Joby and the Hooligans by Ray Renolds - Helen McCookerybook with bass
Helen joined the ‘worst punk band in Brighton’, Joby and the Hooligans, in 1977 as a bass player, then went on to form acclaimed band The Chefs. They were Indiepop originators who helped set the scene for the later Riot Grrrl movement, and their Radio 1 sessions, including two for John Peel were recently released on Damaged Goods Records.
After years of gigging and recording, and a family, she moved into academia and is currently lecturing at the University of East London and University of Westminster. Helen still gigs and also runs highly-rated songwriting courses at The Premises Studios, London, and with Martin Stephenson of The Daintees, in Dumfriesshire.
Helen’s book lifts the lid on women in the punk scene - thrills and spills included. It came out of research she was doing for a PhD, and she was amazed at the failings in what had been published about punk culture.
A lot of what was written was wrong, a lot was right, but there was nothing about the mass of women who went into bands and played instruments. I was very angry that we’d been written out of history, and I wanted to put people’s voices back in.
It took her several years to track down and speak to ground-breaking artists such as The Slits, Gina Birch of The Raincoats, Gaye Advert, The Mo-dettes, and Vi Subversa of Poison Girls, as well as Geoff Travis of Rough Trade, and the late John Peel.
The new paperback version of her book (see below for a discount) features extra interviews including one with the legendary Slits guitarist Viv Albertine, who has just released her acclaimed debut solo album ‘The Vermilion Border’. Helen also spoke to Pauline Murray from Penetration, and the late Poly Styrene who had wavered about being in the book originally.
She was very nervous about what I was going to print because of some of the things that happened to her, and the last thing I wanted to do was to make anybody feel disturbed or uncomfortable. In the second edition I actually did an interview with her and I’m so glad that I managed to do that, because she was one of the major forces in making me feel like punk belonged to me, because she was so like all of my friends.
Helen found it difficult to deal with some of the terrible stories she heard, and was advised to remember she wasn’t writing about victims but about survivors, who achieved a lot, and paved the way for many of today’s artists.
Helen McCookerybook by Jane Cooper
With that in my head it allowed me to concentrate on the things that would speak to musicians. I wanted to write it as a musician and actually I think a lot of the people who spoke to me spoke to me because I’m a musician, above everything else.
Punk heroine Caroline Coon - photographer, artist, campaigner and former The Clash manager - organised a launch party for the book, which ended up being pretty historic.
It was a wonderful event. A lot of the women hadn’t met each other before, and Poly (Styrene) met Tessa (Pollitt) from The Slits, and Tessa hooked up with Jennie Bellestar. People became friends and some started working together.
Helen has gigged recently with some of the artists she interviewed, as well as with different projects including her band Helen and the Horns which she set up after The Chefs. She describes them as a ‘bass and drum-free band with a three-piece horn section’, and they signed to RCA before going independent. They recorded several sessions for John Peel and are performing again - the next gig is at London’s Camden Eye on Sunday 2nd December and their John Peel sessions are due to be released next year.
Helen’s latest project is research into female sound engineers and producers which was inspired by a meeting at a punk art exhibition organised by Gaye Advert.
I met Poly Styrene with her female engineer, and she said, I’m the only female engineer in the UK, and I just thought, I know that’s not true. I thought, how incredible that a female engineer feels so isolated that she doesn’t even know that there are others. When these things are on your radar, you start realising that they are just getting on with the job, but it’s not an easy job. It’s really important to show what a positive thing it can be to have people around who are not just blokes.
I’m aiming to interview at least 30 women specifically in rock, pop, anything that can be defined as pop, so that’s rap and stuff as well, because there are a lot more female engineers and producers in classical music and in experimental music.
If you want to contact Helen about her research, to volunteer or recommend someone, email her: [email protected]
Helen left the stage for 20 years to raise her two daughters (both visual artists) and now balances her academic career with a renewed music career. After being offered slots as a solo musician, she has released three solo albums on partner Martin Stephenson’s label Barbaraville (distributed by www.voiceprint.co.uk) plus two co-releases with him.
So what’s Helen’s kit set-up? Her main guitar is a customised Squier Telecaster.
It’s got Seymour Duncan pickups, a really good sound
My Telecaster’s the one I play most at the moment. It’s got Seymour Duncan pickups, a really good sound and it makes me feel like Chrissie Hynde, so I like that.
I’ve got a Martin acoustic, a 12-fret Auditorium, in dark wood. It’s very unadorned, a beautiful guitar and everybody who plays it wants to play it more. It sounds good and it feels good and it’s got a fantastically bright and positive sound. Because I’m a finger picker and not a strummer it’s really important that all the strings really ring out clearly with any guitar that I have, and that’s just great.
I’ve also got my Gretsch single anniversary, and I’ve also got a Gretsch Chet Atkins so a pedal steel, and a Hofner acoustic guitar which I don’t play very much because it’s got a very wide neck, because Hofner guitars were made by violin manufacturers and so they’ve got no truss rod. I’ve got a Spanish guitar that I use to exercise my fingers.
Helen’s latest release is a limited-edition electronic pop album of songs written for a film/song cycle called Voxpop Puella which she toured with Gina Birch (of The Raincoats) in 2000 and is available from www.mccookerybook.blogspot.com.
You can order a copy of The Lost Women of Rock: Female Musicians of the Punk Era here.