Culture

The story of reluctant indie superstars Helen Love – Wales’ greatest cult band

07 Mar 2021 9 minutes Read
Helen Love. Photo by dr. muerte se come el mundo, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

David Owens

The early spring sunshine is streaming through my bedroom window, casting shards of golden light on to the walls.

The longer hours of sunlight are a melatonin-packed mood enlivener as winter hands in its notice for another year.

In the midst of a global pandemic, it’s a blessed mental relief.

The power of music to raise flagging spirits is thankfully also supplying a medicinal cure of its own – this sunny scene soundtracked by a band who never fail to supply a serotonin hit of their own, giddy guardians of indie pop, Helen Love.

Their stardust-kissed songs are a pure pop vaccine to lockdown monotony, a melodic antidote that is nothing short of a prescriptive joy.

In the annals of Welsh rock ‘n’ roll there’s never been a band quite like Helen Love.

It’s indisputable that if you were to name the greatest cult outfit from these shores then the Swansea group, sonic purveyors of a seismic wall of sound for near 30 years, certainly tick all the boxes.

Look up the word ‘cult’ in the dictionary and one of the definitions you’ll be greeted with reads: ‘liked very much by a particular group of people.’

And those who like Helen Love, absolutely adore them.

It’s hard not to see why. Their multi-coloured, limited edition vinyl singles, the iridescent graphic wizardry of their cover artwork, coupled with their insouciant, irreverent charm and strident adherence to a cut ‘n’ paste ideology is the very essence of DIY indie.

Their supercharged punk pop songs are in thrall to those that have come before, especially The Ramones – late great Joey Ramone is a long-term hero who invited them to play some shows with him in New York during the ‘90s.

It’s a manifesto that hasn’t changed much in near three decades, and their fans love them for it.

Why try and fix something that isn’t broken.

Love, relationships, and fandom form the key tenets of a lyrical mindset that reads like the iconography of pop music’s glittering back pages.

Their indie street cred has also remained resolutely intact thanks to the fact they’ve never courted the charts, despite having fans in broadcasting legends such as John Peel, Mark Radcliffe and Steve Lamacq for whom they recorded radio sessions.

Fronted by the eponymous Helen, the band put out their first single Formula One Racing Girls (reassuringly released in limited edition runs of pink, black and red vinyl) in 1992 on Damaged Good Records.

Buzzzsaw

Since then it’s been 28 years of buzzsaw pop brilliance.

Thankfully the band shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

Last year’s ‘Power On’ album, released in November 2020 was arguably their best yet – a dizzying confection of stratospherically inclined punk pop songs.

Then on Friday came a lovely surprise for Helen Love devotees when the frontwoman announced on her Twitter account that a new collection of rarities would be released that day on Bandcamp.

Suitably titled ‘Songs From Under The Bed’, it’s 12 tracks that have been hidden away in the band’s archives, songs that didn’t make the cut from previous album rerecording sessions.

“The new album is a collection of songs that were recorded during the sessions for the last four albums, but didn’t make the cut for one reason or another,” says Helen. “Probably because i didn’t have the self confidence to include them because they were a bit different.”

Fans can thank the pandemic for this unexpected treat.

“Having all this time on my hands with lockdown I revisited these songs again and was surprised that they sounded good, and so decided on a whim to release them,” adds the singer. “If I had waited to make a vinyl or CD version it would never have happened as I would have changed my mind. I guess that’s one of the good things with the digital world. I uploaded them, crossed my fingers and pressed publish. Maybe I will delete it forever in a month.”

The musician has been comfortable in lockdown, her thoughts  with those who have had it so much tougher.

“I like being inside,” she says. “I have had it easy compared to so many people. I can work from home, I am never going to moan when you consider how hard it must be for everyone working in the NHS, etc. As for the band we don’t play often, it’s not like we had a world tour booked or anything so it was business as usual.

‘Punk rock’

“We released an album last year ‘Power On’, it’s a good one that, very punk rock. I don’t think we have ever had so many good reviews, we must be doing something wrong,” laughs Helen. “Thinking of making a concept album next. Seriously.”

The famously gig shy band will be soon closing in on their 30th anniversary, and Helen already has plans for their special year.

“I have the tag line for our 30th, ‘Helen Love – 30  years writing the same song’. It’s a long time, but it’s hardly like we have worked hard at it. I suppose we have played no more than 30 shows in that time. How do I look back? it’s been a blast. I got to see a bit of the world, made some records, had some rows with people, normal life really.”

Ask her what have been the highs and lows and she quickly replies: “A Peel session, two Radcliffe sessions, a Lamacq session, staying with Joey (Ramone) for a week, playing Primavera, working with lots of cool indie labels, making some lifelong friends, releasing a ton of 7 inch singles loads of stuff

“The lows. None. We never became big enough to fall down, we are not in debt to any label, we never shot up heroin with Kate Moss in a back street pub in Camden. I have never had to watch the Stereophonics. It’s all been good.”

When quizzed on what has sustained her desire to carry on making music all these years, she quips: “Fluoxetine!”

A line from the Helen Love Wiki page reads: ‘The main thematic elements in their oeuvre are Joey Ramone, summer days and bubblegum music’ – I wondered if they were still the core elements of the ideology of the band.

“Yeah probably,” Helen says. “Look I was brought up on Brotherhood Of Man, I was a fan, big time, now they had tunes. I always thought if you stuck buzzsaws guitars on ‘Angelo’ it may well have been the greatest song of all time.

“I love all that bubblegum shit. I can’t bear any pompous serious music. It’s not fucking art, well maybe it is, our sleeves are art.”

The new Helen Love release Songs From Under the Bed

Another constant in Helen’s life has been her unstinting support for Cardiff City, which manifested itself to memorable effect in 1997, with the split single ‘Cardiff City Superstars’, a 7” single shared with West Glam indie poppers Teen Anthems.

Her support for the Bluebirds, which started from an early age, is all the more impressive when you consider hers is a band from Swansea.

“I remember walking to Ninian Park holding my dad’s hand tight,” she recalls. “i remember kids with their scarfs tied to their wrists. I remember walking up the rickety stairs of the Canton Stand and looking out on this huge fucking green pitch, seeing the whitest goalposts and nets.

“You never saw nets on Pontcanna playing fields. I remember the  cigarette smoke and the smelly old men. I remember my dad shouting at the players. I remember us winning 3-1.

‘Lucky mascot’

“My dad told me I was a lucky mascot and so I had to come the next week. I remember standing by the players entrance waiting for John Buchanan’s  autograph. I remember the huge floodlights and how scary those ladders were inside it.

“I remember falling in love with a long haired centre forward, and going home and re-reading the programme over and over again and wondering where St Athan was, as that’s where all the players said they lived.”

Newly installed Cardiff City manager Mick McCarthy has the team playing like contenders again. It’s eleven games unbeaten as the Bluebirds push for the Championship playoffs.

I ask Helen if he’s the new messiah.

“No, he’s (Neil) Warnock part two, only funnier,” she says. “He has us playing well to be fair. I wanted (former Wigan gaffer) Paul Cook. Mind you Mick is the messiah, if you compare him to (previous boss) Neil Harris.

“I am waiting for us to employ the first female manager.

With the revelation this week that the former Ireland boss released a single with Eurovision winner, Irish singer, Linda Martin, could we see Helen teaming up with the City gaffer for a Eurovision banger?

“I gave Mick a call, but he wouldn’t do Eurovision, because I wanted Roy Keane on drums,” she jokes.

Helen Love.

The musical cycle has turned full circle in the world of Helen Love, with her daughter now creating some exceptional sounds under the moniker FemmeBug.

“I was shocked,” says Helen, about her offspring’s musical pursuits. “I had no idea she had a little deal. When she was younger I bought her a Daisy Rock guitar, taught her three chords and told her when she was older to do a science degree, because that’s where the money is.”

When godfather of Welsh music, Adam Walton, played a track from FemmeBug’s new EP ‘Comfortable Place’ on his Saturday evening radio show, mum says she couldn’t have been prouder.

“I was more happy hearing her song on the radio than anything I have ever  done, she has something different. She’s still young and finding her way.”

So what help and advice has Helen imparted to the fruit of her loins?

“I told her don’t get into rows with the Welsh music industry like her mum,” she laughs.

As for what her daughter thinks of mum’s records… “She’s baffled, but in fairness so am I most of the time.”

Buy ‘Songs From Under The Bed’ here: https://helenlove.bandcamp.com/album/helen-love-songs-from-under-the-bed

Discover Femme Bug here: https://femmebug.bandcamp.com/

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