In memory of Kelly Johnson R.I.P.

Kelly johnson

Bernadette Jean “Kelly” Johnson (20 June 1958 – 15 July 2007) was an English guitarist, widely known in the UK in the early 1980s as the lead guitarist of the all-female British heavy metal band Girlschool.

Johnson started playing piano after her father when five years old and switched to guitar at twelve. She attended Edmonton County School in Edmonton, which is in North London, and part of the London Borough of Enfield, where she discovered rock music and played bass and piano in school bands. She went back to guitar and was already writing and playing her own material when she met her future bandmates at the age of 19. After her first encounter with Kim McAuliffe and Enid Williams in April 1978, she was immediately accepted in the ranks of the new band formed from the ashes of the group Painted Lady, which took the name of Girlschool.

Girlschool full-on raucous guitar playing, tousled, leather-clad looks (and what one reviewer described as “stiletto in the groin” attitude) soon won the band a cult following, giving them a high rank in the exploding New Wave of British Heavy Metal phenomenon, thanks also to their strong relationship with contemporaries Motörhead. Johnson and McAuliffe drinking bouts were otherwise memorable as much as their fast ascension to headliner band.

Girlschool didn’t take feminist positions, but the simple fact of being an all-female band in a genre dominated by male musicians and often by machismo and sexist attitudes was a statement in itself. Moreover, Johnson professed from the beginning of her career a strong sensibility to environmental themes, which was expressed in some of her songs. She became later an environmentalist, an activist for animal rights and also a vegetarian.

Girlschool had their best UK chart success in 1980 and 1981, with the EP St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the album Hit and Run, but their success soon declined and their approach to the US market with the album Play Dirty was not as successful as hoped. At the beginning of 1984, Johnson left the band. As Kim McAuliffe stated in 1997, “basically Kelly just got fed up with the whole thing (…) she wasn’t into heavy rock anymore”.

Johnson immediately left England for Los Angeles, California, to start a new career and to live with Vicki Blue, former bassist of the American all-female band The Runaways, who was also her manager. In LA, she wrote her own music and recorded demos of mainstream rock with large use of synthesizers and electronic effects, but no label put her under contract. In 1987, she entered the rock band World’s Cutest Killers, which included on rhythm guitar and vocals former Painted Lady and The Go-Go’s member Kathy Valentine. WCK changed their name to The Renegades and worked the local club circuit, but gained no record contract. Concluding her experience with this band after two years, she left music altogether to learn sign language and work with the deaf.

The pull of rock ‘n’ roll was too strong to keep Johnson away from her guitar for long and in 1993, after almost ten years in the USA, she returned to the UK to resume her role as lead guitarist of Girlschool for a much publicized reunion tour. She remained with the band and toured incessantly until 1999, when she was diagnosed with cancer. Even if she left active duty, Johnson remained strictly associated with Girlschool, playing the occasional gig, instructing her substitute Jackie Chambers and gathering photos and material for a band biography.

Johnson died on Sunday 15 July 2007, aged 49, after a six-year battle against spinal cancer. The fact she had this disease was not widely known outside her close circle of friends and family. At Kelly’s memorial, her friend and former bandmate Tracey Lamb read the eulogy she had written for her:

It doesn’t shock or surprise me that there are so many of you here today for Kelly because Kelly touched all of our hearts with her love, friendship, her amazing persona and the way she inspired so many of us to take up or continue to play music. She was a true rock star, her agility on stage and when recording, her prolific song writing and strong delivery in every performance will always be remembered.

Girlschool performed a tribute gig on 20 August 2007 at the Soho Revue Bar in London, with many of Johnson’s friends and former band members.