Main photo – Ruth Tidmarsh
EXTRA QUESTIONS FROM OUR RECENT EXCLUSIVE ZINE INTERVIEW
In our last Blogzine – number 2 – there’s a brilliant interview with Helen McCookerybook. She was the singer/bassist in The Chefs, but was also around in the early days of punk, where she lived in a Brighton squat and borrowed a bass guitar from Poison Girls to start her first punk band – Joby and the Hooligans. You can still buy a copy of Blogzine 2 here to read this exclusive interview. Or you can read our earlier blog where we describe Helen McCookerybook’s bands and music here.
But today’s post is different; we wanted to ask Helen specifically about the other part of her life – as an academic, writer and spokeswoman on the subject of punk. These questions follow on from the tales of rock n roll life that are in the zine!
PGD: There are a growing number of ‘punk professors’ and academics writing about the punk era, including the role of girls and women. Do you think that it comes from a desire for historical analysis or nostalgia? Or can that analysis drive future events and changes?
I am one of those people, and it came from anger. When I was 30 I went to do an MA because I kept losing my jobs… there were loads of academic books on punk and subcultures but none on the women in bands. Women were there, but just as fashion images. It took me ten years to be able to do a PhD because I had no money for the fees, although I got accepted at University to do one three times. Finally when I started the lecturing job at the University of Westminster, I got to do it free as part of my job. You can’t put nostalgia into a PhD! An editor from a publisher came to talk to us one day, and he offered me a book contract straight away. There’s an element of historical analysis there, but a lot of prioritising the voices of the women who played in the bands, because that’s as authentic and truthful as I could make it.
The library books in the University library were written by commentators, rather than participants, and a lot of what they wrote was quite simply wrong. In all honesty, punk itself had a lot of cruelty and violence from and towards women as well as men; that’s often forgotten. Alongside gratitude for the opportunities it gave me, I also have lots of very bad and fearful memories and sometimes looking back, I’m surprised that I survived it all. I don’t think the past can drive future changes, but I do think it’s important to write truthful accounts of different gender perspectives. I try to get women musicians to write diaries. In bands, so much happens in such a short space of time that you don’t realise the value of it at the time.
PGD: Do you think that many girls and women are limited by perceptions of what’s possible? Are they just not interested in the more hands-on side of music? What things do you think could overcome this?
This is a difficult question to answer because society is so complex. There is a tradition of boys and young men using rock music to rebel against their parents, especially their mums. It’s not surprising, because men still have more authority in almost all areas of society apart from the home. Of course there are exceptions to this, but who would want to grow up to be the parent that not only works but also does the majority of the housework and childcare? I certainly didn’t, and nor did any of my friends. I think there is still a feeling that women control the home, and men control everything that goes on outside it. There’s a lot of overt and covert aggression from young men when young women try to enter ‘their’ territory, and making music is something that falls foul of this. I do think that more girls and women are entering the music industry as players and producers, and what would help is more girls and women in the audience expecting to see them on stage. It has started to become cool (look at the success of Loud Women, who have just got an Arts Council grant). The next stage after cool is normal, I hope!
PGD: Why did you come back to music making after a break?
25 years break! I became a lecturer on a University music course, again completely accidentally. I had two children under the age of five and kept getting made redundant from community music projects as they closed due to funding problems. It took me two attempts to get the job and I learned as I taught. The young musicians I was working with were so talented, I felt like an impostor and decided never to play again. I used to go out and see their bands to support their music making. One day, Jamie McDermott, who now has a band called the Irrepressibles, invited me to support them, out of the blue. My guitar was under my bed, its case literally covered in dust. I only had three songs I could play on my own (I’d always been in bands before that). I was terrified and shaking but I felt that I had to show that I had the guts to do it. Oddly, just like that first punk gig, I started getting asked to play more gigs and I haven’t stopped since.
PGD: If a band asked you to produce their album, would you? What thoughts would run through your head as you considered it?
If a band asked me to produce their album I would say ‘yes’, definitely. I produce most of my own music, and I have produced other people before. Mainly I’d be wondering about personal dynamics within the band, and how experienced they are in the studio. This is because there are always musical discussions and disagreements in bands, and I’d want those to be resolved as far as possible before recording began. I’d also want to be sure that we were recording absolutely their best songs, and that they had some sort of vision behind their creativity. If a group has a creative vision, it’s really energising, and being in the studio can be the most exciting place in the world.
PGD: What musical instrument do you wish you could play?
Accordion- all those buttons and that huge sound, all from one instrument! It seems so mysterious.
PGD: What has been your lockdown music of choice?
Friends concerts live online, mostly- Sarah Jane Morris, Andy Diagram improvising on the trumpet, Anne Wood who plays violin for The Raincoats covering one of Ana’s songs, some Americana from the USA. I have avoided the big online gigs and gone for the smaller ones. There’s also a lot of writing going on- one person starts a song and emails it to another who writes and sings the
next bit, it gets passed on to a third for a chorus, and so on, so I’ve been participating in that. I’ve listened to the Cardigans a bit, some French pop (I love it!) and even some Black Sabbath for the
energy hit. Not what I normally listen to (Northern Soul and Electro Swing)!
There’s loads of great music, visuals and academic writing about punk to see on Helen’s website and Bandcamp page. A new book is to be published in 2021. We love a multi-tasker and hope to meet Helen McCookerybook again soon!