Rock legends Girlschool celebrate their 45th anniversary with new album

“I’d picked up the mic and got a huge electric shock,” the Girlschool singer and rhythm guitarist tells me. “My body was thrown backwards into the drum riser – the audience thought it was part of the show.

“Then suddenly I was looking down and seeing myself flat on my back. I was out cold but I saw everything that happened – everyone was shouting, a roadie kicked the mic. It was an out-of-body experience.”

The potentially fatal accident at the Salt Cellar in 1981 didn’t stop her hard rock bandmates from partying however.

“I was carted off to hospital and everyone else went back to the hotel and had a massive knees-up,” Kim, 64, recalls. “I told them, ‘You’d better come and get me in the morning’, but they didn’t turn up until the afternoon – they were too bloody hungover.”

She can laugh about it now.

Their Danish heavy metal support band Mercyful Fate opportunistically blamed “Satan” for her near-death experience; Kim prefers the more logical explanation of an unearthed microphone.

Londoner McAuliffe was 21 when Girlschool’s first album Demolition charted in 1980. The all-woman quartet notched up a Top Ten hit single months later with Please Don’t Touch, a collaboration with Motorhead billed “as Headgirl”. Their second album, 1981’s Hit & Run, peaked at 5.

The rock press and tabloid newspapers lapped up the lairy ladies, relishing the photogenic contrast of dark broody Kim and blonde rock goddess Kelly Johnson, their late guitarist.

The original Girlschool line-up, with drummer Denise ‘Drench’ Dufort and bassist Enid Williams, headlined Reading Festival and toured with Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and Rainbow, injecting fiery femininity into heavy metal’s all-boys club.

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“I get a bit annoyed with modern woke stuff, women complaining because a man put his hand on their leg,” says Kim. “Men in our early days thought it was okay to grab you, and you just pushed them off or punched them out. We weren’t ‘scarred’ by it.

“Our kind of feminism was about getting off your backside and going for it, no matter what anyone else thought.”

On tour in the USA, two male fans scaled a drainpipe to reach the hotel room Kim was sharing with Kelly.

“There was a knock on the window so I opened it and yelled, ‘What do you think you’re doing? Go away!’ Or words to that effect.

“None of us were into one-night stands – we despised that side of touring.”

They also hated how some bands treated female groupies. “On one American tour, one girl kept showing up, always on her own. The roadies chained her to a radiator and left her there, and she turned up the next day at a gig miles away. What was that about?

“We saw a lot of similar behaviour. The girls weren’t safe with some of the bands. It was definitely a different time.”

Girlschool – who celebrated their 45-year career by releasing their critically acclaimed 14th studio album, WTFortyfive? – grew out of Kim and Enid’s south London teenage covers band Painted Lady (who had a terrific lead guitarist in Deidre Cartwright). In their early years they co-existed with the punk scene.

“We’d play heavy metal gigs and they’d think we were punks, and then play punk gigs and they’d think we were heavy metal,” Kim recalls.

“We supported Sham 69 in 1978 at Hackney Empire and got spat at and booed. There was devastation. All the chairs got ripped up.”

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Touring Europe in the back of a van “stolen” from Kim’s parents, they played their worst ever gig “somewhere in France”.

“We were paralytic, we partied all day and then tried to play,” says Denise Dufort, 65.

“In Amsterdam, Kelly fell straight through the stage during the soundcheck. The stage just opened up. She landed standing up, still playing.”

Girlschool befriended local punk band the UK Subs — whose early gigs were often like a Wild West bar brawl — sharing a flat with some of them and then an indie label, City Records, who released their first single, Take It All Away.

Serendipity intervened when they emerged from a dingy Soho basement recording studio and bumped into Radio 1’s John Peel.

He played the song on air, it sold 7,000 copies and caught the attention of one Lemmy Kilmister. Snapped up as Motorhead’s Overkill tour support, they were signed by Bronze Records and lumped in with the burgeoning New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

Wimbledon-born Denise recalls Lemmy, who died in 2015, with affection. “I miss Lemmy, I loved him – we all did. He had a wicked sense of humour. One day he was hanging around our dressing room and when Kim left he put half a pig’s head in her guitar case. She screamed when she saw it.”

Kim: “It looked like a bloody human hand! Lemmy was one-of-a-kind. I remember coming down for breakfast on tour and seeing him. I said, ‘You’re up early’; he said, ‘I haven’t been to bed yet!’.”

Denise: “I never saw him eat on that tour, and then one day he ate a sandwich in front of me. I was shocked. That was it though, never a meal.”

Rocker Dufort felt more at home on the metal circuit but says, “Years later I started to appreciate the Sex Pistols, The Clash and the Stranglers.”

Girlschool’s chart run petered out with their fourth album, 1983’s Play Dirty which attempted to ape Def Leppard’s cross-over US rock radio success. Producers Noddy Holder and Jim Lea of Slade threw in drum machines, synthesisers, and multi-layered harmonic vocals. But it bombed.

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Kim: “I’d never seen anyone drink themselves under a table, until Noddy. He slid slowly under the table and then you saw his hand come back up like an alcoholic horror film…”

Kelly quit in 1984, returning in 93, but died aged 49 in 2007 after a six-year battle with spinal cancer.

“She was warm, gentle and very loving, quite shy too – a beautiful soul,” says Kim.

Kelly’s final album with Girlschool was 2001’s Not That Innocent.

The current line-up is Kim, Denise, Jackie ‘Jax’ Chambers on lead guitar since 1999, and on-off bassist Tracey Lamb who has been back full-time since 2019.

Kim’s career highs include Demolition charting and headlining the Reading Festival in 1981.

For Denise it was appearing on Top Of The Pops playing Hit & Run and “meeting AC/DC and all of them coming back to my parents’ house for a huge party.”

Party days are history, however.

Denise: “None of us really drink anymore and we definitely don’t do drugs, it’d probably kill us. I don’t even smoke cigarettes. Jackie keeps herself really fit; you can see her ribs.”

Regrets? They’ve had a few. Kim recalls Jimmy Savile kissing her hand – “he made my skin crawl”.

Denise believes Play Dirty was under-rated. “If we’d done it in America, it might have done better.”

But they agree the music business has changed for the better. “It’s a lot different now for women,” says Denise. “We weren’t taken seriously then and today we are.”

Kim recalls the time they headlined Hammersmith Odeon, and the security wouldn’t Denise in. “They didn’t believe she was in the band. Because she was a woman, they assumed she was a groupie.”

Denise – known for her blunt honesty – insists WTFortyFive? is “the best album we’ve done in years”.

“It’s true to us,” adds Kim. “We’ve always been a rock’n’roll band. That’s what we are. We wore jeans and leathers on stage, our actual street clothes, not costumes. We still do.

“Our last London gig, at Camden Underworld in February, was incredible. It was packed to the gills and the vibe for us after 45 years was fantastic.

“So a huge thank you to everyone who comes out and supports us old ladies.”

*Girlschool’s new album WTFortyfive? is out now. 

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