The Girl from Gotham City: Jackie Chambers on growing up in Leeds
With her shock of blonde hair, studded leather outfits, huge smile and time-honoured rock poses, Jackie Chambers is known as the lead guitarist with all-female heavy metal band Girlschool, as well as for her latest project, Yorkshire-based rockers Syteria.
But it’s at home in Leeds where she is most relaxed. So we grab a coffee in the lovely surroundings of the café/bar Northern Guitars, a shrine to its gig-going owners and a treasure chest of guitars in the heart of the city.
“I lived in Bradford until I was about nine,” says Chambers. “I don’t remember much about it apart from getting my face stuck in the railings at school. That was clever, wasn’t it? We moved to Pudsey where mum and dad bought a corner shop. It sold everything but, to me, it was a sweet shop, all I could see was the sweets. Dad delivered bread, the house always smelt lovely and mum ran the shop. We used to help selling sweets from the penny tray. Pink prawns, white mice, flying saucers, all those little things. Everybody at school wants to know you when you’ve got a sweet shop.
“I went to the grammar school in Pudsey which is called Grangefield School now. I don’t think I was a good pupil, though. Most of my school reports said, ‘Jackie’s disruptive in class. Jackie talks too much.’ I used to be in the corridor more than in the lessons. I was bored but loved sports. At the end of every school report, the PE section said, ‘Jackie’s my star pupil’. I was captain of netball, hockey and rounders. I was good at sport, that’s what saved my butt, really.”
At that time, her school only allowed a choice of one of the creative subjects, so a frustrated teenage Chambers became rebellious, as did her music and fashion influences. “It was 1977. I took on all the energy and angst, the rebelliousness of punk. It was so exciting. At the time, people in their 20s were listening to Deep Purple. To me that was old people’s music. I can appreciate it now. All that Prog Rock,” Chambers sighs. “I wanted the energy of the new music. I was really inspired by that. I liked going out and buying seven-inch singles at Woolworths, Gary Numan, Tubeway Army, Sex Pistols, Ruts, Skids. Mum soon turned off Friggin in the Riggin, though. Dad also used to go to a local pub where the landlord gave him lots of singles from the jukebox.”
She continues: “I got sent home from school a few times because of my earrings or make-up, but I didn’t dye my hair until I left. Mum and dad hadn’t allowed it before. I remember at 16 I did an exam in the morning and started work in the afternoon. I went home that weekend with my first wage and dyed my hair. Blonde at first and then I started putting colours in it, red, orange, green. I think I had every colour apart from purple. I don’t know why I didn’t do purple. Perhaps I didn’t think it’d suit me? Probably not bright enough. I wanted people to turn around, if they didn’t, I’d go home and dye it another colour.”
Leaving school and exploring the punk scene in Leeds, as well as a brief time in Army training, left a lasting impression on Chambers. “Around this time, I could go to my first gig, Hazel O’Connor at Leeds Uni. I loved her, a female punk combining energy and melody. My mum insisted I took my 14-year-old brother, though. I remember getting my ticket, going with my friends, nothing was going to stop me getting right to the front. I was euphoric, loving it, because it was loud and exciting. At the end, she came over and shook my hand and I didn’t want to let go.”
After the gig, Chambers couldn’t find her brother anywhere. “I thought I’d lost him. Turns out, the guys in security had seen him up against the barrier and grabbed him over so he wouldn’t get crushed. They called me over and took me to where they were looking after him backstage. I ended up having a beer with the support band Duran Duran who weren’t even really known at the time. I enjoyed them and remember spending a lot of their set wondering whether it was a man or woman on keyboards. So, one minute I’m stood with Simon Le Bon and the rest of the band having a drink and the next I’m in Hazel’s dressing room. She’s talking to us, signing things, all her band are there, and I’m thinking, ‘This is amazing. Every gig’s like this. This is how it’s going to be.'”
Leeds was given the nickname Gotham City because it was attracted a lot of Goths. “Branningans, above where the Merrion Centre is now, had a club night on Tuesdays and you’d get in for a penny and get a free bottle of Becks with a straw. The music was brilliant. Downstairs, there was the Phonographique (The Phono), it’s the Key Club now. The punks and the goths all congregated there, guys with two-foot high mohicans that their mums had ironed for them, spraying starch before ironing across a tea towel. I was going to three to four gigs a week. How I got the money, I don’t know. Dad always drummed into me that you get a job, you work, you get money if you want anything. I’ve done everything, cold-canvassing, market research, the mills, factory work, just because I wanted a job there and then to pay for music.
“My dad bought me a guitar,” remembers Chambers. “He knew I didn’t have the patience to learn, so he bought my brother and I one and one for himself, the cheap catalogue ones where you got an amp and guitar for about £30. All three of us learnt together, it was frustrating, and I would’ve given up if dad hadn’t stuck with it as well, but soon I started trying to write songs. Then, with the help of a friend, Johnny Batty on vocals as I couldn’t play and sing, and my brother on bass, within two weeks we’re a band and we’ve got a gig. That was the punk ethic.”
That band were called The Parasites. “We played at a youth club called Cipher in a local church. A headline in a local paper said, The Parasites Takeover Pudsey. At the gig, we were on the floor and I was terrified. None of us were any good. I had one chord, a fuzz pedal and an amp with some tremelo on it. It was just noise for five or six, but we went down a treat.”
The Parasites had to take a six-week break as Chambers, some four years earlier, had enlisted for the Army. “At 18 I was notified I was in. I had a Billy Idol haircut and an anti-establishment, anti-royalist attitude, but my dad said, ‘you might as well, you need some money for Christmas. Give it a go. Do the six weeks basic training’. I went in for the money, wearing a Sex Pistols tee with a nose pin through the Queen’s nose, and hated every second. I was picked on, a lot. They knew I was the type who might break and regularly got a derogatory ‘Private Chambers!’ shouted at me. My bedding was often thrown in the courtyard because my bed-making was rubbish, my marching tripped others up. It was everything I’d expected, and I couldn’t wait to get out. All I could think about was writing songs. I’d told The Parasites I’d be back in six weeks.”
“I did learn discipline and to appreciate what I had,” she adds. “Being away from home for the first time, being told what to do all the time, having a structure to the day and ironing. Horrible.”
In subsequent years, Chambers was in a number of bands in the punk movement in Leeds like Deja Vu and Flowers For Agatha, and later bands in London. Since then, travelling with Girlschool and Syteria, what does she miss most about the city?
“I miss the slower pace and how much friendlier people are. As soon as I’m back I have to go to Leeds Market, I love the market. It’s changed a little now, but it’s always so cheap. It’s the bargain hunter in me, I’m a Yorkshire person, even if I was a multi-millionaire, I’d still look for a bargain. I like going buying clothes, getting a bargain and then customising it myself. They used to call it the cheapest square mile in Leeds, and it is. I like old clothes and vintage clothes shops, and the Corn Exchange, but that’s got a bit posh now, hasn’t it?” Chambers smiles. “Things are more than a tenner. That’s posh.”
She adds: “It’s going to sound cheap and cheerful, but I miss The Picture House at the Merrion Centre. £3.29 for a meat-free carvery. You’ve got your Yorkshire Puddings, your potatoes, your chips and all the veg you can eat. You can go back for as many plates as you want. £3.29! I’m allergic to garlic, and vegetarian food often starts with a basic of garlic and onions which I can’t eat. The Picture House is all steamed vegetables and I just keep going back and filling up the plate. For me it’s like heaven and I love it.”
Chambers also misses watching live music. “I love The Brudenell Social Club. The guys who run it just love their music and they get great bands in there. I’ve seen loads of punk bands like Sham. I’ve seen Chelsea in there, The Rezillos, Killing Joke, Stiff Little Fingers. I’ve played it a few times. That’s my favourite venue. I also like The Waterloo Music Bar in Blackpool. It’s fantastic and the lady’s toilets are second to none. I’ve held the door open to show friends. The sink is like two toms, there’s a bass drum covering up the pipes and the floor’s covered in pennies. They’ve spent a lot of time doing it.”
“It’s like this place,” she says, referring to Northern Guitars Café. “It’s beautiful, there’s loads of memorabilia and it’s run by a real music-lover. It’s got great sound, they look after you and there’s a good atmosphere. I saw Skids at Warehouse 23 in Wakefield, which is another great venue. They’re one of my favourite bands, but I never got to see them at the time. I even got to meet Richard [Jobson].”
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