Kelly Johnson – guitarist
Born June 20 1958. Died July 15 2007
Kelly Johnson was the epitome of a rock chick. As lead guitarist with all female quartet Girlschool, the band she joined aged a precocious 19, she not only held her own musically in a world dominated by strutting machismo and poodle-permed poseurs, but, clad in tight jeans and trademark leather jacket, she had sass aplenty sartorially too. Even attitude and guitar licks, however, couldn’t prevent Johnson’s untimely death aged 49 after a six year battle with spinal cancer.
Strutting out of the late 1970s New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, as it was dubbed by music paper Sounds, Girlschool may have been considered a novelty act by some of the more sexist elements of the NWOBHM fraternity during their brief rise to fame, particularly when they cut a single with cartoon metal act Motorhead as Headgirl. But without Johnson and her colleagues in Girlschool, its unlikely that hard-rocking bands such as Glasgow’s own all-female act The Hedrons would be taken seriously today.
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 Dierdre Cartright and Kathy Valentine, had formed the prototype for Girlschool, Painted Lady. Active touring the local pub circuit, lead guitarists came and went until Johnson joined in 1978. With Denise Dufort taking over the drum stool at the same time, this was the classic, most enduring Girlschool line-up, surviving until 1982.
The name change 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 furrough, Girlschool attracted record company interest from the off. They recorded their debut single, Take It All Away, in December 1978, which was released by the tiny City records in 1979. This gained Girlschool some serious attention, and they were subsequently signed up as tour support to Motorhead, the fast-rocking trio founded by former Hawkwind bassist, Lemmy. Girlschool very quickly became the headliners’ label-mates at Bronze Records, and rode the crest of the NWOBHM wave alongside them.
After two singles, Girlschool’s first schart 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 records 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, wth the record entering the UK singles chart at number five, and resulting in major features on the band in the music press and front cover stories for Sounds. 1981’s 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 Lets Go, reaching 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 short 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 in the charts.
Johnson left Girlschool in 1984 after their next tour. 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 ten years, attempts to pursue a solo career were unsuccesful, as was a proposal to form a new group with original Painted Lady member, Kathy Valentine, who’d gone on to find fame with another all-female band, The Go-Gos, alongside Belinda Carlise and Jane Wiedlin. Moving away from music, Johnson learned sign language, and worked with the deaf.
The pull of rock and 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 the next seven years, appearing on a live album, while her final recordings with the band appeared on 2001’s 21st anniversary release, Not That Innocent. Johnson had left the band the previous year after being diagnosed with the spinal cancer that would call a halt on the career of one of music’s most distinctive rock goddesses.
The Herald, July 2007