All in all, this is a wonderfully curated set … a perfect introduction to the band for the casual fan, but also can be recommended of great interest to the more die-hard amongst the fanbase, with the presence of the demos and the live show.
The School Report – yes, it may seem an obvious title to use, but it is certainly an appropriate one, as this five-disc set is an exhaustive assessment of the performance of all-female rockers Girlschool, from their roots in the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal at the end of the ’70s, right up through thirty years of work – and even that only takes up to fifteen years or so, underlining the sheer longevity of what many back at the beginning regarded as something of a novelty, and perhaps something which wouldn’t last. It’s worth remembering when taking this set as a whole, and by extension the band’s career, how much times have changed since those faltering first steps back in 1978. If you were an all-girl group back then, it was seemingly mandatory to make reference to it in the band name – thus, following American trailblazers Fanny in the early ’70s, and later The Runaways, we had he likes of Rock Goddess, Vixen and She to accompany Girlschool – who themselves were originally named Painted Lady. Nowadays, of course, female rock musicians are much more common, and much less of a ‘thing of note’ in itself, and thank goodness for that.
It sometimes takes a release like this to lay bare the passage of time which, as the saying goes, ‘happens while we are busy doing other things’. As someone who well remembers buying the first Girlschool single Take It All Away in 1978, and then seeing the band supporting Motorhead on their Overkill tour in early 1979, a part of me still thinks of them as a relatively new and raw proposition, full of promise and attitude. The realisation that they have been doing this, and continue to do so, over four decades on, is something which causes something of a mental ‘double take’. Indeed. while I have previously been very familiar of the albums represented here, there are some – especially the more recent – which are less well known to me. So, with this being a journey split between nostalgia, reacquaintance and discovery, let’s see what the report card shows us…
Of the five discs here, the first three are devoted to a straightforward compilation arranged chronologically, with the first disc covering 1979-83, the second 1983-88 and the third 1992-2008 (the longer period being because album releases became less frequent after 1988). The final two discs harvest up some rarer offerings, with the fourth disc being made up of singles and B-sides along with a host of demos, and the final disc being a previously unreleased archive recording from 1978 of the band in their Painted Lady days. Already I have heard people remarking when reviewing this set that the prime cuts are to be found in the commercial heyday of the first disc (‘Demolition Girls 1979-1983’), but I would beg to differ on that point to some extent – though more of that later. Of course, that early period, with the ‘classic’ line-up of Kim McAuliffe, Kelly Johnson, Enid Williams and Denise Dufort, is where many of the band’s most well-known tracks reside, including Take It All Away, Emergency, Come On Let’s Go, Hit And Run – plus of course the collaboration with Motorhead under the name ‘Headgirl’ which produced the hit single Please Don’t Touch. There is also their tremendous version of the old Gun song Race With The Devil, which arguably outstrips the original and prompted Jeff Beck to utter the astonishing statement regarding Kelly Johnson’s guitar work that ‘there’s no way that’s a girl playing’ – which understandably led to him being shot down immediately by both John Peel and Lemmy! That certainly illustrates the attitude that Girlschool and others had to labour against at the time though.
There are plenty of deeper cuts on that first disc which are also full of merit – Nothing To Lose from the Demolition debut, the brilliant The Hunter from the Hit And Run album for another, or their take on ZZ Top’s Tush. It Could Be Better, Screaming Blue Murder, Don’t Call It Love and Take It From Me are no slouches either. There are a couple of weaker cuts, such as the rather corny ‘rebel girl’ angst of Yeah Right for example, but there is only one outright clunker on the disc – and notably it is one which even the band weren’t too happy about doing. Seeing the success Joan Jett was having with I Love Rock And Roll, the band’s management and record company pushed them into trying to tap into that market, which they duly did with the single 1-2-3-4 Rock And Roll. A clumsy piece of Jett-by-numbers, the song dumbed down Girlschool in a way which they wisely shied away from thereafter. The beyond-hackneyed ‘glam-stomp’ chorus opens with the question ‘1-2-3-4, what are we fighting for?’ – the answer, you won’t be surprised to hear, is ‘Rock and Roll’. Even worse, things actually continue with ‘5-6-7-8. what do we appreciate?’ (spoiler alert: It’s ‘Rock and Roll’ again – hard luck all of you who were holding out for ‘the works of Proust’ there). The single was actually finished off after the band downed tools on it, so their integrity remains intact anyhow, and there would be no more Jett-isms in their future, thank goodness!
Disc Two, ‘Playing Dirty 1983-1988’, does open with something of a career slump. Beset by line-up changes and ill-advised directional shifts, the next two albums, Play Dirty and Running Wild, both alienated quite a number of fans, and gave the band an uphill task recovering their previous status. Play Dirty aimed for a slicker, commercial sound to court the American market to an extent, and it was far from successful. It contained some good material, but too often saw the band declawed, and the brace of Slade covers (Noddy Holder and Jim Lea produced the album) still seem ill-advised, while another cover attempt, the T. Rex classic 20th Century Boy is professional yet somewhat inessential. Running Wild saw talismanic guitarist Kelly Johnson depart and the band expand to a five-piece with keyboards and twin lead vocalists/front-women, and although some of the material is an improvement on its predecessor, it failed to get a UK release and is still generally regarded as a failed experiment, though songs such as the title track and Nasty Nasty do shine a little here. Better things are ahead on the second half of the disc, however, as the band got back to basics with a new, sharp four-piece line-up for the 1986 album Nightmare At Maple Cross and the results are immediately apparent here. All Day All Night and Back For More are among the gems showing an immediate upswing in the band’s fortunes again, both critically and – to an extent – commercially. 1988’s Take A Bite (despite its dreadful cover, rightfully identified as such in the album notes here) is showcased by four tracks which all hit the mark, headed up by Play With Fire and Action. It is the sound of a band reborn after the earlier dip, and is good to hear for sure.
The third Disc, ‘Still Not That Innocent’, covers the rest of the band’s releases up to 2008, starting with 1992’s self-titled Girlschool album. The somewhat uninsspired title is the only disappointing thing about an album which, to me, represents a real high-water mark, and arguably some of the finest material the band had ever recorded. The four tracks here – My Ambition, Can’t Say No, Can’t Do That and Take Me I’m Yours – are all absolute barn-burners, showcasing the heaviest sound the band had displayed to this point; the early punky-metal NWOBHM sound had been replaced by pounding, crunching riffery and barely tamed, feedback-laden guitar work, and it’s heady, exciting stuff. The cover of the album was excellent this time out as well, and it remains perhaps the band’s most underrated recording of all. If only they had stuck with their guns and persisted with the originally-planned title of No Bollocks! Following this album, Kelly Johnson delighted fans by returning for several years, during which no studio albums emerged, though a live one did appear (not represented here). Sadly, in 1999, she was diagnosed with spinal cancer and withdrew from the band, although she did hand over comprehensively to the incoming Jackie Chambers, including showing her the parts written for new songs. Kelly eventually passed away in 2007, aged just 49 – a tragic loss not only to the band but to heavy rock music in general. The album 21st Anniversary – Not That Innocent appeared in 2002 (actually the 24th anniversary by that time), and was another fine album. One of the tracks included here, Mad Mad Sister – one of the songs co-written by Kelly before her departure – remains an absolute Girlschool classic, though once again a frustratingly ‘deep cut’.
2004’s Believe was another strong effort (with You Say harking back to the most infectious of the band’s prime anthemic tracks of yore), and by this time there is scarcely a weak moment to be found here. Wrapping things up for this compilation is 2008’s Legend album, dedicated to Kelly Johnson, and continuing the fine late-career run. Highlights from it here include I Spy, which features Tony Iommi on guitar and Ronnie James Dio on vocals (indicating the respect that Girlschool commanded from their peers by this time), and a spirited take on Motorhead’s timeless Metropolis, from the Overkill album, which was perhaps intentionally included as a nod back to the significant supporting tour for that record. Best of all is the track Legend itself, written directly about Kelly Johnson and her legacy, and hitting the musical and emotional marks dead on. The lyrics make no attempt towards grand poetic elegance, instead being a clearly heartfelt and honest tribute to a fallen friend and colleague, and it would take the stoniest of hearts not to be moved by it. Wrapping up the third disc in this way seals what is, for me, the high point in the whole set, better even than the more widely loved early material on Disc One.
There is more good stuff to come yet, however, with the fourth disc being made up of mostly very high quality singles, B-Sides and demos. The 13 tracks extracted from various singles include several key songs, such as the B-side of Emergency, Furniture Fire, and the cover of Motorhead’s Bomber on the Headgirl EP. In fact, Motorhead’s version of Emergency from the same record is also included here, as Denise Dufort was pressed into the drum position owing to Phil Taylor’s neck injury. There’s a couple of live cuts and also an alternative, and harder-edged, take on Tush, as well as excellent tracks such as Wildlife and Don’t Stop, and even an extended version of the dreaded 1-2-3-4 Rock And Roll which improves greatly on the shorter one from the first disc by adding in some exciting guitar-led instrumental work. The track Tonight is a little reminiscent of the central riff to Bomber, a fact which is not helped by having two versions of it coming in close order soon after Bomber itself, but overall this is very worthy stuff. Even the demos are far better than such things tend to be, being increasingly professionally recorded sessions, dating from 1978, 1985 and 2002. The two 1978 cuts are formative, with the cover of Let’s Spend The Night Together interesting if inessential, but Just Don’t Care is better. 1985 gives us a version of Running Wild which arguably improves on the finished one, and three other tracks unavailable elsewhere here. Finally from 2002 we get I Told You So, Have A Nice Day and London, which are all practically of finished release quality. Far from what could have been a bit of a grab-bag of a selection, this disc turns out to be well worth its inclusion.
The final disc is one which is both historical gold dust while also being objectively very shaky on a musical level, being a live recording of the pre-Girlschool incarnation of Painted Lady. The date and venue are unspecified (apart from the claim of it being 1978), and neither is the line-up confirmed, but if it is indeed from 1978, that would put it between January and April, when Girlschool arose from the ashes. It would also suggest that, in addition to McAuliffe and Williams, the drummer would be Val Lloyd and the lead guitarist Kathy Valentine – who went on to achieve fame as bassist with the Go-Gos. The set is a typical ‘pub band’ show from the time, being made up of covers (there are a couple which are unfamiliar to me which may be originals), and the chatter of punters in between songs identifies it as an audience recording in what seems to be a pretty small place. The recording quality is quite acceptable for an audience source, and the music itself certainly has its charm and fascination, though some does lack in quality. There are interesting and unusual choices of songs among the 20 in the set – Wishbone Ash’s Sometime World, Status Quo’s Paper Plane and Alice Cooper’s Be My Lover wouldn’t be obvious cover band staples for example – amongst the usual All Right Now, Can’t Get Enough, Hey Joe, Johnny B Goode etc. The guitar work is generally acceptable and occasionally very good, though the drums would be hugely improved by the arrival of Denise Dufort. Indeed, the advance between this and the Take It All Away single only a year later is astonishing. The Ten Years After track I Wanted To Boogie comes over well, as does All Along The Watchtower, but the stab at Smoke On The Water may have Deep Purple fans hiding behind the sofa! Not a set to be listened to regularly, as a historical artefact it is truly fascinating, and a real snapshot in time.
All in all, this is a wonderfully curated set. The track selection can never please everyone, but there is little in the way of glaring omissions and it’s overall an extremely good overview. The packaging is beautiful as well, being in the form of a 60-page hardback book including a generously detailed band history with plenty of new thoughts from Denise Dufort, and a marvellous array of photos, album and single covers etc. The five discs cone housed in individual paper ‘wallets’ which double as pages in the book, though one design flaw has the first and fifth being attached to the front and back covers, making it rather tricky to safely extricate the discs themselves!
This set is of course a perfect introduction to the band for the casual fan, but also can be recommended of great interest to the more die-hard amongst the fanbase, with the presence of the demos and the live show. The bottom line to this report is that it has been well prepared and a great deal of care taken, and neither the execution nor the effort involved can be faulted. It would rate an A grade quite comfortably.