Monday, July 16, 2007

A YEAH RIGHT GIRL: Obit -- Kelly Johnson, Girlschool, 1958-2007

Twenty-five when she made the cover of Guitar Player magazine in '83. Oww! Flash a grin in leopard skin!

Kelly Johnson, lead guitarist for the Brit heavy metal band Girlschool, has died of cancer after battling the disease for six years.

Johnson made a number of records -- none of them in the least bit disappointing -- with Girlschool from 1980-84, returning briefly for a reunion album a few years ago.

The Virgin Encyclopedia of Heavy Rock maintains, rather remarkably, that upon leaving Girlschool, Johnson "took up sign language to work with the deaf." If true, it is a wonderful anecdote and balance to life in a heavy metal band.

The International Encyclopedia of Hard Rock & Heavy Metal -- an out-of-print tome (one you simply must have should you see it at a yard sale), not nearly as ponderous as its title would seem to indicate, writes emphatically:

"At first Girlschool were regarded as just another 'girl' group for leerers but soon they established a musical ability which silenced the chauvinists."

Johnson and her bandmates had a hit single in the UK -- "Please Don't Touch" -- in the guise of Headgirl, a combined act with Motorhead ca. 1980. A couple of singles from their Hit & Run LP charted to a lesser degree in 1981.

DD bought Girlschool LPs, records of imported foot-stomping yell-along tunes for louts and loutettes, at a dingy Northampton, PA, store most notable for its collection of English punk rock. It was there I also found the "Yeah, Right" single, a song in which the girls of Girlschool wearily and boozily responded to the warnings of a nagging parent with the shouted title.

While this version of Girlschool was deemed too tough-looking for the American market and suffered as a consequence in promotion, it had a vigorous following at the club level, fans who can be heard loud and clear on the 1998 CD, Live on the King Biscuit Flower Hour.

Featuring Johnson on guitar, the CD is an hour-long performance of the gutsy, wildly enthusiastic rock 'n' metal the band was known for.

Although DD can't be certain, Johnson may have been the first woman hard rocker to get a full cover out of Guitar Player magazine. And while the heading "Women in Rock" has long been a cliche clubbed to death while doing service to pop music marketing, in 1983 it wasn't stale.

Perhaps the nicest thing one can be remembered for is that your music inspired others to perform it. Catchy and electrically bruising, Kelly Johnson made you want to pick up your guitar and play.

Girlschool homepage.


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