Helen McCookerybook’s band Helen and the Horns played a blinding gig at The Lexington in London to launch their album Footsteps At My Door. We talked to music guru and New Wave star Helen about the band, her favourite guitars, and took some pics at the show.
Helen McCookerybook is known and loved for both her music and her writing. She was the singer and bass player with Brighton punk band The Chefs, who were favourites of the legendary DJ John Peel. They were credited with being originators of the sound that became C-86, and Indiepop, as well as having a lot of the Riot Grrrl about them.
Helen went on to form Helen and the Horns, who landed a major label deal, and were championed by radio DJs including Peel again, and she is currently performing regular solo gigs.
She also wrote a book on female punk musicians, The Lost Women of Rock Music that we featured a little while back.
It was great to find out that Helen and the Horns are about to get a big release, hot on the heels of a retrospective The Chefs CD, which has been played regularly on BBC radio.
Footsteps At My Door is out on 26th January on the brilliant Damaged Goods label and features the band’s three John Peel Sessions for the BBC, plus the band’s original album. The storming Lexington set gave us a joyful preview of the material.
The show featured three of the original members of Helen and the Horns (Helen, Paul Davey on sax and Dave Jago on trombone) plus trumpet player Stephen Joy. Support came from acclaimed songwriter/guitarist Martin Stephenson of The Daintees, playing with a violinist and a banjo player for this show, and also from caustic and funny performance poetry duo The Antipoet.
Helen and the Horns stormed their way through classics such as Pioneer Town and Northbound Train, and dropped a glorious version of Secret Love - the classic Doris Day song from Calamity Jane. Helen also slipped in one of her newer solo songs, Daisies, which got the full Horns treatment. The grand finale of Freight Train featured all the musicians from the night.
There’s a fascinating story behind the band and their unique sound, one that is still fresh today. After The Chefs split in the early 1980s, Helen got together with Lester Square, who had just left The Monochrome Set, and they started working on her new songs, which were Western-inspired.
Geoff Travis from Rough Trade financed some demos with a full band, but I didn’t have any money, none of us did, and I couldn’t afford to get a drumkit across town. So we ended up just rehearsing the horn parts with me playing guitar instead of bass and started doing gigs like that, and they went down really well.
The trombone player said do we actually need anybody else and I said no we don’t, so we accidentally ended up as a band with no bass and no drums. It was so easy, we could get on any bill anywhere. We had a really great time.
Helen wrote most of the horn arrangements and came up with a very different sound that melds punk, jazz and country, and songs that stick.
We did a lot of gigging, absolutely loads of gigs, and did a release on our own label and got it distributed through the Cartel (Rough Trade’s distribution arm) as a kind of goodbye release.
We didn’t want to become a cabaret band and didn’t want to augment ourselves with more instrumentation. We had a brush with RCA but I’m definitely not a major label person. So it’s really nice to have this kind of archive. It’s got a huge amount of stuff on it, different versions of songs and things I feel really proud of.
They recorded three John Peel sessions and toured the UK and Holland, playing every type of gig from pogoing punks in the Midlands to a graduation ball with waltzing students at London’s Café Royale.
The Helen and the Horns recordings feature Helen on a very special guitar - a vintage Gretsch Chet Atkins Tennessean from the 60s that’s customised with a whammy bar. She still has it today.
It’s a very strange guitar, quite unique. Most of them have painted f-holes on them, but someone has cut them out on this one, and done a professional job. It was already a loved guitar before I got it, and the fretboard was completely worn down and has been rebound at the edges in ebony. It feels lovely to play and I took it to all the gigs.
It’s very mysterious and romantic to play vintage guitars. They’ve had all these adventures and you don’t know who has played them and what kind of music has been played.
Helen has her guitars restored at L. A . Guitars in Barnet, London, and rates them very highly indeed.
They are brilliant luthiers, and build guitars and other instruments as well as restoring them. They’ve got a guitar they built from seasoned wood from an old piano. They service the guitars for the Chet Atkins Society too. To have people who love instruments so much, working on your kit, is amazing.
For live performances, which are based around finger-picking, she uses a different kind of Gretsch, a new Anniversary model, preferring to keep her vintage guitar safe.
My green Gretsch has a perfect sound to DI. I don’t use pedals - for my songs I really like simplicity.
It’s partly to do with having been a bass player and singer in The Chefs which was very difficult, playing the bottom end of something and singing the top end yourself, singing quite complex melodies. In a sense I gave myself a break, thought I’d play guitar and sing, let the horns do their stuff.
If I’m doing soundtracks or writing instrumentals, then I like to use effects. I’m a big fan of rockabilly, and love what people do with reverb in rockabilly, but in my current performing I can’t do it.
Helen says she plays solo as much as she can now, and she regularly gigs around the UK. Here’s Helen playing at London’s Jazz Cafe in 2011 on a rare outing with the Horns, and also Martin Stephenson.
Even though space is at a premium, Helen can’t resist buying more vintage guitars.
I’ve just bought a couple of very unusual guitars - one is a Framus acoustic I bought in a charity shop, which I’ve just done up. Then on a market stall in Durham I bought a vintage Hofner President Florentine guitar which I’ve just had done up. It’s from the 1960s, very battered but an absolutely beautiful guitar and it plays like the Gretsch Tennessean.
Helen says that buying a special instrument requires dedication and that’s something she’s had since the early days, when she would save up for one for ages.
My second bass guitar was a Hofner President Bass and I bought that by living on sardines on toast for weeks and weeks!