Kelly Johnson (guitarist)

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Kelly Johnson
Kelly Johnson guitarist.jpg
Kelly Johnson playing in Canada in 1982
Background information
Birth nameBernadette Jean Johnson
Born20 June 1958
Edmonton, London, England
Died15 July 2007 (aged 49)
GenresHeavy metal, rock
Occupation(s)Musician, guitarist, singer, songwriter, environmentalist, social worker
InstrumentsElectric guitar, vocals, bass, piano
Years active1978–2000
LabelsBronze Records, Communiqué
Associated actsGirlschool, World’s Cutest Killers
WebsiteKelly Johnson tribute page

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.[1] She attended Edmonton County School in Edmonton,[2] 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.[1] 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.[3] 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.[4]

Girlschool full-on raucous guitar playing, tousled, leather-clad looks (and what one reviewer described as "stiletto in the groin" attitude)[5] soon won the band a cult following, giving them prominence in the emerging new wave of British heavy metal, 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.[6]

Johnson was a songwriter, playing lead guitar and singing both lead and backing vocals on the group's first four albums. She provided both a strong visual focus for the band with her tall figure and blonde hair[7] and an excellent musical contribution with her trenchant guitar playing. On hearing Johnson's riffs on "Race With the Devil" guitarist Jeff Beck was quoted "There's no way that's a girl playing" a remark described by the DJ John Peel as the most sexist comment he had ever heard.[8] Whilst Lemmy of Motörhead declared "I thought they were f*cking great. I got them on the tour in the first place and everybody else went like, 'Ugh, girls,' and I said, 'f*ck you, they're as good as you.' Kelly Johnson, on a good day, is as good as Jeff Beck in his rock & roll days. She's a fucking brilliant guitar player." [6]

Girlschool did not take feminist positions, but as an all-female band in a genre dominated by male musicians and often by machismo and sexist attitudes, their existence was a statement in itself.[8] Moreover, Johnson professed from the beginning of her career a strong sensibility to environmental themes, which was expressed in some of her songs.[9] She became later an environmentalist, an activist for animal rights and also a vegetarian.[10]

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".[11]

Johnson left England for the US, 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.[12] In Los Angeles, 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.[12] 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.[13][14] WCK changed their name to The Renegades and worked the local club circuit, but gained no record contract.[1] Concluding her experience with this band after two years, she left music altogether to learn sign language and work with the deaf.[15]

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 reunion tour.[16] She remained with the band and toured incessantly until 1999, when she was diagnosed with cancer.[17] After she left the band Johnson remained associated with Girlschool, playing the occasional gig, instructing her substitute Jackie Chambers and gathering photos and material for a band biography.[18]

Johnson died on Sunday 15 July 2007, aged 49, after a six-year battle against spinal cancer. That she had the disease was not widely known outside her close circle of friends and even closer family. At her memorial, her friend and former bandmate Tracey Lamb read the eulogy.[10]

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.[19]


During her first stint with Girlschool, Kelly Johnson used a 1980 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top guitar, modified with gold plated machine heads and DiMarzio pickups[20] and an Ibanez Destroyer-II. She used Marshall 50 and 100 amplifiers and no pedals or effects. During her time staying in Los Angeles, she used instead a tiger striped Aria RS guitar,[1] which she continued to use in the 1990s along with a Gibson SG.


Studio albums[edit]


Live albums[edit]


  • Cheers You Lot! (1989)
  • C'mon Let's Go (1991)
  • The Collection (1991)
  • The Best of Girlschool (1993)
  • From the Vaults (1994)
  • Emergency (1997)
  • The Collection (2 CD) (1998)
  • Can't Keep a Good Girl Down (1999)
  • The Very Best of Girlschool (2002)
  • Wild at Heart (2006)
  • The Singles (2007)


  • "Take It All Away / It Could Be Better" (1979)
  • "Emergency / Furniture Fire" (1980)
  • "Nothing to Lose / Baby Doll" (1980)
  • "Race With The Devil / Take It All Away" (1980) UK #49
  • "Yeah Right / The Hunter" (1980)
  • "Hit And Run / Tonight" (1981) UK #32
  • "C'Mon Let's Go / Tonight (live)" (1981) UK #42
  • "Don't Call It Love / Wildlife" (1982)
  • "20th Century Boy / Breaking All the Rules" (1983)
  • "Burning in the Heat / Surrender" (1984)


  1. ^ a b c d Forte, Dan (January 1989). "Kathy Valentine & Kelly Johnson - Girl Group Renegades". Guitar World. New York, NY: Harris Publications. p. 16.
  2. ^ "Former pupils of Edmonton County School". Edmonton County School Old Scholars' Association. Retrieved 13 October 2010.
  3. ^ Cooper, Neil (9 August 2007). "Kelly Johnson obituary". Herald Scotland. Newsquest. Retrieved 14 July 2010.
  4. ^ "Girlschool guitarist Kim McAuliffe". 31 July 2009. Retrieved 23 June 2010.
  5. ^ "Kelly Johnson obituary". Broadsheet. 19 July 2007. Retrieved 14 July 2010.
  6. ^ a b Kilmister, Ian and Garza, Janiss White Line Fever (2002) – Simon & Schuster pp. 126-128 ISBN 0-684-85868-1.
  7. ^ Various (30 December 1982). "Female pin-up". Kerrang!. Kerrang 1982 Poll Winners. 32. London, UK: Morgan Grampian. p. 5.
  8. ^ a b Laing, Dave (23 July 2007). "Kelly Johnson obituary". Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 14 July 2010.
  9. ^ Shelton, Robert (1982). "Girlschool". In Liz Thomson (eds.). New Women in Rock. Omnibus Press. pp. 62–63. ISBN 0-7119-0055-8.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
  10. ^ a b c Lamb, Tracey (24 July 2007). "Kelly Johnson Eulogy". Girlschool official website. Archived from the original on 31 July 2013. Retrieved 6 July 2010.
  11. ^ Graff, Gary (1997). King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Girlschool (CD Sleeve). Girlschool. New York, NY: King Biscuit Flower Hour Records. 70710-88032-2.
  12. ^ a b Dome, Malcolm (26 June 1986). "Kelly Johnson". Kerrang!. 123. London, UK: United Magazines ltd. p. 41.
  13. ^ Sharpe-Young, Garry. "Girlschool". MusicMight. Archived from the original on 10 July 2012. Retrieved 23 June 2010.
  14. ^ "World's Cutest Killers". Anne's Guitar Tab Archive. Retrieved 23 October 2010.
  15. ^ Perrone, Pierre (23 July 2007). "Kelly Johnson obituary". The Independent. Independent Print ltd. Retrieved 14 July 2010.
  16. ^ "Kim and Kelly interview". Raw Power. YouTube. June 1993. Retrieved 29 January 2011.
  17. ^ "Tribute to Kelly Johnson". Lasting 2007. Archived from the original on 4 October 2008. Retrieved 28 June 2010.
  18. ^ "Girlschool Interview with Jackie "Jax" Chambers". 26 March 2010. Archived from the original on 18 September 2012. Retrieved 31 January 2011.
  19. ^ Ling, Dave (26 September 2007). "Members of GIRLSCHOOL perform at Tribute gig Aug 20th 2007". Archived from the original on 7 February 2009. Retrieved 6 July 2010.
  20. ^ B., G. (March 1984). "Kelly Johnson - Making music in a man's world". Guitar World. New York, NY: Harris Publications. p. 20.

External links[edit]