“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.’”
Bernadette ‘Kelly’ Johnson – 20.06.1958-15.07.2007
Kelly Johnson was a guitarist. Not a “girl” guitarist. An exceptional guitarist.
When he heard her play Race with the Devil, Jeff Beck publicly proclaimed “There’s no way that’s a girl playing.” He later ate his words.
Kelly fell in love with music at a very early age, first having piano and violin lessons. Once she discovered guitar, she taught herself to play.
According to her dad, she was first listening to Simon and Garfunkel, slowing down the tapes as she searched for each note, recreating the solos, before making them her own. Later on, she did the same with David Bowie, Marc Bolan, David Gilmore, and all her guitar heroes.
Born in Edmonton in 1958, Kelly, although smart, did not flourish in school. But she was very much into making music. At the age of 19, after a few other bands hadn’t worked out, she joined Painted Lady – who soon became Girlschool. And then, a roller coaster set off.
Girlschool shot to global success practically overnight, partially because of their association with Mötorhead. Besides which, when four incredibly fierce and equally talented young women hit the road together – well, the stories just about write themselves!
To find out what life for them – and Kelly – was really like, you’ll have to read the book. Only this much: Kelly stayed with the band for about eight years, and when she left, it was not only because she had fallen in love in (and with) the USA…
Over there, things went well – to start with. And then Kelly experienced a major, hugely upsetting, never-quite-to-recover-from setback. Read the book!
She turned her back on music… And ended up living in what she refers to as a period of “Domestic Bliss”. Getting by doing odd jobs, even working for UPS, she was also cycling to the Mexican border, growing vegetables, body surfing and, in her own words, “bumming off down the beach, or shopping, getting stoned, getting drunk, playing Backgammon.”
Eventually, Kelly returned to the UK and was talked into joining the girls for another five years – more stories, more music, more fun. However, in 1999 she quit for good. She had had enough of life on the road, and music having broken her heart maybe one time too many.
Out of the blue, disaster struck. Kelly was diagnosed with cancer in 2002. She started thinking about writing her memoirs. She actually put fingers to keyboard whilst in remission in 2004. But only when cancer came back for its final attack a couple of years later, she started to write feverishly, eventually relying on her partner, her family and friends to get it all down.
Kelly died on the 15th of July, 2007.
An astonishingly talented guitarist, a stunningly natural musician, Kelly was a true rock star, and a reliable, loyal bandmate.
And then she was so much more. She was a deep, intelligent, funny, caring, artistic, emotional, kind, generous soul. And a very good friend to many.
She was so intense in her love of animals, that as a child she had a riding lesson, and cried because she felt sorry for the horse!
There were a lot of layers to Kelly, and she had a lot of stories to tell. Boy, did she have a way with words – and not just lyrics. She even took up a writing course in the last year of her life because she wanted to give her fans the best-written version of events that she could.
She never got to say everything she had to say before she was taken from us. What she did get down on the floppy disc, however, is engaging, informative, amusing, entertaining work – you won’t be disappointed.