Demolition Girls – The Rise of Girlschool

Demolition Girls – The Rise of Girlschool

Girlschool. Photo by Peter Noble/Redferns.

Ground-breakers and earth-shakers, Girlschool weren't the first all-female hard rockers, but they remain the longest-running and are undoubtedly one of the greatest. Forty years ago, they were riding on high on the release of their 1980 debut album, Demolition and getting ready to team up with their pals Motörhead to make one of the most thrilling rock'n'roll singles ever.   

Always something of a boys club, heavy metal has never been particularly welcoming to females; and when it is, it's usually in a way that objectifies them. Cherie Curry's lingerie got plenty of attention, but the Runaways struggled to gain serious recognition, and both Joan Jett and Lita Ford have spent years working against a range of preconceived ideas about women and rock. England's Girlschool came up after the Runaways and before Joan Jett's breakout success and did a fair bit to turn that around, at least in the UK. Blue-collar and hard-working, Girlschool did it their way from the outset, matching the boys riff for riff (and drink for drink), and not worrying too much about hair and make-up. They didn't worry too much about the rules of metal either – they had a raw power that always teetered on punk. They never chose an easy route; indeed, they no doubt had to work twice as hard as the men. But, with their natural abilities and a little bit of help from their mate and number one fan, Lemmy, Girlschool got there in the end, and, for a few years at least, were frontrunners in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM).

Formed by Kim McAuliffe (rhythm guitar, vocals) and Enid Williams (bass, vocals) as Painted Lady in 1975, the band underwent several line-up changes early on. Curiously enough, at one point in 1977, visiting American guitarist Kathy Valentine was a member. She soon went home and a couple of years later joined the Go-Go's. Lead guitarist, Kelly Johnson and drummer, Denise Dufort came on board in April 1978, and the band became Girlschool – the name coming from the B-side of Wings' "Mull of Kintyre" single.

Girlschool released an indie 45 called "Take It Away" in December 1978, just in time to earn a spot in the NWOBHM vanguard alongside the likes of Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and Judas Priest. The record reached the ears of Motorhead's Lemmy, who decided he had to check the band out. Loving what he heard, he helped get Motorhead's management, and record label both onboard and offered Girlschool the support spot on Motorhead's Overkill tour – the tour that really put Motörhead on the map – which kicked off in March '79.

Girlschool | "Take It Away"

At the same time, Girlschool started work on their first album, utilizing producer, Vic Maile, who had engineered recordings by the Animals, the Who and Jimi Hendrix, and who was starting to make a name for himself as a producer with pub-rock acts like Dr Feelgood, the Inmates and, significantly, the Pirates.

Recorded in April and May, the album was rushed out at the very end of June. Success was fairly immediate. The Motörhead tour had done them wonders. "I thought they were fucking great," said Lemmy later on. "I got them on the tour in the first place and everybody else went like, 'Ugh, girls,' and I said, 'Fuck you, they're as good as you.' Kelly Johnson, on a good day, is as good as Jeff Beck in his rock & roll days. She's a fucking brilliant guitar player."

Jeff Beck was himself impressed too, although sceptical. On hearing Kelly Johnson's playing on Girlschool's stupendous, better-than-the-original cover of Gun's 1968 proto-metal classic "Race With the Devil," Beck was quoted as saying, "There's no way that's a girl playing." Legendary BBC announcer, John Peel went on the record saying it was the most sexist comment he had ever heard; loathsome though it was, Beck's comment did win the band respect. 

Girlschool | "Race With The Devil"

Girlschool's Demolition reached #28 on the UK album chart, faring only marginally worse than Motörhead's surprise success, Overkill which reached #24. The album included Girlschool signature tunes including "Emergency" and "Demolition Boys." The band hit the road with the likes of Black Sabbath and Rainbow and became a fast-rising headline attraction themselves. 

Girlschool | "Emergency"

Girlschool | “Demolition Boys”  [Live rehearsal, 1980]

Girlschool's relationship with Motörhead was further established towards the end of 1980 when, during sessions for the second Girlschool album, their producer Vic Maile, who had recently completed work on Motorhead's classic "Ace of Spades," suggested the two bands record some tracks together. And so, the greatest on-record pairing in hard rock history happened. Girlschool and Motörhead (or, as the collaboration was sometimes billed, Headgirl) each recorded one of the other's songs – Motörhead did "Emergency" and Girlschool did Motorheads' "Bomber" – and together they recorded an incredible cover of "Please Don't Touch." Originally recorded by Johnny Kidd & The Pirates (of "ShakiPirates Over" fame ) in 1959, and re-recorded – with Vic Maile as producer – by a reformed Pirates in 1977, "Please Don't Touch," in Girlschool and Motörhead's hands is simply hair-raising. A searingly powerful and incredibly catchy belter (with updated lyrics that worked perfectly and hilariously in duet between Lemmy and Kelly: "I remember the time I took you to a cheap motel/I woke up drunk, y' know I felt like Eskimo Nell!" It stands as one of the greatest rock'n'roll records ever made.

Motorhead & Girlschool | “Please Don't Touch”

The St Valentine's Day Massacre EP, as the resulting record was called, took Motörhead and Girlschool together to #5 on the UK singles chart. Although it wasn't a hit here in Australia, it did receive a lot of community radio play thanks to growing interest in Motörhead in punk circles.

Girlschool's next album Hit and Run was released in April 1981, and featured two more hit singles, both of which also got some airplay in Australia. "Yeah Right" and "C'mon Let's Go" were both catchy anthems that, had they appeared a year or so later, may well have followed Joan Jett's "I Love Rock'n'Roll" up the Australian and American charts. "Yeah Right" in particular is a great teen anthem, and shows off the band's punchy, punky pop rock'n'roll side more than their metal side. The album also featured a cover of ZZ Top's "Tush", which amusingly turned the male predatory instinct back on itself. 

Girlschool | “Yeah Right”

Girlschool | “C’mon Lets Go”

Hit and Run reached #5 on the UK album charts, and got the band a headlining Friday night spot at the Reading Festival, but it was the last album to feature bass player Enid Williams (and the last for several years with producer Maile). The band never achieved the same level of success again, and their third album Screaming Blue Murder, produced by the Police's producer, Nigel Gray barely made the Top 30. Their 1983 album, Play Dirty, produced by Slade's Noddy Holder and Jim Lea, failed to reach the Top 40 but confirmed the influence that glam rock held over the band. Although they never did record a Slade tune, subsequent albums would include occasional covers like "Fox On the Run" by Sweet, and a ripping version of Mud's "Tiger Feet."

Girlschool | "Fox On the Run"

The next period saw the band trying – and failing – to break in the USA. Kelly Johnson left in 1984 (Kelly would sadly pass away in 2007 after a fight with cancer), and was replaced by Australian guitarist Cris Bonacci, who had played in all-female Melbourne groups Sweet Jayne and Vixen before moving to the UK. Bonacci would remain with Girlschool until 1992, recording five albums with them and towards the end also working in a side-project called the She-Devils, along with Girlschool band mates Enid Williams (who had returned to the band in 1990) and Kim McAuliffe, as well as punk-inspired singer Toyah Wilcox. 

Like Motörhead after Lemmy's death, Girlschool has continued under Kim McAullife, doing what they do, releasing the occasional record and touring…always touring. Australia was blessed with a rare appearance last year. While they haven't reached the same iconic status that was eventually bestowed onto Motörhead after their wilderness years, Girlschool's status is assured. Their influence, on any metal-loving punk-rockers, from the obvious – like the Donnas – to the less obvious – like Geelong's Bored!, who did a Girlschool-inspired version of "Race with the Devil" early on – remains strong. Hopefully, this 40th anniversary might get them a bit of the attention they so greatly deserve.

Girlschool | “The Hunter”  [Live in their rehearsal space, 1980]

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