January 20, 2022

The London disc shows glimpses of greatness … while the Nashville performance simply sweeps all before it in its high-energy pulverising delight

When Girlschool emerged as part of the nascent New Wave Of British Heavy Metal back in 1978, the world was rather a different place for female musicians compared to the current, 21st century landscape. While it is true that female rock musicians had become more accepted and taken somewhat more seriously than a decade earlier – thanks largely to the pioneering trailblazing done by the likes of Suzi Quatro, The Runaways and the unfortunately-named Fanny – a female band would still be regarded as some kind of musical curio. Rock bands mixing male and female members were very rare, and while there were all-female bands springing up, they appeared to have to trade on the ‘gimmick’ by naming themselves accordingly to highlight the fact. In addition to Girlschool (who themselves were originally Painted Lady), there were Rock Goddess, Vixen and She to name but three. This act of focusing the attention on their gender may have got them column inches, but it certainly did no favours for the cause of female rockers to be regarded in the same light as their male counterparts. In the case of Girlschool, it came as a double edged sword, with the band arguably getting more press and a higher profile than a male band playing the same music, yet at the same time if they were named in a neutral way and played down the fact that they were all girls one cannot help but feel that they might have been treated in a more serious and respectful way by the media.

Be that as it may, however, and despite what is still a rather poor name (Painted Lady, for me, should have been retained), Girlschool have prospered for decades, and over 40 years into their career still have founder members Kim McAuliffe (rhythm guitar and vocals) and drummer Denise Dufort as ever-presents throughout their existence. Indeed, this writer caught the band very early on, in early 1978, as support to Motorhead on the Overkill tour, and they rocked as hard and heavy as most bands you could name at that time. What we have here, is a double CD containing two live recordings – the first from London in late 1984 showcasing the short-lived five-piece line-up which recorded the Running Wild album, and the other in January of that year in Nashville just before lead guitarist and talisman Kelly Johnson quit the band during that US tour. So, despite the year being the same, this offers two very different ‘Schools’ – and oddly, offers them in reverse chronological order!

Of the two shows, the Nashville one is easily the better. The four-piece line-up with Kelly Johnson (albeit one of her last gigs before leaving the band) is more focused, lean and powerful, and the whole set simply has more energy and drive to it. That isn’t to say that the London show is poor – indeed, Johnson’s replacement on lead guitar Cris Bonacci is a fine player, and really shows her worth on the extended version of Running Wild, which is one of the best tracks on either disc here, and showcases her melodic strength by virtue of the song’s more subtle qualities. Where things fall down a little is in the straight-ahead NWOBHM ‘biker-rock’ material, which stands and falls on a tight, powerful well-drilled unit to overcome any deficiencies in some of the songwriting, and there are times here when it’s just missing. It’s hard to see what vocalist and inaudible keyboardist Jackie Bonimead brings to the party, as her vocals are no real improvement over Kim McAuliffe and her keyboards for the most part may as well not be there. There are points where this show really catches fire – such as on the coruscating performance of the opener C’mon Let’s Go, which outdoes the Nashville rendition of the same song, and also the aforementioned Running Wild, but most of the overlapping material is better in Nashville, and the likes of Love Is A Lie, Can’t You See and I Like It Like That are inessential.

So, on to Nashville. The band got a lot of criticism from fans – rightly so – for the misjudged crack at a smoother, more ‘American’ sound on the Play Dirty album, but on the basis of this hard and heavy assault of a show, it’s baffling to see why they felt the need to take that direction, as the audience here simply can’t get enough of their direct, loud and proud, unvarnished power. Tracks which fall flat in London such as Future Flash, Play Dirty, Running For Cover and the closing Emergency crackle with electricity here and fare much better, while the addition of tracks like Screaming Blue Murder and Demolition Boys are well judged. There are also three covers here, all of which are absent from the London recording, and that’s a real shame because they are all excellent. A storming run through ZZ Top’s Tush (the riff of which was – ahem – ‘borrowed’ for Motorhead’s No Class) begins a breathless run to the end of the set, and the two encores are a slightly reworded, and heavied-up take on the T Rex classic 20th Century Boy followed by their definitive take on Race With The Devil, originally by Gun, to finish things off brilliantly.

Overall, this is a good double set. The London disc frustratingly shows glimpses of greatness while also hinting at the band’s main failing, which has always been the arguably unremarkable nature of some of their songwriting, while the Nashville performance simply sweeps all before it in its high-energy pulverising delight. One slightly disappointing omission from either show is their debut single Take It All Away, which always was a great live song when performed, but such is a minor gripe. The recording quality is absolutely first-rate, with no hint of ‘official bootleg’ status whatsoever – but that is understandable, as both of these recordings have been available before – the Nashville set as a King Biscuit Flower Hour audio release, but the London show only in video format as part of a series called Live In London. This is certainly the better purchase than that King Biscuit Nashville release, as even though it is the stronger disc of the two, the audio release of the London show makes it a perfect opportunity to contrast the two differing line-ups of the band. Some more information in the notes would have been welcome, but all in all if you’re a fan, you can’t go wrong here – and for the casual listener the Nashville show will give a hint as to what the fuss was all about…