“We had our pockets stuffed with $16,000 in $100 bills, and there were 8,000 kids in front of us in Bangkok. We caused a riot at the airport coming home”: the rise and fall of Girl, the cult glam rock band who should have been huge

Rock band Girl in 1980
(Image credit: Fin Costello/Redferns)

Featuring future members of Def Leppard and LA Guns, cult early 80s glam rockers Girls were beloved by members of everyone from Hanoi Rocks to Pearl Jam. In 2006, Classic Rock talked to former members Phil Lewis, Phil Collen and Gerry Laffy about the rise and fall of the greatest British rock band you’ve probably never heard.

Although it would spell their downfall and ultimately their demise, Girl broke just about every rule in the book during a feisty five-year run in the late 70s and eary 80s, wearing make-up and baiting their critics with  an air of flamboyant cockiness.

The London band have been described as ‘how the New York Dolls would have sounded if they’d learned to play’ and ‘like Duran Duran but with testosterone’, and both of those hold water. Curiously, however, Girl’s music received full recognition posthumously, after some ex-members found stardom in Def Leppard (guitarist Phil Collen) and L.A. Guns (singer Phil Lewis).

With their airs and graces and provocative attitude, Girl were years ahead of their time. “These days I live in America, where everyone’s completely obsessed with celebrity,” says Phil Collen. “If Girl were starting again there now, everyone would fucking love us.”

The seeds of Girl were sewn in 1978, when Philip Lewis met guitarist Gerry Laffy. The former was playing a rock star character in a fringe theatre production.

“Phil and I were extremely intoxicated in Amsterdam, and decided it’d be a great idea to become rock stars ourselves,” Laffy recalls. “It was that naïve.”

Completed by Gerry’s brother Simon on bass, the peroxide-maned Collen and drummer Dave Gaynor, the group adopted a glamorous image to complement their feminine name.

“There was so much awful heavy metal stuff around,” Collen grimaces, “so we set out to reflect the open-minded coolness of bands like The New York Dolls who we respected.”

Although Gerry Laffy defiantly states that “we knew that we’d upset a lot of people but we didn’t give a shit”, Girl still dispute the perception that they were arrogant and aloof right from the very first pout of their career.

“We didn’t set out at all to be cocky,” Collen says. “All we wanted was to be different. And the more that people didn’t understand or appreciate what we were trying to do, the more we felt the need to antagonise them and piss them off.”

“Until Phil Collen joined, we probably didn’t have a great deal of ability,” Lewis offers. “We loved the band Japan, but they were too artsy; we wanted to be a little chunkier.”

Rock band girl in the early 80s

(Image credit: Fin Costello/Redferns)

It didn’t take the media too long to pick up on the fact that Lewis was dating Britt Ekland, the former wife of comic icon Peter Sellers and rock icon Rod Stewart, and a star of such blockbuster films as Get Carter, The Man With The Golden Gun and The Wicker Man. The band delighted in raising hackles still further when, during an early Britain club tour, they borrowed a white Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce and an Aston Martin to ferry them from gig to gig.

“A friend owned a beautifully cut man’s mink coat – worth probably $20,000 – and Philip [Lewis] loaned it for a photo session, just to wind people up,” Gerry Laffy remembers. “The rest of us weren’t quite up to that level of deliberate intimidation, but Philip definitely was.”

Mere months later a self-financed promo video was shot. But it was a chance meeting at a party hosted by Jet Records boss and industry mover and shaker Don Arden that lead to Girl signing a record contract. “The rumour that Britt got us a deal is complete rubbish,” Gerry Laffy says. “We already had video, and we used it to blag ourselves on to Jet Records.”

In October 1979 Jet unveiled Girl’s debut single. A clear vinyl 45 with the same song, My Number, on both sides, it retailed for just 55p. Another single, Hollywood Tease, entered the Top 50, procuring the band spots on Top Of The Pops, The Old Grey Whistle Test and Saturday morning knockabout kids’ show Tiswas.

While recording their debut album, Sheer Greed, some special guests joined Girl in the studio. “When we did the backing vocals, Alex Harvey was on one side of me, and Gary Holton [of The Heavy Metal Kids] on the other,” Lewis grins. “Phil Lynott was hanging around with us too.”

Classic Rock’s Geoff Barton, then of Sounds magazine, called the album “stunning”, but added the disclaimer: “The only trouble [is] that Girl know it.”

Another source of irritation was that Lewis’s relationship with Ekland still overshadowed the band’s music. “For a 19-year-old, going out with a megastar like Britt Ekland was an unbelievable education,” Lewis says. “It opened a lot of doors for us, but the attention was annoying.”

On paper, a tour with hard-boozing macho men UFO wasn’t the likeliest of pairings, but the two bands bonded unexpectedly during an extensive European trek that included four sold-out shows at London’s Hammersmith Odeon.

Rock band girl in the early 80s

(Image credit: Fin Costello/Redferns)

“[UFO bassist] Pete Way told us: ‘Tonka [Chapman, UFO guitarist] really likes sharks’ heads in his bed,’ pointed us in the direction of the kitchen and gave us Chapman’s room key,” Gerry Laffy guffaws. “Or he’d say: ‘He loves being woken up at 4am with a fire extinguisher in his face.’ And because we were so green we’d believe him.”

“One thing I’ll never forget is that Tonka hated motorway food, so he brought a camping stove and cooked stews in his room,” Lewis adds. “One night he’d taken something or other, fell asleep and almost burned the hotel down. They had to break down the door.”

After a co-headlining tour with the Pat Travers Band, Girl announced 34 shows of their own in venues like West Runton Pavilion, Redcar’s Coatham Bowl and the Norbreck Castle in Blackpool. Strangely for the time, they were met with little in the way of aggression because of their effete look.

“Most people didn’t know whether to kick us or kiss us,” Collen grins, while Gerry Laffy observes: “Once, in Port Talbot, I had to take down a guy that sprayed hair lacquer in my face, and someone else was hit coming out of Sheffield City Hall. But it was never us that got battered.”

Girl were pelted with missiles when they played 1980’s Reading Festival, but survived with pride and limbs intact. And despite being invited personally by Paul Stanley to open for Kiss on the following month’s UK tour, Girl were covered in spit at Bingley Hall in Stafford.

Girl’s debut album Sheer Greed was a top-five hit in the Far East, but the band spent much of 1981 either feuding with Jet Records or working in the studio. New songs like Overnight Angel, Thru The Twilight and McKitty’s Back showed real artistic growth, and Jet persuaded Girl to ease off on the preening.

“I thought changing our whole shtick was stupid. But by then copious amounts of cheap Persian heroin were involved, so I didn’t argue too much,” Lewis admits.

Just as Girl’s appeal was broadening, they made a serious error when they fell out with Jet supremo Don Arden – one of the most intimidating men in the music business – by declining his offer of management, in addition to already being signed to Arden’s label and publishing company.

“Don was a dangerous guy but he never scared us,” Laffy insists. “He treated us well until we said we didn’t want him to manage us. When that happened he took us off an American tour with Ozzy and UFO and gave the opening spot to Def Leppard instead. For us it was a big mistake.”

Girl still maintain that Arden exacted his revenge by “sabotaging” their next album, Wasted Youth. They had produced it themselves, but to their chagrin Arden demanded that Nigel Thomas remixed it.

“Nigel’s now dead so he can’t defend himself, but we worked our asses off on that album and he completely fucked it up,” Gerry Laffy fumes.

Whereas the debut had gone Top 40, 1982’s Wasted Youth stalled at No.92 in the UK. They opened for Ozzy Osbourne on a trek that was pulled after five shows due to the headliner’s exhaustion. Their own shows were eventful one occasion Girl drew 1,200 fans into London’s Marquee club – twice its official capacity. When reminded that people such as Ritchie Blackmore, Phil Lynott, Queen’s Roger Taylor and Michael Schenker all went to Girl’s gigs, Gerry Laffy remarks with a straight face: “They weren’t there because Girl was cool, they just wanted to poach our pussy.”

With their self-produced third album, Killing Time, mostly in the can, Collen declined an offer from Iron Maiden to replace the departing Dennis Stratton. At the time, however, neither Collen nor anyone else knew that Killing Time wouldn’t get a release until 15 years later, after a rapidly approaching split. But by the time Def Leppard were looking for a replacement for soon-to-depart guitarist Pete Willis in the summer, things were different, relations with Jet having broken down irretrievably .

“I was never a big fan of metal, so joining Maiden didn’t interest me,” Collen explains of his amicable departure from Girl to join Leppard in 1982. “Leppard was completely different, because they were an Americanised band that did real songs, and I really loved Van Halen.”

“Girl were doomed, and an exceptional musician like Phil [Collen] didn’t deserve to be in such a quagmire,” Gerry Laffy says of his ex-bandmate leaving for pastures new. “Philip [Lewis] and I actively discouraged him from accepting the Iron Maiden offer. And when the Leppard guys came to check him out at our gig at the Zig Zag club [in west London] we knew damn well what their purpose was. Nobody objected the least bit.”

Rock band girl in the early 80s

Girl onstage in the ealry 80s (Image credit: Fin Costello/Redferns)

With new guitarist Pete Bonus in for the departed Collen, Girl returned to Japan and the Far East in December 1982. But things weren’t the same, and a formal split was announced weeks later. Sadly, it seems a rather a grey end for such a colourful band.

“Not really,” Gerry Laffy counters. “Phil Lewis and I had pockets stuffed with $16,000 in $100 bills, because we were tour managing the band and there were 8,000 kids in front of us in Bangkok. We even caused a riot at the airport coming home. Isn’t that finishing with a bang?”

Both Collen and Lewis are still regularly asked by fans to autograph Girl memorabilia while touring with Leppard and L.A. Guns respectively. The same is true of Gerry Laffy when he gigged extensively with ex-Duran Duran bassist John Taylor. Girl’s My Number has emerged as as a favourite song of artists as diverse as Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Hanoi Rocks and hair-metallers Lillian Axe.

Yet curiously, given Girl’s enduring cult status, the name hasn’t been revived, although the Laffy brothers did work together again in the band Sheer Greed, whose 1992 album Sublime To The Ridiculous featured guest spots from Collen and Lewis. And Collen and Simon Laffy also worked together again, in Man-Raze, along with former Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook. None of the four ex-Girl men believes a reunion is possible, however.

“If you’re an artist then you should have something to say, and if you haven’t then just fuck off,” Collen offers. “We were all on the same page back then, but to try and recreate it again now would be just a bit tragic.”

“Sometimes my lip didn’t always help us, but I offer no apologies for anything Girl said or did,” Lewis says. “I didn’t want us to be some second-division band. It was superstardom or nothing.”

Originally published in Classic Rock issue 90

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.