DAMAGED GOODS RECORDS ARE ABOUT TO RELEASE A NEW CD FEATURING THE SERIES OF THREE JOHN PEEL BBC RADIO SESSIONS RECORDED BY NIFTY RETRO-BRASS NEW WAVE BAND HELEN AND THE HORNS DURING 1983 AND 84.
The long-standing punk label has previously issued RECORDS AND TEA, a compilation gathering together the complete works of Brighton band The Chefs (including a couple of BBC radio sessions) – and the new Helen And The Horns CD will similarly feature other tracks from the band’s discography.
Both Helen And The Horns and The Chefs featured the distinctive vocals of Helen McCookerybook, who has since continued to perform as a solo artist. In recent years Helen has also authored highly respected academic study THE LOST WOMEN OF ROCK MUSIC: FEMALE MUSICIANS OF THE PUNK ERA (order from publishers Equinox, here). An inspirational book, it enlightens the long-perceived history of the genre by broadening it out to “rescue some less famous women’s stories from obscurity, underlining that punk was just as much about individual empowerment as music making”.
To celebrate the release of the new Helen And The Horns CD, the band are set to reconvene to headline a special gig planned for December 8th at the Lexington, London N1. The evening will feature three of the original members of the group – Helen, Paul Davey (sax) and Dave Jago (trombone) plus trumpet player Stephen Joy – and support comes from Martin Stephenson (The Daintees) plus performance poetry / double-bass duo The Antipoet.
In a new Q&A, Helen McCookerybook reflects on Helen And The Horns’ three Peel sessions…
WAS THE NEW HELEN AND THE HORNS CD YOUR SUGGESTION? WAS THERE ANY DIFFICULTY IN TRACKING DOWN THE PEEL SESSION RECORDINGS?
It was my suggestion because Damaged Goods had released The Chefs, and I liked dealing with them. I had the sessions anyway, but I couldn’t afford to release them myself. I had no distribution system anyway.
YOU ACTUALLY RECORDED ALL THREE SESSIONS IN THE SPACE OF ONE YEAR…
I have a really good story about that… After The Chefs had split up I was physically and mentally ill for about six months. I barely went out at all, but that’s when I wrote a whole lot of the Helen and the Horns songs in their basic form. John Walters, John Peel’s producer, phoned me to ask what I was doing and if I’d like to do a session. I was in a right state and asked him to phone back in six months. I told my friends about it and they said I was mad, and that I should have just taken the session and played any old thing, just to get on the radio. but I honestly wasn’t up to it, I was very frail. A few months later, we’d got the band up and running, and six months to the day after his original call, he phoned and asked me again if I’d like a session!
… SO IT’S PROBABLY FAIR TO SAY THAT PEEL WAS SOMETHING OF A FAN, THEN?
Well, by that time of course we were raring to go – but I can remember being worried in case John Peel didn’t like Helen And The Horns’ music because it was so different to The Chefs… After the first track of that first session he started really raving about it – he sounded really surprised… Helen And The Horns did have a very different and unique sound… and John Peel loved that in all sorts of different artists – which is why I think he supported us so much.
LISTENING BACK, HOW DO YOU THINK YOUR PEEL SESSIONS STAND UP NOW?
I’m astonished at how fast they sound. Even though they are almost completely un-punky sonically, they’ve still got that urgency about them. I’m really proud of some of the arrangements (HAPPY ENDING, and TWO STRINGS TO YOUR BOW, which Chris Smith co-arranged). My favourite song is FOOTSTEPS AT MY DOOR, which I can remember writing in the tiny bedsit that I lived in, in Kilburn. There’s a trombone part in there that’s a train horn from the Newcastle to Carlisle railway which I used to hear every night when I lived in the north-east of England, where I was brought up. So, they’re nostalgic to listen to personally…
THE FIRST SESSION WAS AUGUST 1983 (INCLUDING THE FIRST SINGLE, FREIGHT TRAIN)… DO YOU REMEMBER MUCH ABOUT RECORDING IT ?
That was recorded in the BBC’s massive studios at Maida Vale. I’d been there before with The Chefs… I remember being just really happy. The music felt really right, and the producer and engineer seemed to like what we were doing.
THERE’S A CLASSIC ROCK ‘N’ ROLL / 50s INFLUENCED THING GOING ON IN HELEN AND THE HORNS, BUT NO DRUMS…
Originally I was rehearsing with Lester Square from The Monochrome Set, and a guy called Mike Slocombe who later joined Dance On A Telephone on drums. I was looking for a trumpet player and asked Dave Jago, who I’d seen playing in a band called Futile Hurling, if he knew any… He said he didn’t but offered to play with me, and offered me Paul on sax too. So we recorded some demos for Rough Trade as a much more conventional band. But I couldn’t afford the taxis to transport the kit around town so started to rehearse with just the horns. We did a gig like that, and then The Monochrome Set offered us a support at Kingston Poly just the way we were… and we went down really well! So we decided to stay like that, and the name came at Dave’s suggestion, by just describing what we were. Still good friends with Mike and Lester (who has written the sleeve notes)…
YOU’RE LAUNCHING THE NEW CD WITH A SHOWCASE GIG, BUT WILL THIS BE THE FIRST TIME THAT HELEN AND THE HORNS HAVE PLAYED SINCE BACK IN THE DAY?
We’ve done four or five gigs in the last ten years. The songs still work. We’re a bit slower as it makes them easier to sing. But we’re all better players now, so it’s great to sing the songs again. It’s lovely to hear the horns sounding so good… David Byrne and St Vincent have just made a horns-based record – and although we’re miles from their league we might just have chosen a good time to release the Peel sessions!
ONE OF THE SUPPORTS FOR THE GIG IS MARTIN STEPHENSON (THE DAINTEES), WHO YOU’VE RECORDED A COUPLE OF ALBUMS WITH…
Yes. Martin and myself are partners. We play a lot together, and some of the Helen And The Horns gigs we’ve done have been supporting The Daintees, so I jumped at the chance for Martin to support at this gig when he offered. The other support is The Antipoet, a duo who I do a lot of gigs with. The main singer was a Helen And The Horns fan at the age of 12!
THE LEGACY OF JOHN PEEL IS VAST… WHAT A GREAT THING THAT WE CAN HEAR THE HELEN AND THE HORNS SESSIONS, AFTER ALL THESE YEARS.
Thank you! I felt very proud to manage to survive the crash at the end of The Chefs and to make another band come to life. It was a great fun band to be in, because I think we were good live and we got on very well as a group of people – shouts to our sound engineer Sally, our manager Claudine and our tour manager Rag! People came along to be entertained and to dance – and we did that for them, whether they were pogoing punks in Coventry, formation dancing mods in Liverpool or waltzing graduates at the Cafe Royal in London…
Helen And The Horns‘ new CD, featuring all three sessions recorded for Peel during 1983/84, will be available from Damaged Goods Records, here. Tickets for the launch gig on Sunday 8th December at the Lexington are available here.
Read The Mouth Magazine’s archive interview with John Peel (which took place in January 1988, and in which he briefly discusses Peel sessions) here.