The obsessions and ingredients that make Helen Love a mad scientist’s (and my) dream of giddy pop perfection may seem utterly random — punk rock, glam rock, bubblegum, disco, Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry, synthesizers, robotic vocal processors, ABBA, the Sweet, the Shangri-La’s, Wings, the Pooh Sticks, Talulah Gosh, “Planet Rock,” the Queers, Primitives, Rezillos, Freshies, Bay City Rollers, New York Dolls, the KLF, Tobor the 8th Man, manga, girl power, Sarah Records, Chickfactor magazine, music television, London, Los Angeles, New York, discotheques — but in the fiendishly capable and knowing hands of the prodigiously productive Welsh band and its namesake singer, they brew up into a delirious, tooth-achingly sweet omnivorous musical confection. Infectious adolescent fervor drives simple hyper-speed tunes, percolating creations that pillage, praise, imagine and depict musical idols, romance, television, radio, clubs, places, seasons and more. While one might get the impression of amphetaminized aliens marveling at what goes on here on Earthly, the records also summon up a vision of names dreamily scrawled in a school notebook, underlined three times and decorated with hearts. If the Ramones depicted Sheena as a punk rocker, Helen Love elevates her to the virtual deity of a plastic punk-pop religion.
The charming six songs of Summer Pop Punk Pop (which became half of Radio Hits) are a lightweight blueprint for the band’s future — peppy guitar-based surf-pop, natural-sounding multi-tracked girlish vocals, some keyboards (at this point more like the Normal than Human League) and added effects (the band is fond of sampling in bits of relevant musical ephemera). There are numerous Ramones citations in the cross-cultural “Rockaway Beach for Me Heartbreak Hotel for You.”
The rest of Radio Hits, a chronological collection of three prior singles, is strictly formative, although it does contain the inspirational and foundational ode “Joey Ramoney”: “He’s seven foot tall, arms down to the floor / In his ripped-up jeans he’s making me scream.”
Helen Love came into its own with We Love You, a better-produced four-track EP dressed in an image of Debbie Harry. The brisk title track (which merits a reprise) is a declaration of diy musical war (“Make a record in your home / You don’t need a studio / Bubblegum, punk pop, disco, don’t stop / Drum machine, Casio / Get it on the radio”), while the insanely catchy “Girl About Town” is a taut tale of the risks therein (“She got signed to a record label / Spent the advance on a pinball table / Sold a hundred records to all her friends / Now she’s back again”) that ends on a sobering note of domestic abuse. But bubblegum, punk-pop, disco — that’s a mighty strong potion.
Those two songs reappear on the band’s second singles compilation, Radio Hits 2, which is chockablock with great tunes: “Bubblegum,” “Rollercoasting” (“I got the MC5, Suicide, Nancy Sinatra and Neil Young live / I got Heavenly, Peggy Lee, Captain Beefheart and the Vaselines”), “Beat Him Up,” “Super Boy, Super Girl.” There’s even a tribute to New Jersey music biz attorney “Matthew Kaplan Superstar” for his work as a college radio dj.
Although one of its four songs is a guitar raver called “Put Your Foot on the Fuzzbox Baby,” synthesizers come to the fore on Does Your Heart Go Boom. The title track is a light-hearted swipe at Euro-disco, while “So in Love With You” has the airy élan of vintage Everything but the Girl. All four songs reappear on Radio Hits 3, an audibly more confident, solid, speedier and diverse collection than the two that preceded it. With vocal effects, club beats, percolating synthesizers and sizzling guitars, highlights include “Long Live the UK Music Scene,” “Great in Formula One,” “Number One Fantastic Day” and “Sunburst Super Kay.”
Some of those tracks were first included on what was technically Helen Love’s first proper album, Love and Glitter, Hot Days,and Music. (The Damaged Goods CD, titled Love and Glitter,Hot Days and Muzik, adds four performances done for a New York radio station.) With some of the production credited to Pooh Sticks genius Steve Gregory, the sound alternates between dance-beat ’80s techno-pop and funky guitar Bazooka, but Helen Love manages to hold it all within the band’s perimeter. In a sense, they’re pulling together seemingly incompatible stylistic terrain in the same way the Jesus and Mary Chain once did. Joey Ramone (!) puts in a guest appearance, duetting with Helen on a remake of her “Punk Boy.” There are spots where repetition supplants innovation, but the whole thing zips along on such a good-natured radiation vibe, sometimes at warp speed, that it never loses the plot.
The cover of The Bubblegum Killers EP previews its lead song: “Debbie Loves Joey,” a brilliant hi-energy bopper about a couple of kids who style themselves as their favorite pop stars: “They met in 1980 at the 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.” Layers of well-sung vocals aerate the packed arrangement, making it the quintessential Helen Love song, coincidentally joined here by “(The Continuing Adventures of) The Girl About Town,” which Love sings a bit like early Debbie Harry before turning the corner into an autotuned cover of “New York Groove.” While “Better Pop Your Bubblegum” is an insanely catchy instrumental with robot voices intoning the title, most that lyric pops up again in the mashed-up overhaul of Sweet’s “Wig Wam Bam” that turns into a saucy, mature come-on. However young Love was when she began her musical adventures, she’s a good decade older now.
Framed by a synthesized compere as an evening out in a custom disco, It’s My Club and I’ll Play What I Want To is great, an appealing danceable techno-pop that sends out shots from many of the band’s pleasure centers: “The 1910 Fruitgum Company,” “Dance On (Solid Gold),” “Rodney’s English Disco,” a fantasia on Wings’ “Jet,” the wacky character of “Queen of the Disco Beat” and a not unwelcome reappearance by “Debbie Loves Joey.”
Day-Glo Dreams!!!, which has — shock! horror! — a black and white cover, is chockablock with descriptive storytelling (“Teenage Soap Opera,” “Our Mum and Dad,” “You and Stacy”) of the sort Squeeze essayed in songs like “Up the Junction.” While the lyrics here display great ambition, the music stays closer to home, hewing to the band’s plainer poppy side: less punk and no disco. Released by a Spanish label, the record balances a delightful Tokyo detour to express solidarity for “J. Pop” by the defiant “Don’t Forget About This Town.”
The four-song limited-edition Pogo Pogo (another simple cover, this one tinted blood red to match the colored vinyl it encloses) reclaims some of It’s My Club‘s rampant energy and dancefloor moves and includes the supremely meta fetish fun of “Julie’s Got a New 7-inch Single.” It goes without saying that when Helen Love sings “Pogo Pogo” the music is not punk; the band’s random style generator is far too clever for such predictability.
Even for a band founded on tribute, Helen Love sets a new standard for stanning on Smash Hits, an all-new collection containing songs of praise for the Modern Lovers, X-Ray Spex and Poly Styrene, the Ramones, Eurodisco star Sheila B. Devotion, a Super Mario video game, the KLF, New York City and even itself: “Yes We’re in a Band That We Love.” In the annals of self-referential rock songs, this is as enthusiastic as it gets.
“Recorded summer 2020 in our attic,” Power On packs a dozen songs into a brisk 30 minutes of punky guitar pep but is a bit underwritten, letting repeated choruses and chanted lines supplant the usual delightful verses. But there are still plenty of witty touches — the Elvis Costello and Ramones interjections in “Debbie Take Control of the Stereo,” a Grease-y song about Olivia Newton-John called (?) “Sandra Dee,” the Plastic Bertrand current running through “On My Own” and it ends on an uplifting note with the spirited “Summer Pop.”
Love shelved the lighthearted cartoony delights and tones down the pep-punk-dance fizz (as well as some of the immediately winning tunefulness) for This Is My World, a reflective, personal album that reveals sizable skill at observing and depicting details of small-town life in Wales in much the same way Ray Davies wrote about the England of his youth. Some of the songs are pleasurable teenaged memories (“Go-Kart,” “A Quite Good Time,” “Billy Liar”), an upbeat sense of life’s possibilities (“Let the Sunshine In,” which, characteristically, weaves in a witty rock reference, this one to the Clash) or wistful nostalgia of “Our House” (“we don’t belong in the new part of town”). Carried along on a brisk, minor-key melody, “The Social Club” is every bit as vivid and affecting as “Come Dancing.”
But in the gloom of “My Seaside Town” (love the horns, used to fine effect throughout the album) and the misleadingly upbeat “First Day of June,” Love takes a more jaundiced, cautionary view (warning a young person “these golden days you’re living now, they might not call for you again”), leading toward the painfully poignant (but perversely peppy, accented with synthetic horns) “Clearing Out Mum’s House,” which wistfully recounts that painful part of mourning without embellishment or poetry; her melancholy is subsumed into the practical efficiency of a mature woman just getting on with what needs to be done. The album-closing title track, a hi-energy synth extravaganza the Pet Shop Boys might be happy to claim, is a memoir of bracing honesty, with such throat-tightening lines as “First time I fell in love it ended all too soon,” “I’ve stood in cemeteries as giant tears fell,” “We fought the government and somehow survived” and “I’ve stood on bridges thinking maybe I’ll jump off.” Love’s downcast outlook, though surprising, makes for a truly memorable missive from an evolving talent.