Helen McCookerybook may not be the most familiar name in music circles, but its one you don’t forget. Especially if you happened to be listening to the late John Peel’s radio programme sometime in the early 1980s. It was here that Brighton-based McCookerybook’s band The Chefs wormed their way into young men’s hearts with their single, 24 Hours. A plaintive but jaunty three minute tale of unrequited love among the business set, 24 Hours stood out from the glut of scrappy DIY fare via McCookerybook’s vocal, which fell somewhere between a love-lorn choir girl and an off duty busker.
As with so many other bands, Peel became The Chefs champion, even when they changed their name to Skat. Following up with the brass-led Helen And The Horns, at one stage McCookerybook and co looked set for the big-time. What actually happened instead was an extended musical silence, or, as McCookerybook describes it on her web-blog, “I fell asleep for 20 years.”
Now, though, McCookerybook is back, and, as we talk, is en route to Inverness to continue a writing and recording collaboration with singer/songwriter and Daintees frontman Martin Stephenson. McCookerybook is also back playing regular live dates, and last week played with former Raincoats bassist Gina Birch at the opening of a major exhibition by painter Stella Vine, well known for her controversial portrait of Princess Diana, and who once played in a band called Victoria Falls. This week McCookerybook takes in her first solo Edinburgh show since an undersold Edinburgh Fringe residency a couple of years back.
As if this weren’t activity enough, McCookerybook is about to publish The Lost Women Of Rock, a comprehensive academic analysis of what became of female bands who rose to prominence in the late 1970s post -punk scene such as The Slits, The Raincoats and Essential Logic, all now regarded as huge influences on a younger generation of bands. Also featured in the weighty tome are interviews with journalist and founder of the Release charity, Caroline Coon, as well as one of the last on-the-record conversations conducted with The Chefs former champion, John Peel.
“I went to his house,” McCookerybook says, “and his wife was making sloe gin and there was a Liverpool game on at the same time we did the interview. But he was really polite about it and managed to keep talking to me all the time the game was on, even though he’d probably have rather concentrated on the match.”
Such encounters with mentors, heroes and peers became par for the course while McCookerybook was writing The Lost Women Of Rock, which was based on a PhD she took at the University Of Westminster, where she’s taught on the music course for the last 12 years.
“I was reading a lot of academic books about punk,” she says of The Lost Women Of Rock’s roots, “and they started to really annoy me, because they were written by people who’d never been part of it, and who got so many things wrong. They also all just concentrated on the boys, and the girl bands were sidelined. I thought there must be someone who’s going to write about the girls, because I was a punk, I was in a punk band, and I‘d lived that life-style. Eventually I realised that it was going to have to be me who wrote it. Because I’m a musician and not a journalist,” she says, “I think I got some good stories out of them. I’ve looked at why bands never went on to bigger things, and how, in the music industry, your shelf life is really short. One artist was about to be signed to a major record label, but then they found out she was 30, and told her they didn’t sign anyone over the age of 23.”
Born on Tyneside to Scottish parents now living in Edinburgh, McCookerybook first fell into music when, as plain old Helen McCallum, she moved into a Brighton squat, where fellow residents included a band who rehearsed at home. In a bid to get themselves some peace and quiet, McCallum and her chums arranged a gig for them. But, like the part time punks they were, “They chickened out,” McCookerybook recalls, “so we decided to do it instead. We bought all the tabloids and wrote a set based on the headlines in three days. It was only supposed to be a one-off, but we got offered loads of gigs. Probably because we had a singer who wore a posing pouch and a transvestite drummer. We were quite theatrical, really.”
From playing bass, McCookerybook moved centre stage with The Chefs, attempting to model the bass-line of 24 Hours on Donna Summer’s motorik disco records. Taking full control with Helen And the Horns, the band were signed to RCA. Instead of the mega-success it should have led to, it marked the beginning of the end.
“I realised very quickly I wasn’t a major label sort of person,” McCookerybook reflects. “What I wanted out of the music business wasn’t what it wanted out of me. I never wanted to be famous. I just wanted to do my stuff. But they were putting us in studios with producers who weren’t right, and it all became about taxis and lunches and rock n’ roll parties.”
After six months, Helen And The Horns and RCA parted company, the band split, and McCookerybook found a job in music education.
“I missed music terribly at first,” she admits. “After seven years of being the centre of attention, just being a normal person again was hard.”
It could’ve been worse. One interviewee for The Lost Women Of Rock was beaten up by skinheads for just daring to play in an all female band.
“I was an odd time historically,” McCookerybook observes. “There was a lot of talking going on between young men and young women, and a lot of barriers broke down. Then Thatcher was elected and everything changed. Smash Hits replaced the NME, and even now rock music is quite a conservative thing where it was once a revolutionary thing.”
Somewhere along the way, Riot Grrrl and Girl Power happened. Meanwhile, after those 20 years asleep, the newly lettered Dr McCookerybook picked up her guitar again after being invited to support one of her students’ bands. As active as she is again, a modest and still girlishly excitable Ms McCookerybook is at pains to point out she certainly doesn’t regard herself as a lost woman of rock. A couple of weeks ago, the book was launched at a party hosted by Caroline Coon, which brought all of McCookerybook’s subjects into the same room for the first time possibly ever.
“It wasn’t a pop star thing,” she says, “because a lot of the women had never met each other before. Tessa Pollit from The Slits was there, and so was Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex, Rhoda Dakar from the Specials and Gaye Black from The Adverts. By the end everyone was swapping email addresses, and I told them all they should write their life stories.”
Whatever she says, McCookerybook’s own life story is up there with the party guests, and The Lost Women Of Rock a significant document of how music changed that life.
“Punk took me from being a really shy 19-year-old to being a more confident person,” she says. “It’s a rare kind of life to have.”
Helen McCookerybook plays Foalkies, The Royal Oak, Edinburgh, August 7. The Lost Women Of Rock is published by Ashgate Press, £55
The Herald, August 9th 2007