Sunday, December 14, 2008

Helen Love – ‘It’s My Club And I’ll Play What I Want To’

I always meant to write about Helen Love. Three years ago when the ‘Bubblegum Killers’ EP announced their return to total and unquestionable brilliance, I was busy belatedly discovering Heavenly (prompted partly by a reference in Helen Love’s ‘Rollercoasting’, partly by Everett True playing ‘Hearts and Crosses’ on the Plan B radio show), and planned a Tangents piece called ‘Heavenly vs. Helen Love’, which never happened because how was it ever going to live up to that title? Heavenly hit me just as hard as ‘Hearts and Crosses’ promised, and I had the luxury of discovering their whole catalogue over the course of a single year, falling in love over and over again. I was struck, though, at how similar the songs sounded to Helen Love’s. Not the lyrics, or the instrumentation, or even particularly the voice, but the tunes and the tempo. And, to be honest, I thought I was over them: after reaching a massive peak with ‘Does Your Heart Go Boom’ in 1997, their sound got bigger and their words less smart, and their ‘debut’ album Love and Glitter, Hot Days and Music (after the Radio Hits 1 & 2 collections) was a big let down. Now, to add insult to injury, it turned out they’d nicked their old sound from Heavenly! It was all too much. I am probably the only person in the world to have been outraged by Helen Love’s plagiarism, but it wasn’t the Ramones steals which bothered me.

There was a gap – a five year gap – during which the band must have picked up on these bad vibes from a once fervent fan (perhaps from several), and reconsidered their position. ‘Well, for one thing,’ they probably thought, ‘Heavenly didn’t have a monopoly on singing fast in a polite voice, you’re way off there’. ‘OK, but – the big pumping disco sound? The curtailed lyrics?’ ‘We’ll see what we can do.’ And as if by magic, in 2005 we got the old band back:

She met him 1980 in a school disco / He kissed her for the first time on the last bus home / He said ‘You be Debbie Harry, I’ll be Joey Ramone’ (from ‘Debbie Loves Joey’)

Not ‘She met him in 1980’ – that wouldn’t fit. ‘She met him 1980’. The words were falling over each other again, the excitement was back. Forget everything bad I said, they were just mourning Joey those lost years. Two other totally fab singles followed. I mean really impossibly fab. ‘Long Hot Summer’ is such a great idea for a single that it contains two totally different songs called ‘Long Hot Summer’. The first one starts like this:

Count ’em Dee Dee! / One two three four / Hey ho let’s go! / Hey ho let’s go! / I got ‘Here Comes the Summer’ by the Undertones / I got ‘Rockaway Beach’ by the Ramones / ’Cause it’s a heatwave baby and you know it’s true / I pop my bubblegum just for you

That takes us to 25 seconds. I think they are probably my favourite 25 seconds, on balance. Not of that song, just in general. ‘Junkshop Discotheque’ was what Love and Glitter should have sounded like, a free-er, lighter disco (with a lovely flute part to emphasise the fact), ideology intact: ‘I love this junk shop punk rock glam rock discotheque’.

Then there was a bit more silence, and this autumn I found that there had been an album out since February. Oh well, better late than never. ‘Debbie Loves Joey’ and ‘Junkshop Discotheque’ were present and correct, but they obviously felt that nothing but a single could contain ‘Long Hot Summer’. Quite right too. Putting together my Monorail list the other day, I knew that It’s My Club And I’ll Play What I Want To had to be pretty high up there. It’s more than a throwback to past glories, much in the same way that Helen Love are more than a Ramones tribute band. They are about excitement and happiness and fandom and friendship, and their pop thrill is easily the match of the pop thrills they collage together to make their songs*. This album sees their references broaden out a bit (Wings’ ‘Jet’, the 1910 Fruitgum Company, Debbie Harry – nothing past the 1970s), and the sound has changed too. I said we got the old band back, but actually the music is now far more subtle and layered than it was in the ’90s. This record could not have been made on a Casiotone, or at least not just on a Casiotone. Sometimes the drums even sound real, and the fuzzbox gritty. There’s a line in ‘Garageband’: ‘We got a Super Kay guitarist and a girl Hammond organist / Listen to her play all day’ – a Hammond organ isn’t something they’d have used in the old days. Not that this is some exercise in real rock (obviously), but there is a fullness to the sound that it never had before.

The record opens with what has to be the best leading question of all time: ‘Sugar candy candy how do you feel / With shooting stars and laser beams?’ Even if you feel rubbish to begin with, you’ll feel great by the time the question has finished. Definitely by the end of the song (‘It’s My Club...’ itself), which has about a million hooks, and is pretty much the equal of ‘Long Hot Summer’. The rest of the album is not short on them either. ‘Jet’ has another slew. ‘Rodney’s English Disco’ too. ‘Queen of the Disco Beat’ is insanely catchy, and vaguely reminiscent of the Rainbow theme tune. ‘Jet’ starts with some sampled dialogue, oddly reminiscent of Saint Etienne’s So Tough: ‘In the chocolate box of life the top layer’s already gone, and someone’s pinched the orange cream from the bottom – bloody hell’. Odd because of that line in ‘Shifty Disco Girl’ – ‘she’ll dance to anything but Saint Etienne’ (but then she is shifty, I suppose). ‘A New Squad Attacking Formation’ sounds like the second Go! Team album should have done, a clamour of cheerleading. In context, ‘Staying In’ sounds strangely contemporary – ‘I got broadband connection super fast / I can download songs and photographs’ (broadband? In the ’70s?), and provides the closest the album brings to a change of pace. It’s as fast as all the other songs, but Helen speaks portions of it, so it has a more relaxed feel. And, and, and. It’s all great. Don’t get me started on the artwork, we’ll be here for another 1,000 words. Helen Love were always a band about how brilliant it is to adore pop music, and I can’t tell you how brilliant it is to adore theirs once more.

*Apart, as previously noted, from ‘Baby, I Love You’. Nothing is the equal of that.

5 comments:

Anne said...

I didn't even know they had a new album out until I read your list. I was a big fan at the time of "Long Live The UK Music Scene" and such (I lived in the UK then which made it easier, because no-one has heard of them in France). Will definitely try to listen to the new album.

Chris said...

I only found out by accident - it's not even listed on the discography page of their website. It still seems a little surreal that Helen Love, of all bands, should turn out to have longevity. Great, though.

jamie said...

Hello!
The HL website is always out of date, that's my fault.
It's a great album, and I think in hindsight I know what you mean about Love and Glitter, I think this one has the whole Studio 54 vs CBGBs thing going on.
There's a new sinlge in January - 26th, CALM DOWN DAD it''s called. Vote for it to get on the ^Music playlist if you can - details on helenlove.com

Thanks for the kind words about the artwork.


Jamie x

Chris said...

Ooh, you get to vote for it over Crystal Stilts - even better!

It did take me a while to notice that the 'News' section is the place to look for news on the site. A bit dim, but a lovely surprise when I realised what I'd missed.

The artwork - what can I say? I still remember the moment I saw the LP of 'Radio Hits 1' in a rack in the basement of a record shop in Birmingham (Tempest, it was), and was pretty much struck dumb. It was partly being made aware that there was a song in the world called 'Love; Kiss; Run; Sing; Shout; Jump!' (a pivotal moment in anyone's life), but also the colour, the clamour... everything.

'It's My Club' looks wonderful too, the booklet is a total extravaganza.

jamie said...

I loved the artwork for all the singles and the Radio Hits LP's, and it truely was an honour to take over from Helen doing the cutting and pasting.

I'm so proud of the It's my Club booklet. It took me ages. Thank you!

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