The Chefs

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See The X Factor: Battle of the Stars for the group of celebrity chefs dubbed "The Chefs" who performed on that show

The Chefs were an indie/pop band, which formed in Brighton in 1979, relocating to London in 1981, and finally splitting up in 1982. The band consisted of Helen McCookerybook (bass guitar and vocals), Carl Evans (guitar and vocals), James McCallum (Helen's brother; guitar) and Russell Greenwood (drums; died June 25, 1999).

The Chefs playing on the back of a truck during a CND march through South London, April 1981 (photograph by Peter Chrisp)

Punk Beginnings[edit]

In 1976 Helen McCallum moved from Wylam near Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Brighton to study Fine Art Printmaking at the Polytechnic. In 1977 she began to play bass in the punk band, Joby and the Hooligans. The following year, Carl Evans, a 17-year old guitarist from Haywards Heath, joined the band, who changed their name to the Smartees. In the Smartees, Helen wrote and sang ‘Thrush’, a song about the sexually transmitted disease (‘Darling you diseased me, I thought you did not care/ You never tried to please me when I was lying there’). Her second song, written with singer Tracy Preston, was ‘Let’s Make Up’, about cosmetics (‘You line your lips with darker shade/ Blot with tissue then you’re made’)

Forming the Chefs[edit]

Chefs t-shirt and other ephemera, designed by Helen McCookerybook (from the collection of Peter Chrisp)

After the Smartees split in late 1978, Helen and Carl began to write songs together. Helen had done an illustration of a dancing chef, called Ken Wood, with an accompanying rhyme, ‘Food’. This was a list of favourite foods, with the refrain ‘Food we eat to keep us going/ Food we eat to make us strong/ In our bellies we are stowing/ Eating eating all day long.’ Carl set this to music, giving them their first song, and a name for the band, the Chefs.

Carl and Helen went on to write ‘Boasting’, another list song, in which they sang alternate verses describing their favourite possessions: Helen’s pet goldfish and canvass shoes, and Carl's blue mini car, pair of pointed crepes and 10-inch Whirwind record. A third song was made up of the simple lyric, ‘We’re the Chefs, how do you do? We have come to play for you.’ All three songs were under two minutes long and Helen later recalled, ‘Our first gig lasted about five minutes, with between song chat.’.[1]

Russ Greenwood, drummer of the Chefs, April 1981 (photograph by Peter Chrisp)

In 1979, the Chefs, with ‘Muttley’ on drums, contributed two songs, 'Food', and Carl's 'You Get Everywhere', to Vaultage 79, a compilation produced by Brighton’s independent record label, Attrix. The local newspaper, the Evening Argus, organised a photo shoot with all the Attrix bands standing outside the record label’s shop in Sydney St. When the photographer asked Helen her name, she told him, on the spur of the moment, that it was ‘McCookerybook’. The name stuck.[2]

James McCallum, Chefs guitarist, sets off from his house, which was appropriately yellow, for a band rehearsal in Brighton, May 1980. (photograph by Peter Chrisp)

Soon after, Helen’s brother, James, joined on second guitar. He had recently finished a degree in philosophy at Sussex University, and had played guitar in the short lived punk band, Smeggy and the Cheesybits (Smeggy would go on to be lead singer in King Kurt). The line-up was completed in early 1980 with the arrival of Russ Greenwood, who had been drummer in the Parrots. Russ, a powerful dynamic drummer, brought a new tightness and professionalism to the band.

In 1980, Attrix paid for a Chefs E.P., which was recorded at Graphic Studios in London. It included 'Thrush', 'Boasting', 'Records and Tea' ('Records and tea are all life means to me') and Carl's love song 'Sweetie' ('I have to brush my teeth, 'cos you're so sweet'), a live favourite. The E.P. came in a yellow sleeve, designed by Helen. Yellow, the Chef’s favourite colour, was used for posters, t-shirts, stickers and badges. John Peel loved the E.P., and played it repeatedly on his late night Radio 1 show.

1981 poster, by Helen McCookerybook, advertising "24 Hours" (photograph by Peter Chrisp)

The Chefs in London[edit]

To break into the music business, in 1981, the band all moved to Kilburn in North West London. In April and May 1981, they performed a Monday-night residency at the Moonlight Club at the Railway pub in West Hampstead.

In April 1981, Attrix released a Chefs’ single, Helen’s ‘24 Hours’. It was a song about romantic obsession, and the gulf between real life and fantasy: ‘I know if I catch you it might turn out/That it's not as much fun as I'd hoped that it would be/ ‘Cause wishing and waiting it what it's all about/ And dreams are worth ten times more than reality.’ Helen described '24 Hours' as an 'attempt to write an song that sounded like Donna Summer', and said that it was a true story: 'I fell in love with a fat scaffolder'.[3]On the other side, there was Carl's song 'Someone I know' (‘Someone I know once met somebody’s friend who had slept with a friend of a friend who knows someone who stood next to somebody’s friend.’)

The Chefs’ first John Peel session, broadcast on 11 May 1981, included Carl’s ‘Love is Such a Splendid Thing’ and Helen’s ‘Northbound Train’. Like '24 Hours', these new songs showed a movement away from the nursery rhyme lyrics of the early recordings to more sophisticated songs about relationships. There was also 'One Fine Day', with music by Carl and lyrics by James McCallum, posing a list of comically absurd questions ('What if one morning you woke up and found your eyes either side of your nose? What if the sky was on top of the ground and nothing that stayed ever goes?')

It was hard to label the Chefs' music. Helen told Sounds, 'People keep asking us what sort of music we play but we can't tell them. It's not directly influenced by anything - we all like listening to different sorts of music, and each of us, in our heads I think, believes we're playing that sort of music.'[4] The Chefs' jangling guitar arrangements and bright pop melodies pointed the way towards the C86 sound, but stood out in the fashion-conscious London of 1981, when the Goths and New Romantics were at their height.

Graduate[edit]

The West Midlands label, Graduate, best known for UB40, loved ‘24 Hours’, and signed the Chefs to their label, rereleasing the single. There were plans to record an album, but these never progressed beyond the demo stage. Interviewed in 2013, Helen recalled, 'There is a version of it but it’s very drum-heavy as the drummer got into tribal drums after hearing Adam and the Ants. I did love Adam and the Ants’ sound but I didn’t want to BE them. I think that might be why The Chefs split up; I’d always thought we thrived on being original but the others seemed to want to fit into pop fashion.'[5] The Chefs also resisted Graduate’s attempts to mould them. In 2012, Helen told Everett True, ‘They tried to get me to wear make-up and girly clothes, but I was a total tomboy and would have felt like a drag queen.’[6]

Skat[edit]

Carl Evans in Kilburn, August 1982, soon after the Chefs split up. Photograph by Peter Chrisp

In early 1982, the band changed their name to Skat, a name which nobody liked. Helen told Everett True, ‘Not my idea to change the name. Even my Dad said it was silly commercial suicide.[6] As Skat, the band played a final John Peel session, broadcast on 10 March 1982. These last recordings were darker in tone. Helen's 'Sad Boy Style' was a song about deception in a love triangle ('She said yes and I said no/We pass you between us/I could have and she could show/ Noone's ever seen us'). 'Love, It is Just a Word', the last song that Helen and Carl wrote together, was about the end of a relationship, and disillusion with love: 'Three months go today/ They both ran out of new things to say/ Three months ago today/ Was it really worth the trouble anyway?'. Skat also released a single, a beautiful cover version of another dark song, Femme Fatale by The Velvet Underground.

Russ was the first to leave the band, in 1982, eventually joining John Hegley as a poptician. With Bron Buick as drummer, Skat ‘limped through a final few more gigs before calling it a day.’[1]Carl went on to form the ‘cowpunk’ band, Yip Yip Coyote, writing pop songs influenced by club beats and spaghetti western music. Like Carl, Helen also wore western clothes, but her new band, Helen and the Horns, was closer to jazz and country music. James left the music business to retrain as a lawyer.

Although denied commercial success, the Chefs had a lasting impact on those who heard them. Martin Stephenson of the Daintees has said, ‘We were very influenced by The Chefs…To me (Helen) is a national treasure.’[7]

In 2012, Damaged Goods released 'Records and Tea', a compilation of the band's Attrix recordings and Richard Skinner and John Peel sessions. Reviewing the collection for the eMusic website, Andrew Gibson concluded, 'The Chefs’ lively mixture of fun and social acuity might easily leave them forever chained to their age, were it not for the sheer quality of their tunes....Like the Smiths and countless ensuing indie-pop heroes...The Chefs turned forlorn emotions and humdrum surroundings into triumphant music.'[8]

Discography[edit]

An audio sample of the guitar solo from "Sweetie" (1980)

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  • Vaultage ’79 compilation (Another Two Sides Of Brighton): You Get Everywhere / Food, 12" LP, (Attrix RB08, 1979)
  • 'Sweetie / Thrush / Records and Tea / Boasting, 7" EP, (Attrix Records RB10, 1980)
  • 24 Hours / Let's make up / Someone I know, 7" Single, (Attrix Records RB13, 1981)
  • 24 Hours / Thrush, 7" single, (Graduate Records GRAD11, 1980)
  • WNW6 – Moonlight Radio / Locked Out, 12" LP, (Armageddon Records MOON1, 1981)
  • Fear And Fantasy / I’ll Go Too, 12" LP, (Armageddon Records MOON2 , 1982)
  • Femme Fatale / One Fine Day, 7" single, (as "Skat") (Graduate Records GRAD14, 1982)
  • Vaultage Punk Collection: Sweetie / Thrush / 24 Hours / Let’s Make Up, CD, (Anagram CDPUNK101, 1997)
  • Helen McCookerybook: 24 Hours / Femme Fatale (Graduate recording), CD, [Near Shore Records, 2005)

External links[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Helen McCallum ‘Beautiful Losers,’ Nude Magazine, Spring 2007.
  2. ^ Sue Bishop ‘A Punk's Progress,’ The Brighton Argus, 24 July 2000.
  3. ^ Liner notes to 'Helen and the Horns Etc', Near Shore Records, 2005.
  4. ^ Robbi Millar, 'Oven Ready', Sounds, 15 August 1981.
  5. ^ Paul Scott-Bates, Interview with Helen McCookerybook, Louder than War, 11 July 2013.
  6. ^ a b Helen McCallum, interviewed by Everett True on the liner notes to Records and Tea, Damaged Goods Records, 2012.
  7. ^ Martin Stephenson, interview on Clash Daddy website, 2012.
  8. ^ Andrew Gibson, review of 'Records and Tea' at www.emusic.com.