Helen Love interview: bubblegum punk's not dead, pass it on

Helen Love
(Image credit: Alison Wonderland)

Since forming in 1992, Helen Love have built an enthusiastic cult following over the course of ten albums and countless singles. Blending bubblegum pop-punk with sheer Ramones-devoted exuberance the three-piece have seen their Peel-favoured songs covered by Ash and The Queers, while vocalist/guitarist Helen even got to sing with Joey Ramone himself.

Alt

Where did you grow up and how did your environment and family background shape the person that you became?

“I’ve been in Swansea since I was 10. I grew up in the suburbs, a long way from the sea, although I would get on my bike and ride down to the seafront most days in the summer holidays. Everything was normal, mundane, simple, but that’s good. It was safe and I guess quite comfortable. 

"Sunday school, Brownies, the social club, Coronation Street, going to the football with my dad. Skateboarding. I knew even at that young age that Swansea was a backwater, ‘the graveyard of ambition’ Dylan Thomas called it. That is why pop music became my great escape. In my head I was in ABBA, flying on jets, being adored, like every other kid, I guess.”

The internet tells me that the first record you bought was Beach Baby by First Class. It’s got a very Helen Love vibe, that record: exuberant, nostalgic and it’s not a million miles away from Rockaway Beach.

“Yes, well it’s a fantastic record, riding along the seafront, singing it along with the Summertime Special (BBC1 Saturday night TV show) theme tune.Those two songs have probably influenced me more than any other, I guess you can’t beat a great chorus. If you stuck Johnny Ramone on those two songs they would fit perfectly on the first Ramones record. 

"I loved all that catchy throwaway stuff, the first few years in comprehensive school I was listening to The Brotherhood Of Man, Showaddywaddy and Abba whilst everyone else was into Genesis and Pink Floyd. My first exposure to punk, although of course it wasn’t  punk, was a band called Tonight who had a song called The Drummerman. My head exploded after hearing that. From that moment all roads led to the Ramones and from then on anything and everything felt possible.”  

The Helen Love persona, and I guess by that I mean the part of Helen Love that generates the lyrics to your songs, appears to be a glam child that never quite recovered from a technicolour punk rock adolescence, but it’s not sour-faced Pistols/Clash punk rock, it’s bright, sunny, teenage, Photo-love pop punk. Was this your experience? Are we to understand that the central protagonist in your songs is you? Ultimately, are they autobiographical snapshots of the person you were or biographical fantasies of the person you wanted to be?

“Well, when I discovered punk it was like someone flicked a switch in my brain. I didn’t see The Pistols, I wasn’t gobbed on, I didn’t get hurt, I wasn’t living with Viv Albertine in a squat in Bayswater (sadly), so the music was all lovely, catchy, fast, exhilarating, fizzing and popping with huge explosions of neon colour. I thought all the bands would be lovely people living in a lovely world, even The Clash!

"So it’s what you said exactly, I was living in a technicolour punk-pop world, led by Smash Hits magazine.  I remember listening the whole of one summer to The Boomtown Rats’ Tonic For The Troops, I was obsessed with it, but hey, again there’s great tunes on that. I wasn’t hip enough to know what was cool, I just loved all that stuff, The Leyton Buzzards’ Saturday Night Beneath The Plastic Palm Trees was another obsession. I must have played that single two hundred times while miming in the mirror.

"There was a little record shop in Gorseinon called Sullivans, it was a chart return shop and it sold loads of singles they got for free for 25p, that’s where I discovered so many bands. Of course, the minute I found the NME I soon became aware that I was not to listen to The Rats, or Plastic Bertrand, I had to grow up, shape up and listen to Joy Division.

"In a way, NME, although introducing me to so many new bands, really sucked the joy of music out of me for a long time. In truth the songs were part me, part of the person I wanted to be, and creating a world I would like to live in… forever.”

What specifically attracted you to Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry and Poly Styrene?

Smash Hits. Oh my God, Debbie and X-Ray Spex on the front covers, who wouldn’t want to be them? So exciting, Germ Free Adolescents, that album will forever be a classic. Of course now I look back I see the struggles Poly went through, the barriers she smashed down and I am even more in awe. Top Of the Pops, and she is there in her red army jacket, leading from the front, extraordinary. 

"I remember the day I went to HMV in Swansea and bought the Ramones double album It’s Alive. I only bought it because for a double album it was cheap, a fiver I think and I thought I would take a chance on it, I was aware of the name but hadn’t heard any of their stuff. I could have got it cheaper in Virgin mind, but I was too afraid to go into the shop. It was dark, smelt funny and had odd-looking people in it. 

"Anyway, I got home, stuck it on the music centre and I was transfixed, song after song after song, 1234, 100 mph, catchy as fuck, perfect. How could you not love Joey Ramone? A cartoon superhero on speed, and such a great voice, better than Elvis.”  

Was Joey everything you expected? What’s your abiding memory of the time you spent in each other’s company?

“Oh Joey, first time I spoke to him was through Veronica Kofman (who ran the fan club and later wrote the brilliant Dee Dee Ramone book), she sent him Joey Ramoney, our second single, and he loved it. One evening out of the blue the phone rings and it’s Joey Fucking Ramone. He sounded shy and nervous, but then so was I so it was a weird call. We ended up going over to play a show he was putting on, it was our first gig, we only made records for a laugh really, we didn’t know how to play live, we still don’t. 

"Anyway, we had nowhere to stay so he said we could stay with him, just off St Mark’s Place. We arrived on a Sunday, and for the first two days we didn’t see him, he was too nervous to come out of his room to say hello. After that he was brilliant, very shy as were we, so I can’t say we had long chats, but just wandering around the village with him on hot sunny days was brilliant, everyone calling out to him, ‘Hey Joey!!’ he would lurch forward and smile. 

"Joey got us completely because he loved pop music, and really knew his stuff, he was so switched on to what was happening. I really think if he had lived he would have made some really amazing records, he was so open to new music. We met his mum too as she came to the show and his brother, and yes, in answer to your question he was everything I expected, a genuinely kind, lovely person. I was so happy I got to sing a little bit on his solo album, he insisted… God Bless him.”

On the face of it your music’s always been starkly honest, fandom at its most unreconstructed and innocent, there appears to be no side to it. Then there’s John Peel calling you, with no little affection: “sarcastic bastards”. 

Was a healthy dose of cynicism always present in your work, and did Long Live The UK Music Scene alienate the media and industry at a point in time when you could have elevated your career to the next level if you’d played their game a bit more? 

Looking back, was it an act of self-sabotage, did you dread the idea of stardom, touring, becoming somebody else’s commodity?

“There was always that sarcastic side, but hey, if you can’t sing or play guitar very well you may as well take the piss a bit. Although it was never nasty, apart from Evans of course. I spent many hours when I was younger watching all those Play For Todays on TV, so I always really loved a kitchen sink drama, the way they can make you laugh and cry at the same moment, that Alan Bennett trick, I always wanted to have some songs that could do that. 

"Oh yes, I sabotaged our so-called career with that song, but if anything looks like it's about to go right for us I usually say something or do something to fuck it up. Of course we were never going to get a deal like the other 90s bands, but that was fine. I would hate to tour for weeks at a time or have plans drawn up months in advance. 

"How those bands played all that NME, Melody Maker, Select circus I will never know… They must have had some great coke. When we played a show in London we would drive up in the morning and then drive straight back home to Swansea afterwards, never went to The Good Mixer [London pub infamous for being the Britpop hangout] for a pint with Damon, it was all bullshit.”

This Is My World represents a significant change in direction, it’s a very grown-up record, and touches nerves in the constituency of fans that have grown up with you, I’m sure. I’m guessing that This Is My World is a lockdown album. And what better time for DIY bedroom pop? An absolutely watertight excuse for not going out?

“Yes, I was lucky, I don’t like going out much, and the little studio is upstairs in my house, so I could spend days on end up there. We made our last album Power On in the first lockdown and this one in the second lockdown. I felt a bit sad when everything returned to normal, it meant I had to go outside and talk to people.”

I’m used to Helen Love songs coming with a certain amount of emotional weight attached. Debbie Loves Joey cannot help but lift any heart when it goes into its hook, because we’ve all been there, that all-encompassing first love where you imagineer the brightest of futures. It’s an unexpected tear-jerker. But Clearing Out Mum’s House is just incredibly powerful in its simple familiarity, especially to those of us who grew up fantasising ourselves into CBGB with Joey and Debbie, because like it or not, that’s where we are in our lives. True story?

“Yes exactly, I am old, my daughter has started her first band, and left home, my mum and dad died, stuff like that. In some ways it’s a  letter to my daughter ‘don’t make the same mistakes I made, get out of town, take your chances’, it’s about growing old, losing loved ones, carrying on, boring shit like that. I didn’t set out to make this record like that, the songs just happened. When it was finished I sent it to Jack at our label, I said ‘Look, this is a pile of self-indulgent shit, let’s not bother’, but he talked me round in the end.”

Of course, it’s all very well you announcing that “It’s not all Bubblegum punk rock disco around my house any more, but in truth, of course, it never was…”. I mean, fair enough, but this is a bit of an illusion-shatterer, a bit like finding out that Joey Ramone wasn’t actually tall after all.

“I know, I know, I was thinking should I really say that, but what I meant was, I don’t get up in the morning shouting ‘Hey Ho Let’s Go’ to the dog, it’s not all disco dancing round my place, I have had bouts of pretty bad depression, just because loads of my songs are happy doesn’t mean I am. There has always been a part of me that  wants to be Anne Briggs or Sandy Denny. My God, if I could sing or play properly that’s what I would do, play folk clubs and live in a big jumper.”

When I was a teenage punk rocker I seem to recall that a large part of my day was spent laughing at Teddy boys: living in the past, dressing their kids like miniature versions of themselves, clinging onto pop music that was 20 years out of date. Yet no scene has ever celebrated its past with such tireless vigour as punk. 1976 is 45 years ago… Why can’t we let it go? What’s wrong with us? 

“Oh God, are we a bunch of saddos? Sitting in a corner of a pub talking about Sniffing Glue fanzine and Slaughter And The Dogs singles? I don’t know, if I had been 14 when The Beatles hit, then that would have been my era, all golden and exciting. Punk blew the roof off everything, you didn’t have to be fucking Eric Clapton to play a guitar, or Bob Dylan to write a song, and its influence is everywhere still today. It changed so many peoples’ lives, gave all us losers a chance, a shot at Top Of The Pops. Then again maybe it’s because we are old and sad that all the kids are laughing at us. Which, of course, is how it should be.”

As an album title This Is My World is a very strong, definite statement, but who are you telling? Us or yourself? After all, a bubblegum punk rock New York future where nothing ever goes wrong and the Ramones are perpetually chewing out their rhythm on St Mark’s Place is a marvellous Billy Liar fantasy, but is Helen Love finally telling us that the Helen Love content to spend time at The Social Club in her Seaside Town is not only who you actually are, but who you’d ultimately rather be? 

“It’s saying ‘this is where I am right now’: a bit maudlin, struggling like everyone else, worried about the future, looking back wondering where it all went right and where it all went wrong, telling my daughter not to fuck up like I did. If it’s the last record we make (hopefully it won’t be), I think it rounds things up nicely, brings it all to an end. James McMahon wrote that This Is My World (the single off the album) is ‘Helen Love's My Way’, I like that.”

This Is My World is released on January 28th via Alcopop! (opens in new tab) Helen Love's Christmas speech can be watched on Facebook from 3pm UK time today.  

Classic Rock’s Reviews Editor for the last 19 years, Ian stapled his first fanzine in 1977. Since misspending his youth by way of ‘research’ his work has also appeared in such publications as Metal Hammer, Prog, NME, Uncut, Kerrang!, VOX, The Face, The Guardian, Total Guitar, Guitarist, Electronic Sound, Record Collector and across the internet. Permanently buried under mountains of recorded media, ears ringing from a lifetime of gigs, he enjoys nothing more than recreationally throttling a guitar and following a baptism of punk fire has played in bands for 45 years, releasing recordings via Esoteric Antenna and Cleopatra Records.