The post-punk era has been excavated extensively these past few years, mostly for its arty, experimentalist leading edge. Yet, if you tuned into John Peel’s all-influencing show on BBC radio back in the day, you were just as likely to hear quirky, laugh-out-loud early-indie bubblegum-pop from combos like Girls At Our Best! or the Chefs, as some abstractly mesmerizing punk-funk-disco groove.
The Chefs, a three-boys/one-girl group from Brighton, may have faded from explicit influence pretty much as soon as they split up circa 1981-82. Yet, as can be deduced from this collection of pretty much everything they ever recorded (three indie-label singles; three radio sessions), they were in the very thick of that pioneering indie-pop sound at the turn of the ’80s, which would soon coalesce in the Smiths, and later evolve through markedly Chefs-y mutations such as C86 (bands like the Flatmates and the Shop Assistants even aped their amusingly mundane style of band name) and Saint Etienne.
The Chefs were out to extrapolate entertaining things from punk’s poppier pantheon: Their template was a rickety collision of the Ramones and Slits, with strong echoes of ’60s bubblegum and DIY three-chord simplicity. In singers Helen McCookerybook and Carl Evans, they had a pair of humorists not afraid to take the Buzzcocks’ romantic bathos a step further: Evans’s “Sweetie” is hilariously, intentionally twee, an irresistible antidote to the macho, brawly violence of latter-day punkers like Sham 69 and Cockney Rejects — and check the tingling Afro-highlife guitar line on the BBC session version.
McCookerybook’s “24 Hours,” set to a jangly railroad rhythm, is a stone classic, its sweetly-harmonized tale of amorous obsession subtly morphing into a realization that the anticipation of love is more exciting than the thing itself. Elsewhere, Evans fantasizes about losing his virginity to a girl who works on a supermarket check-out (“Someone I Know”), while McCookerybook again deflates the glory of sexual conquest, as thereafter she winds up jilted, with an unpleasant dose of STD (“Thrush”).
After disbanding, the members variously went on to form Yip Yip Coyote, John Hegley’s The Popticians and Helen & The Horns. 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. The heights to which they aspired in that department are best intimated via their final single, a gorgeous cover of the Velvet Underground’s immortal “Femme Fatale,” which duly chimes with their own air of romantic defeat. Like the Smiths and countless ensuing indie-pop heroes, however, The Chefs turned forlorn emotions and humdrum surroundings into triumphant music.