Sunday July 20, 2008
Girlschool of rock
MUSIC, MTYH and LEGENDS
By MARTIN VENGADESAN
There was nothing girly or dainty about this group of hard-rocking female musicians.
LIKE it or not, rock music has largely been the domain of men. While the number of female singer-songwriters who has entered public consciousness is comparable to that of their male counterparts, the same simply cannot be said when it comes to rock groups, be they acid, punk, glam, metal or grunge.
I have written in the past about one all-girl rock group that made a name for itself and considering that this week marks the first death anniversary of one Kelly Johnson, I thought it was high time I told you about another.
While the Bangles certainly did colour my youth, Girlschool was a band that took me nearly two decades to actually track down and listen to! I first came across the name in a mid-1980s pop magazine (can’t remember if it was Number One or Smash Hits!) that did a feature on 20 or so hard-rocking bands like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. As the only all-female group, naturally Girlschool’s belligerent look caught my eye (I believe the ladies were dressed up in school uniform too!). Subsequent years have seen me come across the likes of Bertha, Fanny, The Runaways, The Gogos and Vixen but it was Girlschool that I most wanted to hear...and with good reason.
The original “classic” line-up of guitarists Kim McAuliffe and Johnson, bassist Enid Williams (all three of whom sang lead vocals) and drummer Denise Dufort certainly could rock out.
A South London outfit, Girlschool first made the grade in the late 1970s which meant that like many hard rock bands emerging in the aftermath of the punk explosion, they were dubbed part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
Many of Girlschool’s finest moments occurred straight off the bat, a testament perhaps to years of steady gigging. The debut single Take It All Away may not have been a chartbuster but it remains a favourite, setting the group’s strutting style.
Signing with label Supremo Gerry Bron (best known for establishing Uriah Heep and Motorhead), Girlschool tasted early success with its first album Demolition (1980) and its attendant singles Emergency and Race with the Devil. In a moment of mad inspiration it was decided that Girlschool and Motorhead should join forces for an EP. Featuring a Girlschool cover of Motorhead’s Bomber and the latter covering Emergency, the record’s centrepiece was the expanded band (dubbed Headgirl) tearing its way through the classic Please Don’t Touch. Titled St Valentine’s Day Massacre, the EP was a top five smash in early 1981.
Although Girlschool’s sexuality was a marketing tool, the group was far from being a bunch of good-looking girls who could play a bit. Girlschool was an honest-to-goodness, hard-working, hard-rocking band who confidently toured alongside not just Motorhead and Heep, but numerous other heavy bands of the era.
One problem was that the music penned by the band was a bit one-dimensional. You didn’t really come to a Girlschool record expecting to hear sweet acoustic guitar picking or tasteful keyboard work. It was largely a stomping double-barrelled attack.
Unfortunately, after the second Girlschool album Hit and Run became yet another smash, Williams departed, kicking off a string of line-up changes which would eventually derail the group’s momentum. Still, 1982’s Screaming Blue Murder, with new bassist Gil Weston, proved the pre-cursor to a stunning world tour.
At this point, Girlschool’s interest in the glam rock the girls had grown up with began to manifest itself as they covered songs by T Rex, Gary Glitter, The Sweet and Mud. The fourth Girlschool album Play Dirty was actually produced by Slade legends Noddy Holder and Jimmy Lea.
Further line-up changes which saw Johnson and then Weston leaving meant that Girlschool’s unfortunate slide back to cult status was complete. By the mid-1980s, label problems caused albums like Running Wild and Take a Bite to sink without a trace.
I have not heard much of Girlschool’s post-1980s work, to be honest, but I was pleased to hear that a revamped line-up is touring, even after Johnson’s death (she had rejoined the group after a spell on the sidelines), and sticking to its guns.
Martin Vengadesan, a music lover and history buff, combines his two passions in his fortnightly column. If you have any interesting stories you want him to research, do drop him a line.