Having got their name from the ‘B’ side of Sir Paul McCartney’s 1977 megahit after wanting to change from their original moniker of Painted Lady, London four-piece wrecking crew Girlschool have gone on to be the longest-lasting all-female rock band on the planet. Whilst they’ve had their fair share of ups and downs with members coming and going and at times being pushed in directions that weren’t an entirely good fit, the band are fighters, that passionate spirit to make the most kick-ass and heavy music they can central to who they are.
Interview: Paul Monkhouse
As vibrant as ever and currently on tour with old friends Alcatrazz and Tytan, the quartet show absolutely no sign of slowing down, and with a new album in the works and an ever-busy diary keeping them on the road, the future is bright. With their groundbreaking heritage and mighty back catalogue, the release of the Cherry Red boxset The School Report 1978 – 2008 is a very welcome addition to their history, a five-disc set of their very nascent recordings through to more recent slices of hard-hitting adrenaline-fuelled blasters.
With so much great material and plentiful opportunities to catch the band in their natural environment on stage, it’s a perfect time to get absorbed into their world and appreciate just how they’ve changed the music scene.
MetalTalk recently caught up with guitarist Jackie Chambers on this latest tour, delving back into the history of the band and looking to the future of both Girlschool and also her other outfit, punk-pop combo Syteria.
Jackie has been with Girlschool since 1999. “Still the new girl, but 24 years,” she smiles. “When I first joined, I thought this would be a bit of a laugh for a couple of years. I think Denise and Kim never thought they would be together all this time. Forty-five years, it’s a long time, isn’t it?
“When you’re young, you don’t ever see yourself getting past 30 and doing it still,” Jackie said. “I first started when I was 17, and I looked at people in bands when they were 30 and thought we’ll not be doing that. Here I go. I’m nearly 60.”
Girlschool built up such a huge reputation over the years, with the musicianship as much as anything, and that was what won people over initially to the band. There was probably a lot of misogyny when the band first emerged, but the thumbs-up from Lemmy and the guys from Motörhead helped defeat that to an extent. But, really, it’s always been that Girlschool writes great songs and are all good players as well, which helped overcome anything.
“I think that’s it,” Jackie says. “I think people respect you if you play your craft, as it were. I wouldn’t ever say I’m in the league of Yngwie Malmsteen and all these people, more Chuck Berry. As long as you can play and write things from the heart, I think people like to see people being real. You could sit there and practice all day long, scales up and down, but if the music is not interesting to listen to, it’s not fun to sing, then it’s not gonna be any good. We just play from the heart. We’re just ourselves. We don’t try to be like anybody, and I think that’s what’s kept us going. No matter what we do, even when we turn up in the studio, it just sounds like us.”
Over the years, there’s been a number of lineups, but there have also been some slight changes in style along the way. There’s that core sound that the band has always had, but there was a time when things went a little bit AOR when management was trying to push the band towards a more smooth American sound based on Foreigner and having hits. But, for the past few albums, they are very much back to their core raw sound.
“We all play the way we play,” Jackie says. “Even when we try to play something different, it just comes out like Girlschool. It just sounds like us every time. We have written a whole new album, and it just all gels together. You’re always going to have Kim’s voice that sounds like GirlsSchool, Denise’s thundering drums and then that raw guitar sound. We don’t use effects or anything like that. We just play basic stuff, really. But it’s just rhythm, riff-based, and we just go for it. We try to keep the energy. That’s the thing, isn’t it? Just having fun with it. If you have fun with it, it’s going to sound like that as well.”
Recently, the 21st-anniversary recording of Not That Innocent was released, the first Girlschool record Jackie played on. “They actually recorded it, I think, in 1998 or ’99. It just didn’t get released. I was hanging out with them from about ’95. We thought, well hang on, we’ll write another couple of songs with Enid and me, so it could introduce us in the band. That’s why we waited until we’d done some gigs and got our profile up again to show that we were still out there. We never split up, but we just didn’t have the profile very much between ’95 and 2000. So yeah, we just wrote those two songs to put on the album and then took it from there.”
Jackie’s songs top and tail the album, and it was a great introduction. After that was Believe, which is the first one that Jackie fully played in that formation. Did she feel at that point she well and truly had her feet under the table?
“When I was asked to join, I was shocked,” Jackie says. “I’ve said this a few times because I wasn’t actually a lead guitarist. Kim answered an advert I put out in ’95 because I wanted to join another band. She answered because she was doing a side project. So Kim and I ended up writing together. I was more of a writer than a guitarist, really. I just played rhythm guitar and never played a solo in my life, you know. I’m a punk rocker, I didn’t like solos. When she asked me to join, I wasn’t really interested. We were just doing some writing at my house. I had a little home studio, a little eight-track and basically, we got drunk quite a lot and just did a bit of writing.
“But then, obviously, I got to be really good friends with Kelly, Denise and Trace. We used to hang out a lot, and of course, I was doing more writing then. Eventually, Kelly persuaded me to join. So I learned lead guitar.
“So my main thing really was writing. I loved writing. When I got to do Believe, that was great for me because I got involved in songwriting again, and that’s where I really like to be. That’s why I put Syteria together because I write so many songs because I just love writing songs.”
Sadly, Kelly Johnson died in 2007. When Jackie was joining the band, did Kelly teach the guitar parts or just show her little bits and pieces?
“I didn’t play lead guitar at all, Jackie says. “So it was like absolutely new to me. I actually joined a covers band just to get my playing to part, you know, because I’m not playing lead guitar. So Kelly showed me the songs. I used to just hang out with them anyway. I had been practising at home for hours, just trying to get these songs learnt and get my paying up to par. I never really thought I’d come to much. Like I said, just a couple of gigs.
“But then we got three gigs in ’99. The first one was Wacken, and I was like, no way. I said to Kelly, please, you do that one. It’s your last gig, and I’ll do the next one. 2000 was my first actual gig, but we were rehearsing in ’99. So that’s how we kind of came about. She was just teaching me the songs, just hanging out, and we just used to get drunk all the time. Just have parties, really. She just showed me what she remembered.”
Kelly’s loss was felt throughout the Heavy Metal community. Legacy, the album that followed, includes a lovely track that plays tribute to her in Legend.
“It was a hard one to do right,” Jackie says. “That was good, almost therapeutic. Because when Kelly was dying, she was in the hospital for the last 3-4 months. I was taking the guitar in because I was still trying to write some songs for the album. So I was taking the acoustic guitar, and I said, what do you think of this one, Kelly? It was called The Other Side.
“We were trying to make light of the fact that she was going to die. I’ve got The Other Side, so I said, ‘when you’re on the other side, you can sing to me and come back to me as a ghost’. We were joking about Colin Fry [British spiritualist medium] if you remember him from television. I’ll meet you on the other side through Colin Fry. We were making really stupid lyrics about it all the time, and she said, ‘I’m going to be on this album, even if it kills me.’ Unfortunately, she died before the actual album was recorded. But I joked with the others, and I said we’ve got to get her on this album.
“She wanted to be on it so bad, being the anniversary album. So I said, okay, I’m going to ask her parents. She left me the ashes, and I was responsible for distributing them to her friends. I shook it. This is percussion. This is either going to go down really badly or really well.
“I thought Kelly would love it. So, of course, I rang her dad and mum up, and I checked it with them, making sure they were okay with it. And they went, yeah, she’d love it.
“I said, instead of a guest appearance but a ghost appearance. Yes. You’re on the album Kelly, helping The Other Side. You know, when we were writing the lyrics, she was just laughing and just making jokes about it.”
The album was a star-studded one, with performances by Lemmy, Phil Campbell, Eddie, Twisted Sister and Ronnie James Dio. “It was a really good fun album to put together,” Jackie says. “It was a hard time because there were a lot of emotions. Kelly has not been long gone. A few songs were obviously about her, and then all these people came in to play. It was amazing.”
Did having all those people attached to the project make it a little easier in a way, as it was a distraction? “When I look back at it now, yeah,” Jackies says. “It was a really amazing time because we spent most of the time saying who we should get to play on this one. Who would still be up for this?”
The track I Spy had working titles of Sabbath and Black. The track was sent to Dio, who loved it and sang on it. “When he sang on it, it came alive again because we had done our version already. We had Phil Campbell play the solo on it, and we thought, right, let’s send it to Tony Iommi and see if he wants to do a solo on it. I hadn’t even written a solo for that song. I thought I’ll just keep it really dark and just straight through. We had to change it for Tony [make the solo section longer], and he loved it as well. So the biggest compliment I think I’ve ever had was when I met Tony after that, and he said he really liked the riff. Like my little tiny riff.”
Today, the spirit of Lemmy still lives on. “The memory that always comes up is when we were in the studio over here recording Legacy, and we said we should get a Lemmy to sing Don’t Talk To Me. It was the last song we were putting together.”
Lemmy replied to the text they sent, “What do you want Jax, bass, vocals, harmonica or triangle?” The girls replied with ‘just a triangle’. “We rang him up two o’clock in the morning to sing it to him, and we didn’t have any words. Me and Kim were drunk as usual. Lemmy then went into the studio with a friend of ours in L.A. She told me later he was trying to make out this recording. We were just so drunk he couldn’t understand what we were saying, but we were saying no, we didn’t have any words. He did the recording and sent it back to us. We went into the studio the next day and played it. It sounded amazing. And, of course, right at the very end, he plays the triangle. Such a great sense of humour. The whole song just came alive with these vocals on it. We put backing vocals on it and a bit more guitar and then, of course, the triangle.”
The tour finishes in Camden this weekend. “I do still love it,” Jackies says. “I mean, it is a lot more taxing on the body now. We’re getting older. We used to party all the time and party hard. I mean, we were going to bed no earlier than four o’clock. Sometimes we would still be up when we had to go at nine o’clock. We just used to do it back then. But now we’re older, and we just can’t do that anymore. When you get older, you cannot function without sleep. So I’m a little bit more sensible these days. I quit drinking about 6-7 years ago now. So for me, I enjoy it more now because I can remember it.
“I mean, it’s hard work because you’re travelling. In Britain, it’s not so bad because the travel is not as long as when you play America. We did a lot of travelling on the European tour last year. We did like 6-7 hour days, and then you’re going on stage 10 o’clock at night. So that’s when it’s really taxing. You don’t eat that healthy because you’re eating in service stations, so it takes its toll. When there are 14 people, somebody’s bound to get a cold, so then a lot of other people get it. So it gets harder as you go on because somebody gets ill. But we are used to it, kind of hardened to it.”
Syteria have a crowdfunding for album number three, which has already smashed its target. “We’ve done some recordings, singles for the last year, because when Covid came, we had just released an album, so it got messed up because we were out on tour with Girlschool. I was going to go home for three days and go straight back out on tour with Syteria, four or five gigs to promote the album and then Covid.
“So this time, we decided in case something like that happens again because we wasted all that money, all these promotional things, we couldn’t do the gigs. So we decided to do singles last year. So we released three singles last year, so they’re ready for the new album, and we’re going to do another eight or nine tracks in March. So when I get back from the Girlschool tour, I have a couple of weeks here, some new stuff, and then I go into the studio to record a new album with Syteria. So yeah, I’m not going to be not busy this year… laughs… Hopefully go out on tour as well, which usually fits in between what I’m doing with Girlschool.”
Girlschool have finished their new album, which has the working title of ‘What the 45,’ given it’s their 45th anniversary. “We’ll keep doing it until we don’t enjoy it,” Jackie says. “I think you can tell when a band on stage are going through the motions. There’s no feel or any passion anymore, is there? There’s no energy. I think I’d quit if I didn’t enjoy it anymore anyway. I love Live. That’s why I started another band. I just want to play live all the time. Put me on tour. I’m happy.”