'We used to shout back: No, you get 'em off!' – Girlschool on 40 years of rocking
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The heavy metal pioneers talk about drugs, groupies, pink Cadillacs, the curse of Motörhead’s Lemmy – and being huge in Sweden
It’s hard to fathom why Girlschool aren’t more celebrated. Forty years on from their first album, Demolition – released in June 1980 – and they are still the most successful all-female British rock band ever. They reached the Top 10 of both the singles and albums charts; they headlined the Reading festival in 1981; they filled Hammersmith Odeon; they appeared on Top of the Pops with two different singles – and they did so on their own terms. No svengali put them together; they never glammed themselves up to try to be sex symbols. They simply played raucous, high-energy rock’n’roll.
There had been all-female punk bands, such as the Slits and the Raincoats, and there had been women in – and leading – rock bands, but nothing quite like Girlschool. This summer, though, there will be no deluxe edition of Demolition. Unlike their near contemporaries in LA, the Runaways, there has been no starry biopic, no acclaim for Girlschool as a landmark band. They still tour, still record, but their mark on history is far fainter than it should be.
“We were too punk for the rock audience, and too rock for the punk audience,” says their drummer, Denise Dufort.
“Once we had a bit of success, we were expecting loads of other bands to come up,” says guitarist Kim McAuliffe. “We were on Top of the Pops, and you would expect girls at home to go, ‘Bloody hell, I’ll have a bit of that!’ But it didn’t happen until years later. I’ve no idea why it didn’t happen.”
“They were so impossible to categorise, because they were an all-female band that was successful in a genre that specifically set itself up as macho,” says Helen Reddington, author of The Lost Women of Rock Music. “Add to that the fact that most rock historians are male, and there’s a gatekeeping issue. But for people like me they really were on the radar: homegrown, loud and most importantly, having fun. At the time it seemed that only boys were allowed to have fun, and there were Girlschool on Top of the Pops playing their instruments, roaring away.”
The beginnings of Girlschool lay in the childhood friendship between two girls living in the same south London street: McAuliffe, and the band’s future bassist Enid Williams. In 1975, in love with Bowie and Bolan and glam rock – and also with the triumvirate of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple – they formed their first band, Painted Lady, through whose ranks passed the future jazz virtuoso Deirdre Cartwright, and Kathy Valentine, later of the Go-Go’s. In 1978, singer-guitarist Kelly Johnson joined, then Dufort, and the band became Girlschool – the name taken from the B-side of Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre – and started writing their own music.
The group were quickly tagged as part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and wrongly, really – the fantastic first two albums sound a lot more like, say, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers than they do Iron Maiden. Their first single, Take It All Away, won an unusual and crucial admirer in early 1979. “John Peel’s support was crucial,” Williams says. “He only needed to play it once for Motörhead’s manager to hear it.”
Doug Smith, who managed Motörhead and then took on Girlschool, too, played the single to Lemmy, who invited himself to watch them rehearse. “We were really scared,” Dufort says, “really nervous about this guy coming down.”
As Williams puts it: “We’d seen a picture of him and thought: shit. We were not quite sure what to expect.” But Lemmy loved Girlschool, and invited them on Motörhead’s Overkill tour in spring 1979.
The long association with Motörhead was both boon and curse for Girlschool. The two bands became entwined both personally (Johnson began a relationship with Lemmy; McAuliffe with Motörhead guitarist Fast Eddie Clarke) and professionally: both bands’ biggest hit was their joint St Valentine’s Day Massacre EP, which reached No 5 in February 1981. But there was a sense of them being Motörhead’s pet band.
“I’ve argued with Kim many times about this point,” Williams says. “I’m very proud of our association with Motörhead, but there’s always another side. When I brought this point up, Kim said, ‘Without Motörhead, we would have been nothing.’ But something would have happened. We might not have been on Top of the Pops at that point, but I think we would have sustained our success longer, and we would have had more respect. Lemmy really wanted to help us, but men shouldn’t be getting credit for what women do. I think it held us back.”
Motörhead certainly changed the lifestyles of those members who were curious. “I blame Lemmy for everything,” Dufort says. “He’s the one who got me into Jack Daniels and Coke. He’s the one who introduced me to Southern Comfort. He got me into speed. He got me into coke.” Kim, she says, wasn’t ever really into drugs. “She doesn’t smoke, so she didn’t even smoke joints. But me and Kelly did. We took speed and coke and we drank.”
None of the three surviving original members – Johnson died of spinal cancer in 2007 – speaks of Motörhead with anything but affection. They note, too, that they were treated with respect by the bands they played with. But an all-female rock band faced challenges the blokes didn’t have to deal with.
There were the men at early shows who couldn’t see women on stage without demanding they disrobe. (“Kim used to shout back, ‘You fucking get em off!’ Dufort recalls.) There was Jeff Beck, on Radio 1’s Roundtable, saying he “couldn’t believe it was a girl” playing guitar on their single Race With the Devil. There were the sneery music press articles by male writers who seemed compelled to note that Johnson was the only one they fancied.
There was a deeply peculiar NME cover story by Paul Morley – the cover image was, naturally, a naked Johnson wrapped in a sheet, with the words “the little boys understand” – that devoted more space to McAuliffe’s father than to the band. There was, Williams says, the possibility and sometimes the reality of sexual assault from men charged with looking after their career. And there was the way they saw other bands treat other women.
“We saw a lot,” McAuliffe says. “It was awful. But these girls, a lot of them would come back for more. I couldn’t understand it. It was abuse. Of course it was. I saw one band who had chained a girl to a radiator and then gone off to the next gig. She was there at the next gig! I said to her, ‘Why are you here?’ Not all blokes were like that, but we did see some stuff that wasn’t great. As a support band you have to look the other way.”
Reading 81 proved to be the high point of that original lineup. Doug Smith rented a pink Cadillac reputedly once owned by Jayne Mansfield, “and that’s how we drove to Reading, with the top down, up the motorway,” Dufort says. “There was a bunch of bikers all beeping their horns at us. They escorted us to the gig, because they were going and they seemed to know who we were.”
After that, though, Girlschool lost their momentum. The following year, Williams was sacked (she rejoined in 2000, then was sacked again in 2019), and the group unsuccessfully pursued American success. Though the gigs got smaller, and the albums sold fewer copies, Girlschool never stopped. Maybe, Williams suggests, if they had simply split back in 1981 they would be remembered with the same respect as the Slits and the Raincoats. Or maybe their neglect in rock history stems from being classed as a heavy metal band, and with very few exceptions being a heavy metal band in the 80s was not the way to win critical admiration.
But those who know, know. “Every time we play Sweden,” says McAuliffe, “there’s always loads of girls at our gigs, always coming up going, ‘We’ve got a band! And we were inspired by you. That’s really good. You think: at last!”
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