Notes of a Frontwoman #7: Gig of a Lifetime – Touring with Girlschool
Make yourself comfortable and get ready for a long read about a girl from Prague who flew to the UK to fill in for the frontwoman of Girlschool, the longest-playing, most famous and subjectively best female rock band in the world.
I was just about to walk my dog when I received a phone call from the manager of Girlschool. And when he started talking, I couldn't believe my ears. "We're gonna need you on tour. Kim's not feeling 100 per cent, but we don't want to cancel the shows," he said and continued, "Let us know if you're available and if you'd even like to support her. She requested you herself." A geyser of feelings and thoughts erupted in my head, but first and foremost I had to sort out the practicalities. Would it be okay with my band, at home and work? Fortunately, it was and I soon called back and confirmed my attendance. It was only then that I took a deep breath and realised what was in store for me.
I've known Girlschool for half my life, I grew up listening to their songs and learning to play with them, I've been to tons of their gigs, I know the setlist like the back of my hand and we're friends. They knew how I played and that I could handle being a part of the shows and it made sense that they reached out to me. Anyway, I was happy about that and grateful to be able to say yes. Originally, we were supposed to be in the studio with The Agony, but the recording session got pushed back two weeks and a few days later the phone call came. Coincidence? I don't think so. I guess it was just meant to be. The universe teamed up so I could come to help them.
As soon as the flight tickets landed in my email, I realised that this was really happening. There were about thirteen days left before the tour, during which I was not allowed to get sick or injured. Furthermore, I had to get the whole set down so that I would be able to play it from start to finish on my own in case I would have to do the whole concert instead of Kim (spoiler alert: I did). And I knew I had to be able to do it brilliantly because we were definitely going to play it without any rehearsals.
During the following days, I hardly let the guitar out of my hand after work. I stuck the setlist on the wall, listened to Girlschool on Spotify with my headphones, put the guitar and vocals in Logic Pro X and played the songs like I did when I was younger. Every day, I went through the whole setlist at least once, the more problematic stuff more times. The walls of my study were sweating, and so was I. I scrolled through live streams on YouTube to see where Kim was counting down to the beginning and what she was roughly saying between songs, how the live versions of the songs differed from the studio versions. And at night, I'd fall asleep with the lyrics slowly replaying in my head. On top of that, we had a couple of gigs with The Agony, not to mention getting ready for the studio, so I was getting up and going to bed with music.
On Thursday, the 2nd of February, without anyone's knowledge except my immediate family (and my boss), I boarded a plane with my two Explorers in hand, heading to London Luton, bound for my greatest British adventure. I couldn't wait and I was ready.
Friday, 3rd February – Buckley, The Tivoli
I woke up at the Travelodge near Shenfield and felt my arms growing heavy – if you're ever craving a good workout, I recommend dragging two mahogany guitars and a suitcase through two airports, it's quite an experience. Several fellow travellers had received a nudge from an Explorer's head, and the endless corridor at Luton had made me want to spit out my lungs and swap my guitar for a ukulele. Luckily, a gentleman compatriot helped me out and then I was rescued by Jax (Girlschool's solo guitarist) and the band van. Leather seats, two TVs, a stylish table and great comfort – our home on the road for the next eleven days.
My roommate for this tour was Hannah, an absolutely fantastic woman, driver and technician. We had met during my first dinner on British soil and we immediately got on great, her Irish sense of humour suited me perfectly and I knew straight away that everything was going to be fine in that respect. Hannah (an excellent singer herself) also knew very well what musicians crave most when they wake up, so she invited me for coffee in the morning.
At eleven sharp we met at the van: Hannah and I, Jax, drummer Denise, and frontwoman Kim – my friends for almost fifteen years, all a head shorter than me (Jax by half a head). "Here is my younger self," Kim greeted me and we hugged. She was glad I was there and ready to help. We loaded our numerous suitcases and guitars into the trunk, Hannah counted us out just in case (we were missing Tracey, the bassist, who was going to meet us at our destination), and set off for the four-hour drive.
As it was the beginning of a tour, there was a lot of talking. The girls hadn't seen each other since the recording of the new album in December, so they wanted to talk about everything, and as we were driving further north in the left lane, I became part of the conversation. At our first stop, I was introduced to Greggs, the bakery chain that would supply me with coffee and, most importantly, vegan hot dogs for the rest of the tour. And before we knew it, we had parked outside The Tivoli Club in the town of Buckley.
Finally, the complete line-up of our tour got to meet. In addition to the Girlschool team, now with Tracey, there were co-headliners Alcatrazz, support act Tytan, manager Giles and his partner Nicole and engineer Adam... I got to know everyone and wondered how on earth I was going to remember all these names correctly, but luckily it didn't take long. It was amazing how incredibly nice everyone was and treated me like one of the gang from the start. That helped a lot, considering I had stumbled into the tour basically by accident and was feeling a bit self-conscious.
At that point in time, Britain wasn't doing very well economically and everyone was cutting back wherever they could. This reflected most in the temperature of the dressing room, which was absolutely freezing. Jax brought me tea, we tried to get the heating working and then they called us for the sound check. "I'll sound check with you, we can play a few things," I suggested, knowing we won't have much opportunity to get used to playing together. So soon I was standing on the stage (it was cold there too) and I didn't have to deal with anything. Chris, Tytan's guitarist, had selflessly lent me and prepared his Mesa Boogie amp, I just needed to take my guitar and play.
"What shall we play?" the girls asked. "Future Flash," I decided, not surprisingly, as it was my favourite song. Denise counted in, and from the first moment, I felt like I'd been playing with them for years. I had never thought I'd be able to play with anyone other than my band. But this was the one exception that proved the rule. I knew the song note by note, I had played it a thousand times as a teenager on my bed in my room and so it worked beautifully from the first beat.
I could feel the stares of the other tour participants, they were probably all wondering if it was a good idea to bring me on the tour, but I didn't let it throw me off and focused on the sound, on myself, on the girls. We finished my part of the soundcheck feeling happy that it was going to work, and then Kim took over.
Back in the dressing room, we discussed with the rest of the band and the manager how my participation in the tour should be treated and announced publicly. We agreed on the best solution and wording, and when Girlschool shared the news on their networks, I could finally share where I was, who I was with and what I was doing. Next, Kim and I agreed that she would play tonight's show and I would join in for the second half as the third guitarist, singing two full songs and helping with vocals for the rest.
Everything was settled, everyone was happy, and the club opened. I was getting nervous and it dawned on me that I couldn't screw up that night's gig, otherwise, it would drag on for the rest of the tour. I was shaking with nerves and cold and decided to deal with both through my pre-concert ritual – a shot of Jägermeister. Alcohol isn't a cure-all... but neither is a salad. Before one could say "Cheers", the opening act Tytan was over and the girls were getting ready to take the stage.
"See you upstairs!" said Kim and I replied with a thumbs up and wished the girls a good concert. The siren intro began to play, Jax kicked off the riff and I watched them enter the stage to loud applause. Two, three, four – boom! Denise hit the snare and started driving the bass drum like I'd never seen any female drummer play in my life, the girls pumped it up from the start. "Demolition Boys", and "C'mon Let's Go" were the perfect opening duo, followed by the swinging song "The Hunter", the smash hit "Hit And Run", the title track from their latest album Guilty As Sin, a new addition to the setlist "Action", then my beloved "Future Flash", the groovy "Kick It Down" and after that my other favourite "Nothing To Lose". I was singing along the whole time, partly because I loved the songs and also to get my vocal cords ready. This was really needed, because my moment was coming, and for the first time since 1985 Girlschool were going to perform as a quintet. With me.
The girls welcomed me and introduced me, but the moment of truth came when we started playing our first song, "Take It Like a Band". We were blasting a triple wall of guitars into the crowd, the bass and drums were running like a locomotive and I soon got into the groove. I wasn't scared anymore. After all, this was the one thing I could do best in life and I had the rest of Girlschool at my back and they wouldn't fail me no matter how the fans would react. A second of silence after the last beat – and suddenly I heard an ovation. Thank God!
At that moment I relaxed, I felt like myself again and I started sending back the energy I was getting from the audience. Jax did the exact same thing, Kim gave me an encouraging smile from time to time, and when I shared the mic with Tracey, I could see that she was enjoying it too. We played one hit after another: "Take It All Away," "Race with the Devil," "Bomber" and "Emergency," with "Screaming Blue Murder" (sung by me) as an encore – and I knew we'd won.
Smiling, we said goodbye to the audience, left the stage to Alcatrazz and returned to the dressing room; I was definitely not cold anymore and I was enjoying the post-concert euphoria. The thought of experiencing this seven more times released waves of endless happiness, and the rest of the group, including Giles, Girlschool's manager, was happy too. Everybody realised that the tour was going to be fine – nobody booed me or complained, I fitted with the girls like a glove and I felt like dancing.
During the subsequent meeting with fans, someone asked me to sign the 1981 vinyl Hit And Run in addition to the photos and setlist signatures. Surprised, I agreed and added my autograph to the others. When I remembered I had the same record at home, a record I used to listen to over and over again, I was on cloud nine.
However, I knew where my place was so I helped to load the van and carry the guitars and suitcases when we arrived at the hotel. After all, I was a guest and I was also the youngest, so I wanted to be helpful. Hannah and I went to bed around 1 am and although I was full of impressions, feelings and emotions, I fell asleep immediately.
Saturday, 4th February – Blackpool, The Waterloo
10 am. Before everyone else staggered out of their rooms, I decided to treat my body to a dose of caffeine. While I was sipping a rather unappealing cappuccino (however, even bad coffee is better than no coffee), I replayed yesterday in my head and looked forward to Blackpool, as Waterloo is one of the best clubs in the whole country. Its owners are really dedicated, they have perfected the venue to the smallest detail and made sure it has perfect sound, which is one of the reasons why Waterloo is so loved by music fans, bands and the media.
However, the seaside Blackpool itself was a rather bleak, dusty and, in the windy and grey February, rather depressing place. The journey had taken only an hour and a half, so we still had plenty of time before the sound check. To pass the few hours of waiting, Jax and I went for a walk on the coast. There were open arcades on the central pier, which (childish as it is) is something I never miss. While the others were hanging out backstage, Jax and I played a few games of air hockey and a gruelling two rounds of Dance Dance Revolution. I was happy to experience something other than the van, the hotel, the backstage and the stage, if only for a moment. Plus, we had a nice walk, and the dance arcade is a pretty good cardio workout, too.
We returned just in time for the sound check, but this time I didn't participate in it to save time, I just did a quick line-check of Chris's Mesa, and as I was hungry, I started looking for something to eat. We didn't have a rider, but we could have food delivered. Recommendation: if you're ever bored and want to experience a very bizarre and humorous situation, try ordering dinner for nine people with several different preferences and allergies while the poor gentleman on the other end of the line doesn't quite speak English. Even though I had dictated everything correctly, they delivered six of the nine dishes, and the wrong ones too. I was starving and once we finally got the rest of the meals and I'd devoured my veggie burger, I fell into one of the four comfortable beds in the dressing room and fell asleep. We all fell asleep, actually. That's rock 'n' roll, too.
Girlschool played as the second act again and when they entered the stage, the dressing room fatigue instantly disappeared and they started rocking out harder than the day before. They were playing like a well-oiled machine, they were lying their way out of the occasional mistakes (which probably only I could spot) and the local crowd loved them. When I joined them for the second half, I made Waterloo laugh just by putting Kim's mic stand about half a metre higher. The rest of the gig was much the same as Buckley, only a lot more confident and energetic.
I got more confident with the lyrics, I knew when to move when it was better to stay with Kim, when to sing with Tracey and when to switch to Jax, I even monkeyed around with Denise behind the drums in my spare time and watched her laugh. I could tell the audience was enjoying it and I didn't blame them – that casualness, genuineness and energy of Girlschool, the fact that they didn't take themselves seriously is what had always drawn me to their shows so much. Being part of it filled me with gratitude, and my head flickered back to a moment two years ago when I was at this exact club for a Girlschool concert, and it energised me, after a crappy Covid mood, and gave me the strength to restart my own band.
The meeting with the band's fans was carried out with enthusiasm. They asked where I was from and how I had gotten into the band, I signed autographs, took selfies, and the biggest success was the layout I jokingly called JaxNik sandwich – it seemed that there was a queue for the picture with the blonde/black guitar section.
I have one thing to say about Jax: she knows best in the world how important it is to connect with fans and always, always goes out to say hello. She realises and appreciates the many times they've come from far and paid their own hard-earned money for a ticket, and by spending time with them, she wants to thank them for it. I adopted this attitude from her and it was usually the two of us who went "to the people" immediately after playing. I watched her move gracefully from group to group: mane of blonde hair, dressed in leather, wide warm smile. She had the swag of a rock star while still being herself: humble, funny and kind. Fans were happy about that and they left in a great mood, and I thought a lot of musicians should take a cue from Jax. After all, one such encounter can change a person's life and I am a great example of that.
We were the last to leave the club, rock'n'roll warriors, happy and ready to kill for a bed. Another day in paradise!
Sunday, 5th February – Edinburgh, Bannermans
The promoters in Blackpool, otherwise also huge Motörhead fans, wanted to repay the girls for their support during the Covid era when Girlschool had come to play and helped keep the club afloat with ticket sales. So they booked one of the best hotels in town, which had a golf course and a swimming pool. Sadly, none of us played golf or took swimsuits, but a big breakfast before the long drive to Scotland was very pleasant. At a round table over lots of beans and orange juice, we reviewed the previous evening, then we loaded ourselves back into the van and the motorway opened its arms to us.
The journey was long and the conversation soon died out. Denise managed to fall asleep within a minute, just by putting a sweatshirt over her head and we didn't hear from her for hours. Jax put Gary Numan on her headphones, Tracey and Kim both dozed off, and I chose a state of hibernation in my own musical bubble. We were woken up by the winding narrow Scottish roads leading to Edinburgh and soon our four-wheeled ark anchored in Cowgate Street.
Bannermans is a legendary club in the heart of the city, sharing unique genius loci and managed by Christian, another big-hearted and thoroughly likeable guy with an irresistible accent. We played with The Agony at Bannerman's in 2018 because they give opportunities to starting bands if they recognise their potential. Edinburgh notably lacks a 'golden middle ground' club scene, so even higher-end bands play in this semi-cellar venue with a capacity of around 250 people making Bannermans a firm part of the rock touring route.
The instruments of all three bands filled the space under the small stage and we all wondered how on earth we would fit in there, especially Girlschool enriched by a third guitarist. To my surprise, however, it worked, and although I was worried about the sound system (because when Denise hits the drums, the walls shake and heads fall, especially in a space like this), it seemed that we could make it without anyone going deaf. Plus I got my own microphone, which gave me a fixed position, meaning we shouldn't kill each other on stage.
I learned that the hours after the sound check, when you have to wait for the concert, are the most challenging. We were sitting in an apartment above the club, which served as a suite and dressing room, and I didn't know whether to fall asleep on the comfortable couch or not. However, Christian brought the rider including a box of Budvar beers. The call of home cannot be ignored, so I claimed one bottle for myself. Subsequently, Kim and I refined the lyrics and Denise passed the time teaching me the most creative cockney swear words.
Denise Dufort is one of the funniest and nicest people I have ever met in my life. One of the two original members of the band, she has such a great sense of humour that you just can't stop laughing with her. Not to mention she's a fantastic drummer. Her style is raw, unschooled, functional and full of crude power. Denise plays without a metronome, the songs are lively and she lets herself get carried away and speed up at times (which I, as a passionate rhythm guitarist, don't mind).
At the same time, to give the strokes on the snare even more impact, she holds the mallet by the opposite end, so you can imagine how it rumbles. And when she plays the bass drums, you can totally picture the ghost of Uncle Lemmy emerging from somewhere with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and Jack Daniels in his hand, nodding his head in agreement. After all, it was Denise who recorded their most successful EP, St. Valentine's Day Massacre, with Girlschool And Motörhead under the Headgirl label; she filled in for Philthy Taylor, who was injured. That probably says more than a thousand words.
The order of the bands was again Tytan – Girlschool – Alcatrazz, so soon it was time to change and then we descended to the crowded club, where the audience had to create space for the girls to get on stage. I walked with them and stayed standing in the second row, enjoying the Girlschool concert like in the old days, partying with the fans and singing the choruses loudly. Only now one thing was a bit different – Adam made his way through the crowd, carrying my ritual Jägermeister and my guitar. The bystanders noticed that something was going on, they turned their heads in my direction and by then Kim invited me on stage, which explained everything. The whole club started clapping loudly and I wanted to cry with joy, but there was no time for that: "Screaming Blue Murder!"
It was a powerful concert, the space was packed with people and decibels, the air was quickly running out and the centuries-old stones in the walls were sweating as the audience sang along to every song. This time I got completely carried away by the atmosphere, no longer guarding or taming myself, and when we played "Bomber" I started headbanging. And as I was so pumped up, my arms moving like pistons tormenting the strings with power chords and my heart feeling like it was about to jump out of my body at 106 BPM, I could see out of the corner of my eye that the girls were getting carried away too. They were moving more, grooving more, we were rocking out and the fans were riding the wave with us. The band turned 45 that year. And at the moment, it didn't look like that at all.
Monday, 6th February – Edinburgh, a day off
Cut, reality. Based on the itinerary, I had known in advance that we would have Monday off, so I had decided not to take a holiday and spend the day working. I nestled into our room at the Travelodge, organised my desk and after breakfast got down to business. During my conference calls, my thoughts sometimes drifted to Bannermans, which always put a smile on my face.
Hotel rooms in the UK always have a kettle, so I had no shortage of coffee, and when my shift ended, Jax brought me chocolates to cheer me up. I finished the day with the world's worst pizza alone in the hotel restaurant. I didn't even mind that I hadn't seen anything of the city this time – I felt that I needed to rest and it was a good call because the next day I found out that this time I would be playing the whole gig instead of Kim.
Tuesday, 7th February – Bradford, Nightrain
The Edinburgh to Bradford route took around five hours including stops. Apart from sleeping, this time the band members discussed different types and flavours of mustard and advised each other what a particular type of mustard goes best with. This was followed by tasting different kinds of chocolate, catching a sandwich that fell out of Tracey's hand in a sharp turn and flew through the whole van, trying to get the TVs to work and completing a Rubik's cube. Just a normal rock 'n' roll band on the road.
Kim insisted that she wasn't feeling up to the Bradford gig, but we only believed her when, instead of preparing for the sound check, she hugged me at the Nightrain club, said "Good luck!" and left for the hotel with Hannah. I watched the mass of her black hair disappear in the doorway and slowly it dawned on me.
Wow. Okay. "So it's all yours today," Giles stated. "You ready?"
I nodded numbly, and that was all I could do. I had played quite a bit, I'd managed many club gigs, big festivals and the O2 Arena concert where The Agony and I supported the Scorpions. But to be a proper frontwoman for another band at their headline show, where everyone was expecting the one and only Kim McAuliffe, and instead, they would get an unknown girl and on top of that a foreigner... I didn't even know myself how I would react as a fan. Would I be disappointed, would I be angry, would I feel cheated?
"Not if you could see that the fill-in loves their music and gives everything to it. Play like you always do," my inner voice encouraged me, telling me I'd be fine. "You'll be fine," said Jax and smiled, reading my thoughts. I'd known her long enough to see that even she was slightly unnerved by the situation, but she was trying not to let it show and was fully supportive, as was Tracey, "No one else could be on that stage instead of Kim but you," she claimed as she was rolling a Spanish tobacco cigarette for me.
Until the last moment, I felt that the door would open and Kim would come back to tell us in her South London accent that it was a test, or that she was joking, or that she was feeling better and would give it a go. But she didn't appear at the soundcheck, during the Tytan set or the Alcatrazz set. She didn't even show up when I was in the dressing room, slipping into my leather pants and concert waistcoat that I'd originally been saving for London. Neither did she appear when the intro to "Demolition Boys" started playing and Tracey, Jax and I lined up in the narrow hallway by the stairs to the stage. In their forty-five-year career, this was the first gig on British soil where Kim was missing, and I could feel my heart in my throat. I dreaded what people would say, and mentally prepared myself for the worst-case scenario of being booed. Yes, that's how much I was panicking.
"Hang in there and enjoy!" said Jax last before she entered the stage. The audience greeted her, and I followed, raising my hand – and I got a boisterous welcome as well, apparently because Kim and I are both black-haired, so the audience didn't immediately know it wasn't her. However, as we were playing the holy trinity of "Demolition Boys / C'mon Let's Go / The Hunter," in the brief pauses between the songs I could feel the fans were confused.
I finally got to explain the situation to them and they seemed to understand and cheered me on. Now I had to earn it by playing and singing the rest of the concert to the best of my ability. Despite the fact that I had never played some of the songs with the girls because we hadn't got to play everything during the sound checks. I realised how much the others trusted me to take a chance like that, without rehearsal. But we were doing well, the gig was picking up momentum and the audience was catching on.
The whole set felt like a roller coaster. The moment we started rocking out, I messed up badly when I incorrectly extended the chorus in "Nothing To Lose", which threw the whole band off, and then when I recovered, my Marshall stopped playing in "Future Flash". "Just don't stop the song!" ran through my head, and as I continued singing on autopilot, I instinctively reached into the back pocket of my pants and realised that the batteries in my borrowed walkie-talkie were dead. I remembered all the swear words Denise taught me thinking how to get out of this one, the song went on, and my eyes searched for Adam to help me with the "rip out the walkie-talkie/plug in the cable" operation.
Fortunately, it only got better from that point on. Even though sometimes I got the lyrics wrong, even though sometimes I hit the wrong chord, even though sometimes I didn't quite know what to do with myself, the mutual onstage chemistry, the power of the songs and the joy of playing won and spread to the people, and eventually we managed to bring the show to a loud and successful end.
The rest of the band, Giles and the other tour participants slap me on the back happily, Chris brought me a drink and I received one compliment after another. Still, I kept my feet on the ground and regretted my mistakes – especially the one with the walkie-talkie, which could have been avoided. But I knew that technical problems are the "curse" of Girlschool, something almost always happens to them – a string breaks, a part of the instrumentation stops playing, a cymbal falls, a bass drum pedal breaks... the girls are used to it and they're very casual about it.
If I hadn't had an important work video call the next morning and if we hadn't had to leave the club early, I would have started an after-party with a few pints of Guinness to celebrate and recover. But I was sensible, so an hour and a half after playing my last chord, I was lying in bed at the Holiday Inn.
For one night, I became the frontwoman of Girlschool. In my head, I greeted my fifteen-year-old self, hoping she was happy, and with a smile on my lips, I fell asleep.
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