage of interviews and promotion did not stop the production of songs and the girls released the new single "Yeah Right" in November 1980.
In December 1980, Girlschool officially started recording the follow-up to Demolition, again with producer Vic Maile, who had meanwhile produced Motörhead’s classic album Ace of Spades. During the sessions, Maile suggested a studio recording team-up with Motörhead, resulting in the release of the EP St. Valentine's Day Massacre. The EP contains the cover of Johnny Kidd & The Pirates’ song "Please Don't Touch" and two self-covers, with Motörhead performing Girlschool's "Emergency", and Girlschool playing Motörhead's "Bomber". Dufort played drums on all songs, because Motörhead's drummer Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor was recovering from a neck injury. She also played the drums during the BBC One Top of the Pops TV show of 19 February 1981, where the two bands performed "Please Don’t Touch" under the moniker Headgirl. The EP reached No.5 in the UK Single Chart in February 1981 and was certified silver in December 1981, the best sale performance for both bands at the time.
The album Hit and Run was released in April 1981, soon followed by the eponymous single. Both releases were very successful in the UK, with the album reaching position No.5 and the single position No.33 in the respective charts. The album charted also in New Zealand and in Canada, where it went gold. Hit and Run was not released in the USA until 1982, with a different track listing including songs from Demolition. The success of their second album made Girlschool a rising attraction in the boiling British hard rock and heavy metal scene, ensuring headliner slots in medium-sized arenas in their sold-out UK tour or guest slots in stadium size concerts of major attractions like Black Sabbath and Rush. No dates in the USA were arranged, but Girlschool visited Canada in July. Their 1981 tour culminated on 28 August, headlining the Friday night of the three-day Reading Festival. The Friday Rock Show on BBC Radio 1 would later broadcast the Reading set, but the recording has not received an official release.
Headlining the Friday night of the 1981 Reading Festival
was the highlight of Girlschool's career
At the beginning of 1982, Girlschool did a European tour and, at the last Danish date in Copenhagen with supporting act Mercyful Fate, McAuliffe received a potentially-fatal electric shock from her microphone. She recovered fast enough to complete a Japanese tour, to do other European shows supporting Rainbow on their Difficult to Cure tour and to start working on new material for the next album. However, the gruelling schedule of recordings, promotional work and concerts had started to take its toll on the group, with bassist Enid Williams the first to give up, right after the release of Wildlife in March 1982, an EP designed to launch the upcoming album. On the recommendation of Lemmy, Williams was replaced by Ghislaine 'Gil' Weston, former bassist of the punk band The Killjoys.
Girlschool’s third album Screaming Blue Murder was recorded in February and March 1982 under the direction of Nigel Gray, the successful producer of The Police and The Professionals. The album had a worldwide release in June 1982 but, despite the strong promotion, it reached only No.27 in the UK Album Chart. Critics generally considered Screaming Blue Murder a weaker offering in comparison with the preceding two albums.
Girlschool remained anyway a strong live attraction and their 1982 world tour led the band for the first time in the US to play in stadiums, supporting Iron Maiden and Scorpions. NWOBHM acts like Judas Priest and Def Leppard started to be very popular in America and the girls and their record label had no intention to fall back in the conquest of that large market.
1983–1985: American sirens
Back in England, the continuous succession of recording sessions, gigs and promotional work started again, but the strain of this routine was wearing out Kelly Johnson, who was also tired of the music the band had been playing for four years without a break. The other members struggled to convince her to stay and the chance to record with British celebrities Noddy Holder and Jim Lea as producers persuaded the guitarist to carry on with Girlschool. Holder and Lea, who had returned in those years to great success and popularity in Great Britain with the 70s rock band Slade, were hired to produce only a single, with the following album already scheduled to be recorded in Los Angeles with Quiet Riot producer Spencer Proffer. However, the good chemistry found with the two Slade members led the band to decide to record not a single, but their whole fourth studio album in North London with Lea and Holder, giving up the trip to the USA. This time the group changed sensibly both their appearance and their musical style in order to appeal to a large American audience, which Bronze considered more oriented toward AOR and glam rock than to the 'biker metal' Girlschool had produced before. Play Dirty, released in October 1983, is an album with a very polished sound, filled with keyboards, choruses and melodies, but it lacks much of the aggression and power of the preceding works. The album contains covers of the Slade songs "High & Dry" and "Burning in the Heat" and of T.Rex’s "20th Century Boy", which was also released as a single. Play Dirty failed to enter the top 50 chart in the UK and had a lukewarm reception by fans and critics at home. A struggle between Bronze and PolyGram for the worldwide contract of the band resulted also in poor promotion for the album in the USA. Moreover, a disastrous performance at Wembley Arena supporting ZZ Top did not help Girlschool's already degraded image in Great Britain.
Girlschool upgraded their look in 1983 to appeal to the US market
Girlschool embarked in a long US tour to promote the album, sometimes as support to Quiet Riot and Blue Öyster Cult, but more often as headliner in small venues after uncomfortable travels. Johnson, unable to tolerate the unhealthy life on the road, quit the band before completing the US tour, hurting the promotion of the album in America. She went to live in Los Angeles with Vicki Blue, former bassist of The Runaways. With the departure of Kelly Johnson, who was often considered the visual and musical focal point of the band, the almost bankrupt Bronze Records failed to extend the band's recording contract for a follow-up album.
At the beginning of 1984, Girlschool were in need of a new lead guitar player and singer, of a new recording contract and chart success but, despite the difficult situation, the band did not give up. The search for new members ended with the arrival of guitarist Cris Bonacci and singer and keyboard player Jackie Bodimead, both from the all-female hard rock band She. She were playing in London clubs at the time, trying to get a record contract and attract the attention of the British music press.
The new Girlschool, now a five-piece group, signed with the PolyGram American subsidiary Mercury Records, once home of the American all-girls rock band The Runaways. The label saw in the band an opportunity to produce a rival for chart-winning female-fronted bands like Heart and Lita Ford and pushed the music of the band even more towards FM friendly American hard rock. The band was paired with producer Nick Tauber, who had produced the first albums of Thin Lizzy and the most successful albums of Toyah and Marillion, contributing also to the launch of the British glam metal act Girl. The resulting album Running Wild, sported ten keyboard-laden tracks much different from Girlschool’s most successful music. The record label decided to release the album only in the US in February 1985, but actually gave little support to its marketing. The review of the magazine Kerrang! reflects the opinions of Dufort and McAuliffe, which described years later the album as rubbish or even worse. Running Wild had insignificant sales on the US market, not representing the breakthrough the band and the label had hoped for. A live performance of Girlschool as a quintet at Camden Palace in London was taped for the VHS Play Dirty Live, which was released in 1985 and reissued on DVD with the title Live from London in 2005.
The band did some shows supporting the glam rock band Hanoi Rocks in Great Britain, before joining Deep Purple's comeback world tour, where Girschool played in a supporting role all over the USA. A tour of India and the Far East completed their live activities for 1985. Vocal duties were shared on stage between McAuliffe and Bodimead, who also played keyboards. At the end of the tour, Jackie Bodimead left the band to pursue a solo career.
1986–1990: 'back to square one'
After the bad commercial results of Running Wild, Mercury broke the contract with Girlschool, leaving the band without financial backup and with a career in dire straits. "Back to square one again", McAuliffe said at the time. The band decided to go back to their roots, remaining a quartet with only McAuliffe on vocals and going on a UK tour in November – December 1985 supporting Blue Öyster Cult; their immediate goal was to play as much as they could and regain some of their fan base. In early 1986, thanks again to Lemmy’s suggestion, they eventually signed for Doug Smith’s new label GWR Records, which also included in their roster Motörhead. The girls immediately started working on a new album with their old producer Vic Maile at Jackson’s Studio in Rickmansworth. The first output of their new work was a team-up with British glam rock singer Gary Glitter for the cover of his 1973 hit "I'm the Leader of the Gang (I Am)", which was released as a single in April 1986. The album Nightmare at Maple Cross, released in July of the same year, marked for the band the return to the sound of Hit and Run and to their trademark abrasive lyrics. The album received fairly good reviews, but it did not enter the British charts and was released in North America only a year later. The following European tour saw the girls supporting the Scottish hard rock band Nazareth.
In January 1987, after five years with the group, bassist Gil Weston-Jones left Girlschool to spend more time with her American husband. Her place was quickly taken by Tracey Lamb, who had been the bass player of the all-female NWOBHM band Rock Goddess and a bandmate of Cris Bonacci in She. Girlschool spent the rest of the year promoting the album with a US tour and appearances in various TV shows across Europe, followed by a long European tour supporting usual label mates Motörhead.
At the beginning of 1988, the band started rehearsing material for a new album with producer André Jacquemin, who had worked on all the Monty Python’s records. The album Take a Bite was published by GWR in October 1988 and follows in the steps of Nightmare at Maple Cross, presenting powerful and melodic metal songs, tinged with the humour typical of the band. To promote the album, Girlschool did a UK tour with Gary Glitter, followed by a North American tour. In 1989, they travelled across Europe with Dio and to the Soviet Union with Black Sabbath, till the end of the year. After their return from Russia, GWR did not renew their contract and the band practically broke up. Musical tastes were changing worldwide in favour of grunge and more extreme metal genres, compelling most acts originated from the new wave of British heavy metal to disband or to reduce their activities, and the same thing happened to Girlschool.
1990–1991: She-Devils and Strange Girls
Even if not officially disbanded, Girlschool had become "not a full-time thing anymore" for the members of the group. In this period, Cris Bonacci joined British singer Toyah Willcox, for the promotion of the album Ophelia's Shadow. A brief tour of Spain was Girlschool’s only activity of 1990, but in December, McAuliffe, Bonacci, Dufort and returning bass player Enid Williams, teamed up with Toyah Willcox under the name She-Devils for the first edition of the Women in Music festival at Shaw Theatre in London, performing both Girlschool and Toyah’s songs. A few months later, the same musicians reunited again under the new name Strange Girls, with Lydie Gallais replacing Dufort on drums. Strange Girls toured clubs in Great Britain in 1991 and 1992 and supported The Beach Boys in their German dates in the summer of 1991. The band wrote a few songs and produced a demo, but the only published track from this period is the song "Lust for Love", which can be found on Toyah’s album Take the Leap! (1993).
1992–2002: living on tour
Girlschool went back in action in 1992, recruiting Jackie Carrera on bass and recording Girlschool, their first self-produced album, which was distributed worldwide by the British indie label Communiqué Records. The lower visibility of the album distributed by an indie label marked the definitive transition to cult status for the band, renouncing to many expectations of big sales. Girlschool were now their own managers, relying on their solid live show and on their reputation with promoters and other artists to get gigs and work. As stated in an interview to the British TV show Raw Power, Girlschool would "play in every single toilet that we can find!"
After a few European dates, returning bassist Tracey Lamb replaced Carrera before a new tour in the United States. But more line-up changes were in store for the band because, at the end of 1992, Cris Bonacci left the band to become a touring musician and then a producer. In 1993, her place as lead guitarist was taken back by Kelly Johnson, who returned after nine years to England from LA, where she had played in a band with Kathy Valentine and written and produced her own music. The plethora of compilations of old Girlschool material that had started to be released from 1989 kept the band alive on the CD market and guaranteed enough visibility to get a good number of gigs every year in every part of the world, often supporting other NWOBHM acts like Motörhead or Saxon. In this period, the girls were also present at rock festivals all over Europe, both as Girlschool or separately in other outfits. In 1995, Communiqué Records released Girlschool Live, a live album documenting the intense live shows of the band in that period and which included the new tracks "Knife" and "Little Green Men". Girlschool continued their live activity in the 1990s, culminating with a participation to the Wacken Open Air festival on Friday, 6 August 1999.
In all this time the band had been writing new songs and, in September 1998, they began to record a new album, but touring commitments and new line-up changes prevented Girlschool from completing it. Johnson amicably quit Girlschool in 1999, followed by Lamb in 2000. They were replaced by new lead guitarist Jackie 'Jax' Chambers and by Enid Williams, who finally rejoined the group after eighteen years. Johnson, who had been diagnosed with cancer, and Lamb nevertheless remained closely associated with the other band members.
21st Anniversary: Not That Innocent was finally released at the beginning of 2002 and co-produced by Girlschool and Tim Hamill. The album contains tracks recorded three years earlier by the previous line-up, with the addition of the songs "Coming Your Way" and "Innocent" recorded by the current one. The influence of the American years spent by Johnson in Los Angeles is clearly audible in the music and in the vocal tracks of the album, which features Girlschool’s first semi-acoustic ballad "A Love Too Far".
2003– present: recent activities
In 2003, the band was again in a recording studio for The Second Wave: 25 Years of NWOBHM, a split album conceived by the label Communiqué, comprising five songs each for Oliver/Dawson Saxon, Tygers of Pan Tang and Girlschool. A tour of the three aforementioned bands could not be organized and, in October 2004, Girlschool toured supporting the album with Tygers of Pan Tang and Paul Di'Anno.
Lead vocalist Kim McAuliffe at Bloodstock Open Air 2009
Preceded by the publication of the re-mastered editions of their first four albums, Girlschool released the studio album Believe in July 2004. The wish to explore new territories is obvious in some tracks of the album, which is the first one entirely composed by the new line-up at Chambers’ home studio. The changed line-up brought a new balance in the band, with Chambers involved in the composition of all songs. Moreover, the chance to use two lead singers again led to improvements in the vocal and choral parts. Unfortunately, the album was poorly distributed and remained unknown to large parts of its potential audience. In 2005, the band re-released Believe in a new package with a DVD containing footage taken from concerts of the 2000s and sold it through their official website. A US and European tour followed Believe first release, but the project for releasing in 2004 a live DVD tentatively titled Girlschool Live at the Garage never materialised. In June 2005, Girlschool did a UK tour with Vixen and another one in November–December with old pals Motörhead, celebrating Lemmy's band 30th anniversary. During the same year, they were also on stage at summer festivals in the Netherlands and England and opened for Alice Cooper in Spain.
Rock and metal festivals have become a constant for the band, that performed both in large open air meetings in Germany (Headbangers Open Air 2006, Bang Your Head!!! 2007, Wacken Open Air 2008 and Wacken Rocks 2009), France (Hellfest Summer Open Air 2009), England (Hard Rock Hell 2007 and 2009, Bloodstock Open Air 2009) and the USA (Power Box Festival 2007) and in smaller settings, like the Rock of Ages Fest in England in 2007 and the Metal Female Voices Fest in Belgium in 2008. Girlschool were opening act for Heaven & Hell in 2007, for Dio in 2008 and for Hawkwind and Motörhead in 2009.
On 15 July 2007, Kelly Johnson died of spinal cancer, after six years of painful therapy and treatment of her illness. At Kelly’s memorial, Tracey Lamb read the eulogy she had written for her. The band performed a tribute gig on 20 August 2007 at the Soho Revue Bar in London, with many of Johnson’s friends and former Girlschool’s members and a concert for Cancer Research UK at Rock of Ages Fest in Tamworth on 8 September 2007.
The new album Legacy, released in October 2008, celebrates both the departed guitarist and the 30th anniversary of Girlschool, making them the so far longest running female rock band in the world. The recording was self-produced with the assistance of Tim Hamill and the compositions are more individual, revealing a large array of influences, going from NWOBHM, to punk, to West Coast alternative rock. To emphasize the celebrative mood, the album features many guest musicians, with members of Heaven & Hell, Twisted Sister and Motörhead supplying vocals and guitars in many tracks. Kelly Johnson’s 'ghost' presence permeates the album and the song "Legend" is especially dedicated to her. The album received excellent reviews and the German label SPV/Steamhammer guaranteed the worldwide distribution. Girlschool performed a special show celebrating their 30th anniversary on 16 December at the Astoria 2 in London.
Girlschool were among the many female singers performing on veteran German hard rock singer Doro Pesch’s single "Celebrate", released in 2008. Jackie Chambers and Enid Williams were also present on stage at Doro’s 25th anniversary celebration concert on 13 December 2008 in Düsseldorf.
At the beginning of 2010, Girlschool contributed to the release of the cover of their single "Emergency" by Cornish youth music charity Livewire, in order to raise funds for the victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The band went on tour in Europe with the Canadian metal band Anvil in 2010. The band spent time in studio re-recording their classic 1981 album Hit and Run, during 2011. The new version of the LP, titled Hit and Run – Revisited, was released on 26 September 2011 to celebrate the original album's 30th anniversary.
Girlschool continued to tour Europe and South America in 2011-12 and returned in Japan in 2013. In early 2015, they recorded a new album titled Guilty as Sin with producer Chris Tsangarides, which was released on 13 November 2015. On 30 January 2019, it was announced on the band's website that "Girlschool have parted ways once again with bassist Enid Williams" and that Tracey Lamb would come back for the scheduled live performances until a permanent replacement is found.