Records & Tea
, July 5th, 2012 10:36
On sunny days, tourists pour out of Brighton station in a continuous flow, guided straight ahead by the shimmering sea in the distance. Halfway down the hill, while you're waiting for the signal to cross North Road, take a glance at the brick and concrete slab of the Brighthelm Centre opposite. In the 1970s, the catacombs below this site were the crucible for Brighton's punk explosion, and few of its bands burned with as much sunshine brilliance as The Chefs.
Prior to the Brighthelm's construction, the land held a former church, home to the Brighton & Hove Resources Centre (founded in part by Poison Girls' Vi Subversa). While the Centre served as a meeting place for political groups, the crypt cellars below were turned into an unglamorous gig venue (The Vault) and rehearsal space for Brighton's close knit punk scene. The Chefs emerged from this milieu, formed around the bright pop instincts of songwriters Helen McCookerybook and Carl Evans. Records & Tea compiles their brief run of singles for the first time, retrospectively uncovering another route from the punk era into the subsequent indiepop scene.
The album opens with two trebly 1979 recordings that defined The Chefs' colourful melodies and humour from the off. 'Food' is a one minute nursery rhyme, McCookerybook's ode to eating set to elementary guitar and tightly stretched drums. Evans' 'You Get Everywhere' is a weary message to an unwanted suitor, full of daft couplets ("I wish I was a kangaroo...") and McCookerybook's dry harmonies.
Both songs appeared on Vaultage 79, the second of three Brighton scene compilations issued by the town's only notable label of the era, Attrix Records. After Attrix's first big act The Piranhas decamped amicably to a major, the label threw its weight behind The Chefs, releasing two glorious pop 7"s. The first, a four song EP, continues in the vein of the Vaultage songs, all bouncing singalong harmonies, rattling guitars and McCookerybook's fluid, rolling basslines. Evans' lead track 'Sweetie' pre-empts the more twee elements of the C86 period (even though the band were moving quickly away from such juvenilia), but McCookerybook's cheerily defiant STD tale 'Thrush' ("Little did I know that / soon I would have a sore twat") is perhaps the definitive Chefs song. While turn of the decade Brighton had several important, and unsung, feminist bands (including Devil's Dykes, The Objeks and Bright Girls), The Chefs' great achievement lay in mixing their politics with the humour that epitomised the town's more popular groups (The Piranhas, Peter And The Test Tube Babies et al).
The Chefs' final single for Attrix, '24 Hours', is a more complex production, propelled by McCookerybook's direct, disco-aping bassline. The multi-layered harmonies and ringing guitars cover a more subtle tune than before, and, although it now feels less immediate than its predecessor, it was enough to prick the ears of Graduate Records, flush with UB40's success, who signed the band and reissued the single.
Bafflingly, The Chefs changed their name to the rather awful Skat, and, after a solitary 7" (a version of 'Femme Fatale'), fell apart. Records & Tea omits these Graduate recordings (an album was demoed), but fills out with three Radio 1 sessions and a couple of early, unreleased Chefs tracks. 'You're So Nice' and 'Toby' are to-die-for indiepop essentials, if you're the sort of person who can handle ludicrously chirpy songs about teenage love and budgerigars.
Both McCookerybook and Evans went on to form bands ripe for rediscovery, the former with Helen And The Horns, the latter in Yip Yip Coyote. McCookerybook still records and performs, often with Martin Stephenson, and, as Helen Reddington, recently published her study 'The Lost Women Of Rock Music: Female Musicians Of The Punk Era'. 35 years beyond punk, and counting, this book, and the release of Records & Tea, proves there are still many forgotten stories worth hearing.