Helen McCookerybook (a.k.a Dr Helen Reddington) is a London-based musician and academic best-known for singing and playing bass with Brighton punk band The Chefs. She talks to Rona Simpson about feminism, music and film ventures, her punk days and the violence that coloured that time.
What made you choose the name/alter ego Helen McCookerybook? Could there be a Scottish connection?
Ha ha! You got me! Yes, my family name is McCallum, and although we were brought up in the north-east of England, both parents were Scottish so we lived that extra-Scottish expatriate life: Scottish dancing class on Saturdays, kilts for the men in the family on Sundays, Burns night celebrations and every school holiday spent fighting off the midgies in a caravan in Galloway.
You started out in the music scene when punk was in its infancy. How exciting was it to be part of this new movement?
It was very exciting but also very dangerous. I think people really glamorise the music and politics side of punk and gloss over the violence. Everything was so bound up together that you couldn’t extract one from the other. I witnessed really bad fights, serious suicide attempts and there was a young woman in Brighton who wanted to kill me and she spray-painted that on a hoarding opposite the house where she thought I lived (I didn’t). We didn’t have phones, we didn’t have central heating or hot water or even a bath in our house. The police hated us, so if you got attacked there was nothing you could do. On the other side of things, I’d been so quiet in sixth form that a lot of the kids thought that I was a French exchange student. The opportunity to be in a band and not only yell, but also to shake the ground that people were standing on by playing a bass at full volume, that was an incredibly empowering feeling. Punks were outlaws, many of us detached from wanting to make money or get famous. I think that was the liberation. If you reject those things completely, nobody can control you. I think that is why I reject a lot of people’s definition of what punk is now, because it’s defined as young people wanting to get attention. It was more about joining together in a huge gang, and expressing how we felt to each other.
What are the stand out moments from the years of Joby and the Hooligans and The Chefs?
So many! Joby and the Hooligans were a proper punk band. We decided we wanted to support Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, the cult New York punk band, at Sussex University and we took all our gear up there and badgered their manager. He said no, so we went off and got really drunk. Then he changed his mind, so we made the mistake of going on stage and playing. I couldn’t even see the guitarist, who was playing all over the place, I couldn’t see my fingers on the fretboard and Joby was singing out of tune and out of time. They pulled the plugs on us almost immediately!
With The Chefs, I think it was when Carl came round and asked me to be in a band with him. I had no idea that I was a good enough bass player to be in another band. I thought I was a joke. But he had written music to one of my poems that was in a book I’d made at college, ‘sung’ by a tall black chef in a kitchen: Ken Wood and The Chefs (the Kenwood Chef was a food mixer). What shall we call ourselves? The Chefs, he said, and it all went on from there.
In an interview in No Class fanzine with The Chefs in the ‘70s you say: “I don’t wear dresses on stage; I just wear the same as the blokes. I don’t sort of push my femininity.” How difficult was it to be woman in the punk scene?
The guys were jealous that I got to do all the interviews, so there was that pressure from inside the band; the pressure from outside the band was the record label ‘suggesting’ that I should wear make-up which I didn’t want to do. I had always been a tomboy; now you’d say that I was gender neutral. I was a tree-climber, adventurer, I liked being outside even though I definitely wasn’t athletic. Also as a young girl you are constantly sexually assaulted: constantly. I mistakenly thought that if I wore boys’ clothes that people would leave me alone. It wasn’t just the punks who assaulted us (me). A lot of the hangers on thought they could do what they wanted too. It took a long time afterwards before I felt safe.
Have you always played, or was there ever a time in your life where music took a back seat?
I stopped for 25 years. I burned out. I was writing all the songs, arranging them, doing all the interviews, doing the business (VAT isn’t very rock’n’roll), touring and then in between tours, writing soundtracks to make money to pay the session fees to the guys for the gigs where we weren’t breaking even. I worked very hard. Then I worked on housing estates with young people doing song writing and music workshops. Finally, I got a job in a University music department where students had been hot-housed as musicians for their whole lives, and I felt so intimidated by their skills and confidence that I stopped altogether. But it was actually a student who got me started again – he invited me to support his band. My guitar was under the bed covered in dust and I’d only ever played solo once before. I had to write a whole new set of songs because there was no band to play solos. And after that… why stop when you have started again?
Your book The Lost Women of Rock Music and your recent documentary Stories from the She-Punks suggest women’s experience has been ignored within annuls of Punk History. Is this true?
Yes – still!
Do you think women still struggle to be taken seriously in the music industry?
Yes, because everything is controlled by men. I have just finished a book on women engineers and producers which should be coming out in about 18 months. The drift of that is that men control not only what women sing but also the way they sound… and they always have.
What reception has your documentary Stories from the She-Punks received and do you have plans for any more filming?
We’re only just getting started with it but we sold out the Gemini Cinema in Hackney and had a great response, then we took it to Belfast and got a standing ovation at the end! Personally, I want it to travel to as many places as possible especially smaller cinemas that will show it to people who feel dispossessed. It shows that you can keep your spirit and make things happen, even when things seem impossible to get off the ground.
I thought the song The Sea was brilliant. In a few short words you deliver a suckerpunch. A scathing retort to on the western response to the refugee crisis wrapped in Greek-sounding folk guitar of exceptional beauty. Do you ever want to scream and rage into the microphone?
Yes, I do. I was thinking last night that all of my songs are really just one long scream, made into music. I learned a long time ago that if you scream, people put their fingers into their ears and only listen to the noise and not what you have to say. Screaming is hugely cathartic though! But I want people to hear what I am angry about and need words and melodies to transport that message to people who might not listen otherwise.
Who are your favourite current bands?
Jetstream Pony, Big Joanie, Friedrich Sunlight, The Band of Holy Joy, Arrest! Charlie Tipper, The Catenary Wires, The Countess of Fife. Anyone who can cut it live! And I love listening to Northern Soul and Electro Swing – the exact opposite of the music I make myself.
What are you working on at the moment? Do you have any upcoming gigs? Will you be in Scotland any time soon?
I’m recording an album at the moment and planning gigs for the year. I am hoping to come back to play in Glasgow, where I haven’t played for ages. I know I’ll be back in Ullapool later in the year and I will be playing in Edinburgh soon too. (*Details of the Scottish premier of Stories from the She-Punks and the upcoming Edinburgh gig below.)
*NEWS JUST IN: The Scottish premiere of the documentary ‘Stories from the She-Punks: music with a different agenda’ directed by Dr. Helen Reddington (aka Helen McCookerybook) and Gina Birch (The Raincoats) is taking place Friday 26th April at 6pm at Edinburgh’s Cameo Picture House. There will be a Q&A with the directors after the film. Tickets £12.20 and £11.20 concessions https://ticketing.picturehouses.com – early booking advisable.
Helen will also be playing a Refugee Benefit gig at Leith Depot on Friday 26th July. There is a Glasgow date in the pipeline. For full details of upcoming gigs and to listen to Helen’s music go to http://mccookerybook.com/