They were the ’70s Hornsey College of Art punks turned distaff Rough Trade agitprop rockers who broke through indie’s patriarchal glass ceiling only to be shooed back again by the backsliding excesses of the 1980s. Fifteen years since Kurt Cobain first reignited interest in them, and on the thirtieth anniversary of the release of their eponymous debut album, the Raincoats are about to resume their “ongoing discourse” with the world once more. “Better a slow burner is better”, they tell Iphgenia Bael
If The Raincoats weren’t The Raincoats, what you are reading might be just another glorification of the late ’70s in music, designed to extract a little cash out of those too young to have been there. Surely everything about this agenda-setting group of women and their haphazardly perfect pop has already been said: seminal; DIY; post-punk; proto-feminist? So where does the re-release of their first, eponymous LP and their imminent appearance at odd occurrences around the glove warrant coverage in an issue of a magazine dedicated to the future? And how have the group managed to achieve near iconic status while remaining (without writing any new material since 1994) modern, relevant, subversive, and most importantly, good?
Perhaps one of singer-based Gina Birch’s insights gives us a clue. “When we first formed. I tried to get Ana [da Silva, singer-guitarist and fellow founding Raincoat] to write a manifesto- I was reading a lot of Dada at the time-but she would have it. No! she said, ‘We had enough rules at school!”
It’s perhaps easier to define The Raincoats by what they are not. In the words of sometime drummer (and ex-Slit) Palmolive: “Typical macho, cock rock tradition, which comes over in aggressive in rhythm, screeching lyrics and phallic guitar play.”
Musically and otherwise, The Raincoats fitted snugly into the alternative culture of late 1970s Britain; “A shining example of the ripe musical possibilities available in the aftermath of the late ’70s punk explosion”, as their label recalls. “If we had existed 20 years earlier, we would have sounded different,” Ana da Silva concedes. “But then there are certain things in our music intrinsic to us as individuals, which I think would always be heard.”
Duran and Spandau Ballet- words that work on Gina like a stink bomb- squashed punk flat. “Suddenly it all felt like a bit of a waste of time,” Ana shrugs. “You looked around and there weren’t really any women playing.”
“I felt like I had been duped!” Gina exclaims.
“It was upsetting,” says Ana. “It had felt quite inspirational. You feel a bit sort of flat without it. Only, you see, things do change. They just change more slowly…”
The Raincoats spent a long time apart until, as the sell line would have us believe, one Kurt Donald Cobain became their belated champion and saved them from obscurity. Is it not annoying that a rock star with a decidedly big ‘ego’ gets the acclaim for saving these desperate damsels? “Not desperate!” Gina insists. “Disparate! Sure, Kurt’s endorsement was great, as was Johnny Rotten’s a decade before. They made a difference to us, it’s true, but it wasn’t just that. It was the advent of CD, the internet, Riot girrrl, all sorts.”
“It was as if the ’70s saw us sow the seed and the ’80s was the germination period,” Ana analyses. “The ’90s saw the first shoots and in the noughties, you can see the fruit.” Suddenly the tearaways of the Golborne Road found themselves cited as inspirations by successive generations; they saw their work re-appropriated and re-contextualised. “I didn’t realise at the time the being a bit slower burn was better in a way,” Gina muses. “I wanted everything to change immediately.”
The efforts of their contemporaries- from the ’90s Riot Girrl explosion, followed up by bands like The Breeders and Bikini Kill, to anarchic endeavours closer to home like East London’s No Bra and Munich’s musical collective Chicks on Speed, have brought a new sense of place to the band. Suddenly a wealth of capable women not feeling the need to writhe their way towards emotional meltdowns a la Britney were proving themselves more than competent at guitar wielding antics. Labels like Monika Enterprise and Her Noise, alongside events like Ladyfest UK and even the recent Gay Icons season curated by the National Portrait Gallery (where the band performed), each served only to reinforce of The Raincoats as still-influential groundbreakers.
“Someone once said to me, ” Gina intercedes, “that you live life forwards, but understand it backwards.”
When The Raincoats play, it is an incredibly heart-warming experience for the audience and band members alike. It’s like An Evening with The Raincoats; the band in company with their East End friends (“all the young people we know live in East London. And I can understand why,” Shirley says). Sure, Notting Hill has become Rotting Hell, its streets unrecognisable from the days when the girls would get recognised walking down it. “But little by little things resurface. Things you though were dead aren’t. It is incredible to see our ideas evolve way out of our control.”
That their vivid feminist agenda (perhaps the single most defining aspect of the band) should be alive and well is refreshing. Then again, the idea that watching a gang of girls get up on stage to do what they do should remain subversive in 2009 seems rather shameful. Assuredly cock rock culture is still dry humping the lampposts outside. However, until some new tidal wave of events washes the streets clean. The Raincoats will keep you under their umbrella-ella-ella-ella.